Classic Albums Revisited: BILLION DOLLAR BABIES

Alice Cooper made “sick in the head” an art form. Before Marilyn Manson, before rap music was making parents shit themselves…there was Alice. A lot of people plop Cooper into the same category as Ozzy–bumbling, brutish, pseudo-satanic weirdos. But Cooper is much more than that, he’s more dangerous than Ozzy, because unlike the “Oz-man,” Cooper is actually very well-read, smart, and witty.

Snakeskin...dollar babies...

I know, some of you reading this will think I’m crazy. Maybe you’ll think I’m being overly generous, but listening to BILLION DOLLAR BABIES, Alice Cooper’s fifth (and greatest) album–I had to look some stuff up. For instance, do you know who Saint Vitus is? I didn’t either, but Cooper makes a passing reference to him in “Unfinished Sweets,” the album’s fifth track. I had to look it up. Turns out Vitus was this dude who is supposed to have driven a demon from this Roman Emperor’s son. He was drove the demon away and was killed (because he wouldn’t renounce his Christianity). Before performing this task (and then being rewarded with death) Vitus is said to have been tortured by his father (who was a Roman Senator and wasn’t cool with his son’s religious views).

Or something like that. The point is, Cooper put this strange, educated reference into a song about being tortured in a dentist’s chair.

Alice Cooper’s popularity was at an all time high in 1973. The band’s last album SCHOOL’S OUT, had been the band’s biggest hit and catapulted them into the ranks of rock glory. BILLION DOLLAR BABIES was the follow-up record, and proved to be more popular than SCHOOL’S OUT, spawning four hit singles.

While not quite metal, Cooper walked a thin line between hard-rock and mainstream rock ‘n roll on BILLION DOLLAR BABIES. The songs are darker sounding, the guitars are heavier than what most people think of as typical 70’s rock. But beyond being “heavy” or just being loud…Cooper was very theatrical. There is this sinister, “evil-carnival” type vibe flowing throughout the album. I’ll admit, some of it is ridiculous. Some of it is even pretty damn stupid. But most of it is kinda awesome, like one of those cheesy black-and-white rubber monster movies. BILLION DOLLAR BABIES works because Cooper is smirking through the coarse growls and dark ambiance.

Let’s talk first, though about the track that most disturbed me: “Mary-Ann.” This song is a freakishly-normal sounding love song. It comes in near the end of the record, just after the absurdly dark/satanic-ish “Sick Things” (which I’ll get to). “Mary-Ann” is a breath of seemingly-fresh air. Think 1930’s piano ballad or early Elton John. But somewhere, something goes wrong and the about half-way through the song (after going on and on about how much he loves his girl Mary-Ann), Cooper wails: “Mary-Ann…I thought you were my man!” The first few times I listened to the song, I totally missed this. Before your brain can make sense of this bizarre phrasing (or is it a revelation?) the song degrades into a funky-fucked up piano solo that starts sweetly in heaven before dropping back down to Earth (where is stutters and dies).

It’s a short, two minute song…but it freaks the hell out of you at three AM…when you’re wearing headphones and the lights are out. That’s the power of Cooper–he can make the most innocent thing strange and sorta creepy/terrifying. And yet, at the same time he can take something godawful, something repugnant…like say, necrophilia and make it happy and sunny like on “I Love the Dead.” This song, which is both unabashedly about violating corpses (and yet very innocent for the most part, lyrically) is also very up-beat sounding. There’s a strange, explosive sing-a-long quality to “I Love the Dead” that makes you…smile. It’s damn near a Beatles song at the end, it’s so fucking sunny. And yet, it’s about fucking someones dead loved one: “While friends and lovers mourn your silly grave/I have other uses for you, Darling.” There’s a beautiful horn and string arrangement at the end (there’s also a sick groaning sound, too). I know, intellectually, I should find this song horrid…but I love it. That, too, is the power of Cooper.

BILLION DOLLAR BABIES opens with “Hello Horray!” which pretty much sets the scene for the entire forty minutes of the album. The song is the declaration of a mad carnival barker, the loudmouth announcer who’s preparing himself as much as he is his captive audience (“I’ve been waiting so long for this thing to come/Yeah-I’ve been thinking so long I was the only one”). “Hello Horray!” also mentions the “American Dream” which is a theme that Cooper seems preoccupied with at various times throughout the album (most notably “Elected” which I’ll attend to in a moment). It’s as though “Hello Horray!” is a kind of cry to everyone–including the disenfranchised (youth) of America. Cooper’s swagger, his affirmation that “God, I’m so strong” at the end of the song appears to be brash arrogance…but by the end of BILLION DOLLAR BABIES you realize it’s not arrogance, it’s a natural fact.

I haven’t talked much about the music of this album–BILLION DOLLAR BABIES is very much a “guitar” album. There is some killer guitar work on this record. The title track “Billion Dollar Babies” (which yes, was in GUITAR HERO 2) is the most technically impressive track on the record, but the album abounds with awesome (and catchy) guitar licks. Cooper’s band is not big on the guitar solo (which was HUGE in the 1970s), expect on “Billion Dollar Babies” which is like 80% solo.

