Arena, Birmingham, 14/11/2017
published: 9 /
Lisa Torem chronicles events, leading to a historical Alice Cooper Group reunion in Nashville and this year's multi-city Alice Cooper tour in the UK, including a show she attends in Birmingham.
A handful of bands curry consistent favour with writers, photographers and fans. Perhaps that is due to the colourful personalities of the players. Maybe it’s because of the one-off, throbbing bass lines, a bittersweet variety of melodies or simply the legacy. Maybe there is no agreed-upon set of factors. Maybe it’s just the simple truth that magic imbues a life of its own and needs no more explanation. That said, the classic repertoire penned by the Alice Cooper Group elicits more passion than ever.
This American rock band formed in Phoenix, Arizona in 1964 and was comprised of vocalist Vince Furnier, lead guitarist Glen Buxton, rhythm guitarist/keyboardist Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith.
That original line-up was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 201l. They had stopped performing together in 1975, after which time Furnier legally changed his name to “Alice Cooper” and forged a solo career. The other band members formed other musical alliances, such as the Billion Dollar Babies, and ventured out with other musical acts or as producers. Dennis Dunaway, most recently, celebrated the publication of his memoir (more on this later). Glen Buxton died in 1997, but is fondly remembered.
Flash forward to 2017, a landmark year for all concerned. What will forever tie these players together is a shared passion for the original songs produced for the Alice Cooper Group, as well as the eerie make-up, Cindy Smith Dunaway couture and cryptic tactics that synched to establish the genre of shock rock, which informed the likes of Kiss, the New York Dolls and the career of Elton John and David Bowie.
Rumours swirled and fans inhaled. Was it true? That the original line-up would appear in Nashville with the current line-up of the Alice Cooper Group?
This year, along with my colleague, concert photographer Phillip Solomonson, I had the opportunity to observe three original members of the Alice Cooper Group, pose for shots, rehearse and perform their greatest hits, whilst they contended with the thousands of details touring and performing require.
This was the year they performed in Nashville, New Jersey and then more extensively in the U.K.: Leeds, Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester and London — we saw the entire show in Birmingham, but spoke to fans from all over. This article is not a review, so much — it is more of a collection of testimonies and observations.
The international music community, then and now, will never forget the impact of the original Alice Cooper Group. The irreverent ballads, slick staging and visionary couture first informed a contingent of restless youth in the 1970’s, restless souls, aching for a direct means of self-expression and cultural change, and the Alice Cooper Group saluted their prayers.
When the news broke that guitarist/keyboardist Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith would be doing a one-off performance in Nashville (May, 2017) with the current line-up of Alice Cooper, the fan response was overwhelming.
The urgent mantra, “This might never happen again” triggered an onslaught of ticket sales for the Tennessee Performing Arts Center concert. This first reunion since the 1970s inspired fans from as far afield as Australia, across the continent and the UK (and, of course, die-hard fans from major American cities) to purchase tickets, dampen eyeliner and excavate vinyl. The members would also attend the Music Business Association’s Music Biz Conference and receive special awards the following night.
The Nashville five-song, classic set performed would be a litmus test, meant to address the burning question, how would fans react to this one-off reunion? Was this simply a matter of “build it and they will come?” Furthermore, would future fans support the act in another setting or another time zone?
Well, in essence, those in attendance were over the moon. Fielding tears, many fans experienced an overwhelming kind of catharsis. After all, the classic material prompted them to relive coming-of-age memories: dropping the needle on palpable phrases such as: “Baby’s brain and an old man’s heart” (‘I’m Eighteen’) and early assertions of independence from boring authority figures. In the way that J.D. Salinger invited the meandering “teenager” to feel worthy of literary investigation, the Alice Cooper Group echoed that liberating sense of entitlement; albeit musically.
‘I’m Eighteen’ mocked said authority figures and spoke to the blossoming of youthful ideologies. To that end, ‘School’s Out’ demystified tiresome routine; the catchy lyrics spoke volumes about burned out teachers and their “dirty looks.” The back story behind ‘Under My Wheels’ is a far cry from the standard June-Moon love song. Raucous, vengeful and visceral, it shook the UK to its core.
