ALICE COOPER / HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES – Hollywood Vampires (2015 Universal Japan)
Ignore the hype. The press has been going ga-ga over this new supergroup featuring movie star Johnny Depp (rhythm guitar), Joe Perry (lead guitar), and Alice Cooper (lead vocals). Just ignore the hype completely. Cooper fans know what this is. This is the covers album that Alice has been talking about doing ever since Welcome 2 My Nightmare in 2011. Alice has even been playing a number of these tunes, in these arrangements, live. Check out his Raise the Dead double live album/video for a few.
According to an interview with Ultimate Classic Rock earlier this year, “I can’t tell you who’s on what right now, ’cause it’s not gonna be released yet, but it’s the ‘who’s who’ of everything. It was one of those things where, at one point, I’m looking around in the studio and I’m going, ‘Holy crap! Look who’s in the studio.” Bob Ezrin, Alice’s long-time producer and musical collaborator came up with the concept. Alice continues: “Bob came up with the idea, ‘Let’s concentrate it on all the guys that you drank with in L.A., the Hollywood Vampires, the ones that are all dead.’ I like the title All My Dead Drunk Friends. It’s just offensive enough to work, but all those guys would have totally got it. They had the same sense of humor. If you told them you were going to do an album after they were gone called All My Dead Drunk Friends, they would have died laughing.” Ultimately the album was simply called Hollywood Vampires. That’s also the name of this “supergroup” which is essentially just Alice with Depp and guests.
I have this album filed in my Alice Cooper section, and that’s how I’m treating this review.
Hollywood Vampires consists of 14 tracks, except in Japan who have 15. Two of these are brand-new songs, and one is an intro called “The Last Vampire”. Fittingly, this features the narration of Sir Christopher Lee, who passed away earlier this year. Lee’s old friend from the Hammer horror days, Vincent Price, appeared on Cooper’s original Welcome to my Nightmare in 1975. Today, Alice Cooper truly is the last vampire left from those old days. Lee’s rich voice is backed by spooky keys and theremin by Ezrin, Depp and engineer Justin Cortelyou. “Listen to them, children of the night…what music they make.”
Alice then kicks it with “Raise the Dead”. Depp appears on every track, and Alice’s drummer Glen Sobol plays on this one and several others. It’s an upbeat stomper of a track, and a perfect introduction to this covers album that is also a concept album. The first of Alice’s dead drunk friends to be covered is Keith Moon on “My Generation”, an authentic and pounding version. Alice Cooper is one of the few that does justice to it. Bassist Bruce Witkin perfectly tackles John Entwistle’s signature bass solo. One thing that is immediately obvious is how massive this album sounds. Ezrin wrought a monster-sounding disc, so full and heavy, but textured when required.
John Bonham is up next. “Whole Lotta Love” was handled in a completely different way than you’d expect. Starting as a low, prowling Cooper blues it soon blasts into gear. Alice isn’t known for hitting those high Plant notes, so who joins him? None other than Brian Johnson of AC/DC, who kicks my ass completely. Joe Walsh and Cooper’s former lead guitarist Orianthi play some jaw droppingly greasy guitars, but Alice’s harmonica work is also worthy of praise! Even though very few can cover Led Zeppelin, “Whole Lotta Love” turned out to be my favourite track. It’s also the heaviest sounding, like a skid of concrete blocks assaulting your face! That’s Zak Starkey (son of Ringo) on drums.
Cooper has covered “I Got a Line on You” (Spirit) before, on the soundtrack to Iron Eagle 3, of all things. That 1988 take is my preferred version, but Alice remade it on Hollywood Vampires. Abe Laboriel Jr., Joe Walsh, and Alice’s old bassist Kip Winger join as guests. Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction helps Alice out on the lead vocals, but his part isn’t prominent. Then it’s time for the Doors, and a medley of “Five to One” and “Break on Through”. Alice had been playing “Break on Through” live, but this version has Robby Krieger! Alice heavies both of them up, but he is also one of the few singers who can do Morrison.