“Billion Dollar Babies” is a fucking fantastic song. Again, it’s not so much anyone thing that makes this song so creepy–it’s everything added up. First off, there’ s the creepy lyrics. I have no idea what this song is about (Cooper makes another reference to the “billion dollar babies” in a later track, “Generation Landslide”) but the lyrics are all “attics” and “moonlight.” There are some weird images too, like “Rubber little lady, slicker than a weasel.” Uh, okay. The song is supposed to be about the dangers of over-indulgence…but I don’t see it.

But anyway, back to it being creepy.

“Billion Dollar Babies” is also so strange because it’s a duet–between Alice and Donovan (yes, the dude that sang “Mellow Yellow” and “Sunshine Superman”). Donovan’s sweet, angelic voice combined with Cooper’s creepy growl makes for an unusual pairing…that both delights and unnerves. This mixed with a blistering guitar tone, makes “Billion Dollar Babies” truly awesome…and really messed up. It’s one of those things that must be heard to be understood.

“Elected” is Cooper at his most satirical, taking a stab at both vanity and the American political machine. This song sounds like a strange-hybrid of the Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil” and The Ramones “I Wanna Be Sedated.” There’s a brilliant, chugging guitar lick that pervades the song (along with Cooper’s trademark howl). Supposedly, this song is a reworking of an older song “Reflected” (but as I am unfamiliar with this song, I cannot comment directly on this). What I can say is that the song is, in the words of my uncle “the perfect November song.” Though he never says “president” in the song, it’s inferred that Cooper is demanding that he be elected Commander-in-Chief. It’s surreal to hear a man how sings about corpses croon that he wants to be elected President. Once again, like on “Hello Hooray!” Cooper seems to be reaching out for that all-important disenfranchised youth rock-demographic. He calls out that “Kids need a savior, don’t need a fake” and that “I never lied to you, I’ve always been cool.”

Indeed.

My personal favorite off BILLION DOLLAR BABIES is probably the record’s most famous single, “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” First off, this song has an awesome Stone-ish vibe right at the beginning. It’s instantly recognizable, and awesome. “No More Mr. Nice Guy” is a great satirical stab at Cooper’s own infamy. I love all the crazy, outlandish things that happen to him because people think “he’s sick, he’s obscene.” Like the reverend punching him on the nose in Church. Or how his own dog turned on him (and bit him in the leg). Not to mention how his parents have been effected (his dad’s in hiding and his mom was kicked out of the “society circle”). Awesome chorus. Awesome chorus. This song is catchy and insane (and I love the fact that he’s only now bad because the world has made him that way). “No More Mr. Nice Guy” is fantastic and definitely on the best songs Alice Cooper ever recorded.

Speaking of catchy, “Generation Landslide” is super-catchy. The song, which as mentioned before is the second on the album to mention “billion dollar babies” is about spoiled rich kids. The song is also noteworthy of the guitar solo at the end (which as mentioned before are kinda rare on the album). The album’s other two tracks, “Raped and Freezing” and “Sick Things” are both two differing examples of Cooper’s bizarre songwriting. “Raped and Freezing” is a more traditional rock-story-song about a role-reversals (Cooper’s narrator-character ends up getting raped and left “naked, stranded in Chihuahua.” Meanwhile, “Sick Things” is a strange near-spoken-word song that’s really freaky…and is apparently, about…sick…things??? I haven’t a clue. Honestly, I think this song is a bit of a turkey.

But hey, nine out of ten ain’t bad. That’s a 90% (which is an A-). So Cooper makes the grade.

One final note, about “Alice Cooper” vs. “The Alice Cooper Band.” You may have noticed that earlier in this essay, I referred to this album’s artist in both the singular and the plural near the beginning. The reason for this is because, in the beginning, Alice Cooper was the band’s name (and not just it’s lead singer’s stage name). BILLION DOLLAR BABIES is the final album of Alice Cooper THE BAND (as it was originally formed). Alice Cooper the man went on to make a bunch of records, but not with the same backing band.

Just thought I should clear that up. As a youngster I was often confused when I heard people say “Alice Cooper were great” or “I like The Alice Cooper Band.” Both of these things sound weird (especially coming from the mouth of a drunk person) but actually make sense when you are aware that…oh, never mind…you get it…

So, what does it all mean? Well, bottom line: BILLION DOLLAR BABIES is an interesting romp through the strange, dark, wilderness of rock. It’s a fantastic October album (though it is a good November album, too) because it’s plenty spooky. BILLION DOLLAR BABIES is also an interesting historical piece. It’s funny to listen to it because, compared to much of what I hear–it’s actually very tame. Unlike the “dumb” wrap that most music like this gets, Alice Cooper (the man and the band) are pretty clever and merge rock with the theatrical unlike any band this side of Queen.

BILLION DOLLAR BABIES is essential rock. Period.

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One thought on “Classic Albums Revisited: BILLION DOLLAR BABIES

  1. Alan says:

    Hi. Just found this page and thought it worth pointing out that, firstly, Sabbath did a song named St Vitus Dance. This reference, in both cases, is actually about a disorder involving nervous ticks (most noticably on the face), so no prior knowledge of the story of St Vitus (who quite possibly never even existed) is necessary, in either case.
    But it is a great album, nevertheless.

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