ReDiscoveries #5: Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies

1972 is widely praised as the most fertile year ever for rock albums, notching such classics as The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and Neil Young's Harvest. But albums released in 1973 and currently celebrating their 50th anniversary may be even better: Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, ZZ Top's Tres Hombres, and Bruce Springsteen's The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, among others. But of all the enduring albums of '73, the most exotic, audacious, and ultimately entertaining must be Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies.

If first impressions are key, then the look alone of the Billion Dollar Babies LP made it an instant classic. A prime artifact from the days when the music business spent lavishly on complicated and expensive album art, the package was designed like a wallet. Outside was a large gold coin with a baby's head encircled by embossed diamonds against a bright-green snakeskin-patterned background. Inside were pop-out trading cards and an oversized billion-dollar bill picturing the band. The inner sleeve has lyrics on one side and the band, dressed in white, looking hilariously perplexed by their surroundings, petting white rabbits among stacks of paper money while Cooper holds an infant whose eyes are ringed by the same black makeup design he wore onstage.

After the long, wearying struggle to succeed followed by endless touring and boundless adulation, Alice Cooper the band was both peaking and coming apart in 1973. Having recently released Killer (1971) with its singles "Be My Lover" and "Under My Wheels," and a follow-up, School's Out (1972), whose LP came packaged in a pair of women's panties, conditions were ripe for these early progenitors of shock, schlock, and glam rock to fashion one lasting achievement yet to be.

Guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce (who also plays keyboards), drummer Neal Smith, bassist Dennis Dunaway, and Vince Furnier (aka Alice Cooper) recorded BDB from August 1972 through January 1973 at the Cooper Mansion in Connecticut with a mobile recording unit, as well as in Morgan Studios, London, and The Record Plant in New York City. The engineers were Shelly Yakus, Frank Hubach, Robin Black, Peter Flanagan, Jack Douglas, and Ed Sprigg. Guitarists Mick Mashbir, Dick Wagner, and Steve Hunter (the latter two would be prominent in Alice Cooper's solo career) and keyboardist Bob Dolin provided extra support.

More than 100 versions of the original album have been released since 1973, with different mixes created for the original 1973 quadrophonic version and, later, a 2001 multichannel 5.1 DVD video release. The sound of the original album, while laden with overdubs and effects, is generally clear and detailed with only occasional moments when an uncertain murk colors the sonic image.

More textures and bombast than actual hard rock, BDB in retrospect is a strange collection of highly polished performances. Upon closer listen, piano parts are a subtle but surprisingly essential part of the arrangements. Never loud or overdriven guitars, sometimes keening, aid in the album's high-camp zeitgeist. And where else in pop music history is there a tune like "Unfinished Sweet"? Clearly composed with the band's live show in mind, it has guitar chords serving as yowls of pain, a whirring dentist drill, a James Bond–styled middle section, and finally the sound of a tooth being pulled. That's wisely followed by one of riff rock's most infectious singles, "No More Mr. Nice Guy."

Unafraid to reach out of their element, at producer Bob Ezrin's suggestion, they worked up a version of "Hello Hooray," a tune covered in 1968 by folkie Judy Collins. Bruce came up with the riff that powers the album's most under-rated song, "Raped and Freezin'," which concludes, again at Ezrin's suggestion, with a bouncing change of tempo and massed voices shouting "Olé" as if at a bullfight.

Band friend Reggie Vinson and guitarist Buxton wrote the melody for the title track, which began life as a ballad before Dunaway and Bruce added beefy guitar chords, Smith added aggressive drums, and Cooper contributed lyrics. When the band was in London, Donovan, who was recording in the same studio, was induced to sing/speak a spooky accompanying vocal part. An early example of the use of samples and a rhythm track that the band later admitted was modeled on The Who, "Elected," a rewrite of "Reflected" from the 1969 album, Pretties for You, was reimagined as a topical political song.

It closes with Cooper shouting a monologue that ends, "Personally, I don't care."

