Originally Published: April 1973
Author: Bob Edmands
Billion Dollar Babies
After mutilated chickens, mock lynchings and stabbings, foreplay with boa constrictors, bombardment of audiences with paper panties, what next onstage from Alice Cooper, the teen pervert's answer to Busby Berkeley? A lip-smacking handout from WEA Records says Billion Dollar Babies is 'the music for a full rock-and-roll Broadway-type musical just about to hit the road in the States.'
A substantial clue, clearly, to the nature of this Broadway-type musical (which won't incidentally be playing Broadway) can be had from casting an ear over the album. Opportunities for grisly tableaux abound in the lyrics. There's the much publicised number about necrophilia 'I Love The Dead'; a jokey ditty called 'Raped and Freezin' in which the rapist is female; a musical visit to a sadistic dentist's called 'Unfinished Sweet' (Hah!), which features a line about 'He says my teeth are OK, But my gums got to go,' plus an instrumental break where the band plays along with a high-speed drill. Literal visual interpretations of these yucky images could clearly blitzkrieg the frontiers of good taste in the most damaging raid to date. Necrophilia would make Oh! Calcutta! seem nothing more than a bunch of romping naturists (which, of course, it isn't). Alice Cooper could turn himself into a cause celebre after the arrest. And that is surely the rationale for his ultra-violent stage act - the shock effect upon conventional standards of what's acceptable. Or is it?
The Billion Dollar Babies tour will play 56 cities and net an anticipated 3.4 million dollars minimum, which is nice work if you can get it. The suspicion must inevitably arise that Alice Cooper is unlikely to do anything liable to alienate this lucrative market, and therefore his 'offensive' performances function within certain very definite limits upon taste. Michael Watts in the Melody Maker makes the perceptive point that Cooper's routines are designed to offend fuddy-duddies - but there are never any fuddy-duddies in the audiences. It's basically a way of preaching to the converted. No risk involved. Seeing the Cooper stage act simply bolsters an elitist sense of belonging to an enlightened minority prepared to accept what the less advanced majority finds distasteful. That's when it doesn't operate on the more basic level of ultra-violence as simple entertainment - and few hip intellectuals are likely to admit enjoying the spectacle of brutality, even if it is only play-acting.
What are Alice Cooper's motives in all this, if they can be considered to matter? Presumably, he's just found an extremely commercial Formula, and he's trying to extend its life and its money-making potential as long as possible. It is hard to believe he takes seriously the public personna he has dreamt up for himself. He has tried too hard, somehow, to project himself as a card-carrying teenage punk, and it doesn't really convince. Where the Stones just had to stand there and glower and you knew they were alienated, pimply nasties all Alice's grotesque gimmickry achieves is to emphasise his lack of commitment to anything other than ego-tripping and money-making.
With such lucrative returns from touring, recording might seem incidental, but of course both aspects of the marketing operation ensure the success of each other. Not everyone who buys an Alice album will have seen the stage show, and the music has to have a life of its own away from the live performances. Generally, Alice's music on this album also works independently of its lyrics, which are pretty crummy. The great strength is in the production and the arrangements. Alice has been accused, rightly, of copying the Stones, and here he widens his horizons to take in a little Who pastiche, too. He cribs from both with a master's touch.
The first track is the current single 'Hello Hurray', which is one of the few exceptions to the Stones/Who rip-off, and has accordingly been less successful than Alice's previous singles. For one thing, it moves at a very ponderous pace, and for another, it features the Cooper voice unadorned in certain sections, revealing it as thin, reedy, and whining. Alice cannot sing unaccompanied, anymore than Mick Jagger can. 'Hello Hurray' is due to open Alice's new stage act, and seems something like an error of judgement on the part of his management which otherwise rarely misses a trick. The single has been cited as evidence of Alice's total reliance on grotesque gimmickry, but maybe they just put out the wrong track.
The second cut is 'Raped and Freezin'', which is much safer, borrowing heavily from 'Get Off of My Cloud', with an insistent chorus of 'Hey, I think I've got a live one.' The track collapses into a steel band routine in the last minute or so, as if to deny complete dependence on the Stones.
Next is the extremely classy 'Elected', whose structure is firmly modelled on the Who's only number one hit 'I'm a Boy'. It starts fairly gently with an easy Latin rhythm - something like 'Magic Bus' - but a couple of Townshend-style guitar blasts break into one of those Keith Moon drum climaxes, with guitar punctuation building momentum. 'Elected' was a nice idea for a song, and very opportune last November, but Alice has got very little to say about the presidential election, except that he's a 'top prime cut of meat' in 'a gold Rolls Royce.' Very satirical, and apart from the general concept of a freak like Alice running for President, that's the extent of the humour.
