Alice Cooper (born Vincent Damon Furnier; February 4, 1948) is an American singer, songwriter, and actor whose career spans over fifty years. With his distinctive raspy voice and a stage show that features guillotines, electric chairs, fake blood, deadly snakes, baby dolls, and dueling swords, Cooper is considered by music journalists and peers alike to be “The Godfather of Shock Rock”. He has drawn equally from horror films, vaudeville, and garage rock to pioneer a macabre and theatrical brand of rock designed to shock people.
Originating in Phoenix, Arizona, in the late 1960s after he moved from Detroit, Michigan, “Alice Cooper” was originally a band consisting of Furnier on vocals and harmonica, Glen Buxton on lead guitar, Michael Bruce on rhythm guitar, Dennis Dunaway on bass guitar, and Neal Smith on drums. The original Alice Cooper band released its first album in 1969 but broke into the international music mainstream with the 1971 hit “I’m Eighteen” from their third studio album Love It to Death, which was followed by the even bigger single “School’s Out” from the album of the same name in 1972. The band reached their commercial peak with the 1973 album Billion Dollar Babies.
Furnier adopted the band’s name as his own name in the 1970s and began a solo career with the 1975 concept album Welcome to My Nightmare. In 2011, the original Alice Cooper band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Expanding from his Detroit rock roots, Cooper has experimented with a number of musical styles, including art rock, hard rock, heavy metal, new wave, glam metal, pop rock, experimental rock, and industrial rock.
Cooper is known for his sociable and witty personality offstage, with The Rolling Stone Album Guide calling him the world’s most “beloved heavy metal entertainer”. He is credited with helping to shape the sound and look of heavy metal, and has been described as the artist who “first introduced horror imagery to rock’n’roll, and whose stagecraft and showmanship have permanently transformed the genre”. Away from music, Cooper is a film actor, a golfing celebrity, a restaurateur, and, since 2004, a popular radio DJ with his classic rock show Nights with Alice Cooper.
Cooper was born in Detroit, Michigan, the son of Ether Moroni Furnier (1924–1987) and his wife Ella Mae, née McCart, (born 1925). His father was an Evangelist in The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite)headquartered in Monongahela, Pennsylvania. He has English, Huguenot French, Irish, Scottish, and Sioux ancestry. He was named after his uncle, Vincent Collier Furnier, and the writer Damon Runyon. His paternal grandfather, Thurman Sylvester Furnier, was an apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ.
Cooper was active in his church at the ages of 11 and 12. While growing up in Detroit, Cooper attended Washington Elementary School, then Nankin Mills Jr. High. Following a series of childhood illnesses, he moved with his family to Phoenix, Arizona, where he attended Cortez High School. In his high school yearbook, his ambition was to be “A million record seller.” After High School, he attended Glendale Community College, eventually earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts.
In 1964, 16-year-old Furnier was eager to participate in the local annual Cortez High School Letterman’s talent show, so he gathered four fellow cross-country teammates to form a group for the show: Glen Buxton, Dennis Dunaway, John Tatum and John Speer. They named themselves the Earwigs. They dressed up in costumes and wigs to resemble the Beatles, and performed several parodies of Beatles songs, with the lyrics modified to refer to the track team: in their rendition of “Please Please Me”, for example, the line “Last night I said these words to my girl” was replaced with “Last night I ran four laps for my coach”. Of the group, only Buxton knew how to play an instrument—the guitar—so Buxton played guitar while the rest mimed on their instruments. The group got an overwhelming response from the audience and won the talent show. As a result of their positive experience, the group decided to try to turn into a real band. They acquired musical instruments from a local pawn shop and proceeded to learn how to play them, with Buxton doing most of the teaching, as well as much of the early songwriting. They soon renamed themselves the Spiders, featuring Furnier on vocals, Buxton on lead guitar, Tatum on rhythm guitar, Dunaway on bass guitar, and Speer on drums. Musically, the group was inspired by artists such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Doors, and the Yardbirds. For the next year, the band performed regularly around the Phoenix area with a huge black spider’s web as their backdrop, the group’s first stage prop.
In 1965, the Spiders recorded their first single, “Why Don’t You Love Me” (originally performed by the Blackwells), with Furnier learning the harmonica for the song. The single’s B-side track was the Marvin Gaye Tamla Records hit “Hitch Hike”. The single was released by local record label Mascot Records, owned by Jack Curtis, a concert promoter who also owned the Stage 7 teen club, which later became the VIP Club where the Spiders were the house band.
In 1966, the Spiders graduated from Cortez High School, and after North High School football player Michael Bruce replaced John Tatum on rhythm guitar, the band released their second single, “Don’t Blow Your Mind”, an original composition which became a local #1 hit, backed by “No Price Tag”. The single was recorded at Copper State Recording Studio and issued by local micro-imprint Santa Cruz Records.
