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Alice Cooper On 'Wayne's World,' Mixing With Motown & The Musical Heritage Of Detroit
At 73, Alice Cooper is in the middle of his first extended break from touring. Time away from his black-caped, blood-soaked alter-ego has given him plenty of opportunities to continue working (for instance, before our call, he was demoing ideas for the next album by Hollywood Vampires, a project he shares with Aerosmith’s Joe Perry). But mainly, he’s looking forward to performing tracks from his newest release Detroit Stories, which was released on February 26—even if his signature outlandish live visuals are still TBD.
When it does come time to add to his collection of concert props, there’s plenty of inspiration to choose from. Cooper’s twenty-eighth album is stomp through the Midwestern city where he was born and later readopted as his own in 1970. Populated by fictional colorful characters and performed by local musicians, it’s both a hard-driving look at the spirit of the city and—in the case of "$1000 High Heel Shoes"—a cheeky departure from his signature sound with the help of Motor City Horns. (Motown, as it turns out, plays well with shock rock.)
Even Lou Reed doesn't escape Cooper’s clutches. The musician sincerely calls his cover of the Velvet Underground frontman’s "Rock 'n' Roll" a "V8 engine," a blending of sounds that received the blessing of Reed’s widow, Laurie Anderson, who declared that her late partner would have loved the song’s transition from heroin chic to a full-fledged rock anthem.
Alice Cooper spoke with GRAMMY.com about spiritually dragging Lou Reed to Detroit, giving in to fate, and why he’s refusing to let COVID get him down.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How has it been, taking a break from your onstage persona and all the theatrics that come with it for the first time in years?
It's sort of like I have to remind myself, "What do we do on stage now?" Because it's a complicated show. Just to keep yourself in the game, you have to remember, "I did this on that song." I always surround myself with the best players. We've been around for 28 or 29 albums. There are maybe 15 songs on the show that fans have to hear. If you don't play those songs, they would revolt.
I remember talking to Bowie one time and he said, "I'm gonna do a whole show without doing any hits," and in the back of my mind I went, "That's the worst idea I've ever heard!"
Has putting out so many albums changed your definition of what can be a hit?
I used to be able to listen to an album and say, "Okay, that's the single." And it was pretty obvious what the three-minute single was going to be on the radio. It was pretty easy to pick "School's Out" or "Poison" or one of those songs. It just jumped off the album. I could listen to somebody else's album and go, "Oh, that's the single right there." Because there were sort of boundaries.
Now, I don't even know what a single is. I honestly don't, because it's such a different venue out there. It's such a different technology. I don't know if there is such a thing as a single.
Interesting. So how does a concept like Detroit Stories come together? Is it all just one high point?
It's one of those things where the single will emerge. You do 12 or 13or 15 songs, and certain songs just emerge, and they just go, "Okay, that's, that's one, it's so obvious that one's gonna get airplay." I think we knew when we did Lou Reed's "Rock ‘n’ Roll," that that was going to get airplay because it just had everything. It had all the elements in it: Joe Bonamassa on guitar, Steven Hunter on guitar, and everything about the song was relentless—it never stops.
Then you have a quirky song like "Our Love Will Change the World," and that song is getting played to death in London. That's weird. Why would that song get played?
How did Lou Reed, who's emblematic of New York, get folded into the Detroit theme?
Well, we played [the track] for Laurie Anderson. And she says, "He would have absolutely loved this." I knew Lou back in Chelsea Hotel, in New York back before all this, when The Velvet Underground was living there and we were living there. We knew each other pretty well.
But when I thought of the song, their version was so New York heroin chic. Yeah, that's cool for that. But when I heard that, I said, "Well, what if we took this and put a V8 engine in it?" Turn it into a song that you can't miss. It's just a rock and roll jam. It was one of those songs, it felt like Detroit. And I'm sure he would not mind if I switched Detroit station from New York station.
Rock and roll is Detroit! If you think of Los Angeles, they had The Doors, and all these kind of hip, sexy bands. San Francisco has the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, sort of the psychedelic country. New York City has The Rascals and Billy Joel, and that very sophisticated stuff.
Detroit, though, has Alice Cooper, Iggy and the Stooges, MC5, Bob Seger, Suzi Quatro, Ted Nugent—every band that came out of the Midwest in Detroit was a hard rock, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll band with a lot of attitude. And that's what Detroit wanted. You couldn't be a soft rock band in Detroit; they would kill you.
Alice Cooper with his python, Rachina, in 1971. Photo: Victor Crawshaw/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Was there a moment in Detroit you wanted to freeze or immortalize in this album?
