Alice Cooper Talks Detroit Rock, “Love It to Death” and “The Muppet Show”

The iconic shock rocker pays tribute to the Motor City on his new album, "Detroit Stories"

alice cooper
Alice Cooper's latest album, "Detroit Stories," is a love letter to his hometown.
Jenny Risher

It’s been 50 years since Alice Cooper hunkered down in Detroit with longtime producer and collaborator Bob Ezrin, honed in on who exactly the Alice Cooper would be — the macabre-yet-goofy, guillotine-loving character he speaks about in the third person to distinguish him from his everyday persona — and put together his band’s breakthrough album, Love It to Death. It makes sense, then, that half a century later, his new album Detroit Stories (out Friday) pays tribute to the city where it all began for him.

In addition to the surviving original members of his band, Detroit Stories features an all-star lineup of Motor City musicians, including the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, Johnny “Bee” Badanjek of Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, Paul Randolph and the Motor City Horns. Cooper, who has lived with his wife in Arizona — where, he goes out of his way to tell me during our phone interview, it is currently 82 degrees — for many years, returned to his hometown to record the album and pay tribute to the city that embraced his particular brand of weird when many other scenes didn’t.

And then COVID-19 hit. Cooper, now 73, caught the virus earlier this winter but has since recovered and received his first dose of the vaccine. He’s eager to get back onstage as soon as it’s safe to do so, but until then, he’s happy to be putting Detroit Stories out at a time when folks could use the distraction. “I think that this album is coming out at a great time,” he says. “It’s at a time when people are really wanting to hear some good rock and roll and something that’s fun to listen to… I think we’ve come out at the right time for this album, to kind of give everybody a little lift and that’s really what I want to do. Music should lift you.”

We caught up with Cooper to talk about his time in Detroit, the pandemic, playing the villain and that time he flirted with Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show.

You’ve got a bunch of legendary Detroit musicians on this record. Tell me a bit about the process of getting them all together. How did you decide who you wanted to reach out to?

Alice Cooper: Well, it’s so hard because I’ve got the Hollywood Vampires who are a great touring band, and then I’ve got my original band. But this time it was a little bit different. We decided to go to Detroit, write the album in Detroit and record it in Detroit, and then we got to the point of saying, “Well, let’s go all the way and just go all Detroit players.” And I knew that Johnny Bee was available, who was the premier drummer in Detroit, and Wayne Kramer from MC5 — and he plays better now than he played then, he’s amazing guitar player — and then Mark Farner was there and this guy [Paul Randolph] on bass, and I put the band together, Joe Bonamassa and Steve Hunter, all these guys. When we got together, we decided after writing the songs that we weren’t going to layer the songs. We weren’t going to do bass and drums first and then put the guitar on and then put the keyboards on and put the vocal on, because the band was so good, why not just let them all play live in the studio? So that’s basically almost everything you hear on the album is live in the studio. And of course we tweaked it here and I put the vocal on after that, but all of the basic tracks pretty much were live. And when you can do that, that means the band is awfully good because it’s easier to do it the other way, but I said, “You can’t waste a band like this. They’re so good live, and I want it to sound live. Detroit’s a live music city; let’s really, really treat these songs as live songs.”

Detroit definitely is a live music city, and this album is such a love letter to it. What do you think it is about Detroit audiences specifically that made them so receptive to your music and to hard rock in general?

Well, we were in LA and we were a hard rock band with a lot of theatrics and a lot of attitude and certainly a lot of image, and our theatrics were a little bit over the top, I would imagine, in 1968, ’69, ’70. And we got to LA, and we were just a little bit too heavy for LA. The LA scene was kind of ruled by The Doors and bands like Buffalo Springfield and Love and those bands. And The Doors were our best friends. I mean, it was great, but we just did not fit in. We were too aggressive, and LA was laid-back. San Francisco, same thing. You go to San Francisco, and it’s psychedelic country, so we didn’t fit in there at all. We were considered a bad trip. So we got to New York, and New York liked it. They liked what we did, but we really were at home when we got to Detroit, because there were all these kindred spirits there. There was Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5, and Ted Nugent and Bob Seger and Suzi Quatro, all the bands they were like us, really high-energy bands and hard rock. Soft rock did not make it in Detroit. You had to be not just a hard rock band, but you had to have a couple of gunslinger guitar players and you had to have attitude. Soft rock just died in Detroit. But if you could walk up there and just nail that audience with how good your band was and then on top of it put all that theatrics on top, well, we were welcomed. We were sort of like the long-lost sons.

Well, speaking of those early days in Detroit, next month is also the 50th anniversary of Love It to Death. Looking back on that time when you were recording it, did you have a feeling at the time that you were making something special, that a song like “I’m Eighteen” might become a classic?

