Alice Cooper + Airbourne + MC50 @ Brisbane Entertainment Centre, 18.02.2020
Music is full of underrated and unappreciated acts; bands, musicians and singers that should be much better known, have higher reputations and more respect. And yet despite the high profile, the songs on classic radio stations, the sell out arena shows, the TV interviews, the film cameos, Alice Cooper just does not get the widespread acclaim he deserves.
There are a number of reasons for this. David Lee Roth once stated that music critics like Elvis Costello because music critics look like Elvis Costello. They just aren’t going to be taken with Alice Cooper (or Van Halen for that matter). Cooper has long been regarded as a heavy metal act (unfairly so) and your average music critic generally won’t or don’t go anywhere near anything they consider metal. There’s also the theatrics; music critics crave authenticity (misguided). Elaborate stage sets, props and performance aren’t for them. Metal, hard rock, call it what you will, might be a rite of passage for many and yet albums covering these genres rarely make it into any mainstream end of year polls and however massive the summer festivals are, they get nowhere near the same attention or word count as festivals featuring acts with high rotation radio play. Another reason is the live show has long dominated over the recorded music. Alice Cooper is regarded as a live performer much more than he is a songwriter.
It’s criminal how little focus is given to Cooper the songwriter. He’s always had an ear for great vocal melodies and has always been a strong lyricist. Although he might be known for hit songs from way back in the past, the albums he continues to put out every few years always have a number of excellent songs, work that holds up to his very best songs. A ‘Best Of’ collection that groups his songs from the last 25 or so years and ignores all his best known earlier songs might not be a best seller, but it would still be a first-rate collection of songs.
Bob Dylan is on the record as rating him as a songwriter, and considering him underrated and overlooked, Johnny Rotten sang an Alice Cooper song for his Sex Pistols audition, his songs inspired the likes of the Ramones, The Germs, David Byrne and the Flaming Lips, his songs have been covered by acts as diverse as Sonic Youth, The Melvins, Jello Biafra, Rowland S Howard & Lydia Lunch, Etta James, Smashing Pumpkins, Anthrax, Megadeth, Tex Perkins & Adalita, Chris Connelly, The Vandals, Big Country, Ike & Tina Turner, Tori Amos and… Pat Boone (when he was going through a metal phase. Seriously), as well as a plethora of hard rock/metal acts over the decades. There always was a rumour Frank Sinatra had also covered him, but thanks to the internet, that’s been sadly disproved. Either way, his songwriting influence extends far beyond the hard rock/metal acts that people assume.
It takes more than just theatrics to keep bringing people back tour after tour for more than 50 years, and it’s simply the quality of the song collection that he has to select from.
Wayne Kramer isn’t taking any prisoners.
“There’s an absolute moron in the White House,” he contends just before the MC50 launch into ‘Looking At You’, the final song of their criminally short seven song set, “I think you guys might have a moron in your prime ministership too,” he continues. “I think they should be out of the White House and into the big house,” before concluding, “Justice for all, not just white people with money.” How well this goes down with the crowd is hard to tell. There’s at least one guy on the main floor below where I’m sat who looks to be angrily gesticulating and shouting and yet I’m not sure he’s agreeing with Kramer’s views. This is Queensland after all, proclamations of civil rights and equality aren’t something that’s been universally popular in the deep north.
A mere twenty five minutes earlier, Kramer had led out the this latest incarnation of the legendary MC5, regrouped as the MC50, named to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the band’s debut, the live-recorded Kick Out The Jams. Kramer delivers the classic spoken word introduction by Brother J. C. Crawford, a man listed on the album’s personnel as ‘spiritual advisor. that starts the album, reaching its climax and demanding of us, “Brothers, it’s time to testify and I want to know, are you ready to testify? Are you ready? I give you a testimonial: the MC5!” as the band launch into ‘Ramblin’ Rose’. The banner above the stage might read MC50 1968 – 2018 but they’re a band that quickly prove that they’re not ready to rest easy quite yet.
The current line-up is a formidable collection of musicians, featuring Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, Faith No More bassist Billy Gould and Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty plus Zen Guerilla singer Marcus Durrant taking on the Rob Tyner role in the band. With Kramer taking the lead vocals for ‘Ramblin’ Rose’, as well as providing all the lead guitarist rock moves, Durrant plays it cool behind his dark glasses, adding some backing vocals where needed. From the second song, the legendary’Kick Out The Jams‘, onwards, Durrant is to the fore, high kicking, dropping to his knees, unleashing his ferocious energy onto the crowd. Durrant pulls the performance together in acting as the foil to Kramer, making it a twin lead attack.
The songs may be classics from the US underground rock scene but it’s amazing how timeless they feel, how together the band sounds and how they perform together. There’s never any sign that you would make you think they haven’t been playing these songs together for years. On one hand it’s strange to think that most of the band are much more famous and probably considerably financially better off than the man who’s leading the band, and yet it’s testament to the MC5, both in terms of the songs and what the band stood for more than 50 years ago, that the likes of Thayil, Gould and Canty want to be a part of this. You can always questions bands reforming without the majority of their original or classic line-ups, but this is some group that Wayne Kramer has put together. It’s a shame they only get 30 minutes.
