How Alice Cooper Survived the ’80s
Alice Cooper almost didn’t make it through the '80s. Midway through the decade, a crippling addiction to cocaine and alcohol almost cost the shock rocker his career – and his life.
As the ’80s began, Vincent Furnier (the man behind Alice) was supposedly clean. A heavy drinker through the Alice Cooper band years and his first few solo albums, Furnier had spent time in a sanitarium in 1977 to get sober. He wrote about the experience for 1978’s From the Inside album, which featured a soft-rock sound in contrast to the diesel-fueled rock of the Coopers. In an era where disco reigned, Alice needed a new sound.
The search continued amid the rise of New Wave, with 1980’s Flush the Fashion album featuring synthesizers and needle-nosed guitars. In some ways, the “New Wave Alice” experiment worked. The electro-pop single “(We’re All) Clones” hit the Top 40, and the album – helmed by Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker – charted higher than From the Inside. But longtime fans were dismayed by the significant shift in musical direction and the press was mostly unimpressed. Decades later, some fans and critics have come around to recognize the LP as a compelling digression.
Watch Alice Cooper Perform 'Clones'
Although Cooper toured for the record, he stopped wearing his trademark black eye makeup and tied his long hair back into, what he called, the “widow twanky” look. The gothic, cartoony Alice was replaced by a streamlined, nastier version of the character. It’s been suggested that some of that nastiness was the result of Cooper falling off the wagon around this time.
In his episode of VH1's Behind the Music, Cooper told the story of relapsing after having a sip of his wife wine. But he also had developed a cocaine habit – something he admitted much later in his career. His appetite and health suffered, as a result.
Starring a gaunt Cooper, the concerts continued, with the exception of one. A show on Aug. 19, 1980, in Toronto was delayed for hours and ultimately canceled, prompting a massive riot by angry fans. The delay/cancellation was first blamed on customs then on a severe asthma attack, but rumors circulated that it was the result of Cooper’s substance abuse.
Following the tour, the singer came home and started a family with wife Sheryl. After five years of marriage, the couple welcomed daughter Calico in May 1981. Despite the happy addition to the Cooper brood, all was not well with Alice. He had been a “high-functioning” alcoholic in the ’70s and the trend continued during his relapse. Although Cooper would record and release three new albums between 1981-83, he would remember almost nothing of that work.
“I sorta remember Flush the Fashion,” Cooper told the Phoenix New Times in 1996. “But I lost track somewhere during Zipper Catches Skin, Special Forces and DaDa.”
The “black-out” albums, as Cooper has termed them, began with 1981’s Special Forces, which found him moving from quirky New Wave to hard-nosed punk. The LP was almost called Skeletons in the Closet, which would have been appropriate given how skeletal his physical appearance had become. In the middle of a tour, Cooper and his band showed up on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow show with the frontman looking sickly and crazed.
Watch Alice Cooper Perform a 'Special Forces' Medley
In spite of Cooper’s state, and Special Forces stalling at No. 125 on the chart, the streamlined supporting tour was a success, with the set lists mixing new material with Cooper hits. The trek also brought him to Europe for the first time since 1975.
Before long, Cooper had another record out, 1982’s Zipper Catches Skin. In an interview with Hit Parader to promote the new album, a reporter (perhaps unknowingly) commented that the singer unleashed a paragraph of quotes “in about as much time as it takes a normal person to sneeze” and that the musician was “moving faster than ever.”
Cooper might have been able to fool the public, but he couldn’t do the same with his friends and collaborators. Guitarist Dick Wagner, who had played on Cooper’s first few solo records, came back for Zipper – only to leave the sessions when he discovered that Cooper was freebasing cocaine in the studio.
Years later, Cooper would express regret about this period, wishing for a do-over, both personally and musically. “I love the songs – I just don’t remember writing them,” he told the Quietus in 2009. “My subconscious was writing some pretty good tracks! There’s ‘Zorro’s Ascent’ and ‘No Baloney Homosapiens,’ for example, where now I’m going, ‘Wow, that’s clever!’”
Unfit to tour in 1982, Cooper threw himself into the production of his next album, even managing to convince Wager to return and coaxing Bob Ezrin (who had produced much of Cooper’s classic ’70s output) to oversee the recordings in Toronto. The spooky, funny and bizarre album that came as a result was 1983’s DaDa, which everyone involved (and some Cooper die-hards) regards as an unfairly overlooked record. “I listen to that album and I get chills,” Cooper said in 1996. “That’s a really sick album. And I still don’t know what it’s about, except that Former Lee lived in an attic and he got hungry. Then Former went around the house and family members started turning up missing.”
