Album Review: Alice Cooper — Billion Dollar Babies

On the occasion of its 2014 reissue on Hybrid SACD, Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies is due for a critical second-look. Originally released in 1973, Billion Dollar Babies was Cooper’s sixth LP, and the second-to-last to feature the original band. Though by the time of Babies, ace session guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner were already being enlisted to add their talents to the tracks.

By this point in the band’s career, they had achieved concert headlining status, and had a number of hit albums (Love it to Death and Killer in 1971, and School’s Out in 1972), and three Top 40 singles (“I’m Eighteen,” “School’s Out” and “Elected”) under their belts. Billion Dollar Babies would be their first number-one album (in both the USA and UK) and spawned three charting singles.

But it was as an album that Billion Dollar Babies achieved its greatest success. Not quite a concept album, the record does feature a sort of thematic unity. As ever, the songs explored outré subject matter and aimed to shock. How else to explain songs titled “Raped and Freezin’” and “I Love the Dead.”

With crystal-clear production by Bob Ezrin, Billion Dollar Babies makes complete the band’s move away from muddy, garage vibe of their days on Frank Zappa’s Straight label. With a production and arrangement aesthetic that positioned each of the record’s ten cuts as an anthem of sorts, the group perfected the balance of grimy scuzz-rock and gleaming, streamlined commerciality.

The Hunter-Wagner twin guitar attack makes its grand appearance in the album’s opener, “Hello Hooray,” a template for Cooper-the-man’s stage show. The theatrical bent that was central to the live show was successfully conveyed in this track. And while I haven’t done an A/B comparision between this SACD version and my old vinyl, Cooper’s (Furnier’s) voice seems to stand out a bit clearer in the sonic spectrum on the new release. There’s a definite tophat-and-tails overblown vibe to the track, but that’s certainly by design.

Its prurient title aside, “Raped and Freezin’” is a top-notch rock and roller, one that sounds like the group, something that can’t really be said of the opener. One supposes that since it’s the singer/narrator who ends up raped and freezin’, it’s okay. No matter: it’s a winner, and the stylistic left turn that it takes near the end (sort of a piss-take on Santana, perhaps) adds to its interest.

“Elected” is the album’s first breakout track. Cooper’s voice is still deep in the murk; the guitars are mixed much more forward than the vocal. But the thrilling chord progression that makes up the song’s chorus is stunning. And while the marching-band style horn arrangement no doubt came as a surprise to listeners on initial hearing, it pushes the song into classic status; nothing else the band did before or since sounds like “Elected.” The track may well have influenced The Tubes’ “White Punks on Dope” from just a year later, right down to the spoken outro.

The title track features another killer riff, and another left-field production choice: the addition of vocals by – of all people — Donovan. Hard rock with neck-snapping guitar duels was the order of the day in ’73 (see also: Thin Lizzy) and this cut is an exemplar.

“Unfinished Sweet” is the lengthiest cut on Billion Dollar Babies. Cooper’s singing is about as good as it gets, and the arrangement is quite interesting – there’s a spy-movie soundtrack include that quotes “James Bond Theme” — but somehow the whole track doesn’t hold together. Though the spy bit sounds great, it has nothing conceptually to do with the song’s slight lyric. And when the track devolves into a squawking interlude, one can’t help but think that it probably worked better live: it sounds like the soundtrack for some or other wordless onstage antics.

Billion Dollar Babies hits its high point on what was the vinyl LP’s opening side-two cut, “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” A near-perfect combination of memorable riffs, a singalong chorus and the band’s smart-alecky stance, it sounds as fresh in 2014 as it must have back in 1973. The track’s backing vocals are a key to its success, but every detail is in just the right place.

With “Generation Landslide,” the band aims for a T. Rex vibe, and takes a more musically subtle approach than anywhere else on the album. The track features shimmering acoustic guitar as well as delightfully busy, nimble and lyrical drum work from Neal Smith. Cooper emotes over the top of all that, and while he does a creditable job, the vocals are the least interesting component of “Generation Landslide.” The harmonica solo suggests what it might have been like to be sitting around a prairie campfire with the band. (Okay, not really.) Some tasteful vibroslap and an nice extended guitar solo make a good song even better.

“Sick Things” hasn’t worn well in the ensuing years since its release. Again, it probably worked exceptionally well onstage, with Alice running ‘round with snakes and guillotines and whatnot. And the arrangement ideas – specifically the turgid pace of the song — might have been filed away in producer Ezrin’s memory for use six years later when he worked on Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Ezrin got a co-credit on the tune.

The brief “Mary-Ann” is another piss-take, this time aimed squarely to shock and discomfit the band’s detractors who found their decadence (real and/or imagined) too much to take. The mock love song’s kicker (“I thought you were my man”) sits in stark contrast to the swirling music-hall piano arrangement.

That elegiac piano forms the basis of “I Love the Dead,” in which the Coop speaks a good portion of the lyric. The melody is punctuated by stinging guitar lines. Ezrin’s hand in the song is obvious; it’s more theater than music, and when Cooper finally does sing, it’s in a faux-scat dialogue with the lead guitar. Eventually the song hits its stride for a few measure, and then it breaks into a big production extravaganza, complete with a singalong feel to the title lyric. And then it’s all over.

It’s little more than my belated speculation, of course, but I’m left to wonder if the band wasn’t too enamored of the Wagnerian (sic) aesthetic that permeates a good half of the album, preferring instead to rock out a bit harder. That might help explain the more stripped-down approach taken on the next album, Muscle of Love. But that album and its (in relative terms, at least) commercial failure would be the last gasp for Alice Cooper the band; subsequent releases would feature Alice Cooper the man, and a new team built around Hunter and Wagner.

The 2014 SACD release features no bonus tracks, but it does include a booklet that reproduces all of the album’s original artwork and lyric sheets, as well as the one-billion-dollar note that came with the original LP. The SACD discs are released in numbered editions for those who care about such things; mine’s #1086.

You may also enjoy my review of three other Alice Cooper albums: Special Forces, Zipper Catches Skin, and Dada.

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