EPIC REVIEW TIME.
ALICE COOPER – Constrictor (1986 MCA)
Alice Cooper’s bizarre DaDa album was the end of an era. It marked the last album Alice recorded for his Warner Brothers contract, now complete. It was also the end of his experimental period that ran from 1980’s Flush the Fashion through to DaDa. It was the the last album Alice would make that he couldn’t remember making.
Alice mostly disappeared for the next three years. His activities were so low key that most people didn’t even notice them. He was hospitalized for cirrhosis of the liver caused by his blackout drinking. He got sober, for good. He also dealt with a divorce. Musically there was very little going on. In 1984, Alice starred in a very low budget horror movie called Monster Dog. He recorded two songs for the soundtrack: “Identity Crisises” and “See Me in the Mirror”. These two tracks are very much the conclusion to Alice’s early 80’s art-rock persona. “Identity Crisises” has a lo-fi, garage-y Iggy Pop sound. “See Me in the Mirror” is in the synthpop direction of DaDa: creepy, atmospheric and mostly electronic. These two songs were finally released for purchase on the legendary Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper boxed set in 1999.
Alice next emerged with one of the bands he inspired: Twisted Sister. Along with Brian Setzer, Clarence Clemens and Billy Joey, Cooper accompanied Twisted Sister on their single “Be Chrool to Your Scuel”. A very clever zombie-filled big budget horror-inspired music video was made for the song, which Alice co-starred in, as did Bobcat Golthwait (who was also in Sister’s “Leader of the Pack” clip). It should have been a big deal, with Alice getting equal screen time with Dee Snider. Unfortunately hardly anyone saw the video. MTV barely touched it. As a result it did nothing to aid Alice in terms of a comeback. It was good to note that Alice looked healthier than he had in years.
Alice regrouped and re-invented himself in a new persona. Taking inspiration from his Welcome to My Nightmare period, Alice went into “slasher film” mode. He recruited a massive muscle-bound heavy metal guitarist and songwriter, Kane Roberts, to be his co-pilot for this adventure. Also along for the ride was a hot new bassist and singer named Kip Winger, whose large mane hid the fact that the man was a classically trained musician. With producer Beau Hill, they made an album in tune with what was happening in 1986, and that meant heavy metal. Alice had always been a diverse, experimental artist, but this time the mission was pretty simple and the lines were clear.
Another horror film served to launch the next official Alice Cooper music: Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. Alice appeared in a brief cameo, but more importantly contributed two new songs to the movie soundtrack. They were the anthem “Hard Rock Summer”, and “He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask)”, which served as the movie’s theme song. “Hard Rock Summer” was a bit of a throwaway, and was not used on the next Alice album. You can really hear the backing vocals of Kip Winger and Kane Roberts on it, but a classic it is not. “He’s Back”, and its very cool music video became synonymous with this new period of Alice Cooper’s life.
The new album, Constrictor, was finally released in September of ’86. With a snake in his mouth on the cover (not really; you can see it’s cheaply cut and pasted) it was pretty clear that Cooper was going for the scares. Opening track “Teenage Frankenstein” continues the horror theme, but combines it with Alice’s teen anthem style from the early 1970’s. “Teenage Frankenstein” is essentially an “I’m 18” for 1986. It’s not as memorable, inventive, or as good, but it gets the job done. It’s an Alice Cooper heavy metal anthem for pounding your fist to in concert. In lieu of a proper music video, a clip from his live show The Nightmare Returns was used, featuring Alice building a living robot monster on stage, which then turns against him! Alice was still one of the best live acts in the world.
It’s funny that DaDa is remembered as Alice’s “drum machine” album when it’s clear on “Give it Up” that a lot of the beats are programs and samples. “Give it Up” is a radio friendly hard rocker, nondescript but at its core not that different from the music Alice made in the 70’s. It’s even has some rock and roll piano. It’s just dressed up for the 80’s. There’s not much going on with “Thrill My Gorilla”, just a forgettable song with the shrill production that was so popular in the 80’s. Much better is the somewhat epic “Life and Death of the Party”. Slower, creepier and much more effective, “Life and Death of the Party” is the kind of song I like to point to as proof there was some mighty good material during this period. Unfortunately “Simple Disobedience” isn’t among that material. Like “Thrill My Gorilla”, there is little here to attract listeners today. The electronics and samples really are a drag. It is like there is a layer of distraction over the song that you have to penetrate through.
Flipping the record over (or pretending to since I own this on CD), “The World Needs Guts” isn’t a bad start to the second side. It could have been much heavier. It verges on the speedy power metal tendencies of bands like Accept, but the production keeps it from going all the way. As such it kind of sounds like a thin Judas Priest Turbo outtake with the synths stripped off. “Trick Bag” may sound familiar. It actually started life as “He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask)”. There’s a demo version of “He’s Back” on the aforementioned Alice Cooper box set musically identical to “Trick Bag”. “He’s Back” was re-written, but the original music ended up as “Trick Bag”. It’s a decent album track but like much of Constrictor not particularly classic. “Crawlin'” is pretty close. With all the melody and hooks of an old 70’s Alice Cooper track circa Goes to Hell, “Crawlin'” is pretty good stuff.
“The Great American Success Story” is fantastic for two reasons. One is that it was originally written for the Rodney Dangerfield classic Back to School. Second, it’s like an updated “School’s Out” for the 80’s. Instead of celebrating the end of school, this time we are celebrating going to school. “He’s gonna take that plunge, gonna jump back in there.” Which, if you’ve seen the movie, you know is also a reference to Dangerfield’s character joining the diving team. “He thinks about the teacher in his literary class,” and I don’t blame him; it was Sally Kellerman! “Always been a brat, don’t get no respect” is another obvious reference to Dangerfield. But it’s a good song! It really should have been a single, and it probably would have been if it were in the movie.
Closing the album, we go full circle back to Friday the 13th and “He’s Back”. There’s little question that “He’s Back” is the best song on Constrictor. It actually bears more similarity to the synth-pop of DaDa than it does to the rest of the album. It’s brilliant because they stripped the song down to a very basic frame, which is a creepy digital pulse. There’s a little guitar but it’s mostly just horror pop of the finest quality. Ch-ch-ch-ha-ha-ha…don’t turn out the lights.
Part of the problem with Constrictor is that Alice had a faceless, fairly bland group backing him. Kane Roberts can play guitar, and Kip Winger can play the bass, but did they have their own identities? No. Dennis Dunaway played bass on those early Alice Cooper albums like no other bassist in the world. Michael Bruce, Steve Hunter, Dick Wagner, and the other great players Alice worked with all had their own sound. There is none of that on Constrictor.
I want to give Alice and company an A for effort: for finally getting sober, for finally getting back there on tour, and also for going heavy this time. Unfortunately Constrictor was a comeback album that needed a bit more comeback in it. The good news is that Alice did eventually get back to full quality, but Constrictor is only about half an album. Therefore: