Old School '64-74 - Alice Cooper (Universal)

alice-box"Old School" is an Alice Cooper fan's dream come true. That said, it's not for the casual fan, but then the $A200+ price tag is more than likely to scare off the less than devoted buyer. But if like me you're a keen fan of the classic era of when Alice Cooper was the name of the band, not only the stage name of one Vincent Furnier, minister's son, then you'll find much to love in "Old School".

The exceptional packaging of this set, prepared at the point when it was rumoured that the original band were going to be nominated for the Rock 'N' Roll Hall Of Fame (to which they were inducted – and not before time!), is probably responsible for the hefty cost of this limited pressing – think: a more 3D version of the old "School's Out" LP packaging, a couple of inches thick by about 14 inches square – but without the panties. The strong durable card box looks like a school desk, hinged to access the goodies within. And a rich assortment of goodies it is:

Two CDs of live, demo and pre-production cuts taken from between 66 and 74, ranging from early outfit The Spiders, through to the Cooper band's last LP, "Muscle Of Love". There are some radio ads from back in the day, too. These are a real grab-bag in terms of quality. If you're a Cooper fan, they're nothing less than interesting – some of these songs developed greatly from their demos (the cut of "I'm Eighteen" you're familiar with veers wildly away from the 11 minute blues jam version from 1970 presented here, and I'm very glad that the band substantially reworked "Never Been Sold Before", before releasing it on vinyl) – but I'd probably think that they're more curios than the definitive versions of these songs. The "Killer" demos are probably the best tracks present, but that'd be because that album represents the band's strongest material.

  • One CD of spoken word material – "In Their Own Words". This is pretty interesting for fans, but I don't know how often I'll be re-listening. Still glad to have 'em though.

  • A bootleg CD of a gig from the 71 tour supporting the "Killer" LP. This is nothing short of highly impressive, with the band at their leanest and punchiest roaring through a collection of tracks from their two best LPs. "Halo Of Flies", "You Drive Me Nervous", "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah" and "Be My Lover" are definite stand-outs here. Scorching hard rock excellence – you will be impressed.

  • A bootleg 12" LP of the same material, unfortunately minus the final cut, a wild-rockin' tear-away version of "Under My Wheels".

  • A 7" reproduction of the Nazz's (the line-up's name before changing to Alice Cooper) 1967 single "Wonder Who's Loving Her Now," backed with an early version of "Lay Down and Die, Goodbye," later to surface on "Easy Action." This is actually a pretty neat psych-pop single, especially the unavailable elsewhere A-side, pressed on to some very heavy-duty vinyl. The Yardbirds' influence on the Cooper band's early music is especially evident here.

  • A DVD that chronicles the life of the band from their early days as The Earwigs, through to 1974, with three features totaling over two hours duration, with detailed interviews from the remaining band members (uber-guitarist Glen Buxton sadly passed away in 1997), and long-term producer Bob Ezrin. This also features archival footage as well as video footage of the band from festival appearances and live TV performances. This is a 100% necessary addition to any Cooper fan's collection – full-stop.

  • A 60 page hardback book with the same high-school "yearbook" theme present in the structure of the DVD. There's a fair bit of cross-over in the material that's presented in the DVD and the book, but the photos and archival art make it most definitely worthwhile – the two work well in tandem. Plus, it's a more complete version, in some regards, of the band's story.

That's not enough for you? How about a folder with a replica program from the "Killer" tour, a ticket stub replica from a Wembley gig on the "School's Out" tour, and promo artwork (including a set-list) on high quality cardstock.


The DVD is introduced by Bob Ezrin (whose production work took the band's art-school mayhem and fine-tuned it into the tight-knit hard-rocking machine that it became over the next four LPs), who informs the audience how the box set was compiled (band archives, the collections of "super-fans"), as well as offering a couple of explanations for some omissions in the documentary – the ending is rather abrupt, and only Alice's perspective on the break-up of the band (which Ezrin validates) is recorded. Some of the interview footage has all members of the band together, much of the second half of the doco has Alice with Bob Ezrin, with Neal Smith, Michael Bruce and Dennis Dunaway being interviewed elsewhere. The musical footage is of varying quality (Alice's microphone could have been turned down a bit in "Is It My Body" and "I'm Eighteen"), but the performances are all live, and ably represent the band at their rockin' best – some of the early stuff from the first two LPs is pretty wild.