The guys who made the 400,000 dollar new album of Tommy, which Time magazine says has earned back five million, would have done well to listen hard to 'Elected'. The unnamed orchestral arrange): on this cut preserves the basic Who dynamics, blending in a range of instruments with more skill than anyone since John Entwistle picked up a French horn.
'Billion Dollar Babies', the title track, is more Stones re-tread, notable for added vocals by tax-exile Donovan, who trades verses with Alice. A sleeve note thanks Clive Davis, the 250,000 dollar a year president of Columbia records, presumably for the loan of his boy. The question is: who should be thanking whom?
Last cut on side one is the longest on the album at 6.17. It's the nightmare dentist's visit of 'Unfinished Sweet', once again carried on the back of a Stones guitar riff. The jokey chorus of 'Aching to get me' sticks in your mind like a bolt through the neck. Most of the track sees that excellent arranger putting the orchestra through its paces, and there are a couple of really nasty touches, when the band plays along with the aforementioned high-speed drill, and when the sound effects department recreates the creak of a tooth being pulled. Very unpleasant if you listen with headphones. The James Bond theme is thrown in among these sounds, as though that's the sort of male chauvinist fantasy most of us have under the gas.
Side two is a real B-side. 'No More Mister Nice Guy', the opener, is the most successful cut, with another substantial loan from the Who in the song's construction. The chorus, repeating the song's title, has a nice touch of Hollies harmony. But from then on, it's downhill.
'Generation Landslide', also the flip of 'Hello Hurray', has the most complex lyrics, but the weediest tune. It's already been hailed as a new 'My Generation', but it lacks the punch or its simple coherence. The standout line, 'Molotov milk bottles heaved from pink high chairs,' is the wittiest on the album, certainly light years ahead of anything in the remaining cuts.
'Sick Things' and 'I Love the Dead' have the most specifically grotesque lyrics on the album, and as pieces of rock song-writing, they're both no-nos.
The first verse of 'Sick Things' is: 'Sick things in cars rotate round my stars, sick things, my things, my pets, my things - 1 love you.' Inventive, right? Then there's the first two lines of 'I Love the dead before they're cold, they're bluing flesh for me to hold.' The chorus continues, over a limp tune, 'We love the dead, we love the dead, yeah.' Very tongue in cheek - as it were. For a song about necrophilia, it's a dead loss. It's as though Alice can't bring too much creative effort to bear on anything too distasteful. His macabre image clearly has to be taken with a pinch of bile.
Billion Dollar Babies comes in a lavish sleeve, as did School's Out. Record reviews are meant to be about records, not reviewers, but a personal anecdote seems appropriate. The postman left the review copy at the back of our house in among the dustbins and the empty beer bottles, as though he knew what a decadent little package it was. It stayed there overnight. It rained, the album sleeve, designed to look like a crocodile-skin wallet, was swollen to billion dollar proportions. When God's your PR man, how can you fail? What was left of the sleeve revealed a dead give-away to Alice's intended market - pin-up pics of the boys in the band. Necrophilia for teenyboppers - the most novel marketing concept ever. The actual vinyl is wrapped in a glossy inner sleeve bearing a David Bailey study of the band. This snapshot features the two most offensive aspects of the album. The first is a million dollars strewn around Alice, the proceeds of some tour or another, no doubt. The second is a baby, wearing Alice Cooper eye make-up. This kid's presence has already attracted the attention of the Sun newspaper, circulation 2.8 million, which took a full-page to denounce 'sick and revolting' barrel-scraping publicity. The Sun is, of course, expert in such matters, but it really missed the point. What's offensive about this infant is the thought of her - for that is the child's gender - potential as an entertainer after this free career launch. What price a Mr Hyde for Little Jimmy Osmond's Doctor Jekyll. 'Glum-faced ghoul from Goole' would be too much to stomach.
Meanwhile, Alice continues his bid for a future career as an all-round entertainer by posing for pics - without his make-up. After hob-nobbing with Jack Benny and George Burns, it's clear where his long-term ambitions lie. Transylvania to Las Vegas by stealth. The only snag is that it's hard to cope with the idea of Alice as a benevolent family showman. Like seeing Vincent Price on those cookery programmes. You just know there's ground glass in the meringues.
(Kindly submitted from the collection of Justin Melnick).