The last few times I’ve seen Alice Cooper, he’s been opening for another act. An appropriate reaction would be “Why?”, but watch Alice open a show and it becomes clear: He’s hungry. He loves to hide under other people’s beds—Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson and Motley Crue—and drag their assembled masses into his nightmare for a little while.
The nightmare has had to adapt a lot over the years. Alice doesn’t receive the same “chameleon” praise afforded to Bowie because although Alice has changed throughout the years, he remains distinctly himself, acting not like a chameleon, but as a snake, shedding his skin, wrapping around your neck, squeezing just hard enough to scare you.
As an example, let’s take a look at how “I’m Eighteen” has changed over the last 40 years. Links to performances are provided where appropriate and available—though I can make no guarantee as to how long they’ll be around.
STUDIO TRACK – 1971 Love it to Death
In the beginning “Alice Cooper” was a group–Michael Bruce and Glen Buxton on guitars, Dennis Dunaway on bass and Neal Smith on drums. They were the platonic ideal of a rock and roll group, deftly riding the line between danger and humor like few groups can, putting on shows with beheadings, chopped up baby dolls, homicidal dentists and—above all—loud guitars.
Though they released two albums on Frank Zappa’s Straight Records, the genuine foundation of the Alice Cooper concept was created with producer Bob Ezrin on their 1971 major label debut, Love it to Death. Rather than strip the away the cultivated weirdness on their two previous albums, Ezrin coaxed it into a Trojan Horse for the masses.
“I’m Eighteen” is teenage rage. It’s uncertainty bundled into a three minute pop song. The lack of high gain distortion on the guitars leaves room for variation. Dennis Dunaway–never content to simply play straight eighth notes on the root—snakes his bass line around the main riff, giving the illusion of chaos while being in complete control.
Alice—5 years removed from being eighteen—gives a raw, but tuneful performance, alternating between confusion and anger enough that the song sounds like a complaint until the end, when Alice lets you know how much he likes being in the “middle of life” (assuming he’d be dead by 36).
Live 1971 — Detroit Tubeworks
This live performance mirrors the studio track pretty closely. Alice is glammed up, wearing his spider eye makeup, producing a “wait, what kind of a man is named Alice?” response from anyone watching. Glen Buxton—who looks like he’s ready for a knife fight—lets a little more growl creep into this solo, drawing the entire band into the final rave-up.
Sidenote: This video really makes me want a cream colored SG with gold pickups, even though the salt in my sweat destroys gold hardware.
Live 1972 – Beat Club
This is five freaks in a bar fight with instruments. It’s perfect.
Alice’s persona morphed from gender bending curiosity to consummate degenerate—either very drunk or very good at pretending—his makeup taking on its most famous form, black eyes like a deranged mime and mouth lines like a ventriloquist dummy.
The band takes their time getting to the song, and by the end they make it sound as if they’ve figured out how to throw their instruments down the stairs in time and on key, while Alice sings “American Pie.” The music died and these guys killed it.
At that time, “American Pie” was a hit. Billboard lists it as the number 3 single of 1972.
Live 1973 – Good to See You Again, Alice Cooper
The Billion Dollar Babies tour represents the peak of the Alice Cooper Group—this is what happens when you give delinquents money for spitting in the face of society. The rave up and “American Pie” ending are still there, but now it’s a victory lap.
However, cracks were beginning to show. Alice ascended to superstar status, front and center with a spotlight on him the whole time—the rest of the Alice Cooper group looking like hired guns. To this end, it’s fitting that an actual hired gun–Mick Mashbir—was brought in on lead guitar to prop up an ailing Glen Buxton. The band played their last shows in 1974 and Alice went solo soon after.
Live 1975 – Welcome to My Nightmare Concert Film
Welcome to My Nightmare is the first Alice Cooper solo album/tour, bringing with it a band of professional studio musicians led by the guitar team of Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter. Producer Bob Ezrin had previously used the duo on Lou Reed’s Berlin album. The result sounds like all the Roger Corman AIP Poe pictures got together and started a band. It even has a cameo from Vincent Price.
