Alice Cooper - Billion Dollar Babies
Our resident music guru David Martin reviews the February 2014 album release from Alice Cooper, Billion Dollar Babies.
AUDIO FIDELITY: Hybrid SACD - AFZ 170
Released February 2014
From the first album , “PRETTIES FOR YOU”, released in December 1969, to the breakthrough album “KILLER”, released in December 1971, it had been a steep curve for the band collectively named ALICE COOPER.
The five players had coalesced in Arizona, but relocated to Los Angeles to try their luck.
They were picked up by FRANK ZAPPAS' label, “STRAIGHT RECORDS” perhaps more for their intrinsic weirdness and snotty attitude than actual musical ability. That first album was more a mark of greater ambition than fledgling talent.
The second album, “EASY ACTION” (1970) coming just 6 months after the debut, showed a little progress, and certainly pointed to the lyrical pre-occupations that would follow. But it too, failed to kick start their career.
Receiving little airplay, and minimal sales, the band decamped to Detroit. There, they soaked up the high energy, in your face attitude of the classic Detroit bands.
Whilst they soaked up the influences and attitude, they did not emulate the actual sounds they were hearing.
What they did soak up were the possibilities of stage craft, and the desire of the audiences to be titillated, shocked, and, most importantly, entertained.
ALICE COOPER began to perform. Not just play their songs- but perform their music. Each show, successively becoming a theatrical performance using any trick of the trade they could learn. But each show was always grounded by the loose limbed musicianship of the group. Not a single virtuoso player amongst them, but four musicians developing a quite distinctive sound, fronted by an extroverted vocalist who knew a grand gesture when he saw one.
With the positive feedback now coming their way, the band found the confidence to go for album three.
“LOVE IT TO DEATH” (1971) was a huge step forward. The scrappy band sound had matured into a stripped down, and very sparse soundscape, all recorded with space and dynamics to burn. The lyrics deftly walked the path between shock and humour. The stage shows kept abreast. There was now an audience with the wit to appreciate that this was rock dressed up in pantomine clothing.
The album sold well, even cracking the top fifty in the U.S .
The touring stepped up a notch, but the band still found time to write and rehearse new music.
A mere 6 months later, they released “KILLER”. This easily maintained the standard set by the preceeding album. Again, a very sparse recording, with the lyrical musings starting to set the blueprint for the next few albums. The tours continued to do well, and the band were playing better than ever.
In July 1972, the release of “SCHOOL'S OUT” saw a major shift in the feel of the music. The lyrics lurched alarmingly towards a jocularity that suggested someone, somewhere, felt the way to go was to pitch to the blue collar teens. Tap the rebelliousness of youth, but not alienate them to the point of their parents not shelling out the pocket money to buy it.
The production lost the sparcity of the prior two albums, and perhaps lost most of the insinuated menace of those two classic albums.
These were noisy, cluttered, boisterous songs, but somehow, listening now, it seems the point at which Vincent and the boys were to artistically and philosophically diverge. Oh, and did anyone mention alcohol.
The album sold- very, very well. Top ten placings in both the U.S. and the U.K.
Fast forward nine months.
The band are now going for the big one. Tours were sold out, radio play was saturated, visibility was high, but the desired number one album eluded them.
Bob Ezrin was aboard to handle the production duties.
Ezrin had a reputation as a hands-on man. He would actively participate in the recording process, often to the extent of deleting players contributions, either with their knowledge, or discreetly 'after hours'.
He seems to have decided that the musianship was not up to scratch , and wasted no time drafting in top session players Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner to carry the more complex arrangements (these two players became legendary a year later when they fronted Lou Reeds' handpicked band for the excellent “ROCK AND ROLL ANIMAL” live album).
The album would be called “BILLION DOLLAR BABIES”. It was delivered in a 'green snake skin' sleeve design. The cover notes name the individual band members prominently on the acompanying photos. The fine print hinted at another story.
