Alice Cooper's 'The Sound of A' took 50 years to become the legend's latest video; it's worth the wait
Original article by Ed Masley was published by AZ Central on Dec. 23, 2017.
Alice Cooper just premiered a great new music video for “The Sound of A,” a psychedelic highlight of his latest album, “Paranormal.”
And it’s only taken 50 years to see the light of day.
“The Sound of A,” it turns out, was among the first songs Cooper wrote in 1967 and was long forgotten until founding bassist Dennis Dunaway brought it to Cooper’s attention, suggesting he consider it for this year's Paranormal album.
The first song Alice Cooper ever wrote
“Dennis brought in two or three songs,” Cooper says. “And [producer Bob] Ezrin and I are sitting there listening to the stuff, all the writers, and Dennis says, ‘I want you to hear this one.’ I said, ‘Oh man, Dennis, I remember when you wrote that song.’ And he goes, ‘Well, yeah, but you wrote it.’ I said, ‘I did?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, it was the first song you ever wrote.’ And I said, ‘Wow, you’re right.’”
As Dunaway recalls, “In 1967, Alice wrote three songs on guitar – ‘The Sound of A,’ ‘Laughing at Me’ and ‘Shoe Salesman.’ Two were recorded and ‘The Sound of A' was forgotten. In the '80s, I remembered what I could of it and filled in the blanks in the spirit of what I could recall from the original. Of course, since the original song was vocal and acoustic guitar only, my demo took it to a new place. I recently dug it out, recorded a modernized version and surprised him with it.”
“Laughing at Me” and “Shoe Salesman” were both included on Alice Cooper's second album, Easy Action, which arrived in 1970 on the Frank Zappa label, Straight Records.
'So simple and powerful'
When Dunaway played his recording of "The Sound of A," Cooper says “Bob Ezrin said, ‘I love that. That is so simple and powerful.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s record it and see what happens.’ It was the only song that we didn’t really arrange. At the end, I said, ‘Let’s just let it go. Let it float out. Let the guitar players and the keyboard and everything just keep it going and going.’ Because we never do that. And it ended up being one of the great tracks on the album, just because it had that eerie, dreamlike quality."
The version of “The Sound of A” on Paranormal was recorded live to tape in a Nashville studio with Dunaway on bass, Larry Mullen Jr. of U2 on drums, Tommy Henricksen and Tommy Denander on guitars, and Ezrin, who produced the track, on Hammond B3 organ.
A gateway to the past
Although he’d forgotten the song, Cooper says hearing it 50 years later triggered memories of what he was thinking when he wrote the lyrics.
“We were talking about the idea of doing a sci-fi thing where the sound of A (the musical note) was piped into every house and kept everybody on a kind of even keel,” he says. “If they wanted to change your mood, they would change the tone. To A-minor. Or C. Or some augmented chord. And you were controlled by the sound.”
Alice Cooper on recalling his thoughts when he wrote the lyrics to 'The Sound of A'
The song was written, Cooper says, around the time Pink Floyd was staying at the Alice Cooper house in Los Angeles.
“I don’t know if it might’ve had something to do with a brownie,” he says, with a laugh. “But we wrote this song."
Hitting it off with Pink Floyd
They'd played a show with Pink Floyd at the Cheetah Club and hit it off.
"We’d open for the British bands that came in," Cooper says. "And it was crazy. We saw their show and they had exactly the same lights that we did. We had a box made with colored lights that would flicker up because that’s all we could afford were flood lights in a box. And we got there and they had the exact same box. We'd never seen each other before."
Deciding they were "kindred spirits," Cooper and his bandmates invited the British rockers to stay at their house for a couple days.
This was during what Cooper refers to as “the Syd Barrett insanity,” recalling one morning he walked in on the psychedelic pioneer enjoying breakfast more than most.