On tour, the absurd decadence of Billion Dollar Babies is replaced by a gothic majesty. Rather than spitting in faces, Alice invites everyone to follow him through a rock and roll haunted house. As such, this “Eighteen” sounds less like a street gang and more like a monster rampaging through the village, bringing it in line with the Nightmare heavy set.
Alice sings a little more and shoves fewer things into his crotch, even putting on a varsity sweater to let you know he’s an alright guy. Though it feels strange to say this about a show with a necrophilia set piece, this is Alice taking a big step toward the mainstream.
Live 1977 – The Alice Cooper Show
There was no tour for the Nightmare follow-up album, Alice Cooper Goes to Hell. The reason given at the time was “anemia”, which is PR speak for “alcoholism.” Alice didn’t hit the stage again until 1977, embarking on the King of the Silver Screen Tour in support of the detective themed Lace and Whiskey album.
Alice against a noir setting was a great idea that didn’t see proper execution, probably due to Alice’s continuing “anemia.” No live footage exists of “Eighteen” from this time**, but Alice did release a live album, The Alice Cooper Show, featuring the same setup as the Nightmare tour. This performance carries over much of the Nightmare stomp and features great solos, but the atmosphere is gone.
**Pro-shot live footage of the Lace and Whiskey tour does exist, but the Alice Cooper and Friends home video release is so bad it never saw re-release. It’s depressing and sad in all the wrong ways. If you absolutely hunger for Lace and Whiskey-era footage, here’s Alice getting upstaged by some dancing chickens on the Tonight Show.
Live 1979 – The Strange Case of Alice Cooper
Back in the days before the Betty Ford Clinic, if one wanted drug and alcohol rehab, one checked themself into a sanitarium. After the first leg of the King of the Silver Screen tour, Alice did just that. Then, as artists are wont to do, he made an album about it, 1978’s From the Inside.
For the tour, Alice maintained most of the Nightmare band, with Davey Johnstone taking over for Dick Wagner on guitar. The tour was presented as a document of Alice’s experience over the past few years, opening with him—via “magic screen” —jumping out of a vodka bottle and onto the stage. Here, “Eighteen” is presented as a combination of the more theatrical versions of recent years and the gang fight looseness of the original.
This tour also marks the debut of Alice using a crutch as a prop during the song. Unfortunately, he looks like he really needs it. He isn’t in great voice here, talk singing his way through the song and having trouble connecting more than two words in a single breath. Given the fact that he just got out of the sanitarium, you want to cut him a little slack. Plus, he has tons of energy, showing more stage presence than he had in years. Unfortunately, as confirmed by the recent Super Duper Alice Cooper documentary, both the voice problems and the energy came from the same place: cocaine.
“Live” 1981 – Paris Special
Alice ushered in the 80s with a pair of post-punk/new wave albums, Flush the Fashion and Special Forces. Alice’s makeup— heavy eye shadow and a permanently arched brow—brings back some of the gender blurring of the early 70s, while adding a paramilitary feel influenced by the Iranian hostage crisis (his band was introduced as “Hostage Fever”).
This is one of my favorite versions, because it’s so bizarre. If The Cars ever covered “Eighteen”, this is what it would sound like. What used to be chaos is now controlled, as evidenced by the sharp pauses before the first verse. The backbeat stays lockstep and mechanical, but the solos provide a nice, raw contrast making the whole thing a fun experiment.
However, the fun is tempered by the fact that Alice looks terrible and would go one to refer to Special Forces as the first of his three “blackout” albums, having no memory of making them. In fact, he didn’t even tour for the next two albums—Zipper Catches Skin and DaDa—and has never played anything from them live.
Live 1986 – The Nightmare Returns
When Alice made his sober comeback in 1986, he found an environment hospitable to the growth of the Alice Cooper character. Bands who cut their teeth on Alice Cooper records had dragged metal into pop culture and slasher films were big business, setting the stage for a more vicious, sadistic Alice Cooper. Alice was no longer trapped in a nightmare; now he was king of the nightmares.
