To die of success

By Sergio Ariza

Billion Dollar Babies is both the culmination and the beginning of the breakup of the original legendary Alice Cooper band. It is, song for song, their best album, but also one in which you most notice producer Bob Ezrins touch by bringing aboard Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner to cover for Glen Buxton who was lost to booze. This could also be seen as Alice Cooper’s first step towards a solo career with Welcome to My Nightmare where he would be alongside the two stellar session players, part of Lou Reeds mythic group on Rock And Roll Animal. However, despite it all, they are still a band here, and the songs are still mainly the musical work of Michael Bruce, the rhythm guitarist, with Cooper writing the lyrics, although the last song, the sinister I Love the Dead, was Wagner’s doing (he doesn’t appear as composer though, after selling it to Ezrin).

It was this record that peaked his climb to the best-sellers list, becoming his only #1, and included some of his most prominent singles like, Elected or the irresistible No More Mr. Nice Guy. The band was on a roll and their collaboration with Ezrin became his 4th marvel after Love It To Death, Killer, and School’s Out. Everything should have been rolling smoothly on, but the problems between the band members were starting to get serious. The main reason was that their theatrical rock had the spotlight mainly on the singer, so in everyone’s eyes, the band seemed to be just simple backup musicians accompanying one Vincent Furnier, already known by the entire world as Alice Cooper. So some of the band members wanted to focus more on rock and less on theatrics, but not the singer, who knew that it was one of the main reasons for their success.

To complicate matters further, during the London recording Glenn Buxton could hardly record due to the pancreatitis caused by his alcoholism. The appearance of Rick Derringer and Dick Wagner in Under My Wheels and My Stars had allowed Ezrin before, with Buxton’s consent, to use other guitarists, but on this record that was the rule more than the exception. Buxton’s SG, a hallmark of the band is almost absent from the record, substituted on most of the solos by Steve Hunter, the most present, and Dick Wagner. The deacon of rock, one of our favourites, has many shining moments on the album such as the solo at the end of Sick Things, played in fine Clapton/Cream fashion with an SG plugged into a Marshall. His work on Generation Landslide is none too sloppy either, one of the gems to be rediscovered on the record, where his solo is based on Jeff Beck of the Yardbirds. He was paid 90$ for each song he played on and, until just recently, his name like that of Wagner, was left off the credit list on the record.    

But beyond the guitarists what still sticks out today is the tremendous level of the songs, beginning with the splendid version of Hello Hooray that opens the album and continuing with some of the best riffs in Michael Bruce’s career, one of the main architects of the band’s sound, who also used an SG. The most brilliant examples are found in Raped and Freezin’, Elected, the title song, No More Mr. Nice Guy and Generation Landslide (one of the few where you can hear Buxton and Hunter), where Cooper unleashes his particular sense of humour and at the same time is pure rock and roll, proof that his status in that time, as one of the main rock stars, is totally deserved.  

The record closes with I Love the Dead, his ode to necrophilia (“I love the dead before they get cold) that reveals his solitary wanderings and will always remain in his concerts as the moment of decapitation. But for those of us who appreciate this group as the great compact band of rock, this is a bittersweet record, their best moment and final chapter (Muscle of Love would still be released, but it wouldn’t be the same). In the end, the character consumed the band, and you could say, it died of success.