45 Years Ago: Alice Cooper Show Glimpse of Future on Second Album Amid Commercial Indifference
In March 1970, a band bearing the curious name of Alice Cooper regaled the world with its second album, Easy Action. But there was nothing easy about their ongoing battle to gain some kind of recognition for their fledgling career. It says a lot that the only record label willing to take a chance on them was Frank Zappa’s Straight / Bizarre imprint, which was home to a colorful assortment of musical freaks and outcasts that no other company would dare touch. But Alice Cooper were hoping to change all that.
Since crash-landing in Los Angeles in 1967, inbound from their home base of Phoenix, singer Vincent Furnier, guitarists Michael Bruce and Glen Buxton, bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith had encountered almost nothing but resistance and rejection. First they had to drop their original name, Nazz (which had itself evolved from the Spiders), because Todd Rundgren’s group had beat them to it. Then they had to hustle and starve for a couple years in a competitive music town where standing out meant coming up with outrageous music and even more outrageous looks.
Sure enough, future manager Shep Gordon decided to take a chance on them only because he was impressed by their uncanny ability to clear a room in seconds flat. Gordon helped hook them up with Zappa, who signed the group after a poorly timed audition at his house -- the desperate-to-please band arrived at 7AM instead of 7PM. He hustled them into the studio with his manager Herb Cohen and Mothers of Invention bandmate Ian Underwood serving as producers.
The results were Alice Cooper’s debut album, Pretties for You, which was released in June 1969 and squeaked into the Billboard Top 200 at No. 193. Later that year, the band gained a bit of notoriety after Furnier threw a live chicken into a Toronto audience, which promptly ripped it apart. Despite the flawed stabs at psychedelia on the album, the group's Midwestern experiences, particularly around the Toronto and Detroit axis, exposed the band to proto-punk architects like the MC5 and Stooges, who helped show them the way forward musically.
This backdrop found Alice Cooper heading back into the studio for their second album, Easy Action, which was named after a line from West Side Story and recorded on a shoestring budget (thanks to Zappa's notorious money-pinching). This time they were afforded the opportunity to work with a more established producer, David Briggs, who had already started a successful, multi-album partnership with Neil Young. But according to drummer Smith, Briggs dismissed the band’s music as “psychedelic s---.”
Nevertheless, several songs on the album managed to capture the growing confidence and budding songwriting that would fuel the quintet’s imminent rise to stardom: the cleverly titled “Mr. & Misdemeanor,” the clearly road-tested “Below Your Means,” the self-referential “Return of the Spiders” and the short-but-sweet “Refrigerator Heaven.”
Others, like the daringly dadaist “Still No Air,” precociously melodic “Laughing at Me,” the Beatles-esque “Beautiful Flyway” and futuristic “Lay Down and Die, Goodbye” revealed tantalizing glimpses of alternate directions the group may have taken while honing their increasing talent.
But Easy Action’s fate was sealed and epitomized by the first single, the safe “Shoe Salesman,” a song most fans would have a hard time recognizing as the work of Alice Cooper these days. Like the album, the single didn't even chart. The commercial indifference pretty much doomed the band’s relationship with Zappa’s organization and the record company, but a new champion, Bob Ezrin, was right around the corner.
After witnessing the band’s violently theatrical performance at Canada’s Strawberry Fields Festival in August 1970, Ezrin signed on as the producer of its next album, Love It to Death, and convinced Warner Bros. to buy out Alice Cooper’s contract shortly after the record's release in January 1971. The rest is history, but a history that may never have happened if not for early stumbles like Easy Action.
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