The world was already reeling from (or rejoicing to) the gender-bending antics of David Bowie (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane) and onstage shock tactics of the Kabuki-caked Kiss (Hotter Than Hell, Dressed to Kill) by the time Jimmy Carter took residence in the White House.
But Vincent Furnier was ready to take horror rock to the next level.
Better known as Alice Cooper, Furnier had already notched a couple hit albums (School’s Out, Billion Dollar Babies) with his namesake band before rebranding himself as a bona fide solo act for the groundbreaking Welcome to My Nightmare. Conceived as a musical voyage through the mindscape of a slumbering teenage boy named Steven, the album drew upon Cooper’s love of comic books and campy ‘50s and ’60s B-movies for its surreal song chronology. One could almost see the ghastly ghouls tormenting sleepy Steven while listening to haunting tracks like “Devil’s Food,” “Some Folks,” and “Black Widow.”
Cooper knew his Lovecraftian lyrics packed visual appeal, so in April ’75 he transformed the whole of Nightmare into a provocative ABC television special featuring professional dancers, colorful costumes, spine-tingling sets…and a certain iconic horror actor.
Now—even as the hyperactive Alice tours behind his 27th studio album, Paranormal—rock’s reigning master of the macabre is delivering Nightmare to today’s discerning home video audience.
The Eagle Rock release marks the TV special’s DVD debut, pairing Cooper’s long-dormant program with a full-length concert film from the 1975-76 Nightmare tour.
Just in time for Halloween, too.
Rob Zombie, Slipknot, and GWAR have nothing on Alice, who incorporated masks, makeup, and roleplay into his shows eons before those ‘90s rockers rose to stardom. Produced a good six years before MTV’s airwaves popularized videos placing emphasis on neon-lighted make-believe and vignette vamping over straight-laced song performances, Nightmare found Cooper imagining—and acting out—spooky scenes whose décor and choreography took as many creative cues from such Broadway musicals as Singing in the Rain, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Fidder on the Roof as from live-in-concert (or stage-mime) boob-tube fare like Old Grey Whistle Test, American Bandstand, and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.
The affair opens on Steven (Cooper) writhing in a gothic-style bed, his mind beset by fever-dreams. Then the music commences (“Welcome to My Nightmare”), prompting a bat-girl and voodoo man to come into frame, spinning and split-kicking to the funky bass. The subconscious Steven (now sporting Cooper’s signature eye-paint) is nearly boiled in a witch’s cauldron during “Devil’s Food,” after which Vincent Price (The Fly, House of Usher) introduces himself as the nightmarish narrator / guide.
“This is the big one, the ultimate phantasm!” says Price of the forthcoming dreadful delusion. “I think you’re gonna like it. A nocturnal vacation, a necessary sedation!”
Skeletons prance with Alice (in white tux and top hat) on the swinging, big band-styled “Some Folks.” Red hues dance over department store mannequins (and a lone female ballerina) on “Only Women Bleed.” Cooper laments the icebox death / resurrection of a snow queen during “Cold Ethyl,” then—following a protracted Price lecture on arachnids—cowers from spiders on a giant web for “Black Widow.”
Portraying the Spirit of the Nightmare, Price seduces Steven / Alice further down the rabbit hole. The uneasy bargain? Endure the visions, and don’t try to escape. It’ll all be over soon enough.
“You’re not selling your soul to the devil,” coos Price. “You’re just renting it out.”
Calliope music accompanies Cooper’s schizoid rumination during “Years Ago,” whereon he ponders his tenuous position between boyhood and manhood. Rock star Alice (in thematically-appropriate black leather) emerges from the pages of a tabloid magazine (featuring Donnie Osmond) on “Department of Youth.”
The battle between Steven’s id and ego rages on in front mirrors and alongside candelabras (“Steven,” “The Awakening”), and the psychology of the duel is symbolized by Price and Cooper astride opposite ends of a seesaw (“Years Ago Reprise”). Hailing from Cooper’s 1971 album Love It to Death, “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” sees our straightjacketed protagonist contemplating—and affecting—escape from the clutches of his own subconscious.
But not before a nine-foot tall Cyclops chases him about the room (“The Awakening”).
“I’ve had enough!” Steven exclaims. “Let me outta here!”
The Dante Alighieri-inspired epic was rendered anew at each stop on Cooper’s subsequent Nightmare concert tour. The show included here was filmed at Wembley’s Empire Pool with David Winters directing Cooper and his cast of creepy-crawly extras. Joined by a full rock band—whose musicians are mostly kept in the shadows, in deference to the elaborate props—Cooper masquerades in tuxes and unitards, adding the anthemic “I’m Eighteen” and defiant “No More Mr. Nice Guy” to the mix for good measure.
Undertaken light years before the advent of CGI (and two years pre-Star Wars), the visual effects on the TV special are decidedly of Sigmund and The Sea Monsters / Land of the Lost caliber and do look a little cheesy by today’s standards. But that’s part of the charm in revisiting Cooper’s creation 42 years on.
It’s also fun hearing (and seeing)Vincent Price cackle over pop music…seven years in advance of his equally famous appearance on Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Now available on Amazon, Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare Special Edition makes a cool companion to Banger Film's excellent 2014 documentary Super Duper Alice Cooper.