317. Alice Cooper – School’s Out (1972)

How fitting. As I write this, school’s out completely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and I’m still recovering from a ‘week off’ work where I was responsible for home-schooling my children. Don’t get me wrong, there were some nice moments, but I hated science at school and a day of experiments with an eight-year-old demanding answers and a five-year-old who would rather show me a fairy she’d sat on a tree stump left me in pieces. My mum has always insisted I should be a teacher and last week proved I was right all along.

UPDATE: as I prepare this to go live, the kids have actually returned to school at last, making this all rather ironic. How long it will last before another lockdown, we shall see.

Anyway, School’s Out. A summertime classic and rock standard, used in every film or TV show that wants to capture that feeling of childhood ecstasy, knowing that for a few weeks, freedom is there for the taking. This song turned Alice Cooper into a superstar. But did you know that originally, Alice Cooper was the name of his band? Me neither.

Cooper was born Vincent Damon Furnier on 4 February 1948 in Detroit, Michigan. Far from the ‘Godfather of Shock Rock’ he became, Furnier was from a family of evangelists and was active in church too as a boy. He was a sickly child, and following several bouts of illness, the family moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where he attended Cortez High School. Years later, Furnier’s high-school yearbook was found and inside he had written his ambition was to be ‘a million record seller’.

When Furnier was 16 in 1964, he was keen to take part in a school talent show, so he and four of his cross-country teammates, including future Alice Cooper band members Glen Buxton and Dennis Dunaway, became a Beatles spoof group called The Earwigs. Guitarist Buxton was the only one with an instrument so the others mimed. Their parodies of Fab Four hits went down a storm and they won.

They decided to form a garage rock band and bought instruments from a pawn shop, and with Buxton writing songs and teaching the others how to play, they became The Spiders. Furnier sang, with Dunaway on bass. In 1966 Michael Bruce became their rhythm guitarist, and a year later, now known as Nazz, Neal Smith became their drummer.

In 1968, now living in Los Angeles, they discovered there was already a band called The Nazz (featuring Todd Rundgren). Searching for a new name, Furnier believed they needed a gimmick and reckoned an innocuous name like Alice Cooper made for a nice counterpoint to the grisly theatrics they began to adopt when performing. For a long time there was an urban legend that the band came up with the name via a ouija board, but it was later discredited.

Developing outrageous antics on stage via cross-dressing, face paint and their primitive psychedelic rock, they began to cause a stir. One gig in Venice, California saw Alice Cooper empty the venue in 10 minutes. Music manager Shep Gordon thought this was brilliant and saw a way such negativity could get them noticed. He arranged them an audition with cult counterculture icon Frank Zappa, then looking for unusual acts for his new label Straight Records. He asked Alice Cooper to be at his house for seven. They thought he meant in the morning and woke him, but he was impressed by their commitment and signed them.

Alice Cooper’s first LP, Pretties for You, was released in 1969, the same year they made the papers for an incident in which a live chicken was thrown into the crowd, where the wheelchair users of the front row proceeded to tear it to pieces. Horrible, but the singer later claimed it was an accident. Whether it was or not, the press made it even more extreme and claimed he bit the chicken’s head off and drank its blood. He denied this but Zappa told him to pretend otherwise.

Despite the controversy, Alice Cooper weren’t actually selling many records. Their first two albums tanked. They were teamed up with Bob Ezrin for their final Straight Records release, Love It to Death, scheduled for 1971. Preceding single I’m Eighteen was a hit, and this is very much down to the partnership of Ezrin with the band, who Cooper later described as ‘our George Martin’. He toned down the weirdness and cranked up the volume, with a heavy but clean sound, more palatable for rock fans.

Despite the work on their recorded output, the live shows became ever more theatrical and dark, featuring the androgynoius Furnier (by now calling himself Alice Cooper) wrapped in a boa constrictor, baby dolls covered in blood and even a mock execution at the gallows. There had never been anything quite like it. This was the Devil’s version of glam rock. Next album Killer was also a success, and in the summer of 1972, just in time for the holidays, came the follow-up School’s Out and then the title track hit the singles chart.

