1971 was the year for Alice Cooper and his band.
First they released Love it to Death in February and had a hit with I’m Eighteen. Then they hooked up with producer Bob Ezrin and in November of the same year released Killer, which transformed their image from a band with an outrageous touring show to a group of substance. “The most important thing, in our mind, was the fact [that] the music has to stand up years from now,” singer Alice Cooper said. “It has to stand up even after they’ve forgotten what we’ve done on stage.”
The album brought a heavier, darker sound that influenced a whole raft of musicians from Bowie to Guns N Roses and also added consistencey and variety to their armory. The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten later described Killer as ‘the greatest rock album of all time’. Although the album peaked at 21 on the Billboard 200 charts, suddenly Alice Cooper had an iconic image and was one of the world’s top acts. Parents hated the band; and inevitably when kids saw their parents’ reaction (and the humour in Cooper’s act) they loved them.
The album kicks off with one of its hit singles, Under My Wheels, which has been described as “full-throttle, hard-driving rock & roll… with a single-minded, straight-ahead intensity reminiscent of the Stones’ best singles.” Lead guitarist Glen Buxton makes his mark at the outset on this track with his 1967 Gibson SG Custom White.
The heavy guitar sound continues on Be My Lover, and here it is worth noting the special contribution that bassist Dennis Dunaway makes to the album. Dunaway’s riffs are worth a listen on their own, and they play perfectly with the swaggering lyrics of the song: “And with a magnifyin’ glance I just sorta look her over/We have a drink or two, well maybe three/And then she starts tellin’ me her life story.” The fun-play is evident later as the story develops: “She asked me why the singer’s name was Alice/And I said ‘Listen baby, you really wouldn’t understand.’”
The swagger continues with the extended and powerful Halo of Flies where Cooper sings: “I’ve got the answers to all of your questions,” to the accompaniment of a twisted version of Rogers & Hammerstein’s My Favorite Things. This is a classic track as here elements of rock, punk, concert orchestration and blues can be discerned, which is possibly one reason why the album is cited by so many as an influence.
Halo of Flies gives way to Desperado, which Cooper has said is a tribute to the Doors’ Jim Morrison, who died that year. This is recognisable in lines that reference “black leather” and “I’m a killer and I’m a clown,” but the song as a whole seems to take place in something that resembles a hollywood western. Indeed in an interview with NPR radio, Cooper himself said that he was influenced by Robert Vaughn’s character in The Magnificent Seven.
There is some lovely double guitar at work on You Drive Me Nervous but for this reviewer’s money the following track Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, has stronger riffs. It explicitly pays tribute to rock music with its title but simultaneously does so in a witty way.
Next up is the hugely controversial (at the time) Dead Babies. Was Cooper simply trying to get attention with this track? Almost certainly. But he is already one step ahead because he says it is “Actually probably the first anti-drug, anti-parental abuse [song …] It was like ‘Mom is high and in the other room with some guy she’d never seen before. Dad is out drinking and the baby is taking every pill in the medicine cabinet […] It was a total anti-parent abuse song.”
The final title track, Killer, begins in a slow and vaguely menacing manner but then builds into the ‘soundtrack of an execution’ as a man is taken to the gallows. The screaming end should not overshadow the subtle melodic keyboard and harmonies that shine on this track.
Alice Cooper could have met the fate of The Tubes – a band with an outstanding and outrageous stage act that packed venues but lacked sales – but Cooper achieved a huge fanbase and the album Killer represented a key springboard in that success. The record combines heavy riffs and themes with light catchy pop melodies and established the band as one to be reckoned with. And of course, Schools Out and Billion Dollar Babies were just around the corner…