Alice Cooper Band Debuts With Suitably Weird ‘Pretties for You’
Freaks were freaks in 1969, and straights were scared. And even some freaks weren't sure what to make of a new assemblage of long hairs known collectively as Alice Cooper, and their debut album Pretties for You.
The music scene was in the midst of a collective hangover from the fabled Summer Of Love. The drugs weren't what they used to be, the glow had faded a bit, and a darker mellow vibe was encroaching on the culture.
Still, Alice Cooper took full advantage of the outgoing era's "anything goes" mentality. They were prreviously known as the Nazz, until realizing a fellow future star in Philly named Todd Rundgren already had claim to that distinctly cool moniker. So, Vince Furnier, Michael Bruce, Neal Smith, Glen Buxton and Dennis Dunaway did what any logical combo would do: They consulted their Ouija board, which told them to use the name Alice Cooper from now on. Furnier would, of course, eventually take the name as his own as well.
The band adopted a style of dress far removed from the hippie culture, best described as "thrift store drag meets vintage Hollywood glamour at an Acid Test ceremony." Their look – as well as their "everything and the kitchen" sink approach to live performance – caught the attention of Frank Zappa, who signed them to his new label, Straight Records.
"You know it takes something really off the wall to catch the attention of Frank," Smith told Shindig! in 2009. "When he heard us, he signed us and really gave us our first break."
The band entered the studio with Zappa as producer. "We essentially recorded those songs live in the studio," Smith added. "We were going through a song, and we said 'OK, Frank, we're ready to record,' and he'd say 'we already recorded It's done.' We asked what he meant, and he said he'd 'fix it in the mix.'"
For those only familiar with the riff-heavy Alice Cooper of "School's Out," "I'm Eighteen" or "Billion Dollar Babies, Pretties For You will definitely come as a surprise. It's unlike any other record in the Alice Cooper catalog, building off equal parts Yardbirds, Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd, Salvador Dali and a trashy Hollywood vibe.
Even the album cover looks like nothing going on at the time. In fact, the band originally wanted Dali to collaborate on the art. Instead, they ended up opting for an odd painting of a girl lifting up her skirt to an old man, found hanging in Zappa's living room.
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Released on June 25, 1969, Pretties For You opens in grand style with "Titanic Overture." It's an instrumental piece that sounds like a surreal carnival ride gone awry. Short and sweet, it leads into the odd, and oddly titled "10 Minutes Before the Worm," another short romp that sounds like some sort of TV jingle filtered through hallucinogens. "Swing Low, Sweet Cherrio" is an off-kilter rocker with a sound that somehow crosses elements of the Doors, Captain Beefheart and the Beatles. Psychedelic? Perhaps. Intriguing and beguiling for sure.
"Today Mueller" is another brief track, clocking in at under two minutes, with elements of Syd Barrett and a general Dada-esque offbeat playfulness stretching its shape. "Living" is not only one of the most straight ahead and dynamic songs on the album, but also one of the great lost songs in the entire Cooper library. A fuzz guitar riff pushes things into the stratosphere. Imagine the Yardbirds fighting it out with the Byrds The band hits hard once again with "Fields of Regret," another brash rocker.
These songs feature elements of the more straight forward rock sound the group would soon adopt – you can hear the seeds of things like "Killer" and "Dwight Frye" here – but for now they remains entwined with elements of the era.
With the jarring yet bouncy little tune "No Longer Umpire," Alice Cooper tips its hat once again to late Barrett. The close-cut harmonies add a certain tension and dynamic that fits both the band and the song perfectly. Next up is one of the most overtly psychedelic songs on the album: Recorded live at the Cheetah Club, "Levity Ball" has both a dreamy glow as well as a raw bite to it. A studio outtake eventually arrived on a box set years later, but there is something about the original live take that wins out.
"B.B. on Mars" is just over one minute of surreal goodness that surges along, direction uncertain. "Reflected" will ring a bell with the more causal fans, since the song would be re-written in part to become the 1972 smash hit "Elected." Where "Elected" flat out rocks, "Reflected" retained wiggy elements of the band's early incarnation. "Apple Bush" is a somewhat eerie little number set to a swing tempo. Cooper himself puts forth some nice harmonica work here as the band tumble along.
"Earwigs to Eternity" is a slightly autobiographical song, as their first steps were taken as the Earwigs when they entered a high-school contest and played Beatles parodies. There's a slightly disjointed beauty that once again sounds unlike anything else that was happening at the time. "Changing Arranging" ends the album with another look into the future, displaying elements that would turn up in more pronounced ways on later albums.
Throughout, Alice Cooper is as tight and solid as can be, despite the fact that everything was basically recorded live. Proof of that can be found on the '90s archive release, Live at the Whiskey, where they blast many of these songs out in versions that are note faithful to Pretties For You.
Alice Cooper was an incredible band, with a certain special something that was never again matched over all the years. They would soon move into a more commercial and rock-solid style on albums like Love It to Death and Killer, but these early records retained elements of an early Dada-esuqe and surrealist spirit. As such, Pretties For You is not for everyone. Diehards are understandably less likely to play this as Billion Dollar Babies, but its a one-of-a-kind album whose charm and spirit rings through with every note.
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