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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Alice Cooper: Goes To Hell


1) Go To Hell; 2) You Gotta Dance; 3) I'm The Coolest; 4) Didn't We Meet; 5) I Never Cry; 6) Give The Kid A Break; 7) Guilty; 8) Wake Me Gently; 9) Wish You Were Here; 10) I'm Always Chasing Rainbows; 11) Going Home.

As the 1970s slowly begin to usher in the age of punk and disco and retire the age of glam and shock rock, we find Alice flubbering and fidgeting. «Master of the Macabre», sure — but from 1976 and all the way to his questionable «comeback» a decade later, the man has not really relea­sed even one properly macabre record. Instead, he spent all that decade fighting: with himself, over his alcohol addiction and other personal problems, and with the musical scene, trying to re­invent and redefine himself in all sorts of new styles and genres, from Broadway to disco, from art-rock to New Wave.

This is the reason why critics, and plenty of fans, think of this period as the «lost years». What good is a man whose output is saddled by drink, and who cannot even decide properly what it is exactly that he wants to do? And what good is a man who used to make mind-blowing killer rock, only to have later flushed it down the toilet and replaced it with show tunes and cheesy humor? Awful times, awful songs, awful sell-out.

The title of Alice Cooper Goes To Hell suggests that it may be some sort of conceptual sequel to Welcome To My Nightmare. It is conceptual, for sure, but hardly a sequel. This time, Alice de­picts an imaginary voyage to the depths of Hades — probably also a dream, as indicated in the final track, but not on the part of «Steven», rather on the part of Alice himself. 'For criminal acts and violence on the stage... for all of the decent citizens you've enraged — You — Can Go — To — HELL!' And so he does. The rest is up to Dante.

A concept album about Alice Cooper traveling through the nine circles, with realistic musical il­lustrations — hot, hot sounds! — could have been just the thing that fans were waiting for. Asto­nishingly, there is nothing even remotely resembling such a concept. Instead, what you get is, es­sentially, a rock-tinged comic Broadway musical, with a very simple subject: Alice Cooper goes to Hell (depicted, more or less precisely and authentically, as a disco nightclub), meets up with the Devil, pleads for mercy and salvation, confesses his sins, and only manages to avoid eternal torment by... waking up.

No giant snakes or lizards, no sword-wielding demons, no pitch or tar or boiling blood, no Bosch level horrors, and even the Devil himself is just a big old bad boss who, so it seems, can be reaso­nable enough unless you flip out too early, which is the protagonist's biggest mistake. Plenty of irony and humor, but no titillation whatsoever: you do not really need to call yourself Alice Coo­per to stage this kind of show. You couldn't exactly be Frank Sinatra to do it, either, but there is nothing whatsoever to scare off the little kids. I bet even Elvis would appreciate.

Musically, the last traces of rock'n'roll have been washed away by the onslaught of orchestrated balladry, retro-vaudeville, and disco. We still get a couple crunchy riffs on the title track and 'Wish You Were Here', and Alice tries to mold 'I'm Guilty' in the old garage style, but neither of the three are very convincing as «rock»-style material — they just provide some instrumental di­versity and catchy themes, fist-clenching not included.

Topping it all is the album's hit single, 'I Never Cry' — another housewife-level ballad, second in a row. This turns a potential one-time blunder into an alarming tendency: Alice Cooper compe­ting with Barry Manilow? This either got to be the grandest put-on known to mortal man, or the grandest sell-out this side of Rod Stewart.

In short, it does not take a genius to understand why Alice Cooper Goes To Hell is usually pin­pointed as the start of the slide by the regular audience (purists, of course, point already to Night­mare or even Muscle Of Love). But there is also a small heretical group of semi-outsiders who confess to loving this record — and this is exactly the group to which your humble reviewer be­longs. According to him, this just happens to be one of Alice's best efforts.

Yes, the concept is not particularly smart, but it is FUN. Who but Alice could have thought of arranging the climactic dialog between himself and the Devil in the form of a 1950s doo-wop number ('Give The Kid A Break'), replete with second-rate Woody Allen-like dialog ('can't you give me a break? — Sure thing kid, when hell freezes over')? Who but Alice, when facing the need to pander to contemporary disco audiences, would have incorporated the obligatory dis­co number into his concept in a way that equals disco dancers with sinners confined to eternal torment ('You Gotta Dance')? Finally, who but Alice could have crossed the distance from sharp social irony to hilarious self-parody in two easy steps? Watch for yourself. Step 1: 'For gambling and drinking alcohol constantly... For choosing to be a living obscenity — you can go to Hell!' Step 2: 'You'd poison a blind man and steal his cane... You'd even force feed a diabetic a candy cane — you can go to Hell!'

And while the songs may not rock, they are good. 'Go To Hell' is massive and memorable. 'Wish You Were Here' is a complex mini-suite where Wagner and Hunter are eager to show what they have learned about the intricacies of funk. 'I'm The Coolest' is cute minimalistic vaudeville. The ballads suffer from overpompous arrangements, but show an ever-increasing skill; in particular, 'I Never Cry' owes as much to the school of Paul McCartney and Badfinger as 'Only Women Bleed' owes to the school of James Taylor and Carly Simon — feel the difference. It's also much more personal — in fact, probably the first openly confessional tune that Cooper ever wrote about his problems (which is why nobody noticed at the time) — and, hopefully, will stand the test of time better than its hit ballad competition in the face of 'Only Women Bleed' and 'You And Me', also good songs, but rather obviously «fake» in comparison.

Goes To Hell does have some structural similarities with Nightmare, in that both albums start off at a high level of tongue-in-cheekiness, and then, by the time the second side comes along, gradually turn into something more disturbing, sincere, and deep. Here, under the superficial «mush» of all the balladeering — 'I Never Cry', 'Wake Me Gently', 'Going Home' — Alice is exposing his sensitive and vulnerable side, not a pretty sight for the fans. I respect the effort in its entirety, and love parts of it. «Broadway» or not, it's an interesting, often exciting, diverse and thought-provoking effort that deserves a thumbs up from all points of view.


  1. Somebody help me here, that upwards piano line just before the chorus in 'Wake Me Gently' has been bugging me for days now. I'm sure I recognise it from some 80's megahit but I can't pinpoint it.
    Please help!

  2. I find it in the song "Touch the wind (Eres tu)", but it's not that famous so I don't think it's the song you're looking for.

    "Maybe I'm amazed", "Imagine", "November rain" and "Enter Sandman" include lines that are pretty similar but not exactly the same. I´ve heard it in a 'Sveltesse' spot some years ago but I suppose this won't help a lot...