Whether Airbourne have any say in the music played over the PA before they take to the stage, I can’t say. But when it’s AC/DC’s ‘Shake Your Foundations’, you can’t help but think that something’s not right with the world. While it’s uncertain as to whether the MC50 win anyone over, you feel with Airborne that they’re playing to a much more receptive audience. Airbourne are undeniably AC/DC-lite but at least with AC/DC, you always felt they did everything they did (and still do, I guess) while slyly winking at you. By comparison, everything Airbourne do all seems far too serious, it’s serious male hard rock music but without the playful sense of fun that the band that they almost exclusively base themselves have. Black ripped jeans, shirts off, the headbanging, the hair twirling, the pointy guitars with pointy headstocks, the wall of Marshall stacks across the back of the stage, the drummer hidden behind an enormous drum kit. Didn’t we leave this all behind in the 1980s. Whatever it is, it’s not the sound of revolution that the MC50 left the stage to about 20 minutes earlier. It just all feels a bit unnecessary.
Airbourne get AC/DC over the PA before they hit the stage, Alice Cooper gets…Alice Cooper. As good as his most recent studio album, Paranormal, is, it’s like a next level to all those rock bands who perform while wearing their own band’s t-shirts. The playback continues with Welcome to my Nightmare‘s ‘Years Ago’, which would work better and be more effective as the introductory music if they had turned the lights down to build up the anticipation and atmosphere.
The curtain drops to present a medieval castle stage set, stairs at one side, leading up the battlements and a turret on the opposite side of the stage, as the band launches into ‘Feed My Frankenstein’. For all the reputation for theatrics, you realise how modest and simple much of what Cooper does is. There’s the obligatory guillotine execution scene towards the end and a nine foot tall Frankenstein during ‘Teenage Frankenstein’ and sure the climax of the show features a nine-foot tall inflatable baby, resplendent with Alice Cooper eye make-up and ‘Billion Dollar Baby’ tattooed across its chest, dancing around the stage, lovingly cradling Cooper’s decapitated head, while the rest of his band sing ‘I Love the Dead’, but mostly it’s simple things. Alice twirling his cane, Alice brandishing his sword, throwing fake billion dollar bills into the crowd, a couple of simple costume changes. It’s mostly little things but it makes you consider that while your typical lead singer walks from one side of the stage to the other with a microphone in one hand, once you add something so simple as a cane or a sword, you’ve suddenly got a performance.
Selecting songs for setlists by acts with massive back catalougues of material is always going to be an issue and yet it’s what brings the audience. I’d argue that there are probably only five songs that need to be included in an Alice Cooper set: ‘School’s Out’ and ‘Poison’, as the two biggest hit singles, plus ‘Eighteen’ ‘The Ballad of Dwight Fry’ and ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’, as the stone cold classics (although Dwight Fry sadly isn’t included in this tour). If you really want to argue, I’ll also let you have ‘Billion Dollar Babies’. Based on the 23 song setlist for this ‘Ol’ Black Eyes Is Back’ tour, that gives 17 or 18 songs to play around. Although Cooper relies heavily on songs from a a small number of his 1970s albums, he mixes it up enough between tours to keep things interesting.
There’s also a number of real surprises in the songs chosen for this tour. The title track from 1974’s Muscle of Love is one of these moments, as is an outing for ‘He’s Back (The Man Behind The Mask)’ from 1986’s Constrictor album, a song that’s been reworked so much from its synth-heavy original into a triple guitar-led attack rock song that it’s unrecognisable until the chorus. ‘My Stars’, from the School’s Out album is another unexpected turn, although, for some reason or another, the audience decides this is the moment that they’re going to take a toilet break and/or head to the bar. A few songs earlier ‘Poison’ had been greeted with the largest cheer of the night, everyone with their phones in the air, the guy sat next to me vigorously air drumming. Sometimes you just can’t rationalise reaction.
There’s a single song from 2017’s Paranormal, ‘Fallen in Love’ sandwiched between ‘Raped and Freezin” and ‘Under My Wheels’ but more than holding its own when compared to a couple of Cooper’s best. Along with the opening track, ‘Feed My Frankenstein’, it’s the only song from the last 30 years, which is a slight disappointment, as Cooper doesn’t have to rely on songs from the 1970s as much as he does. As well as nothing from the last seven albums, as expected, there’s still nothing from Zipper Catches Skin or Dada. Songs from these two albums have never been played live and while we can live in hope, the reality is that we’re probably running out of time for Cooper to really surprise us with the song choice. The only time things go flat is during Raise Your Fist and Yell‘s ‘Roses on White Lace’, which at least has some theatre provided by Cooper’s wife, Cheryl, making her first appearance of the night, in a blood-splattered wedding dress, a candelabra in one hand, a bunch of rose in the other.
As expected the band – guitarists Ryan Roxie, Tommy Henriksen and Nita Strauss, bassist Chuck Garric and drummer Glen Sobel – are excellent. It’s an ensemble performance, it feels like a gang, never Alice Cooper plus backing band. From the photo pit and for the first few songs Cooper sounds in fine voice but it’s hard to know whether his vocals tire over the length of the set or whether it’s just the Entertainment Centre’s notoriously terrible acoustics that start to deteriorate mere metres from the front and exponentially worsen the further back you go.
Although he says he has no plans for retirement, at 72, albeit a sprightly septuagenarian, Cooper isn’t going to be putting on live shows forever. Maybe one more tour if we’re lucky. That discography, however, will last forever and there’s no time like the present to dive in and start to appreciate Alice Cooper, the songwriter and the lyricist. The live shows are great fun but only because the songs that underpin the performance are so masterful.