The production was not as busy as the last album. Multiple overdubs were the order of the day. The guitars of Hunter and Wagner forced a discipline in the playing not evident earlier. But, it is oddly, and strangely, not the ALICE COOPER sound caught on the “Love It To Death” and “KILLER” sets. The tracks are of a high standard with the notable exception of the rambling “UNFINISHED SWEET”- perhaps an indication of what it all would have sounded like without a tight hand on the reins.
That was around 37 years ago.
Which brings us to this new release from Audio Fidelity.
Mastered by Steve Hoffman at Stephen Marsh Mastering, it follows the earlier masterings A.F. did of “KILLER” and “LOVE IT TO DEATH”, both now out of print, and getting inflated prices on the net.
This edition uses the master tapes, and is mastered using what Hoffman calls his “breath of life” technique. He has assembled a mastering chain which employs the judicious use of valve stages. After searching for the absolute masters his philosophy boils down to this simple goal- get the voice right, and the rest will fall into place.
He has also decided to resist the option of homogenizing the tracks to sound the same throughout the album. If different studios , mics, or mixing technigues are evident on the master, do not mess with it.
Does it work?
I like his game plan. It bought life to their recent pass at the first “AMERICA” album, and it allows a clear view into the decisions made with this set. Firstly, for the rock fiends and hard core COOPER fans out there, yes, you can crank it and it does not get brittle. There are distinct differences from track to track.
The first thing that leaps out is the guitars on 'Hello, Hooray'. Probably Hunter or Wagner chipping in there, with chiming intro lines. Vinces' vocal very real, and well placed in the mix. Quiet acoustic guitar now audible in the extreme right channel, than later in the left channel.
On to 'Raped and freezin'”- Hunter in the left channel. Clear as a bell.
'Elected' is probably from a different studio. The mix is busy and cluttered. Vinces' voice is in the left channel to start with, then moves to the right for the outro vocals.
Title track, “BILLION DOLLAR BABIES” is a very well structured mix, and I suspect from the same sessions as “No More Mr. Nice Guy”. Great drum mix, and very clear bass lines. Guesting in the vocal booth, and tracked in the left channel, is the wonderful voice of British singer, DONOVAN. He delivers his lines with a 'camp as a row of tents' glee that will put a smile on your face.
A bit of studio patter introduces the next track. If you didn't like 'Unfinished Sweet' ( Suite- get it?) then, its sonic palette will irritate now. The dentist drill has never sounded so evocative and grating. Alas, it is ALICE -By -Numbers.
Filler then, filler now.
“No More Mr. Nice Guy” was, and is the stand out track. Great lyric, precision playing, and an excellent mix means it has not dated a bit.
“Generation Landslide” also holds up well.
“Sick Things” and “I Love The Dead” are Vince playing in the furthurist corners of the dress-up box. The former has a lovely and subtle brass arrangement moving the track along, and a very tasty guitar solo to cap it off.
It fades out on a keyboard line that slowly pans from the right to the left, to find Vince in 'chanteuse mode' delivering a very funny lyric.
The album ends with the afore mentioned “I Love The Dead” wafting along on a vaguely middle-eastern melody. Excellent mix, very atmospheric, lyrically as off as a frog in a sock. Vintage Cooper, that ripened with the “Welcome” album.
So, is it worth it?
Yes, most definitely. Personally, I only rate “LOVE IT TO DEATH”, “KILLER” and “WELCOME TO MY NIGHTMARE” as essential ALICE COOPER sets. But I am enjoying this immensely. It is a great pass at a good, not great album.
At its best, the mastering shows you the inner workings of these songs in a clearer fashion than has been available since the first editions.
COLLECTIBILITY (Alice Cooper Fan)
(Alice Cooper Non-fan)
A walking encyclopedia of music, David’s broad music knowledge is a valued member to the team. Without music, there would be no HiFi. Look out for his words on current, past and future music, as well as album reviews.