Farrell and Krieger return for a Harry Nilsson medley, joined by David E. Grohl on drums. “One” is rendered as a haunting, creepy piece as if Alice himself wrote it. This merges into “Jump Into the Fire”, a strangely upbeat companion which rocks in a vintage 70’s fashion. It’s like guitar nirvana. There’s also a cute outro of “Coconut”, also by Nilsson.
Sir Paul himself, rock royalty if there ever was one, shows up for Badfinger’s “Come and Get It”, which Paul wrote. Joe Perry has spoken about how incredible it was when McCartney showed up in the studio with his Hofner bass, and actually allowed them to hold it! “Come and Get It” is simple rock/pop, not the kind of timeless thing that happened when Paul wrote with John, but certainly a notch above what mere mortals can write. I love hearing Paul’s “screaming” voice, and I’m sure everybody in the studio had a great time. Sure sounds that way.
Marc Bolan’s “Jeepster” is one I could pass on. Alice makes it sound like an original from 1972’s School’s Out, but if you’re only going to skip one song, it’s probably going to be “Jeepster”. Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” featuring Joe Perry has more kick and grind to it, and it’s always a pleasure to hear Joe Perry do some Aero-jammin’ on lead guitar. (I think it would have been amazing to get McCartney to play bass on this Lennon classic — shame nobody thought of it. That could have been history made.)
The Japanese bonus track is “I’m A Boy”, the second Who cover. Once again, Alice nails it. This is such a difficult song to attempt. Alice makes it work, and if anybody can do it, it’s Alice. “My name is Alice I’m a head-case…” Just that one change makes the song work. “I’m a boy, I’m a boy, but my mom won’t admit it…I’m a boy, but if I say I am, I get it.” And he’s got the girl’s name. It’s perfect! This bonus track is worth tracking down if you’re a Cooper fan. You’ll definitely need it in your collection.
Jimi Hendrix was a Hollywood Vampire, and “Manic Depression” is the song Alice chose to cover. (He’d already done “Fire” back in the Hey Stoopid days.) Like “Jeepster”, this is one that could be skipped. Joe Walsh fans will enjoy his lead guitar work, but otherwise, it’s a stock cover. Way, way better is “Itchycoo Park”. Alice’s treatment of the Small Faces is far more entertaining, and its melodic base continue to deliver the hooks.
Brian Johnson returns to belt it out on the “School’s Out”/”Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” medley. This arrangement is similar to the way Alice did it live, and it’s cool how the two songs work together perfectly. It’s a genius mashup. Guests include Slash, and original Cooper band members Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith. “School’s Out”, of course, is here for Glen Buxton, of the original Alice Cooper band. Buxton had suffered the consequences of alcohol abuse, and dropped out of music completely when the original band split in ’74. Buxton died in 1997.
The final song is an original, “My Dead Drunk Friends,” the song that Alice wanted to use as a title track. If you don’t mind some black comedy, you will love this tribute to all the lost Hollywood Vampires. It’s irresistible, and also sounds vintage Alice. So chants the crowd: “We drink and we fight and we fight and we puke and we puke and we fight and we drink!” Doesn’t sound particularly glamorous, but Alice isn’t about to have a mournful wake. Alice is about entertainment, and even though a brilliant artist who drinks themselves to death is sad, Alice has thrown a party for them instead. “My Dead Drunk Friends” ends the party on a darkly celebrating note, as only he can. Job well done.
Hollywood Vampires is pleasantly surprising. 9/10 covers albums are not worth the money you paid for them. Alice’s is. They call it a supergroup for marketing purposes but it only takes one listen to know what this is. This is a project that Alice, Bob Ezrin and friends have been passionate about for years, and has finally been finished. It is an apt follow-up to Welcome 2 My Nightmare, and another killer concept album from the kings of concept albums.