Wagner praised the record as an “undiscovered gem” that also showcased Cooper’s cries for help. “‘Pass the Gun Around’ was really representative of Cooper’s alcoholism,” the guitarist reflected in 2012. “In other words, pass the bottle around, pass the gun around.”
Listen to Alice Cooper's 'Pass the Gun Around'
When Cooper returned from the studio sessions, it was clear that he couldn’t keep going on this way. Frail and pale from substance abuse and a lack of eating, he couldn't get out of bed and was near death. In the fall of 1983, his family checked him into the hospital, where he was given a steady supply of vitamins and diagnosed with cirrhosis. During a two-and-a-half-week stay, Cooper was told he could recover, but only if he quit drugs and alcohol permanently.
Cooper had done as much damage to his body as to his marriage. Fed up with her husband’s behavior, Sheryl moved out with Calico and filed for divorce in late 1983. However, the couple was able to reconcile part-way through 1984, when it was clear that Cooper had changed his ways.
Even though Cooper was able to stabilize his health and family, his career was a different story. Both Zipper and DaDa had been huge flops, due to their experimental nature, a lack of touring to stimulate sales and a dearth of promotion from Warner Bros. In 1984, Cooper was left without a record label when he was dropped by Warner. In some ways, he would be starting all over again.
Before he would do that, Cooper spent time at home reconnecting with his wife and daughter. He and Sheryl welcomed a son, Dashiel, in 1985. Alice dabbled in movies, worked on songs with friends and became obsessively interested in golf. Sheryl would joke that he “traded one bad habit for another.”
Slowly but surely, he came back to music. For the first time in the ’80s, Cooper donned the old mascara in the video for his collaboration with Twisted Sister, “Be Chrool to Your School.” It seemed that Cooper was taking inspiration from the current swath of pop-metal acts that had been influenced by him a decade earlier.
“I definitely came back as metal. I like metal,” Cooper admitted in 1996, also reflecting on the new changes to his persona in the mid-’80s. “Before, Alice was always a victim because I was a victim to alcohol. After the alcoholism thing, Alice became more the dominant character, taking the audience by the throat, where he wants to take them.”
The aggressive stance and sound were heard on his “comeback” records for MCA – 1986’s Constrictor and 1987’s Raise Your Fist and Yell – both created in collaboration with shredding guitarist Kane Roberts. Cooper simultaneously embraced the slasher film craze, playing up the over-the-top horror in his lyrics and recording the theme song for Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, the synth-y “He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask).”
Watch Alice Cooper's Video for 'He's Back (The Man Behind the Mask)'
As a showman and visual artist, Cooper was able to make an easy transition to MTV, playing up his ghoulish character in music videos, including “He’s Back” and “Freedom.” He was also able to begin touring again beneath the famous makeup.
Though Constrictor and Raise Your Fist had returned Cooper to the charts, neither was a blockbuster. But Cooper found his fame in concert, where he had first gained notoriety. The Nightmare Returns tour brought Cooper’s mayhem to the world in 1986, showcasing classic songs like “Welcome to My Nightmare,” “School’s Out” and “Elected,” along with larger-than-life props, for new audiences.
Soon, he was back to his old shock-rock days, stirring controversy in the U.K. and West Germany in 1988. After a member of Parliament tried to ban Cooper from bringing his gory stage show to Britain, the West German government actually succeeded in censoring Cooper, forcing the singer to remove some of the most extreme elements for his concerts there. He acquiesced, under the notion that the fans deserved to see even an incomplete show. But, once he was out of the country, he declared: “It’s hard as an American to imagine anything is too violent for Germany.”
It wouldn’t be the only time that Cooper would make compromises to keep things rolling. He told Metal Hammer in 1987, “I won't resort to writing ‘boy, girl’ songs just to get a hit. … There have not been any ballads on the last two albums on purpose, because I will not prostitute what I do.” But, by 1989’s Trash album, he had changed his tune … literally.
For that album, which would become Cooper’s first platinum record since 1975, the artist teamed up with songwriter Desmond Child, who had recently helped Aerosmith and Bon Jovi enjoy power ballad success. Cooper and Child seemed to arrange a balance – Cooper could sing monster ballads as long as there was something monstrous about them. Hence, “Poison” and “Bed of Nails” have a touch of the macabre in the lyrics along with glossy production and big choruses.
Watch Alice Cooper's 'Poison' Video
While some of the faithful felt betrayed by Cooper’s pop play on the release, many more listeners became fans thanks to “Poison,” a top 10 hit with an MTV clip in constant rotation in 1989. All over North America and Europe, the single was a smash, and so was Trash – which included contributions from stars such as Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora and others.
It was one of the biggest comeback stories in rock history. After blacking out for the early ’80s and almost dying from substance abuse, Cooper had resurrected not just the Alice persona, but his recording career. With a new generation of fans, Cooper became a huge star again.
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