In the spirit of last days of school (and, um, the schools actually closing in Detroit) — we're all hopped up on the new, limited-edition reissue of Alice Cooper's School's Out CD.
To the point: 1972's School's Out is the most underrated album in the Alice Cooper canon — hell, one of the most underrated albums in all of rock 'n' roll. It's true. Forget that the Alice Cooper Group was already bored with traditional rock 'n' roll by its first album, 1969's Pretties For You, School's Out is five studio albums into the band's career and, as such, it wrenches and torments rock 'n' roll clichés into little tragicomic satires and yarns that see Cooper as some Nelson Algren character — as much a whorehouse priest with a penchant for show tunes as he is the innocent kid hanging with high school buds. Sure, the songs are gnarly and tumbledown, they're also hilarious, singsong, loud and sexy, even melancholy.
Think of the title "School's Out" — two very common words that when combined in song by Alice Cooper became popularized enough to become an American idiomatic phrase. The album's title-song riff, the now-classic three-chord stomp, sets the album's tone; it says: "Hello, we're here. Now get the fuck outta the way."
It's Broadway and it's Hollywood, it's teenage-longing, glam and punk rock — it was prurient, drunk and high. It's an album that lifts joy and tension (literally) from West Side Story and the whore/con man godlessness of the film A Walk on the Wild Side, wraps it loosely around themes of an outsider suburban kid in the midst of an existential freakout ... Think about that; Broadway meets American underbelly meets teen boredom played out by a bunch of dudes who looked like chicks. Yow. Nobody did that in rock 'n' roll before or since.
It shoved boundaries like a school bully, and swaggered into uncharted territory, musically and aesthetically — with its lines of antecedent demarcations clear; straight from Little Richard and Elvis through the Stones, Yardbirds, Detroit, New York City and Hollywood ... to your door. Small wonder School's Out was nothing but terrible news for parents then — few understood this band. Even fewer got that the band wasn't mocking America, it was celebrating it. And not so many American critics had the slightest notion, much less an understanding, of characters such as Alice Cooper; CREEM loved 'em but generally Rolling Stone was no fan.
And the Coop's voice is big and scary here, pulls you in with crazy believability. Listen to "My Stars" or "Public Enemy #9," or the wonderfully croon-y "Blue Turk" and ask yourself if he isn't one the greatest singers ever in rock 'n' roll. (And ya might as well ask yourself why Alice Cooper ain't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.) His croon and that back-alley trumpet in "Blue Turk" sidle up nicely to Dennis Dunaway's ever-descending bass, alongside the occasional jazz chord. The swaying, sexed-up "Cutter Cat vs. the Jets" — with Alice's faux Brooklyn honk — teases classic Tin Pin Alley lyrics: She made my eyes bug out / My tail stand up. Add Dunaway's incessant bass motif, that organ, and guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce in tandem on weird signature changes and it's a rock 'n' roll clash that succeeds, a Broadway send-up, and it's timeless. There isn't a stinker among the nine songs, and each fits some piece of the theme. The album has aged beautifully.
With song deconstructionist Bob Ezrin in the producer's chair, this record is a challenge. Not a challenge to listen to — that part's easy — but one that requires attention and challenges you to participate.
(This edition of Schools Out issued by boutique audiophile label Audio Fidelity, and mastered by Steve Hoffman, is the definitive one. It's never sounded this rich, warm and detailed on either vinyl or CD, straight from the original two-track master tape.)
So we got Detroit native Alice Cooper on the phone to talk about School's Out.
METRO TIMES: When you recorded "School's Out" did you know, sitting in the studio, that it was going to be one of the greatest rock 'n' roll anthems ever?
ALICE COOPER: It's the song that will not die! [laughs] It was the only we ever did that I knew was going to be a hit. When we sat back with producer Bob Ezrin and listened to everything done, I went, "How can that not be one of the biggest anthems in rock?" And there's so much Yardbirds going on. When it goes into that Boléro thing at the end the don da-da-da-don, da-da-da don, that's right out of Boléro. Again, you can't escape that chorus.
One thing that was really good about it – Glen's guitar thing at the beginning, the riff was very bratty, taunting. That was the one riff that Glen wrote. That was his "Satisfaction," that was his "Smoke on the Water." That was a Glen Buxton riff ...
In that period of time Glen could really play. After Billion Dollar Babies he really started to lose his bearings on where we were.
MT: How long did it take you to record the lead vocals on that?
COOPER: You know, in those days, I might've been drinking a little bit. [laughs] ... We would track and track and redo this and redo that. But I was a pretty quick learner. Once I got the feel, it was more of "how do you sell this song" instead of "how do you sing it?" I really had to put that anxiety in the song.
It's funny, there were certain songs that were pieced together and others where he would say "I want you to do the song all the way through. We're not going to piece this one together. ..." "School's Out" is one we did pretty straight through. We didn't want it to sound singy-songy professional, we wanted it to have that "I can't wait to get out of school" sound to it. If you hear that song 40 years from now, you're still going to believe it.