“I remember this so vividly,” Cooper says. “He had blue velvet pants on, because that’s what the British guys wore. Ruffled shirts. He probably wore it every day. He’s sitting at the table, 6 or 7 in the morning. There’s a box of Corn Flakes there and he’s going….”
Cooper points at an imaginary box of cereal and starts to laugh.
“Apparently, the little Corn Flakes on the box were dancing and doing a show for him,” Cooper recalls. “I went in the other room. I said, ‘Dennis, he is so high.’ He’s watching this box of Corn Flakes the way I would watch Looney Tunes on television. To him, they were having a great time on that box.”
The only guy that could jam with Syd Barrett
Alice Cooper guitarist Glen Buxton formed an instant bond with Barrett.
“Glen Buxton could play any rock and roll thing but he wasn’t really based in the blues,” Cooper says. “Of course, everybody played Chuck Berry so we were all based in that. But that’s not where his brain was at. He had an Echoplex, a guitar and a little amp and he would plug the guitar in and….”
Cooper imitates the spacey sounds guitars can make when plugged into the tape delay effect.
“So he would sit in the room and play his Echoplex with his guitar,” Cooper says. “And Syd Barrett was on the other bed with his Echoplex. Glen would play one thing and Syd would play something back.”
Cooper laughs and says, “So he was the only guy that could jam with Syd Barrett. Everybody else went, ‘How do you jam with Syd Barrett? He’s out of his mind. He’s Stockhausen.’ But Glen could. Glen would have a hard time playing with Paul Butterfield, which was just Chicago blues. He could do it. But that wasn’t where he was at. He could play with Syd Barrett, though.”
Does Cooper feel like any of that Pink Floyd mojo rubbed off on “The Sound of A?”
“Oh I think so,” he says. “Because we listened to ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,' which was, I thought, their best album. That and ‘Saucerful of Secrets’ were their two best albums. When I think of Pink Floyd, that’s how I picture them. I liked ‘See Emily Play.’ And ‘Astronomy Domine.’ That was my picture of Pink Floyd, was those albums. I mean, they went on to do ‘The Wall’ and all that stuff, which was great, but I prefer the early stuff. There’s no doubt that David Gilmour is one of the great guitar players in the business. In fact, he should be rated a lot higher. But the early stuff was much more creative, I thought.”
When you heard a Barrett-era Pink Floyd record, Cooper says, you knew exactly who it was because no one else sounded like that.
No one else sounds like that
And one could say the same for Cooper’s early work.
To Cooper’s ears, “Pretties for You” was “maybe our most original album.” In fact, he recalls, “It was so original that Frank Zappa goes, ‘I don’t get it.’"
And Zappa was kind of a weirdo.
"He says, ‘You’ve got six songs that are two minutes long and have 28 changes in them,'" Cooper recalls. "I went, ‘Yeah?’ And he goes, “I don’t get it.” I say, ‘Well, is that good or bad?’ And he goes, ‘No it’s good, ‘cause I don’t get it. That’s why I want to sign you. Because it doesn’t sound like anybody else.’ You know, it’s pretty hard to not sound like anybody else. So ‘Pretties for You’ and ‘Easy Action’ were certainly the smallest-selling albums but the most creative albums.”
The “real” fans, Cooper says, will sometimes ask him why he never dips into those albums in the live show.
“They go, ‘How come you never play, ‘B.B. on Mars?,’” he recalls, with a laugh. “And I go, ‘I don’t know if this band could play that.’ You have to be in that headspace to be able to play that song. You can’t go backwards and relearn that song because the real great musicians would sit there and go, ‘I don’t know how to play that.’ You had to be the original band in order to play that stuff.”
How do we get on the radio?
Given his affection for those first two albums, was Cooper reluctant to rein that in on their third album, “Love it to Death,” which spawned their breakthrough single “I’m Eighteen?”
