Alice Cooper is known for his elaborate set-pieces and death-defying stunt work. He’s been refining the form of performance art for decades now. And in his own way, he’s been improving the subtle (or, not so subtle) art of shocking viewers and audiences.
From his humble beginnings as a musician, Cooper has emerged as the most impressively inventive stage performer of his generation. And by pushing the medium to its most fundamental point, the characters, contradictions and contrasts that make up a great performance have been highlighted.
Cerebral rock it isn’t, and if that’s what you want, you would be better off sticking to Brian Eno and the like. But what Cooper provides is jaw-droppingly incredible feats of ingenuity, prowess and performance. From the 1970s to the more refined 1980s, Cooper has seen it all.
This list offers a sampling of some of the more notorious stage antics that Cooper has committed to the stage. There are many we could have added, and there are more we can add in the future, but here we go.
Alice Cooper’s 10 most shocking moments:
10. ‘The chicken throw’
Let it never be said that Cooper isn’t dedicated to his performance, but this exercise, witnessed at a show in Toronto in 1969, is another form of meditative experience.
Determined to give his audience their money’s worth, Cooper happened upon a chicken that was thrown onto the stage. He threw it into the audience, thinking it could fly away, only for the creature to be torn apart, feather by feather.
If it happened today, PETA would be on the case, and although animal rights activism had yet to unleash its mighty paws onto the 1970s, Cooper did feel some remorse over the incident. Still, it helped to seal his legend.
9. ‘Impaled babies’
Considered by many hardcore fans to be his finest work, Billion Dollar Babies was also released as glam rock was reaching its peak of success. While David Bowie went for beauty, Bryan Ferry aimed for glory, Cooper seemed content with shocking audiences through a series of blindingly visceral stunts.
During live performances, Cooper would impale the heads of baby dolls with a sword that was hanging conveniently near him. It was gory, but the metaphor was nastier still, as Cooper was calling attention to the many parents who needlessly neglect their children.
The Beatles did something similar for Yesterday and Today, as the four Beatles surrounded themselves around a circle of discarded baby head dolls. George Harrison does not look comfortable, which might explain why the cover was rejected.
8. ‘Electric chair’
This was unveiled for the first time during the Love It To Death tour, giving audiences a visible and visceral shock to the senses. By using the electric chair, Cooper was making a stand against the barbaric corporal practices being used across America.
By loving his chair, he was willing himself to death, and although nobody was fooled by the sparks flowing through the machine, the set-piece was sturdy enough, and certainly memorable enough, to appear on subsequent tours.
Madonna used an electric chair one of her tours, and the implement forms the backbone of Tim Robbins achingly beautiful Dead Man Walking. So maybe Cooper was onto something with his vaudeville representation of an execution device.
7. ‘The Magic Screen’
Now, this one is interesting, as it allowed Cooper to double as both a performer and an actor. Showing a blinding film to his audiences, Cooper would run to the screen at pre-determined times, making it seem like he was appearing on the screen.
It was daring, brilliant, and for 1975, it was ahead of the curve. Cooper instilled an added element of unease into the audience, who were already second-guessing their standing in life. The performance opened avenues to viewers who were growing more accustomed to dazzle.
Arguably, only Peter Gabriel showed a similar determination to bring cinema to the rock masses. His rock opera The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway was an impressive collection of motifs that doubled as an audio film as it did a rock album.
6. ‘Black spiders’
Bolstered by the success of ‘The Black Widow’, Cooper decorated the set of Welcome To My Nightmare with a collection of black spiders. Determined to put fear into the hearts of those who saw them, the spiders carried a certain semblance of mysticism that was in keeping with Cooper’s image.
Not only did the spiders provide context into Cooper’s disparate milieu, it also offered him the chance to connect with an animal that went on to become his emblem. In many ways, the spider serves as his spirit animal, but on stage, it was a bit creepy, especially in the mid-1970s.
