Concept Album Corner - 'Welcome To My Nightmare' by Alice Cooper
An early seasons greetings to you all on this month of All Hallows Eve. Horror, fear, and terror can take many forms and many guises in our culture, as mankind certainly seems to have a fondness for it. Be it in film, literature, paintings, and even back to spooky folk tales, horror has spread across all of humanity’s popular culture like a voracious plague. What mortal being who has trekked upon this planet not experienced fear in their lives? From the paranoia of darkly lit rooms lurking with new and unfamiliar visitors, standing in a corner of your bedroom while you sleep or perhaps grinning right in your face while your eyes remain closed, to the inevitable death and destruction of loved ones, societies, planets, solar systems, galaxies, universes, and so on. A lot of these things are frightening to us due to our lack of comprehension and our lack of understanding of the greater universe outside of our tiny, insignificant worlds. Hell, even in our own worlds, there are millions of things that frighten us because we can’t explain them. Spontaneous diseases, bodily alterations, twists and turns in the normalities of life, fear of inferiority in a power-hungry world, fear of surrender in a merciless society, and perhaps most of all, nightmares. A common occurrence for most anybody who has lived on Earth for a considerable amount of time, yet still a mystery with billions of theories behind them. So with such a popular, terrifying element to all of human life, it was all too fitting that shock-rocker Alice Cooper take it up as the concept for his debut solo album.
Should one stroll down the Hollywood walkway of Music, the name Alice Cooper will definitely show up, and not without just cause. Musically, Cooper may not be one of the most complex songwriters; subtlety seems to be a foreign concept to him throughout his work, which is certainly a change of pace for this little review show. But what Cooper lacks in the department of minimalism, he more than makes up for in his theatricality. After David Bowie sort-of redefined glam rock with his magnum opus The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, Cooper took those new standards and pushed them to their extremes. Alice, much like bowie, helped to pioneer Rock Theater, shoving all of the bombast and vaudevillian splendor of his music into his shows, complete with fake blood, beheadings, and first degree murder of fowl. And the album that started it all was his debut solo album of 1975, Welcome To My Nightmare.
Unlike previous albums I’ve talked about, this album is, as you would guess, not as… ‘refined’ or ‘delicate’ with its subject matter. Let’s take a look.
1.) Welcome To My Nightmare – The title track creeps in with a quiet strum of an electric guitar, with Alice welcoming us with a whisper, enticing us with an eerie, quiet atmosphere to the piece. This changes quickly when we hear the springy sound of a guitar playing an early 70’s disco tune, which sets the tone for the rest of the album. Oddly enough, the song still retains a ghostly tone and atmosphere to it, but not in a way that is meant to seriously scare you. The song is loud and boisterous, ending off with a clap of thunder, meant moreso for fun than actual spooks. Simply enough, this just introduces the audience to the rest of the album to come, setting the tone and all.
2.) Devil’s Food – Sticking closer to hard rock rather than funk or disco of the 70’s, Cooper starts to sing about cannibalistic cooking instructions: Get ready for the lady/She’s gonna be a treat/Simmer slightly till ready/Make her soft to make her sweet. The song suddenly switches gears in sound (slightly), using something that sounds like fire igniting over Alice’s singing of some spiritual horror. Overall, the song is pretty lively and even joyful at parts, even up to the point where we hear somebody screaming in agony. The drums keep going as we hear a familiar voice to any fan of horror: Vincent Price! Yes, Vincent Price graces this album with his charismatic voice as a sort of demented museum guide, going over his collection of arachnids, especially over his favorite, deadly spider: The Black Widow, transitioning into the very next song.
3.) The Black Widow – Once again, mostly hard-rock oriented and considerably less joyous than the previous song (save for a loud brass section for the bridge), ‘The Black Widow’ morphs the description of the poisonous arachnid from before into something Satanic. A king, leering and wickedly laughing upon his throne of corpses as they worship him, perhaps out of true admiration or out of fear. Speaking as somebody with a crippling phobia of insects, this doesn’t exactly portray The Black Widow in a terrifying light to me, but again, rather as an over-the-top, overblown cartoon of spiders, as some kind of King Herod. Though I suppose that isn’t entirely the point.