Alice kept a little of the military look of Special Forces by hiring Rambo on guitar. Guitarist Kane Roberts, seen here ripped as shit and playing a machine gun, co-wrote Alice’s comeback album Constrictor and stuck around to give the live show a contemporary makeover.
On this version of “Eighteen”, retitled “18 (Little Flower of Ulysees)” for no real reason, big power chords make a neat transition into a verse of Def Leppard-like arpeggios. The guitar solo sees a strange new riff—as did almost all the classics performed during this period—but look at Kane Roberts. Are you going to tell him what to play? This is not the most vital version of “Eighteen” but style wise, Alice’s jacket and Kane’s guitar are killing it.*
*It’s also worth noting that Kip Winger played bass on this version of “Eighteen”, before writing his prequel (citation needed), “Seventeen.”
Live 1989 – Trashes the World
1989 saw Alice fully embracing pop metal, getting a Billboard Hot 100 single, the absolutely perfect (I will hear no debate on this) “Poison”, out of working with frequent Bon Jovi collaborator Desmond Child on the album Trash (Jon Bon Jovi would further make his presence known by doing some backing vocals on the title track and sharing a writing credit with Alice and Richie Sambora on “Hell is Living Without You).
The theatricality gets toned down on the Trashes the World tour, with Alice only wearing his trademark makeup for a 6-song suite in the middle of the set. This was cleverly offset with Vincent Price—on a reused recording from 1979’s Madhouse Rocks tour—pleading with Alice to “admit that you’re sick!”, as if the rest of the show was Alice denying his true nature.
This performance of “Eighteen”—taken from the pre-theatrical portion of the show—is straight down the center, big chords and gang vocals performed with clean precision. Alice replaces the crutch with a pool cue, which gives him something to break towards the end (it always made me laugh that they foley’d in the sound of a pool cue snapping). Al Pitrelli and Pete Friesen contribute some great solos, avoiding the temptation to bring too much 80s flash to the proceedings and there’s a nice little drum fill that sets up the first big E chord.
Live 1996 – A Fistful of Alice
The back half of the 90s were quiet for Mr. Cooper. Though his 1994 album, The Last Temptation, was one of his strongest albums in years (spawning a Neil Gaiman penned comic book tie-in), Alice left Epic Records soon after the album came out, so it didn’t get a proper tour.
In 1997, Alice re-emerged with a live album recorded the previous year at Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo. Shows in that period were similar to the Trash shows, with the theatrics generally confined to a few songs by the end of the set. Here Alice is content to be the frontman of a rock band, talking to the audience a little between songs, leading his band and some guest stars through a review of the last 25 years of his career.
This version of “Eighteen” replaces the rougher, carpet bomb aspect of the original with something more surgical. Check out the way the band hammers home the final verse—still vicious, but not a whirlwind.
The band shows respect to the material without slavish devotion, Todd Jenson playing great bass fills in the A minor sections, while guitarists Ryan Roxie and Reb Beach add some nice crunch to the riffs. Alice sings more than he screams here, letting the melody carry in the verse, often resolving into a completely clean voice. It’s a solid version, particularly for musicians, as everything remains clean.
I should also note this album marks the first time the guitars are tuned to Eb on the older material (though not the first song from this era to be tuned down—the Trashes the World version of “No More Mr. Nice Guy” is tuned to D), presumably to add a little menace and make the vocals a little less demanding.
Live 2000 – Brutally Live
After three years of record company limbo and the trimming of stage shows, Alice finally released a new album in 2000, Brutal Planet. Using the synthesizer groove metal popularized by his bastard children Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie, Alice touched on everything from school shootings (“Wicked Young Man”) to racism (“Blow Me a Kiss”) to war (“Pick Up the Bones”) to talking at the movies (“It’s the Little Things”).