By 1967, the band had begun to make regular road trips to Los Angeles to play shows. They soon renamed themselves Nazz and released the single “Wonder Who’s Lovin’ Her Now”, backed with future Alice Cooper track “Lay Down and Die, Goodbye”. Around this time, drummer John Speer was replaced by Neal Smith. By the end of the year, the band had relocated to Los Angeles.
In 1968, the band learned that Todd Rundgren also had a band called Nazz, and found themselves in need of another stage name. Furnier also believed that the group needed a gimmick to succeed, and that other bands were not exploiting the showmanship potential of the stage. The legend is that the name “Alice Cooper” came from a session with an Ouija board, largely chosen because it sounded innocuous and wholesome, in humorous contrast to the band’s image and music. However, in an interview with Mark Radcliffe on the Radcliffe and Maconie show on BBC Radio 2 on 30 November 2009, Alice described the incident with the Ouija board as an urban legend: “We literally got that whole story about the witch thing the way you guys got it. It was like a just pure urban legend. I heard about the witch thing probably the same day you did, but it was a great story.” “Alice Cooper” was a character on Mayberry R.F.D. (played by Alice Ghostley) at the time, probably coincidentally. Eventually, Furnier adopted this stage name as his own. Furnier, now known as Alice Cooper, later stated that the name change was one of his most important and successful career moves.
Nonetheless, at the time Cooper and the band realized that the concept of a male playing the role of a villain, a woman killer, in tattered women’s clothing and wearing make-up, would have the potential to cause considerable social controversy and grab headlines. In 2007 in his book Alice Cooper, Golf Monster Cooper stated that his look was inspired in part by the film. One of the band’s all-time favorite movies was What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? starring Bette Davis. “In the movie, Bette wears disgusting caked makeup smeared on her face and underneath her eyes, with deep, dark, black eyeliner.” Another movie the band watched over and over was Barbarella. “When I saw Anita Pallenberg playing the Great Tyrant in that movie in 1968, wearing long black leather gloves with switchblades coming out of them, I thought, ‘That’s what Alice should look like.’ That, and a little bit of Emma Peel from The Avengers.”
The classic Alice Cooper group lineup consisted of Furnier, lead guitarist Glen Buxton, rhythm guitarist Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway, and drummer Neal Smith. With the exception of Smith, who graduated from Camelback High School (which is referred to in the song “Alma Mater” on the album School’s Out), all of the band members were on the Cortez High School cross-country team, and many of Cooper’s stage effects were inspired by their cross-country coach, Emmett Smith (one of Smith’s class projects was to build a working guillotine for slicing watermelons). Cooper, Buxton, and Dunaway were also art students, and their admiration for the works of surrealist artists such as Salvador Dalí would further inspire their future stage antics.
One night after an unsuccessful gig at the Cheetah club in Venice, California, where the band emptied the entire room of patrons after playing just ten minutes, they were approached and enlisted by music manager Shep Gordon, who saw the band’s negative impact that night as a force that could be turned in a more productive direction. Shep then arranged an audition for the band with composer and renowned record producer Frank Zappa, who was looking to sign bizarre music acts to his new record label, Straight Records. For the audition, Zappa told them to come to his house “at 7 o’clock.” The band mistakenly assumed he meant 7 o’clock in the morning. Being woken up by a band willing to play that particular brand of psychedelic rock at seven in the morning impressed Zappa enough for him to sign them to a three-album deal. Another Zappa-signed act, the all-female GTOs, who liked to “dress the Cooper boys up like full-size Barbie dolls,” played a major role in developing the band’s early onstage look.
Cooper’s first album, Pretties for You (released in 1969), was eclectic and featured an experimental presentation of their songs in a psychedelic context. The musical connection with Zappa was apparent. The elements of the band’s fundamental sound are present, surrounded by unusual studio overdubs and effects. Although Pretties for You touched the US charts for one week at No. 193, it was ultimately a critical and commercial failure.
Alice Cooper’s “shock rock” reputation apparently developed almost by accident at first. An unrehearsed stage routine involving Cooper, a feather pillow, and a live chicken garnered attention from the press; the band decided to capitalize on the tabloid sensationalism, creating in the process a new subgenre, shock rock. Cooper claims that the infamous “Chicken Incident” at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival concert in September 1969 was an accident. A chicken somehow made its way onto the stage into the feathers of a feather pillow they would open during Cooper’s performance, and not having any experience around farm animals, Cooper presumed that, because the chicken had wings, it would be able to fly. He picked it up and threw it out over the crowd, expecting it to fly away. The chicken instead plummeted into the first few rows occupied by wheelchair users, who reportedly proceeded to tear the bird to pieces. The next day the incident made the front page of national newspapers, and Zappa phoned Cooper and asked if the story, which reported that he had bitten off the chicken’s head and drunk its blood on stage, was true. Cooper denied the rumor, whereupon Zappa told him, “Well, whatever you do, don’t tell anyone you didn’t do it.”
The band later claimed that this period was highly influenced by Pink Floyd, and especially the album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Glen Buxton said he could listen to Syd Barrett’s guitar for hours at a time.