The songs continued to sell themselves over the decades; with staying power evident in every act of execution. God bless those moving parts! Who could sit still when Dunaway brandished a series of throaty, goose bump-inducing bass lines? Or Bruce concocted a blues-flecked riff on guitar or the keys? Smith rolled out violent fills with abandon and confidence —a seasoned welder securing posts, upon which the sturdiest melody must stand. All sonic architects that scrapped authority, whilst praising their progeny. No wonder fans scrambled to see their saints.
Tom Semioli and Mark Preston printed on their KYBP webzine ('Know Your Bass Player'), a list of “Rock and Roll’s Great Basslines Part One” and said of Dunaway’s ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’ arrangement, “Dunaway’s upper register motifs beneath the signature guitar lick steals the show.” That kind of endorsement speaks volumes about procuring a lifetime of passion.
Then came late October, and the three-day, bi-annual Chillers Theatre Expo in Parsippany, New Jersey, where “horror meets sci-fi”. During the day, fans enjoyed Dr. Dreary’s Snakes Museum, where Alice Cooper Group memorabilia could be found in spades. Not to be missed was a chic display of Cindy Smith Dunaway apparel: glittery, lame jumpsuits that had commanded attention from labels and industry intelligentsia, vintage posters from headlining events, concert reviews, high school programs, and a snarky, imperious skeleton, overseeing all the wealth of nostalgia.
Later that night, Bruce, Dunaway and Smith, sans Cooper, performed a pre-Halloween set in a hall where sight lines were obscured but the sound successfully reached to the back of the crowded room. Costumed fans elbowed strangers, whispering “legends” as they wiggled their way closer to the makeshift stage of the Hilton. Many were from the “Garden State” or from one of the five boroughs. Those who had not been to Nashville figured this would be their last shot, but appetites were logically whetted for more.
On that night, the trio were joined by guitarist and music computer whiz Nick Didkovsky (Vomit Fist, John Zorn Band, Doctor Nerve). In the following section, Nick elaborates about his experiences working with Bruce, Dunaway and Smith, as well as with Blue Coupe (Dunaway/Bouchards) and on a few other performance and recording projects.
“This first time I played with Dennis was 2013 at a benefit on World AIDS Day. I think I landed on his radar when he heard my guitar version of the solo organ piece ‘Titanic Overture', which is on the first Alice Cooper record ‘Pretties for You’.” ( see https://doctornerve.bandcamp.com/album/titanic-overture-electric-guitar-arrangement ) .
“About the same time, I met Joe Bouchard when I curated the $100 Guitar Project, which he played on- this was a cool project, in which we passed a guitar through the hands of 65 guitarists, each of whom recorded a piece. Bridge Records released the results as a double CD, see www.100dollarguitar.com ). So by the time this benefit concert rolled around, both Joe and Dennis knew of my work.”
“This benefit was a Queen Tribute which I was already performing on, so Joe invited me to join Blue Coupe for a couple of the Queen tunes they were covering (as you know, Blue Coupe is Joe and Albert Bouchard of Blue Oyster Cult comprising the “Blue” half of the name, with Dennis representing the Alice “Coupe”-r half of the name). It was like a surreal dream that doesn’t quite line up logically after you awaken: to be on-stage with members of Alice Cooper and Blue Oyster Cult playing Queen songs…. what?”
“Fast forward to my residency at The Stone in 2015 when I assembled a band to perform the entirety of ‘Pretties for You' in concert. People flew in from all over the world to be there, as the prospects of hearing this material live had made a strong impression on a particularly hardcore fringe of the Alice Cooper fan base (by contrast I also received messages of genuine concern asking me *why* I would spend my time on a record that was once described as a “tragic waste of plastic”).”
“Dennis, Cindy, and Neal came to the show, so here we were performing music for the folks who’d made it some 45 years earlier; they were sitting right there in the front row. No pressure—ha ha. Dennis joined us for some encores including the ultra-deep cut ‘Nobody Likes Me’. It was a wonderful experience!”