The album's two "horror" tunes, the eerie "Sick Things," which pans back and forth between the left and right channels, and another big production number, "I Love the Dead," by Ezrin/Cooper—again, both produced with an eye toward the all-important stage show—were necessary and expected additions. Bruce's ballad "Mary Ann" presages the direction of Cooper's solo career. Finally, the mostly acoustic "Generation Landslide," with its central harmonica parts, has often been named by surviving bandmembers and fans as the peak of the group's collective songwriting catalog.

Bassist Dunaway remembers it in his 2015 book, Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! My Adventures in The Alice Cooper Group, as a highlight of the BDB experience: "We poured on the tricky Yardbirds-esque things we'd done when we were the Nazz [not the Rundgren band]. ... I thought it was the best song on the album, and that Alice's lyrics were the best ever. Later on, Bob Dylan cited them in an interview."

Rhino Records, Warner Music's catalog division, says no 50th anniversary reissue is currently planned, but the year is young. Meanwhile, the album streams at up to 24/96, and downloads are available. Used LP and CD copies are plentiful and inexpensive, depending on condition. Original white-label promo LP copies and the 2016 limited edition LP of green, yellow, and orange marbled vinyl are pricey.

Awash in integrity and defiance, Billion Dollar Babies is a visionary snapshot of a band at its best.

mns3dhm's picture

…because Alice Cooper and this record were an over-hyped POS.

johnnythunder1's picture

by an obviously negative and ignorant mega-troll that doesn't know what he is talking about. Robert B is spot on. There are many reasons to love BDB and Alice in general but this LP is amazing in so many ways. A concept album produced by a visionary music producer. Some great songs and musicianship. Sly, subversive and smart lyrics that were a cut above a lot of the hard rock of the era. And great packaging! After this article, I bought a white label promo and it was f-ing amazing sounding. The dynamics were incredible. I have other pressings but the white label promo beat them all. Worth the extra bucks and I splurged for an LP that was like a lightning bolt to my teenage brain.

David Harper's picture

I remember that album well. It has some tremendous songs. "Elected" is one of the best rock songs ever recorded. And so are "Billion Dollar Babies" and "No More Mister Nice Guy". These songs were kind of an anthem for a certain generation back in the day.

RvB's picture

One of my best Alice Cooper memories involves the terrific movie composer John Barry, who I once interviewed in the bar of New York's Plaza hotel. I asked him if he realized just how many artists he'd influenced, and Barry responded that any effect he'd had on others was surely a mixed blessing.

Turned out that years earlier, he'd been approached by a certain Vincent Furrier, a young man who'd gushingly told him he was pursuing a music career thanks to the passion he'd developed for Barry's music. That admirer was, of course, the later Alice Cooper.

Barry was both puzzled and mortified, but I certainly understood the connection. Aside from the theatrical aspects of Cooper's music, many of his earlier songs betrayed an interest in movie scores, including a lengthy quotation from the West Side Story soundtrack ("Gutter Cat vs. The Jets," on School's Out). Cooper loved to play with colors and textures, and was a much more interesting composer and musician than a lot of his later schlock-rock fans gave him credit for.

This takes nothing away from the glittering Billion Dollar Babies, a highly creative, sleazy-sounding, thoroughly entertaining record that I'll always love, themes of necrophilia and other assorted creepery notwithstanding.

atomb's picture

Sure 72-73 were great years for music. But what about 1991?
These were all released on the SAME day...9/24/91.
Nirvana, Nevermind
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik
Van Morrison, Hymns to the Silence
Pixies, Trompe le Monde
Primal Scream, Screamadelica
The Cult, Ceremony
Kyuss, Wretch

as for the rest of 1991?
My Bloody Valentine, Loveless
Pearl Jam, Ten
Soundgarden, Badmotorfinger
Guns n' Roses, Use Your Illusions 1 and 2
Smashing Pumpkins, Gish
Metallica, Metallica

Whatever the rock subgenre, 1991 is the greatest year for rock albums by far.