The phrase “cash from chaos” is usually associated with legendary punks Sex Pistols, but it seems equally suited to Alice Cooper’s early career. Sure, the smart kids dug T.Rex and Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie in 1972, but they couldn’t get enough of Cooper and co’s winning blend of outrageous stage shows and blistering rock’n’roll. Indeed, the Detroit rockers’ fifth record, School’s Out, didn’t just sell like the proverbial hotcakes, it became Warner Bros’ biggest-grossing record at that time. The downside, though, was the group were expected up the ante with their next album, Billion Dollar Babies.
The backstory: “We considered ourselves indestructible”
Cooper and his comrades weren’t unduly fazed, however. They were living the dream during this intense period in the early 70s, and the weight of expectation barely touched them – even as they prepared the material that would appear on what Classic Rock magazine later dubbed their “Grand Guignol masterpiece”.
“I don’t think we really conceived of how big School’s Out was,” Cooper reflected in an interview with that same publication in 2004. “We were really flying by the seat of our pants back then. You’d do two albums a year in those days, and two world tours to go with them. But, again, we considered ourselves indestructible, so we didn’t feel pressure at all.”
Nonetheless, the band were well aware of their burgeoning status – not least because the media attention they were attracting was going off the scale. It was this situation which inspired the concept for their next record.
“We were getting voted Best Band In The World over Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles,” Cooper recalled. “We’d look at that and laugh… Led Zeppelin we would give a run for [their money], but when it came to The Beatles and the Stones, we were embarrassed to be ahead of them in anything…
“The Billion Dollar Babies concept was simply making fun of ourselves,” the singer added. “Here was a band nobody would touch three years ago, and now we’re the biggest band in the world. We’d look at each other and go, ‘We’re like billion dollar babies!’”
Even before the new songs came together, the band were in agreement that, whatever direction they went in, their new album would be bigger, better – and also more bizarre than anything they’d done before.
“[Bassist] Dennis Dunaway had a lot to do with the insanity of the band,” Cooper told Classic Rock. “I let Dennis be as surreal as he wanted to be. He and I were both artists in school and were both really into Salvador Dalí. Also, Dennis did a lot more… let’s just say experimental stuff, than I did.”
The recording: “We were a rock’n’roll band that wanted to be theatrical”
To realise their collective vision, Alice Cooper again hooked up with Bob Ezrin, the man who had overseen all their recordings since their 1971 breakthrough, Love It To Death. The renowned Canadian producer (who also helmed classic albums by the likes of Lou Reed, KISS and Aerosmith) was the ideal foil for a group with big ideas and an innate sense of theatre.
“Bob definitely came along at the right time,” Dunaway said in 2004. “[Guitarist] Mike Bruce’s songwriting had improved leaps and bounds. Neal [Smith, drummer] and I had improved across the board, and Alice’s voice had matured – gotten much stronger and less nasal than the early days – but when Bob came along we were still trying to fit a million ideas into each song. It took him to… finally focus our direction.”
“He was a young guy with a theatrical background, and we were a rock’n’roll band that wanted to be theatrical,” Cooper added. “Bob Ezrin was our George Martin.”
The band concocted the material for Billion Dollar Babies before and during recording sessions for the album, which spread across three stages. Initially, a mobile studio from New York City’s Record Plant facilities was parked outside The Cooper Mansion, in Greenwich, Connecticut, where the group laid down the basic tracks with Ezrin. Band and producer then flew to London, where they recorded overdubs and most of Cooper’s vocals, before returning to New York for mixing at The Record Plant. Everyone involved, however, recalled the London phase, at Willesden’s Morgan Studios, with particular fondness.
“We had access to a lot of the stars,” Cooper said with relish. “In fact, T.Rex, Donovan, Harry Nilsson, Ringo Starr and Keith Moon are all on that album somewhere, but none of us know where, because the session was so drunk.”
The songs: “It’s our most decadent album”
However, while the Alice Cooper band played hard, their work ethic kept pace, and they succeeded in their quest to make Billion Dollar Babies the flashiest, biggest-sounding – and arguably most controversial – record of their career. Opening with suitably curtain-raising confidence, with a robust version of Canadian singer-songwriter Rolf Kempf’s Hello Hooray, the record achieved the band’s collective aim of producing something even more resonant than School’s Out.
For starters, the album’s rockers were bolder and brasher than before, immediately claiming their places among the best Alice Cooper songs. Billion Dollar Babies’ title track burnt serious rubber, while the shape-throwing Elected came with a sardonic lyric (“I never lied to you, I’ve always been cool”) that soon sounded all the more prescient in the wake of the Watergate affair: the notorious US political scandal which eventually forced the resignation of US president Richard Nixon.
Closer to home, Cooper relished sending up his own image as corrupter of youth on the infectious No More Mr Nice Guy. He especially enjoyed penning the lyric “Ma’s been thrown out of the social circle/And Dad has to hide”, which related to the way his mother’s church group reacted with undisguised horror when they discovered what her son did for a living.
The controversy: “I knew rock’n’roll could scare the fuck out of certain people”
However, while Billion Dollar Babies made good on the band’s promise to take things to a while new level, it also included some leftfield offerings that indulged their taste for the arcane. Sick Things (“You things are chilled with fright, for I am out tonight/You fill me with delight, you whet my appetite”) was good, clean, goosebump-inducing fun, though it was out-weirded by Unfinished Sweet: an epic, six-minute paean to an especially sadistic dentist, complete with sound effects including a dentist’s drill.
Elsewhere, if the title of the hard-driving Raped And Freezin’ raised a few eyebrows, it was the necrophilia-related I Love The Dead that outraged the moral majority – especially in the UK. This controversial song, which the band were quick to stress was entirely tongue-in-cheek, found itself in the heart of the mainstream after an outraged Labour MP, Leo Abse, described it as “an incitement to infanticide for [Cooper’s] teenage audience”, during a speech in the House Of Commons.
Abse’s impassioned speech inevitably drew support from the era’s other high-profile moral crusaders, such as Mary Whitehouse. The ripples also crossed the Atlantic to the US, where censorious gatekeepers proved to be equally averse to atmospheric songs about making love to corpses.
“When I was in junior high, every Friday the teachers would let the kids play their favourite records,” Soundgarden’s much-missed frontman, Chris Cornell, recalled in a 1989 interview with Spin magazine. “I brought in Billion Dollar Babies and they wouldn’t let me play it. They never vetoed anyone’s choice before. It was then I knew rock’n’roll could scare the fuck out of certain people.”
The release: “We couldn’t believe people were actually paying us to do this”
Ultimately, though, the controversy surrounding I Love The Dead only added fuel to the fire for Billion Dollar Babies, which truly combusted upon its release, on 25 February 1973. With the help of three UK Top 10 hits in Elected, Hello Hooray and No More Mr Nice Guy, the record topped both the UK and US charts, establishing itself as one of the best Alice Cooper albums and rewarding the band with their first platinum disc in the States.
The music press were still in raptures when the band embarked on their subsequent world tour, but however fantastical the stories that followed them (Alice killed due to a fatal malfunction by his own guillotine, anyone?), the Alice Cooper band rode it out – and at this stage they seemed invincible. Thanks to Billion Dollar Babies, they ended 1973 as one of the world’s biggest rock bands.
“Billion Dollar Babies was our most decadent album,” Cooper told Classic Rock in 2004. “It was reflecting the decadence of a time when we were living from limousine to penthouse to the finest of everything… We couldn’t believe people were actually paying us to do this. We would have done it for free, because we were just a garage band who happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Find out which ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ tracks rank among the best Alice Cooper songs of all time.
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