4.) Some Folks – Alice Cooper has stated in the past that some of his favorite music comes from the 40’s and 50’s, greatly admiring the jazz and ragtime pieces of folks like Cab Calloway. Knowing this will perhaps give you an idea of how this song sounds. It might also be nice to point out that Cooper collaborated with one of the biggest music producers in rock, Bob Ezrin, who supposedly supplied Cooper with an orchestral section on a lot of his songs (mostly used in the bridges of songs). Fingers snap, piano keys bang, and trumpets blare as Alice sings about humankind’s obsession with ‘it’. What is it, you may ask? Well, when ‘it’ is not a clown terrorizing children in the suburbs of Maine, ‘it’ seems to taboos or social abominations. The ultimate paradox, things that we know and can’t live without, yet set such rigid rules and regulations on. Things like death, lust, addictions, and unspoken desires. In the bridge, Alice begins to sputter and stammer deciding between his need for ‘it’ and his refusal of ‘it’ until he howls like a wolf. It is perhaps best to mention something about Alice now: I personally find his voice to be annoying at many points throughout the album. At best, it can be smooth and eerie like a far-off voice calling for your name in the darkest corridors of an abandoned mansion. At worst, it is nasally, loud, and scratchy like somebody trying to do their worst Cartman impression. I’ll leave it for you to decide whether it works for you or not, but it doesn’t do much for me.
5.) Only Women Bleed – Starting off strangely peacefully and soft, in stark contrast to the rest of the album, we’ve finally reached a song that is almost completely tonally dissonant to its lyrics: spousal abuse. The song is almost too similar to the Pink Floyd song ‘Brain Damage’, though mostly in the guitar section. One might find this section uncomfortable to listen to, considering every real and harsh thing that a woman can go through being in an abusive relationship. But for some reason, the song is almost all too peaceful and sweet like a love-ballad. Though that was probably what Cooper was going for. I guess scathing satire would be hard to notice on an Alice Cooper album. That’s not to say that he can’t do it though, it merely comes as a shock to the rest of his work. In fact, the very next song is very blatant in its satire.
6.) Department of Youth – It’s hard for me to debate which song off of this album has Alice Cooper’s voice at its most annoying: this one or the song a few steps along the way. In the 60’s and 70’s, a lot of rock bands realized that their audiences were young people, some of which were only in high school or even lower. So at the time, a lot of anthems were made to empower the youth of the day, to instill power in the down-trodden, put-upon teenagers, to give them hope that they could truly do something in the world. Think Another Brick in The Wall Pt. 2 or even Cooper’s own School’s Out. At first, one would assume that this would be exactly that, with a heavy guitar riff partying along with the drum section. However, listening to the lyrics – try as hard as you can, listening to Cooper singing with what sounds like half of the cast of South Park – you find out that Cooper may be criticizing the youth moreso than raising them up. We ain’t afraid of high power/We’re bulletproof/We’ve never heard of Eisenhower, missile power/Justice or truth. It seems that Cooper is warning kids and adults alike of self-entitlement. We all have the power to make a difference, but the difference we make could be a big one. And it may not necessarily be a good one. Power is a tricky thing to handle, especially for a large group of people who will become the next generation, a group of people who are quietly losing any and all senses of humility.
7.) Cold Ethyl – Sticking with the party tone from the previous song, this seems to be the only song that is meant to be straight-up comedy (at least, to me). Simply put, it is about… ‘dead love’. No, that is not an interpretive theory I made up about the song, it’s rather blatant. She’s cool in bed/She oughta be, cause Ethyl’s dead. As the song progresses, we can faintly hear a woman moaning in pleasure (or it may be the guitar, I’m not entirely sure). Cooper himself moans out loudly, either from the cold or…well, I’m sure you can imagine. Oddly enough, it is actually a very funny song, though I don’t know if it was intentional or not. Cooper did often enjoy going all out into shock-rocker territory. But the happy tune may or may not have been intended to be comical. Honestly, listening to it challenges me to prevent myself from chuckling to myself at a rather dark subject matter.
