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‘Killer’: Why Alice Cooper’s Fourth Album Slayed The Competition
In Depth

‘Killer’: Why Alice Cooper’s Fourth Album Slayed The Competition

Building on the success ‘Love It To Death’, Alice Coopers’ ‘Killers’ album proved the group were in it for the long haul.

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Moving back to their native Michigan was arguably the best move the Alice Cooper band ever made. Despite Frank Zappa’s patronage, their initial five-year sojourn in Los Angeles amounted to two overlooked albums, Pretties For You and Easy Action, but back in Detroit, the group’s fortunes improved dramatically. Indeed, their third album, 1971’s Love It To Death, provided a US Top 40 breakthrough, yet the band knew they still had plenty to prove. When they decided to name their fourth album Killer, all concerned knew full well the contents had to live up to the title.

Listen to ‘Killer’ here.

The backstory: “Can you hit it out of the park?”

“A lot of people have hit albums,” Alice Cooper reflected in a 2021 interview with Arizona Central. But the group knew the real challenge was to build on the success of Love It To Death: “Can you hit it out of the park with that [next] one?”

Cooper and co felt an affinity with Detroit’s other outsider rock acts (not least influential proto-punks The Stooges and MC5), and this inspired the band to drop their earlier psych-enhanced pop sound. Instead, they went straight for the jugular with the hard-driving music they worked up for Love It To Death.

The group’s new material had a universal appeal. Featuring some of the best Alice Cooper songs to date, Love It To Death also went Top 40 in the UK, and its spin-off hit, the groovy yet angsty grind of I’m Eighteen, offered further proof that Alice Cooper were heading in the right direction. The band’s subsequent tour also provided encouragement, as a series of well-received UK shows led influential figures such as David Bowie and Elton John to offer their endorsement. But while the omens were good, the Alice Cooper band realised they couldn’t rest on their laurels. They needed to press home the advantage handed to them by their third album – and quickly.

The sessions: “Bowie was doing two albums a year. And you’d better keep up”

“You were doing albums as quickly as you could, because Bowie was doing two a year,” Cooper told Arizona Central. “So was T. Rex. All the bands you were competing with were doing two albums a year. And you’d better keep up.”

“We really became Alice Cooper on Love It To Death,” producer Bob Ezrin added. “So I’d say the prevailing emotion was one of panic. The band was out playing, supporting the record. And the next day, figuratively speaking, we were expected to come up with a new album.”

Ezrin’s role in realising the best Alice Cooper albums can’t be overstated. Cooper has frequently referred to him as “our George Martin”, but it wasn’t just the Canadian producer’s studio smarts which helped to get Killer over the line – it was his ability to make this wilfully hedonistic group focus on the job in hand.

“Bob worked us hard. I mean, he was hard in the studio,” Cooper told Classic Rock in 2016. “He was a tough guy to work with because he demanded a lot.” The pressure was, however, worth it: “All these great songs started coming out.”

The songs: “This was different. This was deep”

The hard graft quickly paid off. Indeed, when the band completed Killer’s two spin-off hits, the swaggering yet highly infectious Under My Wheels and the playful, Sweet Jane-esque Be My Lover, their producer was (rightly) convinced that the future was looking bright for his young charges.

“Once we’d done Under My Wheels, I sort of knew that I had a good record, that I was covered,” Ezrin told Arizona Central. “When Be My Lover came in, there was no question in my head.”

Yet, while Killer frontloaded its two excellent singles, some of the record’s deeper cuts afforded the band the opportunity to hit back at their critics – not least the brooding Desperado and the intense, eight-minute Halo Of Flies. Written in tribute to The Doors’ (then recently deceased) frontman Jim Morrison, the already cinematic Desperado was taken to another level entirely by Ezrin’s decision to flavour it with strings, while the suite-like Halo Of Flies revealed that the Alice Cooper band really could play with an impressive virtuosity, regardless of what their detractors said.

“Many critics went to great lengths to insult our playing abilities,” bassist Dennis Dunaway told Outsider Rock. “Many of them seemed convinced that our theatrics were a crutch to smokescreen our deficiencies.”

For Bob Ezrin, however, the Killer sessions were a clear rebuttal. “Desperado opened up a whole new world for me in terms of my conception of what Alice Cooper was and could be,” the producer revealed in 2021. “This was different. This was deep, really looking inside oneself and also playing a little bit with the dark side of [Alice’s] personality.”

At eight minutes long, Halo Of Flies gave the group the chance to explore other facets of their creativity, in this instance visualising the song during rehearsals before committing it to tape. “We were all visiting Phoenix and we had a giant chalkboard in this empty warehouse we were using,” Dunaway recalled. “We named the parts and wrote them on this chalkboard. If that didn’t work, we’d erase it and move the parts around and try it that way.”

“We rehearsed that thing for days to get all the pieces to fit,” Ezrin added. “And when we finally were able to get all the way through it from top to bottom, we looked at each other and gave ourselves a cheer.”

Yet, while Killer offered Alice Cooper the chance to show they were serious musicians, it also provided them with an opportunity to get under the skin of the moral majority. Predictably, the contemporary media were outraged by slow, chilling, yet ultimately anthemic Dead Babies – but they completely missed the point of what the band have stressed was always written as an earnest statement.

“Actually that song was probably the first anti-drug, anti-parental-abuse song,” an unrepentant Alice Cooper pointed out to Classic Rock. “The idea for the lyric was like ‘Mom is high and in the other room with some guy she’d never seen before. Dad is out drinking and the baby is taking every pill in the medicine cabinet.’… It really was a total anti-parent-abuse song.”

The release: “It captured what kind of rock band we wanted to be”

Released on 27 November 1971, in a memorably striking sleeve starring drummer Neal Smith’s pet snake Kachina, Killer found favour among some of the day’s more influential critics. Leading them was Rolling Stone’s Lester Bangs, whose review suggested that the record “fulfils all the promise of their erratic first two albums”, before prophetically concluding that the group were “a strong band, a vital band, and they are going to be around for a long, long time”.

By this stage, the smart kids on both sides of the Atlantic were also digging both the Alice Cooper band’s theatricality and their explosive brand of rock’n’roll, meaning that Killer was more than capable of building on the mainstream breakthrough brokered by Love It To Death. Vindicating Bob Ezrin’s feeling that there was “no question” of the record’s success, Killer duly went Top 30 in the US and UK, eventually going platinum in North America and setting the scene for the band to go supernova with their fantastic fifth album, School’s Out.

“The thing that impresses me is it’s still pretty wonderful,” guitarist Michael Bruce told Arizona Central. “The sound really holds up well over 50 years.”

“That whole album was pure Alice. It captured what kind of a rock band we wanted to be,” Cooper himself added. “Johnny Rotten said Killer was the greatest rock album ever made. We were sitting there going, ‘Yeah, it’s a great record. It’s gonna get better.’ But for people to classify that as the best rock album they had ever heard, it’s nice to hear that.”

Find out where ‘Killer’ ranks among the best Alice Cooper albums.

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