Cooper has worn black with pride, his spindly body lacing itself around the clothing range, like a protective mother holding herself over those who seek to take her young from her. Cooper looks good in black.
5. ‘Cold Ethyl’
Now, readers caution yourselves. This one is unpleasant. ‘Cold Ethyl’ is an ode to necrophilia, earmarking a dialogue between two lovers, one in the realm of the living and the other in the realm beyond.
And as if that wasn’t sinister enough, Cooper is known to appear on stage with a mannequin doll, as if representing the deceased woman that has captivated the narrator’s heart and soul. Mercifully, the doll tends to be ridiculous looking, but it doesn’t bear thinking too much about.
The tune may have inspired Falco’s ‘Jeanny’, another ballad about a man professing his love, lust and unearthly sins to a woman he has kidnapped and killed. The Killers recorded a song in that vein with ‘Jenny Was a Friend of Mine’.
4. ‘Snakes, snakes, snakes’
It’s a good thing Indiana Jones is a fictional character and dead by the 1970s because Cooper loves to bring snakes onstage. And it was mid-performance that he first came face to face with a snake, helping him to overcome his phobia and learn to love the animal.
Unlike the chicken, he didn’t throw it back into the audience but has been known to wrap a snake around himself, as he did on one memorable episode of Never Mind The Buzzcocks.
He has yet to identify as an anglophile, but Cooper owes much of his work to British rock. He was inspired by The Who’s Pete Townshend and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown to push the boundaries of performance rock to the limits he set for them.
Now, this is the stunt that went wrong. During the rehearsals for a 1988 show, Cooper went the wrong way in the noose and found himself gasping for breath. Fittingly, he was in England, but the noose, which had always worked in his favour, failed him this time.
Cooper later said it was all part of the spectacle, that edge of raw danger. “Everything has its stress limit and after doing so many shows, I never thought about changing the wire. You know, I figured it’ll last forever,” he said. “The wire snaps. I could hear the rope hit my chin and in an instant I flipped my head back. That must’ve been a fraction of a second because if it caught my chin it would have been a different result. It went over my neck and gave me a pretty good burn. I went down to the floor and pretty much blacked out.”
Luckily, he revived himself for the audience in question, and ever the professional, gave it everything he had to the ticket-buying parade. One hopes that he learned his lesson, and put the wires in properly from then on.
2. ‘Fake blood’
Rock was becoming more outrageous by the 1970s, but eyebrows must have been raised for Cooper’s penchant for blood. He would decorate himself with red blotches, emulating the spatters that splatter across a windshield when it hits an innocent animal.
It might seem inconsequential now, but for the 1970s, this was daring stuff, especially considering that John Lennon had aimed for peace with ‘All You Need is Love’ and ‘Give Peace A Chance’. But no matter the backdrop, the blood has remained an integral part of his makeup.
Whether or not Cooper was making some sort of political commentary is bound to be speculative, but it is interesting to note that the singer started putting fake blood on him during the rise of the Vietnam war.
1. ‘The guillotine’
His most famous/infamous trick, the guillotine is also the very stage tactic that could easily have cost him his life. Designed by James Randi, the stage-hand has added pathos, considering that it could very easily have killed the singer.
Randi remembered the attention to detail that went into formulating the stunt: “There were several safety gimmicks I built into it. I took the original plan from Will Rock. He was a prominent magician at the turn of the century who built this guillotine for a horror show. It is unique in that the head that falls into the basket is the head of the performer, the real head.
“That takes some explaining, but I’ll let you think about that for a while. The performer’s whole body falls down and there is no substitute for the head until the end when they pull it out. The proof is in the next act, when Alice is back working again. I did build it, but I knew how the original Will Rock one worked. I built a few other safety gimmicks into it to the satisfaction of Coop. He wanted to be very sure he didn’t lose his head before the end of the tour.”
Since then, the guillotine has appeared on virtually every tour, delighting audiences with a series of “will this get him?” exploits. And with any luck, Cooper will continue to put his head through the contraption for the foreseeable future.