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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Alice Cooper: School's Out


SCHOOL'S OUT (1972)

1) School's Out; 2) Luney Tune; 3) Gutter Cat Vs The Jets; 4) Street Fight; 5) Blue Turk; 6) My Stars; 7) Public Animal #9; 8) Alma Mater; 9) Grande Finale.

Some puritan rock'n'rollers part company with Alice straight after Killer — «because of all that Broadway shit». Quite rightly so; School's Out drops a strict demarcating line on the band, be­yond which Mr. Furnier started pushing the rest of the guys in an openly theatrical, vaudevillian direction that not only placed more emphasis on the stage show than on the music, but actually sucked much of the grit from the music itself, replacing hard rock riffage with Broadway style, and then, still later, Vegas style flourishes.

Not that Furnier's bandmates objected all that much, not at first, at least. On School's Out, all of their four names still feature regularly on the list of songwriting credits ('Alma Mater' is even ex­clusively credited to drummer Neal Smith), and none of them are above adding these names to tracks that are so overtly derivative of West Side Story that they even had to list Bernstein and Sondheim as co-authors to avoid any copyright hassle.

Perhaps, though, at this point the band regarded School's Out as merely a one-time experiment: a glitzy "rock musical", loosely based around their own schoolday experiences, combining all sorts of influences and styles, but not necessarily determining, once and for all, their future progress. After all, Alice Cooper, as a band, were no AC/DC and had no desire to stick to one narrow for­mula, and if anything, Killer was solid proof, because it was anything but stylistically monoto­nous three-chord rock. Sure it didn't have any Bernstein bits, but was there anything that legally prevented it from having Bernstein bits? Hardly so. They just hadn't thought about it in 1971.

Rock theater starts already on the title track, one that has since been acknowledged as a hard rock classic and has become as firmly embedded in the world of classic rock programming as 'I'm Eighteen' and 'Under My Wheels'. And yes, its monstrous chugga-chug, chugga-chug, chugga-chug-chug riff embodies the hard rock spirit of the early Seventies on the same level of subcon­scious as, say, 'Smoke On The Water'. And Alice's delivery — 'well we got no choice, all the girls and boys' — is as punk as they come, sowing the seeds for Johnny Rotten's entire career.

But do not let it fool you: this is show business above all, perfectly illustrated by Alice introducing the song on stage in his top hat and tailcoat, and, on record, by the 'no more pencils, no more books' children's choir, as well as ridiculously over-the-top lyrics like 'school's been blown to pieces'. You'd need to boast a particularly disturbing level of intelligence to take this stuff seriously — as in, 'Alice is sending us school victims a message here' — and it's hardly co­incidental that the song's greatest accompanying visual row was provided not by the Alice Cooper Band themselves, but a few years later on The Muppet Show (a must-see for all concerned).

And from this perspective, the uncomfortable discoherence between the opening heavy rock of the title track and the generally more lightweight, big-band-jazzy sound of the rest of the album is not nearly as uncomfortable as it might seem. Besides, there is still plenty of musical diversity; the songs do not easily fall together into any one single style. Not everything works, and some of it may stink, but the band avoids falling into any predictable traps, and overall, School's Out is perfectly enjoyable if you set your expectations accordingly.

To test yourself, go straight to the two lengthy centerpieces — 'Blue Turk' and 'My Stars'; if you happen to appreciate both, then you are free to roam the future career of Alice Cooper (the band and the solo artist) at will. 'Blue Turk' is corny, but delicious music-hall, driven by a simplistic, but impressionistic bass riff and ripped in the middle by a lengthy and surprisingly professional jazz jam session, while Furnier is titillating our senses with lyrics that shift between sexual and, uh, necronomical (he'd be far more straightforward about it very soon, with 'I Love The Dead'). 'My Stars', co-written by Furnier with producer Bob Ezrin, is more complex and demanding, lea­ding us into a progressive direction with its unusual piano ostinatos, guitar heroics and undeci­pherable lyrics (a schoolboy's absurd fantasies of world domination? Whatever).

If these two are too much for your tastes, there's hardly any hope that you will enjoy the much more straightforward Broadway numbers, like 'Gutter Cat Vs. The Jets' or the instrumental 'Grand Finale', but perhaps you will still be able to dig the slightly rockier numbers, like the creepy 'Luney Tune' (for a long time, Alice muttering 'I'm swimming in blood, like a rat on a sewer floor' was my most disturbing memory of his early output), or the more relaxed barroom-rock stomp of 'Public Animal #9' (yes, I think the title is quite clever).

In any case, School's Out — the album — is, by all means, much more than merely eight tracks of fillerish show-music stuck onto one genuine rock'n'roll classic. The truth, as it usually happens, is much more complicated than that. I'd say the truth is that, within most Cooper show numbers, you'll always be able to find a solid grain of serious meaning wrapped in a commercially viable shell of glitz, corniness and spiced with irony and sarcasm. School's Out firmly establishes the man as a buffoon (not that Love It To Death and Killer lacked buffonade, but it was generally wrapped in a less transparent veil), but buffoons are, and have always been, a necessary and vital part of society. And, if you ask me, there is just as much depth and cleverness to the self-con­scious buffonade of Alice Cooper as there is to the grim seriousness of the Clash or to the overtly intellectual posing of the Talking Heads. At this particular moment, I'm perfectly happy to give a thumbs up to the buffoon and his buffonade.

2 comments:

  1. My favorite Alice Cooper album.

    "My Stars" is probably about Cthulhu by the way - at least thats the way I saw it.

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  2. Predictably School's Out is the first song by Alice Cooper I ever heard. Even as a teenager - the same with Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall - I thought it a cheap cash in, appealing to the teenager's dislike of schools. Though I also always have had to admit that School's Out has a good riff. Still it remains a phoney song.

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