ALICE COOPER: LOVE IT TO DEATH (1971)
By 1971, Zappa's Straight Records came under the control of Warner Bros. — in a mighty ironic twist of fate — and so did Alice Cooper, who unexpectedly found themselves under contract with a major label and under the supervision of a new producer, Bob Ezrin. They also relocated back to their hometown of Detroit, saying goodbye to the detestable West Coast and once again breathing in the air of slums, garages, and dirty rock'n'roll.
Clearly, recording back in their natural habitat must have raised the stakes on the band's future, but it is highly unlikely that anyone might have expected the results to be so phenomenal. All of a sudden, the band not only knows precisely where to go and where to stop, but also delivers a bunch of songs that are gritty, threatening, relevant, and catchy. At this point, the "theater" aspect of their show was still relatively subdued, limited mainly to a little bit of spiderish makeup around Furnier's eyes and, perhaps, a little bit of snakes and ropes here and there. More important was the rock'n'roll aspect, the brutal proto-punk onslaught that, in 1971, promised to make the Rolling Stones and the Who sound like old farts.
Five of the album's tracks are just like that: tough, compact riff-rockers, with a typical running length of three to two and a half minutes, each one a lyrical fuck-you to middle class values, each one geared so well towards the rebellious teenage mind that there is hardly a future point in time when they will become obsolete. The best known is the immortal single 'I'm Eighteen' (I'm eagerly awaiting the moment
'I'm Eighteen', however, is merely the most anthemic and presumptuous of the five rockers, not necessarily the best; the band are equally adept at capturing a wannabe-glam effect with 'Caught In A Dream', at sounding sexy and provoking with 'Is It My Body', at playing angry prophets with 'Hallowed Be My Name', and at playing the angry lonely young man routine with 'Long Way To Go' (my personal favourite, a totally smoking garage classic that let you vent your frustration like nothing else back in 1971). No other Alice Cooper album packs together a five-way punch like that, although Killer comes close.
The 'theater' aspect, however, is far from absent from the proceedings: it dominates two of the album's epics that also served as then-current visual centerpieces of the live show. Of these, one has endured: 'Ballad Of Dwight Fry', Cooper's morbid impersonation of an asylum-locked mental patient such as could have been played by Dwight Frye (the title is a bit misleading — Dwight Frye himself was a perfectly sane person, merely being known for playing a long line of deranged characters like Renfield in Dracula). As is the usual case with Cooper, the effects are a bit overwrought, but not by much, and one could argue that the 'Dwight Fry' character is, in fact, far more effectively fleshed out than, for instance, 'Steven' (1975-1994).
The other lengthy showpiece is far more questionable — in most treatises written around the album, 'Black Juju' is quoted as its low point, the one track that prevents Love It To Death from acquiring 'masterpiece' status. Curiously, it is credited not to Furnier (you'd think he would be responsible for all of the band's theatrics), but bassist Dennis Dunaway. Its main problem is the length and the extremely evident — way too evident — debt to the Doors' epics, particularly 'When The Music's Over'. But at least the Doors had Morrison's poetic gift and a better knack for dressing his spoken ramblings in a variegated array of musical effects; 'Black Juju', apart from its main imposing guitar-and-organ melodic line, has none of that, and if it simply petered out after the first three or four minutes, it would not be as problematic as it is with its lengthy mid-section, supposing to creep you out but, instead, probably just making you go to sleep. The 'rest... rest... rest... rest... WAKE UP WAKE UP WAKE UP WAKE UP!' segment is so trite and predictable that 'Black Juju' does spoil the overall effect — just as you thought the Coops had magically attained the status of the perfect rock'n'roll band, they slap this proof for the contrary right in your face. That's a bit humiliating.
Yet, once we come to terms with the fact that nobody's perfect, least of all Alice Cooper, Love It To Death proudly remains standing as one of the best examples of early Seventies' rock, and not to give it a total thumbs up is out of the question. As the solemn chorus of Rolf Harris' 'Sun Arise' slowly fades away into silence, we all know that the sun has, indeed, arisen over one of America's finest acts of the decade.