ALICE COOPER: BILLION DOLLAR BABIES (1973)
Taken cut-for-cut, Billion Dollar Babies probably does not have the same number of truly high points as Killer; and it is certainly not a return to the "rocky" sound of 1971 after the Broadway excesses of School's Out, as some suggest — it is pure glitz and show-biz all the way. But this is not a record to be remembered through its individual songs; its sum is much bigger than its parts, big enough to make the entire album one of the most unforgettable symbols of its time.
The accompanying show, partially captured on the Good To See You, Alice Cooper video, was the band's biggest, flashiest, and goriest, culminating in the introduction of the guillotine, and, as usual, the studio record reflects it relatively faithfully; those wondering about what all these odd noises are during 'Unfinished Sweet', or about why we need the repetitive chorus of 'I Love The Dead' sung four times in a row should check out the stage versions for their answers. Again, on the level of individual songs these "soundtrack" elements may not work, but Billion Dollar Babies is not about individual songs: it is a loosely strung concept album about the vices of the society we live in — some of them open and obvious, but most latent or concealed.
This makes Babies the quintessential "glam rock" album — if we want to understand "glam" as rock music's equivalent to the decadence of the late XIXth / early XXth century. Sceptical, cynical, disillusioned as to any past ideals, diving into hedonistic excess and hating it at the same time, terrifyingly suicidal and loving it: 'I love the dead before they're cold/Their blueing flesh for me to hold' — any questions?
Mockery and sarcasm do not get more mocking and sarcastic than with the album's opening — if you have ever heard Judy Collins' original version of 'Hello Hooray' (credited to little-known Canadian writer Rolf Kempf), you will know what I mean. The song, sounding like a sweet, romantic, slightly hippiesque hymn to the beauty of life, in the hands of the Coop becomes a flashy, tongue-in-cheek intro to the evils of life; his passionate wails of 'I feel so strong!' do not come from an innocent lover of life, they come from Mr. Mephisto in person. Fun stuff.
From then on, the songs may not be memorable throughout, but they are always interesting — we get tales of female-induced sexual molestation ('Raped And Freezin'), wannabe politicians with inflated egos ('Elected'), obsessed fetishists (title track), spoiled candy lovers with rotten teeth ('Unfinished Sweet'), outcasts who hate society as much as society hates them ('No More Mr. Nice Guy'), and, of course, Alice's pet themes — herpetophilia ('Sick Things') and the mother of 'em all, necrophilia ('I Love The Dead'). Not a single one of these themes is made to look truly scary, except for little kids, perhaps, but this is not Hitchcock or Carpenter, this is a variety show that just happens to be ever so slightly on the gory side of life. And what a show!
Musically, the high point, after all these years, is still 'No More Mr. Nice Guy', the major single from the album and a nagging rock radio classic along the same lines as 'I'm Eighteen', 'Under My Wheels', and 'School's Out'. The opening riff is basically copped from the Who's 'Substitute', but other than that, it is quite an independent Brit-pop number streamlined for catchiness and singalong, if a bit clumsy in the lyrics department; still, it is fun to see the classic optimistic, anthemic sound of Brit-pop "borrowed" for such a wicked anti-social statement.
The rest of the tracks may not be equally as solid, but all are loaded with little gimmicks to make them special. They get Donovan — Donovan the hippie symbol! — to trade vocals with
Fans' opinions are frequently divided as to the final track. 'I Love The Dead' raises the stakes on Alice Cooper's kitschy ugliness: the band's previous accounts of death and delirium were at least disguised as "social statements" (e. g. 'Dead Babies' was really about parental neglect, 'Killer' was about a lost soul etc.), but in 'I Love The Dead' there is nothing except pure, untampered shock value, making it possible to argue that this is the point of no return where Alice Cooper is forever transformed from the threatening rocker of Killer into the Mr. Showbiz of Welcome To My Nightmare. Perhaps; to my eyes and ears, though, this is way too fine a distinction, and, besides, impressions can vary.
After all, is there really any impenetrable distance between 'Dead Babies' and 'I Love The Dead'? Sure the former was about the amorality of the parents, but it was just as much about chopping baby dolls onstage. And sure the latter is about feeding on dead flesh, but it is just as much about the amorality of the band's audience — who pay real money to watch and listen about this. You could, in fact, argue, that as the song sweeps into its grand, anthemic chorus, 'the dead' to whom Alice refers are not the corpses he claims to be attracted to, but the very people in the concert hall for whose eyes and ears the show is intended. Who is, in fact, more dead — the guy about to have his head chopped off on the guillotine or the people intently watching the process from a safe distance, licking their lips in anticipation? And who loves the dead more —
For dessert, treat yourself to the smartest lyrics on the album — off the unjustly forgotten 'Generation Landslide': 'And I laugh to myself at the men and the ladies / Who never conceived of us billion dollar babies'. I am pretty sure it is songs like this that Bob Dylan referred to when, in one of his interviews, he called Cooper "an underrated songwriter". Thumbs up, of course, even if the album has lost some of its freshness — but none of its major points — today.
PS. The double-CD "deluxe edition" is highly recommendable: it adds a near-complete live show from the accompanying tour, recorded in high quality and played with enough variation on the studio album to make it worth your while, although an even better choice would be to get acquainted with the video equivalent of Good To See You. In addition, you get the cool Elvis-like rockabilly B-side 'Slick Black Limousine' and a couple studio demos — and liner notes that trace comparisons between the glam excesses of the Alice Cooper Band circa '73 and the jazzbaby excesses of Joan Crawford circa the Depression, among other things.