During an interview for the program Entertainment USA in 1986, Cooper stunned interviewer Jonathan King by stating that the Yardbirds were his favorite band of all time. Perhaps King should not have been so taken aback, as Cooper had as far back as 1969 said that it was music from the mid-sixties, and particularly from British bands the Beatles, the Who, and the Rolling Stones, as well as the Yardbirds, that had the greatest influence on him. Cooper would later pay homage to the Who by singing “I’m A Boy” for A Celebration: The Music of Pete Townshend and The Who in 1994 at Carnegie Hall in New York, and performing a cover of “My Generation” on the Brutal Planet tour of 2000. During an interview with Ozzy Osbourne from radio program Nights with Alice Cooper on May 22, 2007, Cooper again affirmed his debt of gratitude to these bands, and to the Beatles in particular. During their discussion, Cooper and Osbourne bemoaned the often inferior quality of songwriting coming from contemporary rock artists. Cooper stated that in his opinion the cause of the problem was that certain modern bands “had forgotten to listen to the Beatles”.
On seeing shock rock pioneer Arthur Brown performing his US number two hit “Fire” in 1968, Cooper states, “Can you imagine the young Alice Cooper watching that with all his make-up and hellish performance? It was like all my Halloweens came at once!.” A 2014 article on Alice Cooper in The Guardian mentioned Arthur Brown and his flaming helmet, and stated, “British rock always was more theatrical than its US counterpart. Often this involved destruction or macabre gimmickry”, with Cooper responding, “That’s why most people thought we were British at first”.
Evidence of Cooper’s eclectic tastes in classic and contemporary rock music can be seen in the track listings of his radio show; in addition, when he appeared on the BBC Radio 2program Tracks of My Years in September 2007, he listed his favorite tracks of all time as being: “19th Nervous Breakdown” (1966) by the Rolling Stones; “Turning Japanese” (1980) by the Vapors; “My Sharona” (1979) by the Knack; “Beds Are Burning” (1987) by Midnight Oil; “My Generation” (1965) by the Who; “Welcome to the Jungle” (1987) by Guns N’ Roses; “Rebel Rebel” (1974) by David Bowie; “Over Under Sideways Down” (1966) by the Yardbirds; “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” (2003) by Jet; and “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) by the Beatles, and when he appeared on Desert Island Discs in 2010 he chose the songs “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” by the Yardbirds; “I Get Around” by the Beach Boys; “I’m a Boy” by the Who; “Timer” by Laura Nyro; “21st Century Schizoid Man” by King Crimson; “Been Caught Stealing” by Jane’s Addiction; “Work Song” by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and “Ballad of a Thin Man” by Bob Dylan.
Rob Zombie, the former frontman of White Zombie, claims his first “metal moment” was seeing Alice Cooper on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. Zombie has also claimed to have been heavily influenced by Cooper’s costumes. In a 1978 interview with Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan stated, “I think Alice Cooper is an overlooked songwriter”.
“I know the words to every Alice Cooper song. The fact is if you can call what I have a musical career, it all started with me miming to I’m Eighteen on a jukebox.”
John Lydon speaking in 2002
In the foreword to Alice Cooper’s CD retrospective box set The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper, John Lydon of the Sex Pistols pronounced Killer as the greatest rock album of all time, and in 2002 Lydon presented his own tribute program to Cooper on BBC radio. Lydon told the BBC that “I know the words to every Alice Cooper song. The fact is, if you can call what I have a musical career, it all started with me miming to ‘I’m Eighteen’ on a jukebox”.
The Flaming Lips are longtime Alice Cooper fans and used the bass line from “Levity Ball” (an early song from the 1969 release Pretties for You) for their song “The Ceiling Is Bending”. They also covered “Sun Arise” for an Alice Cooper tribute album. (Cooper’s version, which closes the album Love It to Death, was itself a cover of a Rolf Harris song.)
In 1999, Cleopatra Records released Humanary Stew: A Tribute to Alice Cooper featuring a number of contributions from rock and metal all-star collaborations, including Dave Mustaine, Roger Daltrey, Ronnie James Dio, Slash, Bruce Dickinson and Steve Jones Sonic.net described it as “intriguing combinations of artists and material” while Allmusic.com noted, “the novel approach will definitely hold interested listeners’ attention”.
A song by alternative rock group They Might Be Giants from their 1994 album John Henry entitled “Why Must I Be Sad?” mentions 13 Cooper songs, and has been described as being “from the perspective of a kid who hears all of his unspoken sadness given voice in the music of Alice Cooper; Alice says everything the kid has been wishing he could say about his alienated, frustrated, teenage world”.
Unlikely non-musician fans of Cooper have included Groucho Marx and Mae West, who both reportedly saw the early shows as a form of vaudeville revue, and artist Salvador Dalí, who on attending a show in 1973 described it as being surreal, and made a hologram, First Cylindric Chromo-Hologram Portrait of Alice Cooper’s Brain.