“Oh no,” Cooper says. “We were, at this point, tired of starving. And… we had already done it. We’d moved on. The guys in the band were better players. And we kind of knew that we had to deal with the Doors. We had to deal with Led Zeppelin. We had to deal with all these bands that were blues-based rock bands if we wanted to get on the radio.
"We had already done our art albums. Let’s now take that into ‘Love it To Death’ with Bob Ezrin, who knows how to take a song that we would have taken in a whole different way and say, ‘OK, I know how to make this song sound good on the radio. Without taking away its power. All we’re gonna do is take things out of the record to make it simpler. And that’s what will make this record powerful.' We didn’t understand that.”
It’s not that there’s a lack of creativity to the music on “Love it to Death” or its followup, “Killer.”
“The creativity was still there,” Cooper says. “I mean, “Dwight Fry” and “Sun Arise” and all that stuff. But Bob had taken the same songs and arranged them so that you could hear them on the radio and they made sense. He said, ‘You can be as creative as you want, but let’s put it in a package that makes it sound listenable on the radio, where the guy that’s gonna pick the record goes, ‘Oh! I like that.’”
Dumb it down to make it powerful
“I’m Eighteen,” he says, is a perfect example of what Ezrin brought to the proceedings.
“’Eighteen’ is a song we used to open with that was a big jam,” Cooper says. “It was 15 minutes long. And he says, ‘What is that song? I’m edgy?’ I said, ‘No, I’m Eighteen.’ He goes, ‘OK, well, an 18-year-old would be a lot dumber than that. We have to dumb this song down.’ And of course, we wanted to be the Yardbirds, so there would be all this guitar work in it and everything. And he goes, ‘No. Dumb it down. Play it again. Dumber.’ It’s gotta be….”
Playing air guitar in a conference at Alice Cooper's Rock Teen Center, where he and Sheryl Cooper, his wife, are hosting a Christmas party for 150 underpriveleged youth, he sings to the tune of the opening riff, “Dumb. Dumb. Dumb-Dumb-Dumb-Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.”
Cooper smiles, then continues.
“He told me, ‘You’re saying “I’m eighteen, I don’t belong. I can fight but I can’t vote. I’m confused sexually.”’ He says, ‘You’ve got to create that sort of punk dumbness. This band wouldn’t think of putting that guitar in.’”
And so, they kept dumbing it down until they’d dumbed it down to their producer’s satisfaction.
At that point, as Cooper recalls, “He said, ‘Now, it will get played because it’s powerful.’ And we just did not get that. We didn’t understand how that was powerful, you know? But he was right.”
Of course, the lyrics helped. It’s a teenage anthem.
“The hook on it was ‘Yeah, this is awful. I’m 18, I’m confused. And I like it.”
“The whole end of the song is ‘I like it, love it, like it, love it.’ I love the chaos of being this age. That’s what the hook was, right there. Instead of saying I hate it, I like it.”
Cooper is 18 again
Asked if it’s harder to get in the head space of “I’m Eighteen” with his 70th birthday coming up in February, Cooper laughs.
“Oh no, Alice is 18,” he says “When the Who do ‘My Generation,’ there’s a 16-year-old kid who listens to that song and goes, ‘He’s talking about me.’ There are certain anthems that will work for every single generation. ‘Eighteen’ is one, ‘cause there’s a million kids turn 18 every year. ‘School’s Out.’ Everybody believes the last day of school is the greatest day of the year. ‘My Generation.’ Every kid relates to that."
When you write an anthem, Cooper says, "It’s something that kids will still relate to 50 years from now. And at the time, that’s how we felt. We were all 1-A. We were all eligible for the draft. Every guy in the band. We were ready to go into Vietnam. And luckily, the lottery came up and took us out of it, but we could have easily gone to Vietnam. And that was one of those songs we wrote during that era, thinking, ‘Man, my life could be over tomorrow.’”
The limited edition single of "Sound of A" comes out February 2018. What do you think of the new recording of "Sound of A?" Do you still collect vinyl, or are you digital only? -DD