Sunday, October 18, 2015

Alice Cooper's "Pretties for You" Reconsidered (Or Considered)

It was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I missed it.

Three members of the original Alice Cooper band were appearing at Good Records in Dallas, ostensibly to sign copies of bassplayer Dennis Dunaway's book, and play a set. It wasn't unprecedented; my buddy Geoff from Philly, who still makes pilgrimages to see bands, had once seen drummer Neal "The Rockin' Realtor" Smith perform in the conference room of some hotel with the Bouchard brothers from Blue Oyster Cult. But Alice was scheduled to play Dallas the following night; wouldn't it be funny if...? In the event, my man-date bailed, and I wound up having something more important to do, anyway. But my 14-year-old self was still steamed when I saw on social media that Alice had indeed showed, and they'd played a full set, with a ringer replacing deceased lead guitarist Glen Buxton. So now I have a new "concert I most regret having missed," right up there with the Remain In Light Talking Heads at the Palladium in '80, and Uncle Lou at the Bronco Bowl in '96.

But if I'm honest, I was only an Alice Cooper fan for about a year, approximately from Love It To Death to Killer, after seeing them do their feather pillow autodestruction act in Diary of a Mad Housewife, and Alice getting a pie in the face (as mythologized by St. Lester in his famous Stooges screed) in the TV broadcast of the 1970 Cincinnati Pop Festival.

Killer -- which I bought with my '71 Christmas money along with the 'orrible 'oo's Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy and, most crucially, the Stooges' Funhouse -- was where I got off the bus. Even at the time, the relatively complex arrangements of "Halo of Flies" and "You Drive Me Nervous" -- on which the band admirably extended their reach (Bob Ezrin moving from the basic rock of Love It To Death and Mitch Ryder's Detroit album toward, ultimately, The Wall) -- sounded almost quaint next to the Stooges' primal thump-and-roar, and the shock-horror shtick at the end of Side Two seemed a lot less dangerous than what Bro. Ig 'n' the Ashetons had on offer. I tried listening to it again a couple of years ago, when I stumbled on a copy at HPB, and found it to be one of those records from my misguided yoof -- Mott the Hoople's Mott is another -- that just don't resonate the way they once did with the passage of time.

Still, I was fascinated to learn recently that NYC noisician Nick Didkovsky -- one of the minds behind The $100 Guitar Project -- is hosting a week of shows at John Zorn's East Village spot The Stone, culminating in a performance of AC's debut album Pretties for You in its entahrty on Sunday, November 8.

Pretties for You is an album I never paid much attention to until Big Mike Richardson (bless him) laid a copy on me earlier this year.

One wonders what Zappa thought of these guys when he signed them to his Warners boutique label. (Probably something in between "freak show" and "$$$.") If nothing else, FZ afforded them the freedom to be themselves; who else would have given a previously obscure band license to produce their own debut LP? On Pretties for You, Furnier & Co. introduce themselves as veterans of Brit Invasion copyism (two Back From the Grave-worthy singles as the Spiders, back home in Phoenix), audibly enamored of the Pretty Things during their psychedelic phase, 3/4 time, Moby Grape-esque vocal harmonies, and sub-Keith Relf harmonica solos. Perhaps the Didkovsky revival will lead to a re-appraisal of Pretties for You as a lost masterpiece of Meercun psych, at least among NYC folk, in the same way as Uncle Lou's Julian Schnabel-documented revival of Berlin (speaking of Bob Ezrin) caused folks like your humble chronicler o' events to reassess its value.

I would be remiss here if I failed to render proper tribute to Glen Buxton, who in hindsight seems like the archetypal post-psych, pre-Heavy Meercun hard rock guitarist. Listening to his recorded work allows one of A Certain Age to experience once again the thrill of discovery and freedom that came from bending a heavy gauge (Black Diamond?) guitar string a half-step with fuzztone for the first time. In relatively short order, Buxton graduated to command of the shuddering double-stop bend, a trademark of Robin Trower in his Shine On Brightly Procol Harum daze (and more recently employed to good effect by Samuel C. Murphy of Down-Fi/Deezen/Gizmos et al.). It's a pity he became unreliable enough in the studio to warrant his replacement, on record and ultimately on stage, by Ezrin's guitar-slingers-of-choice, Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner. The trebly sting of Buxton and Michael Bruce's twin SGs was an essential component of the best AC stuff. They'd first need to move from L.A. to Detroit (home of Hunter and Wagner, as well as the Stooges) before they were able to get to their tones together. But I digress...

"Titanic Overture" opens the proceedings with what sounds to these feedback-scorched ears like a sinister reimagining of Little Anthony and the Imperials' '64 hit "Going Out of My Head," played by Bruce on mellotron and leading into "10 Minutes Before the Worm," which could almost be a whimsical Piper At the Gates of Dawn outtake, out-of-tune backing vocals and all. (Buxton in particular was a huge fan of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, which explains later AC Floydisms like "Black Juju.") "Swing Low, Sweet Cheerio" is the first developed composition, a jazz waltz like the Yardbirds' "Turn Into Earth," with lots of instrumental stretching out in the manner of the day ('69).

"Today Mueller" offers a brief glimpse of the showbizzy AC to come, before giving way to "Living," a galloping freak-out in the style of the one in the Pretty Things' "Mr. Evasion," replete with swooning harmony vocals worthy of the Brit band's Povey-Waller-Twink lineup. This is followed by the side-closing "Fields of Regret," which sonically predicts the evolution of psych into something darker and harder edged, and includes a mid-song recitative (over string-scraping noises) that could be seen as a precursor to the "Bodies need rest" business in the middle of "Black Juju."

Second side kicks off with "No Longer Umpire," another waltz with "spooky" vocals, followed by the live-recorded "Levity Ball," which fakes you out in the beginning by sounding like they're going to play "My Little Red Book," then alternates a pulsing, descending line with gently ruminative sections, highlighted by vocal harmonies, to create a fair simulacrum of the shifting mindscapes of psychedelic experience. "B.B. On Mars" is a quick rocker that boasts feedback-oozing, Floydian guitar, while "Reflected" is the messier psych blueprint for what was later Quadrophenia-ized into "Elected" on Billion Dollar Babies, leading into the acoustic pastoralism (in 3/4, again) of "Apple Bush."

"Earwigs to Eternity" name-checks an earlier incarnation of the band (for the Earwigs is what they were called when they were miming to Beatle records at high school assemblies, before buying instruments and learning how to play them) in the same way as Easy Action's "Return of the Spiders," and is the probable basis for the Beatles comparison St. Lester made in his pan of Pretties for You in Rolling Stone. He'd change his tune about AC after he and they moved to Detroit, same as he would about the MC5, whose debut LP he also panned in the same publication. (My own favorite AC tune is Love It to Death's "Second Coming," which agreeably combines White Album Lennonisms with Procol Harum-like pseudo-classical chord changes, before being overshadowed in everybody's estimation but mine by the song it leads into, "The Ballad of Dwight Fry.")

"Changing Arranging" serves as a summation of all the band's favorite devices -- waltz time, harmonies, fuzzy guitar -- which makes it a fitting conclusion to the record.

Didkovsky's Pretties for You band looks to be a labor of love, including a vocalist (Paul Bertolino) that regularly performs with an AC tribute band, and the father-and-son engine room of Glenn (drums) and Max (bass) Johnson. I don't make pilgrimages to hear bands anymore, but if I was in the Apple the second Sunday in November, best believe I'd be there.


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