8.) Years Ago – The next three songs stick out from the rest of the album majorly in two ways: music and relation to the concept album itself. So far, we’ve had pretty standard rowdy, hard-rock tunes on what is supposedly a concept album, but only now we are starting to tie it all together to a story. Alice sings as a young boy, quiet, timid, and whispery, left alone for seemingly years at a carnival. So obviously, this couldn’t be a horror-themed album without creepy harpsichord waltz and keyboard mewling, eh? This introduces us to the main character that the album is supposedly about, Steven, a recurring character throughout Cooper’s work in general. Steven talks with himself as a young boy and a nightmarishly large old man. As the song ends, we hear Steven’s mother call to him to come home.
9.) Steven – We have come to the crux of the album, the climactic scene…with Cooper’s voice not only annoying and childish, but also whiny and ready to break, as though his testicles have never dropped. We open on a piano playing a Toccata and Fugue-esque piece, bringing to mind images of a midnight dreary, dark and stormy, seeping fog from every orifice of the shadows. The song switches between Steven and some otherworldly being, perhaps a part of Steven himself. Steven mourns over his inner conflict, represented by a chorus of ghosts calling out his name while he sleeps, and a voice screaming in torture. Steven must choose between hiding from his fears or facing them. The conflict builds and builds with the orchestra, growing so loud and flamboyant as to almost be considered epic. Steven seemingly triumphs at the end, escaping the nightmare…
10.) The Awakening – The piano comes back, disjointed and quiet, playing in reverse at some point, bringing the images of the tinkling of shattered glass or the dripping of water. Probably the most different song of them all on the album, ‘The Awakening’ is very quiet and subtle through most of it. Steven wakes up…but not to a pleasant sight. He is searching for his wife in his house, alone and dark at night. He follows a trail of crimson spots to the big, clichéd reveal: Steven has murdered his wife, caught ‘red-handed’ in the most literal sense of the word. At first, it seems like Steven is grief-stricken by this revelation, but the final lyric seems to imply otherwise: It makes me feel like a man.
11.) Escape – Going back to the regular hard-rock tone of the album, Cooper brings us to the ultimate paradox for Steven, and perhaps the ultimate paradox for dreamers in general. The world is a miserable, sad place for all of us, but are our fantasies really any better? Steven is tormented with a choice for the rest of his life: escape from the misery of the real world and hide from himself, or escape from his personal nightmare and face up to his horrible deeds?
As to what the concept of the overall album is, allow me to sit you all down and let us all partake in theory time with your host.
Steven had grown up with an neglectful mother (Years Ago) and was brought up in a strict religious, possibly Catholic upbringing, instilling the fear of damnation in him (Devil’s Food). As he grew up, he grew a fear of spiders (The Black Widow) and a fear of society (Department of Youth, Some Folks). He married, but was equally neglected or abused by his wife, leading him to fantasize about abusing her in return (Only Women Bleed) and pervert his sexual desires (Cold Ethyl). Perhaps it works very well as a character study.
Or I could be reading way too much into this. It’s honestly surprising what little I had to say about these songs, but that’s sort of how Cooper works. He has never been a man for metaphors or deep poetry, he goes for directness and brutal honesty in his work. Oddly enough, it helps. Not all rock music is made to give a message or to express something. Sometimes music is just that. Sometimes the symbols are nothing more than what they are. If you are looking for something deep or poetic, you probably won’t find it here (unless you really try to dig deep enough, but you might be doing the wrong thing). But Cooper’s work is almost perfect for Halloween tunes. He knows how to have fun with horror and how to make it big.
And now, Alice Cooper on The Muppet Show. Because it is awesome.