I kind of invented characters that would have been from Detroit that I would have known. Like Hamtramck Hammer, and his girlfriend Painkiller Jane. They were just the absolute hell-raisers of all time. There are three guys sitting in an alley and they can't wait for Hail Mary to come by, because she's a great-looking girl and that's the high point of their day. They just sat there and drank wine, and couldn't wait for her to walk by and they would just go, "Hail Mary, full of grace, what are you doing in this place?"
When you've got Wayne Kramer from MC5 on guitar, these guys live in Detroit. Johnny Bee on drums, who is the premier drummer in Detroit. They have a certain amount of R&B that's in the DNA. They'll play hard rock, but there's a certain taste of R&B in there. And normally I would go, "No no no, I don't want that." In this case, I said, "I want all of that!" Because that is Detroit.
And even a song like "$1,000 High Heel Shoes," I said, let's just do a Motown song. Let's give Motown a nod, because we would do the Grand Ballroom, let's say, in 1970, and it would be us in the Stooges and the MC5, and The Who, and 1,500 sweaty rock ‘n’ roll kids. I would look down and see, Oh, there's Smokey Robinson. There's a couple of guys from The Temptations. Rock ‘n’ roll and Motown, we're all in bed together.
I mean, nobody saw color. It was just music. They came because they loved hard rock and they loved the energy behind it. We would go to their shows because they were just so well done. The Motown bands were classy.
I think it's still there; I really do! When we went back, we didn't have a theme when we decided to do this album. And normally, we go into the thematic kind of thing; almost every album we've ever done has been thematic.
And I said, let's do 12 really good hard rock songs. We'll just get the best players, and really put out a real classic Alice Cooper rock ‘n’ roll album. And we went, OK, that's from Detroit. Let's write the songs in Detroit. Let's record it in Detroit venues, all Detroit players. And then it became a theme.
Do you believe in the idea of fate, that you were meant to be in this place this time?
It was just something that fell into place. And a lot of people have mentioned, "Well did you realize Love It to Death is having its 50th anniversary, and you're going back to Detroit where all that happened?" That's a total coincidence.
I don't live in the past. I'm not one of those guys that lives in nostalgia. I talk about it. And I certainly don't deny any of it. But I'm always thinking about the next album. And if I can incorporate that Detroit sound into a new Alice Cooper album that sounds fresh and like a lot of fun, that's what we're gonna do.
Do you see COVID changing the nature of those places in Detroit that you love?
I'm a total optimist. I believe that I think that this vaccine is going to really make a big difference. By the end of summer, I'm expecting everybody to be back on the road because now you've got 70-80% of the country protected. Why wouldn't you go back on the road? Why wouldn't there be concerts like there used to be? What are you afraid of at that point?
COVID had its day. That's how I look at it. I don't look at it as COVID is going to be here forever, and we're never going to do concerts again. It's not going to last forever. COVID has got a departure date coming up.
And you know, the thing about it is, there's going to be such a glut of albums coming out. You have to figure every single guy in every band has got his own studio. And if you have a year off, what are they going to do? They're going to write and demo songs. So, there could be like 400 albums coming out in the next two years. Everybody is going to.
I'm already working on the album after Detroit Stories and the next Vampires album. So, that's really the most creative thing you can do—to sit and write and do demos.
What would your advice be to a musician who is just starting out their career and might be worried about falling through the cracks in the middle of this surge of music?
Well, that's that will be a problem with young bands. They’d better show up with something pretty interesting because you're up against everybody now. I would say if you're a young band, if you have something that's just going to knock everybody out, great.
I always believe that nothing's going to stop a great song. No matter who it's coming from, a great song is a great song, and it doesn't matter if it's a brand-new band or if it's a band that's 60 years old. That song will live. So, my advice to young bands is to write the best songs you can write. Not riffs, songs.
I tell young bands all the time, want you to listen to three albums. I want you to listen to Meet the Beatles, any Beach Boys album, and Burt Bacharach. They sit there and they go, "We don't want to sound like that!" You don't have to, but look at the way the songs are constructed. It's okay to be angry and write an angry song, but put a melody to it.
With Wayne's World being revived recently for an Uber Eats ad, do you still have fans declaring "We're not worthy" when they meet you?
This is not exaggerating: I would say if I'm in an airport, I get it at least two to three times per airport. And everybody thinks it's the first time I've ever heard it! It'll be three businessmen chanting, "We're not worthy!" And I try to pretend like it's the first time I've ever heard it. "Oh, that's clever!"
I'm not exaggerating—probably 1,000 times it's happened. And then Mike Myers says, "I could have stuck you with something much worse than that!"