Behind the makeup lurks smart, rebellious music

March 07, 2001|By Ben Wener | Ben Wener,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Alice Cooper gets a bum rap.

Partly that's his own fault - no sooner had his macabre clowning reached its pinnacle than it became true clowning, the sort that found him enrapt with his own celebrity and making lousy albums that were one slice away from Andrew Lloyd Webber.

But there was a time when Alice was considered dangerous. Not by any kid, of course. But some adults thought him a scourge on the nation's youth. Even those just removed from their teen-age years couldn't quite fathom Alice's "art."

Which was the point. The failure of the previous decade's well-intentioned but laughable utopianism had left a big part of the new generation despondent and bored. Along comes a sick thing singing "Sick Things" to sick things. It made a sick sort of sense.

"Billion Dollar Babies" - Cooper's last great album, recently reissued by Rhino Records in a two-disc deluxe edition - topped the charts in spring 1973. Purists might argue that the band's leaner, earlier efforts are better - like the 1971 one-two strike of "Love It to Death" and "Killer."

For the mainstream fan, however, "Billion Dollar Babies" is the ultimate - and this many years on, it holds up as Cooper's sturdiest achievement.

True, many of his great hits ("I'm Eighteen," for instance) succeed because the antagonist's desperation is palpable; were the tracks tarted up any more, they'd be ridiculous.

But "Babies" is different. The album on which producer Bob Ezrin cut his bombast-rock teeth (hear this, then go play Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and discuss), it's not nearly the sellout some detractors claimed it was at the time.

At the same time, that enormous sound fits the cheesily dark mood of "Babies" perfectly. Songs about suburbia's soul-stripping uniformity needed to be over-the-top.

Yet the intelligence behind Alice's shining moment often goes overlooked. Smart rebellion can be an oxymoron, but it's inherent in the best anti-establishment rock, from the Beatles' "Revolution" to the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K." to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to Rage Against the Machine's "Guerrilla Radio." Anger for anger's sake goes nowhere fast.

And that's what Marilyn Manson, whose "Antichrist Superstar" pose almost went somewhere, never understood.

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