“Roughly concurrent with the ‘Pretties for You’ show, Dennis invited me to perform at Chiller Theatre with Billion Dollar Babies, which is Neal Smith, Michael Bruce, and Dennis. The Billion Dollar Babies name hearkens back to 1977 when they recorded the ‘Battle Axe’ record together under that name. After rehearsing unplugged in Michael’s hotel room at Chiller, we performed a set of Alice Cooper classics that went over really well with the Chiller audience. And for me, it was just extraordinary to share the stage with those guys. Truly, they had piloted my ship through the stormy seas of my teenage years, and it’s almost impossible to describe how profound it was to perform with them.”
“About a good year or so before ‘Paranormal’, Dennis asked me to record some guitars for a number of demos he had kicking around. The first song I worked on was ‘Sound of A’ which is still my favourite track. It just captured a feel and an atmosphere that was quintessentially early Cooper. I found it very comfortable to slip into this piece and dream up what sort of guitar part Michael would have played here, what sort of counterpoint Glen would have contributed there, how the two would have intermingled their playing styles, etc., so I really got into that song, through an almost archaeological lens, imagining how the song would have taken shape in 1969/70, but also through a more urgent here-and-now posture of simply contributing the most effective guitar playing I could to lift the piece higher. I came up with an angular guitar hook that Dennis and Alice both really liked, which I like to think had some similarities to something Glen Buxton might have come up with. Of course, we’ll never know.”
“Over about a year, I worked on a bunch of Dennis’s demos, which he pitched to Bob Ezrin for the new Alice Cooper record. Dennis and I set the bar high for these demos, going back and forth with each tune until he declared it a grand slam. Happily, three of his strongest tunes ended up being selected for ‘Paranormal’. I expected that to be the end of the line for me, but it got more interesting when Ezrin reached out to me to provide for him a ProTools session with one of Dennis’s songs on it. I had to make a few changes to conform my demo session to their new arrangement, but I turned that around for him quickly and that was very satisfying. Shortly thereafter I sent Ezrin some of the guitar tracks that I’d recorded for these tunes. He added those to the mix and as you might imagine I was pretty thrilled to see my work credited on three tunes on ‘Paranormal’ and to hear my performance on the record. It’s interesting to reflect that I did all this long distance, without ever setting foot in their studios. I recorded everything at home and delivered my tracks virtually via file sharing.”
“More recently, I was fortunate enough to join Neal, Dennis, and Michael again at Chiller. This time we had a full-blown rehearsal before the show at Rick Tedesco’s studio in Connecticut. That rehearsal was a blast, as I got to see up close the camaraderie and the love that these guys have for each other. They resurrected arrangements that dated back many years, such as performing the beginning of ‘Hello Hooray’ and then cutting into ‘Under My Wheels’ or extending the short guitar solo in ‘Muscle of Love’ into a full-fledged jam. This all served double duty to prepare them both for Chiller and for the UK reunion tour. The excitement was palpable. It was a delight to see that up close, and to experience the energy that happens when those guys get together. It’s a potent mix of personalities, talent, and history.”
As mentioned, there was guitarist Rick Tedesco (Ian Hunter, Alice Cooper, Crude and Rude), owner of Guitar Hangar instrument shop in Brookfield, Connecticut, whose client base includes Joe Walsh and John Mellencamp. Tedesco also riffed unashamedly that night, alongside his long-term mates. The set was full of energy and inspired lots of singing along to old favourites, and more than one misty-eyed admirer, craned his neck, savouring the moment.
The American dream had been partially fulfilled, but then the unbelievable happened—the celebration would extend over the pond! The news blew minds. Bruce, Dunaway and Smith would join the Alice Cooper Group line-up for the 2017 UK tour. A committed cadre of fans vowed to take planes, trains and automobiles to make all five shows, whether that entailed slugging over weathered cobblestone or couch surfing with strangers.
Saturday 11 November 2017
First Direct Arena, Leeds, UK
Sunday 12 November 2017
The SSE Hydro, Glasgow, UK
Tuesday 14 November 2017
Arena Birmingham, Birmingham, UK
Wednesday 15 November 2017
Manchester Arena, Manchester, UK
Thursday 16 November 2017
SSE Arena, Wembley, London, UK
Excited fans, too, lined up to attend Dennis Dunaway’s book signings for ‘Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! –My Adventures in the Alice Cooper Group’ (Omni Press, U.K.). Dunaway had completed numerous American signings, and his non-performance days offered him a further chance to seek out curious fans. In his memoir, he had candidly documented his career highs and lows, and discussed his post Alice Cooper Group life and how he battled a life-threatening disease; fans that had sent him letters of encouragement during that difficult time couldn’t wait to offer their support in person.
