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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Alice Cooper: Killer


1) Under My Wheels; 2) Be My Lover; 3) Halo Of Flies; 4) Desperado; 5) You Drive Me Nervous; 6) Yeah, Yeah, Yeah; 7) Dead Babies; 8) Killer.

One can classify this as proto-punk, as hard-art-rock, as Goth theater, as power pop with a dark edge — Killer is one of those records that give the illusion of being easy to pigeonhole, but what­ever you pigeonhole it into, it will always be more diverse, experimental, and unpredictable than the basic rules of the genre demand it to be.

Essentially, Killer consolidates all the strengths of Love It To Death (its mean, scary sound and strong songwriting), dispatches with its weaknesses (an occasional tendency to ramble without a point), and throws in lots of additional touches, such as multi-part song structures and diverse in­strumentation. My only regret is that, due to the two lengthy "suites", there are only eight songs; surely, given the perfect shape the band was in, they could have made room for two or even four more mini-gems. (I hold the same opinion on the Stones' Let It Bleed, for that matter).

Classic rock radio, with its tightass conservatism that makes even the Catholic church pale in com­parison, has only managed to memorize 'Under My Wheels'. Certainly the song is a classic, a big ball of rollickin' fun with the band magically pumping up tension throughout (some of glam rock's greatest use of the horn section, for instance) — fun which you get so caught up in that you do not even realize you're singing about roadkill, and I don't mean squirrels or opossums. So it's a metaphor — big deal.

But Killer is much, much more than just the 'album that yielded that big hit single'. Its main em­phasis is not on pure rock'n'roll: even 'Under My Wheels', with the addition of these horns, starts to resemble David Bowie, so the honour of the most canonically "rock" number should go to 'You Drive Me Nervous', a two-minute explosion of teenage anger whose creaky riffage and wild wild screaming guarantee it a solid place in the Punk Hall of Fame. The rest is much more subdued: 'Be My Lover' and 'Yeah, Yeah, Yeah' are catchy guitar-driven pop songs with fun self-referential lyrics ('She asked me why the singer's name was Alice/I said listen, baby, you really wouldn't un­derstand') and pretty melodies.

'Desperado' has been called a tribute to Jim Morrison, but if so, a very veiled one, because on the surface, it's rather a tribute to a Western hero, building up on a little Spanish guitar and a bit of spaghetti atmosphere. But it could be about anyone: 'I'm a killer, I'm a clown, I'm a priest that's gone to town' — words that many people would be happy to sing about themselves. With the ex­ception, of course, that no one could sing it better than Cooper, his dark, deathly voice the perfect vehicle for both the subdued ominous verses and the paranoid chorus.

Opinions are divided about the longer pieces — 'Halo Of Flies' and 'Killer'. For the former, the band has gone on record saying that they wanted to record something à la King Crimson (!), to prove their skill in creating longer, more complex pieces. "Longer" all right, but in terms of musi­cal complexity, of course, 'Halo Of Flies' would never make Robert Fripp suffer from sleep depri­vation. Or would it? Each particular musical part that the band's guitarists create is pretty rudi­mentary by itself, but there's quite a few of them, and each works well on a gut level. Most of the time, non-virtuoso musicians trying to dabble in artsiness "drive me nervous", but 'Halo' manages to create an eerie, unsettling atmosphere and slowly build it up to a galloping, shattering, ecstatic climax — should be played very very loud, by the way — so much so that even the awful, absurd and unfunny lyrics that swing between James-Bondish and gibberish ('And while a Middle Asian lady she really came as no surprise, but I still did destroy her and I will smash halo of flies' — at least, make it grammatical!) are forgotten.

As for 'Killer', which works in a tandem with the preceding 'Dead Babies', these two should argu­ably be best experienced in the context of the live setting: 'Dead Babies' with the accompanying smashing and chopping of baby dolls onstage, and 'Killer', of course, culminating in the infamous hanging scene, when Alice, cursing and kicking, was led to the gallows to the accompaniment of the solemn funebral organ music. But even without the imagery, 'Dead Babies' is the perfect mar­riage of Cooper's gut-level shock theater and meaningful social statement; unlike the pure brain­less gorefest of 'I Love The Dead' two years later (ooh, necrophagia, yummy!), 'Dead Babies' is, after all, a lament on the so frequently tragic effects of parental neglect.

And then, of course, the title track: 'I came into this life, looked all around, I saw just what I liked and took what I found'. Musically, it is again a concoction of several effective riffs and tempos, not one pattern hanging around for too long and all of them together symbolizing the killer's final journey from arrest to gallows; lyrically, it gives the perfect impression of that typical guy we're all afraid of — you know, the one whom the world forgot to endow with any sort of moral code upon graduation; whether it was the world's fault or his own does not seriously matter here. It all leads to one of the scariest endings in musical history — you just have to remember that the or­gan music accompanies him to the noose, the dull noise that follows is the opening of the trap­door, and the evil, ear-bursting noise that follows is... well, you know. Creepy.

Killer is a relatively easy record to dismiss: its lyrics are generally either obvious or absurdly bad, its music simple and unassuming, its shock value very much in-yer-face and almost completely devoid of any subtlety. Next to Lou Reed or Bowie or even the Stones at their best, it's "dumb". But many things in life that many of us deeply love without any feeling of guilt are "dumb", from Casablanca to 'Oliver Twist' to Michelangelo's David (don't tell me the latter is a sculptor's feast of intelligence). Killer belongs in that company, a straightforward masterpiece of angst and bru­ta­lity and, at the same time, a big, big load of FUN. Even the brain, amazed at the effectiveness of this approach, opts for a thumbs up, and the heart enthusiastically proclaims this to be the undis­puted peak of the original Alice Cooper band.


  1. The first Cooper album I bought, and a good choice it was.
    It's hard for me to add a lot what you've already said, as I pretty much love every track on here, altough for some reason I think 'Yeah, Yeah, Yeah' is my favourite. I just really love how the guitar sort of grooves along and around Cooper's vocal melody.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that I really like the decision to end the album and 'Killer' with five seconds of loud freaky noise. Now normally when you're going to aurally symbolise death there's a lot of silence, which makes sense, seeing as death is supposed to be the end of all things, unless you're a religious type, and the absence of all things would naturally have to include the absence of sound.
    But the problem with this is that silence isn't really always that creepy, not to mention that is's pretty darn commonplace.
    It's silent when you take a walk in the forest, it's silent when you watch a Ingmar Bergman movie, it's silent when you're having a nice breakfast with someone you love.
    But that noise though. Oooh, isn't it creepy. And it really pushes through that idea that hey, death is really, really something you want to avoid, because once you've gone there, well buddy, there ain't no coming back, and maybe it ain't really so bad, but if it does turn out you've ended up in hell, well, tough luck for you. It scares me because it almost feels like we're being let in on the first few seconds of this killer "afterlife" or whatever you call it, and even though we're let go after a few seconds that guy isn't.
    And that there's still something existing here, it didn't all just vanish, but everything is terribly wrong because the guy is dead and people aren't supposed to be dead so his soul and a billion other souls are screaming in terror at this horrible realisation.

    Ah whatever, I'm probably just crazy. Great album anyway.

  2. I happily disagree with your original review on Halo of Flies - the garage/shock/glam is only an attitude. Beneath it there is a very professional band.
    The evidence for this statement can be found on YouTube with another song though - I'm Eighteen, live version at Beat Club, a German TV-program. Nobody who has seen it will call the band amateurs.
    Don't miss the Deep Purple's Highway Star either btw - kicks more ass than any other version.