MT: There's West Side Story but also the life of an average high-school kid.
COOPER: Yes! The West Side Story thing and even at the very end, A Walk on the Wild Side. Between Bob Ezrin and Alice Cooper there were a lot of references to that era of theatrics and movies. We just loved those movies, A Walk on the Wild Side and West Side Story and the Bowery Boys ...
And this is funny. When I told my new band – and we're talking 30 years later – that "We need to be more gang," I realized that they hadn't seen West Side Story. I made everybody sit down, listen to the soundtrack and watch West Side Story! I just assumed everybody knew what it was. They said, "When you said gang, we thought you meant Al Capone kind of gang." I went, "no, that's Guy's and Dolls [laughs]. Then I started thinking, "am I gay, or what?"
MT: That high school drama comes out on the album.
COOPER: To us it was the most natural thing in the world. It wouldn't have been called School's Out if we didn't have that background. I mean, what were we going to write about? Let's write about something that everybody has to go through. Everybody had to grope their way through high school and come out the other end. I said "Let's write about that. Let's write about what everybody has to go through. Back then, when we wrote, we wrote very much as a group. We were writing for Alice, because Alice was the spokesman. And Alice was an outsider, he was speaking for all the outsiders. You know, when he was going "Hey, you're not going to forget me are you? Don't forget the Coop" ... maybe that's the saddest thing in the world, to be forgotten in high school.
MT: There's a sadness in "Alma Mater."
COOPER: I've had people come to me and say, "I almost cry when I hear that." Sometimes if you can marry the right chords with the right lyric, you've got a hit. If you can break a girl's heart.
MT: What was the best moment of recording School's Out?
COOPER: There were certain moments. You know the line, "I can't even think of a word that rhymes"? It was one of those moments recording in the studio where everybody looked at each other and went, "Brilliant."
The line was prewritten, sort of. When I was writing it, "We got no class ..." I go to myself I can't even think of a word that rhymes for that [laughs]. Then I thought, "That's exactly who this guy is; he painted himself into a corner. Let's just be honest."
Paul Rothchild – you know, the guy who produced the Doors – was driving along in his Porsche and that song comes on the radio and when he heard that lyric he pulled the car over. He says "that is brilliant." He said that was the sell point for him right there in that line.
MT: The album is timeless and there are moments on this record that haven't even been touched yet.
COOPER: Again, our coordination with producer Bob Ezrin; I am so surprised, Brian, that we listened to him. We were one of those bands that had a certain sound, like on Pretties for You, that was so unique to anything else; we thought we were just the most avant-garde band. Ezrin took everything that we believed in and changed it — totally took us apart. He was coming up with things — I'd even look around and go, "really?" — that didn't make any sense ... until I listened to it. I can't believe to this day that we didn't rebel against that.
MT: "Looney Tune" when the strings come in, it is so unexpected ...
Cooper: That's Bob. We wrote that more as a rock song. All of sudden it goes down to a banjo or a mandolin or something. We would never have gone down to that. When were doing 18 he says "this bass guitar here, we're going to double that with an oboe and a bassoon." And we looked at each other and said "No you're not. That wouldn't be Alice Cooper." And he said, "just listen to it." We never heard it but it was there. That's when we started believing in Bob. He took every one or our good ideas and he made the song simpler and better.
MT: How long did it take to record School's Out?
Cooper: It was a pretty long time. If I remember right, that album was everyday, all day in the studio, I'd say at least three months. It was a long record. Back then you didn't have Pro Tools ... you didn't have the ability to just move this part over here. And the mixing, we didn't have memory mix then. If you were mixing a song and you didn't get it that night, you'd start all over the next day. So everything took so long to do.
Now, if you want to cut a bridge in half you just hit a button. It's the best thing in the world if you're a songwriter ... Back then, our big multi-track tapes had so many splices [laughs] the tape looked like Frankenstein!
MT: What was the worst moment recording this album? Did you ever come to blows with Bob or other band members?
COOPER: No blows. Bob was very demanding and we weren't used to being that disciplined. He worked us harder than anyone ever worked us. First of all, we were good players, we weren't great players. I was a good singer, I wasn't a great singer. So he had to pull all of that out of everybody. The best musician in the band was Dennis, he was a genius bass player. Neal [Smith] had his own style of drumming that we had to simplify at some points. Some points we had to just let him go and let him play the way he plays.
I think maybe the hardest part would be that at some point back then everybody was on something different. Could you imagine having to put up with everyone being on something different? I'm behind a half a bottle of V.O., Dennis might've been doing acid, Neal ... who knows what Neal was doing, and Glen was on 40 different things ... And then they try to tune up! They're hearing the tuning totally different. [laughs] So Bob brought in a guy who did nothing but tune guitars and it saved us a month.Brian Smith is managing editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]