The first signing took place at Swordfish Records in Birmingham and brought together the author’s old friends and colleagues, which included publicists, writers, designers, photographers, other record store owners and fellow musicians, including a gregarious artisan from Wales, who penned ‘The Ballad of Dennis Dunaway’ and who jump-started a litany of banter, as new faces rushed in from the cold. With his wife, designer Cindy Smith Dunaway, Dennis signed and greeted all in attendance with equal warmth. They spent a considerable amount of time actively listening to fan stories. A few, sorry not to have gotten on the bandwagon sooner, were anxious to catch up. They couldn’t have found a better setting.
The second signing took place at London’s Crypt of the Wizard. Although I was not present, rumour has it that the signing at London’s heavy metal record shop was a “heroic” success.
The release of ‘Paranormal’ (released July 28, 2017) was another reason for celebration. Bruce, Dunaway and Smith had contributed new songs to the Bob Ezrin-produced Alice Cooper recording. The album featured dynamic solo work and an overall celebration of collaboration, something the old guard and the newly initiated could relish.
The five shows! They took place in popularized venues and were sure to attract the crowds, but a piece of one city’s heart had been wrenched out earlier. Manchester had been terrorized prior to their event — nevertheless, nothing could stop the British citizens from coming out in droves, defying the thought of violence in the name of rock and roll.
Smatterings of an Italian dialect echoed across the stairs leading down to the sparsely lit canal, hovering below the Birmingham Arena, a few hours before that concert. The night air was crisp, bordering on cold, and after the contingent of young Italians filtered through, a barrage of locals drifted in; eyes dripping with dark mascara, skin pierced several times over, outfits pinched from Alice Cooper album covers, black boots and matching leather, cheeks flush with excitement.
The anticipation grew as the opening acts commenced. The Tubes exploded with Fee Waybill at the helm, shouting the lucid lyrics to ‘White Punks on Dope’. The Mission’s repertoire featured spiralling guitar, the grainy voice of Wayne Hussey and songs from new album, ‘Bending of the Ark’. By the time, the headliners appeared, boots scraped at the floor, perhaps to see if it was really there. Eyes glued. A neighbour’s pulse beating as erratically as one’s own. This was it!
Tommy Henriksen, Ryan Roxie and Nita Strauss danced across the stage, like fairies, blissfully awakened from a hypnotic spell. There was magic in their interaction, as they expressed affection for their strings. And despite the ongoing flurry of activity, Alice’s whiskey voice gained momentum, as he moved the set list along, his black-rimmed eyes, scoping the arena, like a captured beast.
The theatrics were spellbinding. Flames shooting out of all corners of the stage, as Nita Strauss bent notes beyond recognition, moving across the stage like an Olympic gymnast.
“Nurse Sheryl” fastening Alice Cooper’s straight jacket, as he winced in pain. The flood of intimidating, acoustic chords that introduce ‘The Ballad of Dwight Frye’…
“See my lonely life explode/I see it every day…”
To this day, these lyrics send chills across a crowded arena, and despite having heard the ballad hundreds of time, I, too, felt tears collecting.
The sharp edge of the guillotine rescinded and spat out a gory replica of the shock rocker’s bloody head.
Cooper paraded around the eerie stage with an uber-feminine doll. Duelling guitar solos; throbbing notes rising across the corners of the stage. The audience exhaled when Cooper, finally, caught his own breath, crooning the lyrics to ‘Only Women Bleed’, one of the few times when his steroidal body allowed itself to rest.
And the expert lighting. Never obtrusive. Bright colour palettes, designed to stimulate emotion, but not to distract from the distinctive on-stage personas.
And then, with a hypnotic stroke of hoo doo, the arena went black. In moments, living history erupted onstage. Bruce, Dunaway and Smith, glammed up. Michael Bruce, stunning in dark trousers and a smart, fitted jacket, the latter boasting parallel bars of blinding silver across his chest…
Dennis Dunaway’s outfit, awash in glittery sparkles, compliments of Cindy Smith Dunaway. Neal Smith’s long, soft hair swaying from the riser, as he banged the skins with precision. A mad man.