The live show cast Alice as—according to the intro given by the half man/half junkyard debris creature named The Controller—a “sadistic megalomaniac” who ruled the “City of the Dead.” Inverting the formula of recent tours, the theatrical portion opens the show, with Alice not coming up for air until the mid point, when he’s revived for “No More Mr. Nice Guy”, an action made necessary by the fact that he got his head cut off for killing the nurse at the mental hospital they put him in after he stabbed the two headed werewolf/baby. It remains one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
In the midst of all this showmanship, we have a version of “Eighteen” with Alice’s snarl back front and center. Also, in a nod to the electronic bent of his new material, there’s some standout keyboard work from former Guns n’ Roses keyboard player Teddy “Zig Zag” Andreadis.
“Eighteen” being such a guitar driven song, the keyboards usually play such an atmospheric/support role that they’re hardly noticed unless you go looking for them. In fact, on the A Fistful of Alice performance, keyboard player Derek Sherinian picks up a guitar for the track. The texture of the keys is interesting here, even if they are a little too forward in the mix.
On guitars, Pete Freisen returns from the Trashes the World tour and Ryan Roxie stays on from A Fistful of Alice and they both deliver some great, melodic solos. However, former (now current) KISS drummer Eric Singer steals the show. Though his style sometimes veered into overplaying on his first run with KISS, Alice’s material allows him more space and he brings a great groove to the performance.
Live 2005 – Live at Montreaux
Brutal Planet Alice existed for one more album/tour, and then Alice came back on the Bare Bones tour, which pared down both the theatrics and the band (it was the first Alice solo tour without a dedicated keyboard player). While the Bare Bones tour wasn’t in support of an album, Alice did eventually carry the stripped down approach into the studio with 2003’s Eyes of Alice Cooper and 2005’s Dirty Diamonds.
This version of “Eighteen”, captured on the Dirty Diamonds tour, has former Brother Cane guitarist Damon Johnson playing the most Love it to Death-like verses in years, while Ryan Roxie also keeps it by the book for the interstitial leads. Eric Singer is still on drums, keeping a nice groove and having a lot of fun with his crashes for the last verse and new bassist (and current Alice Cooper band veteran) Chuck Garric keeps the bass parts faithful while adding his own spin, particularly the eighth notes when coming into the verses. After the keyboard detour of Brutally Live, “Eighteen” is back to a Fistful of Alice style of straight ahead rock, with a little more of the Alice growl added on top.
2009 –Theater of Death
The music doesn’t change much on this one, but theater makes a big return on the Theater of Death tour, with Alice being killed four times on stage (gallows, guillotine, “poison” and spikes). Alice put the show together with Tony nominated director Rob Roth, structuring the dramatic aspects of the show—Alice, dressed as the nurse he’s just killed, sings “I Never Cry” from the gallows.
There’s no real break from the action until the last three songs, so though “Eighteen” doesn’t have a huge set piece attached to it, Alice does bring a little Grand Guinol by singing while leaning on a crutch made out of human bones. Alice’s voice appears rough in spots, but his presence remains undiminished and the Theater of Death show is a great encapsulation of everything Alice.
2012 – AVO Session
Alice must have felt a little lonely since ditching the keyboard player, because he’s back to a 5 person band here. However, instead of a keyboard player, Alice chooses to bring in guitarist Orianthi—at one point set to be the guitarist for Michael Jackson’s final shows before that went horribly, horribly wrong—as a third guitarist.
This is no mere stunt casting, as distributing the rhythm duties over three guitars gives everyone room to play, here evidenced in the extended solo section and some great interplay in the verses. Even the main riff sees the addition of a harmony line running under it, making it sound even bigger than it did before.
Alice brings a lot of fire to his performance, really biting into the “LIKE IT, LOVE IT” portion of the song like he’s 18 all over again. He apparently enjoys the three guitar setup so much that when Orianthi left, he hired former Iron Maidens guitarist Nita Strauss to fill the spot.
Later in the show, the spirit of the “American Pie” ending rears its head when Alice drops a little of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” at the end of “School’s Out.” While it lacks the modernity and spite of the “American Pie” performance, it’s a fun way to add some surprise to an old classic. After all, you don’t make it through more than 40 years of pop culture without changing things up a bit.
Special thanks to Sick Things UK for being a tremendous resource.