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Remarkably Sophisticated Songwriting
on 7 June 2012
Of course, for those of us who have been listening to Alice Cooper's classic early 1970s albums (the ultimate masterpiece Killer, the slightly lesser School's Out and again the slightly lesser Love It To Death and Billion Dollar Babies) for 40 years(!), it comes as no surprise to realise that Vincent Furnier and associates have in their time written some majestic and (perhaps unexpectedly) sophisticated songs. Those contained on Alice's 1972 album School's Out are a case in point. Best known (of course) for the hit single title song, this is something of a concept album (with a running theme of teen/school-age rebellion) and contains a brilliant mix of large-scale (almost stage musical dimension) songs and more intimate, lyrical songs.
Along with Alice and his band (Michael Bruce - guitar, Glen Buxton - guitar, Dennis Dunaway - bass, Neal Smith - drums, I list them merely to ensure they receive due recognition) much of the credit for this (and other Cooper) albums must go to producer Bob Ezrin. For me, Ezrin easily reached his creative peak (if indeed producers reach such things), with these four early 1970s Cooper albums. On School's Out, the production values are stunning. Cooper, Ezrin and Co. make spectacular use of full orchestral and (at times) big-band jazz arrangements on the West Side Story-inspired songs Gutter Cats vs The Jets (a satirical take on the musical's gang warfare) and Grand Finale (both songs lifting some of Leonard Bernstein's musical themes). Similarly, the seminal album title song and the Cooper/Ezrin composition My Stars continue with the large-scale sound arrangements.
But, for me, the album reaches its creative peak on the remaining four songs, each song in its own way something of a minor masterpiece. First-off, probably the two most atypical songs on the album, Alma Mater - a heartfelt, and beautifully melodic, ballad on which Alice sings about his character's final days at school before breaking up for the holidays - and Public Animal Number 9 - a raucous and anarchic celebration of school rebellion, 'She wanted an Einstein but she got a Frankenstein'. These two songs are atypical of the album because they are both relatively conventional in terms of song construction. The remaining two songs are quite simply superb and either would be worthy of a place in a 'Bernstein rock opera' (perish the thought!). Luney Tune and Blue Turk are both filled with mind-boggling levels of invention (not quite up to Halo Of Flies standard, but close) - whether this be Dennis Dunaway's superb throbbing bass lines, Glen Buxton's incredible caterwauling guitar (it really does sound like a cat wailing), Alice's by turns snarling and crooning vocals, Neal Smith's dextrous and rhythmic handling of his kit or the stunning backing arrangements (by turns, luscious strings or full-on brass backing). It rarely gets any better than this.
I've been listening to this record on and off for forty years - but a few recent playings have got me discovering more and more hidden depths to its brilliance, thus prompting this review.