I don’t think you ever think that. I think you just make the best record you can make at the time. I consider Love It To Death the very first Alice Cooper album. We did Pretties for You and we did Easy Action, but those albums were basically songs that were written when we were the Nazz and we were the Spiders, when we were in high school and college. Those songs were all written then, and Frank Zappa wasn’t really looking at us as being any kind of a hit record; he just thought we were sort of freaks and that was perfect for him, for his label. But we were thinking much differently. We were thinking, “We want to be the next Yardbirds, we want to be the next Who.” And so when Bob Ezrin came along, Bob would tell us, he’d say, “Why is it that when you hear a Doors song you know it’s the Doors? Because it has a signature sound to it. Morrison’s voice is very recognizable and Robby’s guitar is very recognizable and Ray’s keyboard playing, the whole thing. And what of the Rolling Stones, why do you know it’s the Rolling Stones? Because it sounds like the Rolling Stones.” He says, “The problem with Alice Cooper right now is the fact that you don’t sound like Alice Cooper. You sound like a million other bands.” And so at that point, then he proceeded to take us apart, disassemble us and reinvent us with a sound. And that’s why Love It To Death is the first time that anybody heard that album, they went, “Oh, that’s Alice Cooper.” And the funny thing was, we didn’t even realize that it was the 50th anniversary of Love It To Death when we went to Detroit. No, it was a total coincidence and people said, “Oh no, come on, you were doing it …” And I went, “I had no idea it was the 50th anniversary. I never even put the two together.”

Does it feel like it was just yesterday in some ways?

Well, I’m not nostalgic, but getting back to Detroit, and also when I say Detroit players, I included the original band, because that’s where we broke out, it was Detroit. And so the original band on this album did “Social Debris” and “I Hate You” and played on a few of the other things, and it just sounded like the original band. Those songs could have been on Love It To Death or Killer or School’s Out. So I was really happy to have the original band. They’ve actually been on the last four albums with me.

Speaking of the original band, tell me a little about the inspiration behind “I Hate You” and having the guys take turns roasting each other on each verse.

Well, I think it was to quell any thought that our band hated each other. We wrote “I Hate You” because everybody realizes we don’t hate each other or we wouldn’t have done a record like that. When we broke up, we didn’t divorce as much as we separated. And we all went our different ways kind of. We kind of felt that we had done the music that that band … We did four or five platinum albums in a row, and we just burned out and we all kind of went our separate ways, but we always stayed in touch with each other, because you have to remember that we knew each other in high school before the Beatles came out. We knew each other in 1963. And when the Beatles came out, that’s when we formed the band, but that’s how long we’ve been friends. And so we never had any — there was no lawsuits, there was no bad blood, nobody hated anybody, and we just went our separate ways and then kind of came back together. Seven or eight years ago, we just started working together again. And so in the studio, it was just a funny idea to say, “Okay, you write a verse about Neil, Neil, you write a verse about me, you write a verse about Dennis, Dennis will write a verse, and then at the very end, we’ll write a verse about Glen who passed away.” Glen was sort of our Keith Richards. And it was impossible to carry on as Alice Cooper without Glen. He was so much a part of the sound, so much a part of the personality of the band that on the very last verse we said, “We hate you for leaving that place on stage that nobody could fill.” And it was really a tribute to Glen more than anything else.

Tell me a bit about the evolution of “Hanging On By A Thread”/”(Don’t Give Up).” I know you originally wrote that song about suicide, but then you revised it to make it about COVID-19. What made you want to address the pandemic in song?

Well, what happened is, like you said, I wrote the song about suicide because that was something that affects every city, every country since the beginning of time. That’s sort of a disease that will not go away, whereas COVID will go away. We’re already starting to beat it up now with the vaccine. So when we finished “Hanging On By A Thread,” that’s when the COVID thing hit. That’s when the sort of the whole pandemic started after that. And it occurred to me that if we changed the second verse to that song and called it “Don’t Give Up,” let’s change everybody’s attitude about COVID. In other words, let’s quit being victims. Let’s turn the tables on this virus and tell it that it has a very short life and that human beings will go on forever, but this COVID thing is going to die very soon. And I kind of liked the idea of taking away the idea that we’re all victims of this thing. Let’s punch the bully in the nose and kind of just tell it, “Look, you haven’t got much more time.” And I liked that. I liked the idea of being aggressive rather than passive about the virus.

Your live show and touring is obviously such a huge part of Alice Cooper in general, and this year must’ve been a huge shift for you to not have that and to be stuck at home for so long. How have you been spending your downtime?