So ingrained is School’s Out in popular culture, it’s hard to critically assess it with fresh ears. That mighty riff from Buxton is very memorable, and fits in perfectly with the glam rock scene in the UK. But of course, a song with lyrics about blowing up your school, featuring the nursery rhyme ‘No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks’ being sung by children… how could it not be a hit? Cooper’s snarling vocal is perfect, and actually, listening anew has made me appreciate what a great pop song it is. And the balls of Cooper, to actually sing in one verse ‘We can’t even think of a word that rhymes’, just because he could. Great stuff, and pretty shocking for the 1972 charts. The teachers complaining about Slade misspelling their song titles must have been beside themselves when this toppled them.

Among those complaining was miserable busybody campaigner Mary Whitehouse, who persuaded the BBC to ban the video. Cooper sent her flowers for the free publicity.

Alice Cooper’s tours broke box office records in 1973, and they reached their commercial peak with the album Billion Dollar Babies, but their gruelling schedule was taking its toll. Muscle of Love, released in 1974, was the last album by Alice Cooper, the band.

As we all know, Alice Cooper, the man with the woman’s name, continued. He changed his name legally to avoid any legal issues with his former group, and his first solo album Welcome to my Nightmare, recorded with Lou Reed’s backing musicians, was a big hit in 1975. Bruce, Dunaway and Smith formed a short-lived new group, Billion Dollar Babies, which split after one album in 1977. They would occasionally reunite with Buxton, but sadly he died of pneumonia in 1997, aged 49.

Although Cooper has remained a star throughout his solo years, there have been struggles with alcoholism, which became so bad, he entered a sanitarium in 1977. It provided inspiration for his 1978 album From the Inside, co-written with Bernie Taupin. His recovery was short-lived though – Cooper claims to have no recollection of recording any of his albums from the early-80s. With fortunes fading, he was hospitalised with cirrhosis of the liver, and the next few years he dealt with his own personal demons and divorce.

He returned to the fray in 1986, and fitted in very nicely during the years of slasher horror films. His song He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask) was used in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives that year, and he had cameos in Prince of Darkness (1987) and Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991). Cooper also had a guest spot at WrestleMania III in 1987, standing in Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts’ corner against the Honky Tonk Man.

In 1991, Cooper guested on the Guns N’ Roses album Use Your Illusion I and had a memorable, brilliant cameo in the music comedy Wayne’s World in 1992. His musical output became more sporadic, and as the decade continued his brand of rock went out of fashion, to be replaced by grunge. In October 1999, fans of the band Alice Cooper rejoiced as all four surviving members performed together at the second Glen Buxton Memorial Weekend. Since then they have reunited several times with guest guitarists, including for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.

2015 saw Cooper unveil Hollywood Vampires, a rock supergroup also featuring actor Johnny Depp and Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry. The group honours and is named after a celebrity drinking club formed by Cooper in the 70s. Aged 72, Cooper has defied the odds to outlive many of those old club members.

Written by: Alice Cooper, Michael Bruce, Glen Buxton, Denis Dunaway & Neal Smith

Producer: Bob Ezrin

Weeks at number 1: 3 (12 August-1 September)

Births:

Scottish field hockey forward David Ralph – 17 August
Presenter Victoria Coren Mitchell – 18 August

Deaths:

Aviator Francis Chichester – 26 August
Prince William of Gloucester – 28 August

Meanwhile

26 August-10 September: Great Britain and Northern Ireland won four gold, five silver and nine bronze medals at the Olympics in Munich, West Germany.

28 August: Prince William of Gloucester, 30-year-old cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, is killed in an air crash near Wolverhampton.

1 September: The school leaving age at the end of the academic year in England and Wales was raised from 15 to 16. Temporary buildings were erected in secondary modern and comprehensive schools to accommodate the older pupils, while some authorities raised the secondary school transfer age from 11 to 12 or 13. The age was also raised in Scotland and Northern Ireland. ‘Well we’ve got no choice/All the girls and boys’…

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