Much of the footage has been bootlegged endlessly, but here we get to see it in the clearest quality possible, and with better colour and better definition than you'd find on YouTube. And at any rate, the documentary is completely essential for any Cooper fan – informative and entertaining, and it's good to see the boys back together again, albeit sadly without GB (who is present in some of the archival, behind the scenes footage) – although the rest of the boys tell some hilarious anecdotes about him, with great fondness as well as a recognition of his prodigious skills as a guitarist. He was one of the very best – up there with Wayne Kramer, Ron Asheton, James Williamson or Fred "Sonic" Smith.

Very early music from Alice Cooper can be a little difficult for some to take – the first two albums by the band ("Pretties For You" and "Easy Action", both recorded for Frank Zappa's Straight label) are more like a psychedelic endurance test than rock albums. That's not to say that there aren't some fine songs present, but the bewildering number of tempo and rhythm changes during even the briefest of numbers ("10 Minutes Before The Worm", for example – not represented here) would probably at the time have freaked out anyone except maybe a Captain Beefheart fan, circa "Trout Mask Replica". But the material here is mainly from the era with Bob Ezrin at the helm. And certainly the live recording from the "Killer" tour proves the band's musical chops beyond any doubt – it's a shame that they never recorded an official live album.

That said, this is not too shabby as a replacement. The raw power of the band at their most rockin' is a little blunted by the sound (Alice's vocals are initially too low in the mix, the guitars seem occasionally a bit muffled, and Glen Buxton's guitar seems to over-power Michael Bruce's at times), but I guarantee that the rhythm section will make the listener start to wonder as to why they're one of the most under-rated in rock. Dennis Dunaway's thundering, fluid bass-lines and Neal Smith's flamboyant precision-point drumming give a rock solid basis to every single track – there's a real sense of dynamics present that a lot of their contemporaries lacked.

Something that this box set certainly proves that I mentioned briefly before, is that the original Alice Cooper band's music works just fine apart from the visuals that became part of the band's signature. Back in the early 70s it was common for detractors to pooh-pooh the band, citing the theatrics as compensating for the songwriting, beyond the anthems and the singles, like "School's Out", "I'm Eighteen" or "Under My Wheels". One listen to either of the versions of "Halo Of Flies" present here should put paid to those notions – as would the rough outtakes of "Luney Tune" and "My Stars"; it's a shame there were no demos of "Blue Turk" available.

It's also kinda neat to see the development of the band in this kind of compressed format (if four CDs and a DVD can be called "compressed"!), as the psychedelic, arty (almost prog-rock) elements are gradually weaned out, and the band strip back to a leaner, tougher sound, if at times with a commercial sheen on the "Billion Dollar Babies"-era material, particularly. But in these rougher sounding versions of the songs, the Coop's influence on later generations of hard rock, metal and punk can clearly be seen – and particularly on that "Killer" bootleg, which I cannot rate highly enough. A friend of mine who has also bought this set is in a quandary about listening to the vinyl copy of this, wanting to keep it mint, but wanting to hear it on vinyl for the richer sound at the same time – the dilemma of the record collector!

The one thing I'd have to say about this box set is that it really has heart. It was made for the fans (in some cases using material sent in by fans), presenting them with what they want to hear – or what they haven't heard before, rather than just grinding out another "Greatest Hits" package (and depending on the record label Alice himself has been on, the "Alice Cooper's Greatest Hits" LP from 1974 has been repackaged an astonishing amount of times under different titles, often the only difference from the original being the inclusion of FM-lite-fodder like "Only Women Bleed", "I Never Cry", "You and Me", "How You Gonna See Me Now?" and "Poison").

As a rabid fan of the original Cooper band myself, I knew I was going to buy this simply for the "Killer" tour bootleg (well, I guess it's official now!) and the doco. But I tell you what – cost be damned, I'm glad I did shell out for "Old School". While I'd still point people towards "Love It To Death" and especially "Killer" for their first taste of the Coop's best work, this has been a real eye-opener for this particular fan, and it takes a lot to introduce new things to someone who's been a committed fan of the originally released material for over 20 years.

Essential? No, but for fans of the original high-octane Detroit rock Alice Cooper band, you'll kick yourself if you don't get it. "Old School" is a lavish package that is really a love letter to Alice's fans, and a labour of love for those who assembled it. Not an ideal starting point for the noob, but a pretty neat destination for the committed fan, nevertheless.

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Tags: alice, cooper, bob ezrin, glen buxton, universal

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