How Frank Zappa gave Alice Cooper his first big break
Frank Zappa and Alice Cooper are two of the greatest on-stage enigmas that rock music has ever produced. They were indeed contrasting characters who were the definition of larger than life. Although the jazz-inspired abstract world in which Zappa existed was miles away from Cooper’s visceral glam-rock, he recognised a real talent and took him under his wing.
Zappa was famously a difficult character; he never operated conventionally or was an artist similar to any other that came before him. When he decided to set up his two record labels in 1968, Straight Records and Bizarre Records, many believed it would either be a stroke of genius or a complete disaster. While there’s no doubting that Zappa had an eye for talent, he wasn’t just looking for conventionally good musicians or people who could guarantee commercial success — Zappa was all about discovering rock’s next great character. Zappa was looking for an artist that could dominate the stage with their presence and leave a lasting memory ingrained in the audience’s mind.
In conversation with comedian Noel Fielding for The Guardian in 2012, Cooper recalled how their paths crossed and what made Zappa determined to sign the band up to his record label. “We were playing a big party in LA, with The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Love – all those great bands,” Cooper said.
“We came on next to last because we were the house band. Everybody in the audience was on acid, of course, grooving on peace and love, and then all of a sudden you hear this DA-NA-NAA-NAAA and there’s these insanity-looking clowns onstage. We scared the hell out of these people.
“They were all on acid, we looked like we’d just come up out of the ground, and we didn’t mind a little violence onstage,” noted Cooper, the band laying perfect foreshadowing for a career at the top of the horror rock pile. “That audience couldn’t get out of the room fast enough. It was like somebody yelled ‘FIRE!’ There were three people left standing: Frank Zappa, my manager Shep Gordon and one of the GTOs. Frank said, ‘Anybody that can clear a room that quick, I’ve got to sign.'”
The chance meeting started a whirlwind professional relationship between the two which started emphatically but, ultimately, ended in tears. Cooper quickly began to gain a reputation as a “shock rocker”, whose onstage antics were unpredictable and began to create a mythology around him. Zappa initially worked with Cooper on making this act even stranger but soon enough realised he was better off leaving Cooper to his own devilish devices.
Alice Cooper’s first three albums were all released on Straight Records and distributed through Warner, but it wasn’t long before Zappa’s initial interest in the group started to dwindle. Allegedly, his initial plan was to turn them into a full-blown gimmicky comedy act, who went by the name of ‘Alice Cookies’ and he intended for their album to be on cookie size vinyl in tin cans. The band weren’t even opposed to the idea, but thankfully financial constraint would hold the plans back.
Zappa was supposed to be the producer for their debut record, Pretties For You, but seldom showed up at the studio and mostly left the band in the hands of Mothers Of Invention keyboardist Ian Underwood. Once they finally landed on a sound that the band wanted to press ahead with on the record, Zappa informed them that they only had a week to complete the album. The ever-prolific Zappa expected bands to work as quickly as he did and, while he was able to make an excellent record in a week, he was an exception to the rule.
The second album saw Zappa take an even further backseat in the process and he installed David Briggs as a producer, who allegedly despised the group. For the third record, Love It To Death, Zappa’s focus lay elsewhere and his label was being run almost entirely by Warner Bros. at this point. Alice Cooper would move on following the end of their three-album deal.
The band later became embroiled in a bitter lawsuit with Zappa’s business team, which allegedly cost Alice Cooper millions of dollars as the royalty rights to their work preceding 1973’s, Billion Dollar Babies, vanished before their eyes.
Despite their relationship ending on bitter terms, Cooper had nothing but praise to say about Zappa following his death in 1993. “Zappa never adapted to American culture or wavered from his complex music,” he praisingly noted. “You’d think his stuff was all improvised, but his sheet music included every little squeak, bump, howl, and yodel that was played. Unbelievable. Zappa was also the best guitar player I’ve ever seen. I saw him play one night at a club with Hendrix. Frank got up and did an imitation of him. I’m looking at Hendrix and his mouth was open.”
Although Frank Zappa was hardly the most generous mentor in the world, he gave Cooper and his band their first real start in the industry and helped establish Alice Cooper as a household name. The guitarist spotted a special ingredient, something that nobody else saw back when they were a house band in Los Angeles, and without that leg up he provided them with, who knows what their future would have been.