How Alice Cooper Hit a Grand Slam With ‘School’s Out’
With four increasingly popular albums and a modest hit single under their belts, the members of Alice Cooper had paid their dues and were ready to level up by the time they released School's Out on June 30, 1972. Armed to the teeth with a career-defining rock anthem and an LP's worth of macabre, vaudevillian choice cuts, they stepped up to the plate and hit a grand slam.
The Alice Cooper Group — singer Vincent Furnier (known onstage as the titular Alice Cooper), guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith — got off to an inauspicious start with their underperforming first two albums, 1969's Pretties for You and 1970's Easy Action. But the shock-rockers' careers caught fire with the release of "I'm Eighteen," which bounded to No. 21 and pushed its accompanying album, 1971's Love It to Death, into the Top 40.
Alice Cooper kept up the momentum with Killer, which earned several rave reviews upon its November 1971 release but lacked a hit single on par with "I'm Eighteen." So when the band members regrouped to write their fifth album, they knew it was time to go for broke.
"Recording a conceptual album with any semblance of continuity while executing a major tour went smoother than we had imagined," Dunaway recalled in his 2015 autobiography Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs!: My Adventures in the Alice Cooper Group. "Fighting through a battlefield of distractions, School's Out got put together like a 5,000-piece puzzle on the dining room table."
Watch Alice Cooper Perform 'School's Out' in 1972
The nine-song jigsaw kicks off with its explosive title track, as pure a distillation of adolescent angst, rebellion and freedom as any committed to tape. Anchored by Buxton's buzz-saw lead guitar riff, Cooper's sneering vocal and a children's chorus coordinated by producer Bob Ezrin (who would later employ the same trick to great effect on Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall [Part II]"), "School's Out" captures "the greatest three minutes of your life," as the singer explained years later.
"There's two times during the year," Cooper said. "One is Christmas morning when you’re just getting ready to open the presents. The greed factor is right there. The other one is the last three minutes of the last day at school. … You're sitting there, and it's like a slow fuse burning. I said, 'If we can catch that three minutes in a song, it's going to be so big.'"
Cooper's prophecy proved true, as "School's Out" reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and shot to No. 1 in the U.K. Not that there was ever a doubt in the singer's mind.
"When we did 'School's Out,' I knew we had just done the national anthem. I've become the Francis Scott Key of the last day of school," Cooper told Esquire in 2009. He was so sure of the song's potential that he told Ezrin, "If this isn't a hit, I might as well start selling shoes."
The rest of School's Out gives equal space to Alice Cooper's brawny, metallic garage rock and decadent theatrics. "I'm swimming in blood like a rat on a sewer floor," Cooper snarls on the slinky "Luney Tune," and he flexes his lifelong delinquent status and reinforces the album's school motif on the bluesy, cocksure "Public Animal #9." On the other end of the spectrum, the jazzy, licentious "Blue Turk" bristles with seedy, after-hours nightclub menace, while the cinematic "Gutter Cat vs. the Jets" interpolates "Jet Song" from West Side Story (and the 53-second instrumental "Street Fight" reflects the melee between the rival gangs).
Listen to Alice Cooper's 'Gutter Cat vs. the Jets'
"Our band was not as much influenced by the blues as we were by West Side Story and Guys and Dolls, James Bond and horror movies. We didn't mind that seeping into our music," Cooper told MusicRadar in 2013. "I didn't mind doing the Jets song. Again, it's what we were. You know, in a lot of kids' cases, we were the closest thing they'd ever get to seeing a play or something on Broadway. I thought putting West Side Story in would inspire people – you know, 'What is this thing they're doing?' In the era we were in, that was a really big deal, and we thought it was cool."
The clever packaging for School's Out matches the LP's musical wit. The album cover features the band members' names and initials carved into a desk, and the jacket flips up to reveal a slingshot, switchblade, comic book, quiz and other classroom paraphernalia hidden inside the desk.
And just to hammer home the air of winking juvenile subject matter, the record was wrapped in a pair of women's underwear rather than a standard paper sleeve (though this was discontinued on later pressings after the underwear was found to be flammable).
It was a perfect storm of brains, brawn and braggadocio, and School's Out climbed to No. 2 on the Billboard 200, quickly going gold and later platinum. Alice Cooper had scored their breakthrough hit, and they were now bringing their jaw-dropping stage show to packed arenas in every city. The success of School's Out would soon be dwarfed by 1972's chart-topping Billion Dollar Babies — and before long, it would all be eclipsed by drinking, drugs, dysfunction and the demise of the original Alice Cooper Group. But for now, they were all too busy enjoying their proverbial best three minutes to care.