We were kind of in shock a little bit. I did catch COVID, and we got it right around Christmas, my wife and I, and so we spent about a month getting over it. And at the same time, it’s almost like you have to get used to living at home again. Sheryl, my wife, is in the band; she does all the high vocals and she plays like two or three characters in the show and has since 1976. So when we tour, she’s with me on the tour. So when we got home, here we are in Arizona kind of going, “Okay, what do we do now?” Now, fortunate for us, our youngest daughter had her first baby, and it was a little girl and they’re living here at the house. It’s a big house, so they were living here at the house. So we got to take care of this little girl for six months till now, and that is a total great thing. It takes a lot of the pressure off, because every day you get to see this little girl grow up a little bit more. And then we have three grandsons also that are absolute Tasmanian devils and which, it keeps you going. But all the bands that I know are either writing or recording during this time. So you’re probably going to get in the next two years an avalanche of albums coming out. Everybody’s got all these songs. In fact, we’re already working on the next album and this one’s not out yet, and the same with Hollywood Vampires. The Hollywood Vampires were all working on music also, so when we are able to get back together and go out, we’ll go right in the studio and cut another album.

And is the plan to start touring again as soon as everyone’s vaccinated and it’s safe to do so?

Yeah. I’ve already had my one shot and I’m getting my next one next Tuesday. And I think here in Phoenix, they’re doing 10,000 people a day. So it’s really, there must be 200,000 or 300,000 people already vaccinated in Arizona. And if every city is doing that, I can’t see why six months from now we wouldn’t be on tour. What would you be afraid of if you’re vaccinated and you’ve kind of defeated the virus? Why wouldn’t you go to a concert?

People will be itching for it. They’ve gone so long without seeing a concert.

Yeah. We can’t wait. My band is ready, the Vampires are ready, so we’ll probably spend the entire next year on the road.

Shifting gears back to the record, what was it like recording your version of “Sister Anne” with Wayne Kramer?

Well, I wanted to do an MC5 song, but I didn’t want to do to “Kick Out The Jams,” because that was too obvious and we listened to a bunch of tracks and then that one came up and I went, “Oh, wait a minute.” I said, “We could kill that song.” And actually my sister’s name is Nickie Ann. But the thing about it was, when you hear a song and you just go, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s the song. That’s the song we want right there.” It’s just something that speaks to you. It was a hard rock song and it was just absolutely … You could play it live with this great band, we could put that in there and put all these great guitar players on it and I’ll play harp on it, and it was just a kind of song that Alice Cooper would do.

Was it a similar thought process for Bob Seger’s “East Side Story”? That’s another sort of deeper cut. It’s not like you were doing “Night Moves.”

I think we surprised Bob on that one. I went to see Seger here in Phoenix and I told him, I said, “You know on the new album, it’s called Detroit Stories, it’s all about Detroit.” And he’s going, “Oh, cool. That’s great.” I said, “We did the ‘East Side Story,’” and he goes, “What?” I think he thought we would probably do “Hollywood Nights” or “Get Out of Denver” or one of his rockers. And I went, “No,” I said, “‘East Side Story.’” And he goes, “Why?” And I said, “First of all, it’s an unknown entity. It’s not a song that everybody knows. Second of all, I’m from East Detroit, and ‘East Side Story’ is about where I lived.” And I said, “And it’s got a great storyline. We’re just going to take it in a different direction. We’re going to amp it up a little bit and change it into something that Alice Cooper would sing,” and he went, “Wow.” He said, “That’s not the song I would have expected you guys to do.”

The Muppet Show was recently released to Disney+, and your appearance on that show is one of the most memorable episodes because you’re one of the last people we’d expect to see on a kids’ show. How did that come to be, and what do you remember about shooting it?

The funny thing was, I watched that show. When it came out, when we did that show, it was the number one show in the world. Everybody loved that show because it was blue people making fun of green people, rather than white and Black or Hispanic or anything. It was puppets. And they were so hip. It was written so well. But when they approached me on it, I had just kind of established myself as being the villain, and I kind of balked for a second. I wanted to do it, but I thought, “Is this going to ruin my image?” And I said, “Well, who’s been on it recently?” And they said, “Well, let me see. We had Christopher Lee and Vincent Price,” and I went, “I’m in. I’m in.” I said, “If those guys could be on The Muppet Show, the two kings of horror, I certainly can be on the show.” And I never had more fun doing anything than The Muppets. We did it in the London, we rehearsed for like four or five days with the Muppets and after a while, you start talking to the Muppets like they were people. I’m rehearsing a song with Miss Piggy and I’m going, “Listen, it’d be a great idea if you put your head on my shoulder while I’m singing you this song.” And she’s like, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” And I realized, for five minutes I’m talking to a sock. But they react to you as people. You buy into it after a while. Kermit would stick his head in my dressing room and go, “Everything okay?” And I’d go, “Yeah, Kermit, everything’s fine, we’re ready to go and everything.” “Oh, okay.” And after a while, it just got very funny and weird that you were one of the Muppets. You’d become one of the Muppets, and they all have different personalities. So at the end of it, I told the press, they said, “Well, what did you think about the Muppets?” And I said, “Well, I kind of got in trouble at one point and it wasn’t my fault.” I said, “Miss Piggy was coming onto me pretty heavy. There were a little hoof prints all over me and Kermit was starting to get pissed off.”

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