Their five-song set inspired roars of approval. Fan throats parched from screaming and singing along. These songs unified a generation. Bass lines that cause fissions in the synapses and never apologize. Words that arouse a spectrum of affect: pain, elation and alienation.
From the the turbulent ranting of ‘I’m Eighteen’ to the alliteration of ‘Muscle of Love’ with its undulating B section, the set was thrilling.
Earlier, Cooper had led a triple-song, instrumental overture with a baton. Since then, he’d changed from his blood-stained jumper into his own glittery couture and Broadway-style top hat. Veteran fans, who had witnessed the theatrics many times over, had come to expect the antics, and would have felt cheated, had they not taken place. But as for their sons and daughters, those fresh eyes and ears stood in absolute awe, and with it, perhaps, a new found respect for their elders. It was fantastic to feel part of something this colossal.
In Nashville, Cooper’s serpent reared its hissing head, but on this occasion, the reptile was in absentia…
I attended only the Birmingham concert, so I cannot comment on the rest, but I did attend a few meet and greets: one in Birmingham, and one in post mortem London, where most band members graciously greeted and mentored squealing adolescents.
There, guitarist Nita Strauss admitted to one rapt, future guitarist that she makes mistakes and that she even made a few that night. “But my mother always told me not to show it on my face,” she stated, flashing an encouraging smile.
The young, freckled fan smiled back. Perhaps these words of encouragement would allow her the freedom to pursue her craft with supreme confidence. Maybe one day she’d be on a similar stage…
On Facebook, Nita joked about tossing a guitar pick into the crowd, and watching it land in an excited fan’s pocket. Is there another career path looming?
Dunaway and Bruce never seemed to tire of the frequent photo requests, despite a 24-hour or so day…
Tommy Henriksen and Ryan Roxie fielded questions about their own careers and what led to their fascination with the outstanding repertoire. It quickly became clear that rock and roll has plenty to offer for every generation; being one of the last art forms that truly binds us together, in a world where unpredictability and chaos so often reign.
Everything leading up to that night really mattered. Every ounce of energy compounded. Every rehearsal, trickle of sweat, endless sound check, signing session; every bumpy coach ride (with too-few rest rooms) and every organic salad-on-the run, meant the musicians were that much closer to reaching their loyal fans; that much closer to a communion, that takes years of trust and confidence to build. It took so many people to make this all happen. Will this alchemy ever happen again or was it a one-off dream? Nick Didkovsky’s blessings genuinely reflect what many fans ultimately feel: “I really hope the success of the UK tour brings them more opportunities.”
This year-in-the making has meant the world to the fans. About an hour before the “Brum” concert, a middle-aged man and his adult son shared dinner at a traditional pub. As the father poked at the crust of a steak and ale pie with a silver fork, he discussed his musical tastes. He hated rap and didn’t enjoy music filtered through a political lens. He admitted that he wasn’t crazy about R & B.
“But that music,” he asserted, referring to the ageless repertoire of the Alice Cooper Group, “it never changes.” It had gotten him through the worst of times, like a devoted childhood chum.
Regardless of what life had thrown at him, he still found solace in this music. And after having attended these concerts for half his life, he confided that he found himself “blubbering” at the last one. He couldn’t believe he had reacted so powerfully. He could barely understand the phenomenon. Was it his youth slapping him in the face? Had the music unclenched a fierce, internal fist? He couldn’t really say. But the music said it all.
Spend the Night intro.
Under My Wheels
Lost in America
Department of Youth
The World Needs Guts
Woman of Mass Distraction
Halo of Flies
Feed My Frankenstein
Plus, a special set which featured Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith with front man Alice Cooper and current band members.
No More Mr Nice Guy
Muscle of Love
Billion Dollar Babies
School's Out/Another Brick in the Wall
(Last song, both bands)
Photos by Philamonjaro
Lisa Torem would like to extend special thanks to Paul Brenton, Michael Bruce, Lynette Bruce, Alice Cooper, Nick Didkovsky, Dennis Dunaway, Cindy Smith Dunaway, Tommy Henriksen, Toby Mamis, Christopher Todd Penn, Ryan Roxie, Phillip Solomonson and Nita Strauss.