Before he became the makeup-wearing, chicken-killing, parent-scaring degenerate known as Alice Cooper, Vincent Furnier was a happy kid. He loved art, ran cross country, and fronted a band that booked so many gigs in his hometown of Phoenix that he had the money to buy a 1966 Ford Fairlane GT 390 by the time he was 18. “I had a great time in high school,” Cooper tells me over the phone from the studio where he records his radio show. “I was Ferris Bueller.”
Popular as he was in school, though, he remembers that he and his friends wanted nothing more than to get out. “The few minutes waiting for that final school bell to ring is so intense,” Cooper once told Rolling Stone. “When it happens, it’s almost orgasmic.” If it sounds extreme, then you don’t remember what it was like to be 17. When speaking with one-time Alice Cooper drummer Neal Smith, he reminisces vividly about that ultimate day, high school graduation: “I just wanted to go through the ceremony, get my diploma, throw my cap and gown down on the freakin’ floor as soon as possible, and get out of there,” Smith says. “It was one of the happiest days of my life.”
Over the last 43 years, “School’s Out” has been capturing that same sentiment for thousands of kids, doubly serving as one of pop culture’s most recognizable and euphoric anthems. Cooper danced to the song with a bunch of furry monsters on The Muppet Show. The song played while Bart Simpson dreamed of taking a wrecking ball to Springfield Elementary. It blared when the final bell rang in Dazed and Confused. A decade ago, the hit even appeared—along with Cooper himself—in a back-to-school Staples ad. More recently, in 2010, American Idol trotted Cooper out to join that season’s contestants in a rendition of the tune.
With the end of the school year upon us once again, it’s time to revisit the making of a record that even today has the ability to temporarily turn the most well-mannered adolescents into cheerfully rebellious little shits. It’s a triumph that probably couldn’t have been achieved without a perfect riff, a desperate band, a brilliant producer, a legendary manager, and thousands of pairs of flammable panties.
The tale of how Vincent Furnier picked the name he’s popularly known by differs greatly depending on who you ask. Urban legend claims that he found it in the late 1960s after he and a few bandmates —the original Alice Cooper lineup featured Glen Buxton (guitar), Michael Bruce (guitar), Dennis Dunaway (bass), Smith (drums), and Cooper (vocals)— dropped acid and played with a Ouija Board. The likelier story is that he chose it at random. At any rate, “Alice Cooper” served a clear purpose. “It sounds like a little old lady that lives down the street and makes cookies for everybody,” the frontman explained in the 2014 documentary Super Duper Alice Cooper, “but there’s a lot of bodies buried in that cellar.”
Formerly known as the Earwigs, the Spiders, and the Nazz, the ex-Phoenix house band wasn’t exactly an overnight success: Their first two albums as Alice Cooper sold poorly. But in late 1970, they met a young producer from Toronto named Bob Ezrin. With him manning the controls, the band recorded another angsty track called “I’m Eighteen.” The song eventually reached No. 21 on the Billboard singles chart. “We were a good hard rock band,” Cooper says, “but he would make us into a great hard rock band.” Over the next year, the band released two Top 40 albums: Love It to Death and Killer.
That Alice Cooper’s onstage theatrics might have overshadowed their musical success was by design. The makeup, the tight-fitting costumes, the mutilating of baby dolls—it was all meant to provoke. Neither squares nor hippies knew what to make of the band’s shtick. Smith, who had long blond hair, recalls hearing a rumor that he was a woman. “That was fine with me,” he says. “I couldn’t care less. It just added to the chaos.” That said, the act most infamously attributed to the band wasn’t even committed by the band themselves. During their set at the 1969 Toronto Rock and Roll Revival, the group’s enterprising manager, Shep Gordon, brought a chicken onto the stage. Cooper quickly tossed the bird into the crowd, which proceeded to tear it to pieces and throw back the bloody remains. With that, a legend was born.
“After the chicken incident in Toronto, we would show up, and the ASPCA, and the Humane Society, and the fire marshal would be there to stop us from playing,” says Dunaway,
who went on to describe how concertgoers hurled M-80s and full beer cans at them. At one show, someone threw a dart into Smith’s back. For protection on tour, the drummer took to carrying a carpet bag that contained his pet snake Kachina (the same reptile that graced the cover of Killer), a Luger, a .357 Magnum, and a pearl-handled Derringer. “They were all loaded,” Smith says.
Four-plus decades later, Alice Cooper’s antics seem relatively quaint. “When you look back at that era, the censorship was heavy,” Dunaway says. “We had to learn to be shocking right up to the line and maybe just a little over the line. If we went too far, nobody would hear it.” Alice Cooper’s popularity was soaring in and around Detroit, where the band had relocated after burning out in Los Angeles, but they desperately wanted more. And to make it nationally, they needed a hit.
The origin of the hit that the band so desperately needed can be traced back to a single riff. It was a Chuck Berry-like, double-note lead that Glenn Buxton had been playing for years. “We never had a place to put it,” Smith says of the creation, which would form the basis of Alice Cooper’s signature song. But once the band began conceiving School’s Out, the follow-up to Killer, it finally went to good use.
“He was this street punk.” Cooper says of the late Buxton, his high school buddy. “The guitar actually went, nah nah nah, nah nah nah. It had a very bratty sound to it. And that’s what I figured Alice should be. The brat who stands up and says, ‘School’s out!’” Dunway says that Buxton’s riff had a “kid-in-the-back-of-the-class feel. [The one who would] spit in your face.” He adds: “That was him. That was his personality. It set the feel of the song.”
When it came to the lyrics, Cooper knew it was best to relate to as many people as possible. “You can’t get real specific,” he says. “Nobody relates to that. You have to make everybody think that it’s about their high school.” In turn, the three-and-a-half minute celebration of unbridled insolence is written from the perspective of a wise-ass teenager. The chorus gets right to the point: “School’s out for summer / School’s out forever / School’s been blown to pieces.” The song is chock full of clever turns of phrase, perhaps none better than the last line of this verse: “Well we got no class / And we got no principles / And we got no innocence / We can’t even think of a word that rhymes.”
“School’s Out” ended up becoming the title song of an entire concept album once Alice Cooper began recording it in New York City’s famed Record Plant in 1972. While Cooper calls the track “a very happy song,” Smith’s drumming—dun dun dun dun, dun dun dun dun—makes it sound like a march. “We wanted it to be almost militaristic,” Dunaway says. “We wanted it to be like, ‘We’re marching out of here.’”
There’s purposeful levity too. Before the band finished the track, Bob Ezrin figured that Cooper’s bratty raspy vocals would sound even better if backed by a pack of actual bratty children. According to David Konow’s Bang Your Head: The Rise and Fall of Heavy Metal, the producer called a casting agency and requested some young singers. “I had to explain to the parents why it was okay for this group of kids to sing with this group of completely twisted individuals,” Ezrin says in the book. “And the kids were scared to death, but I got them all to relax, and by the end of it, the kids were all laughing and giggling. They loved Alice.”
Not surprising, given that the macabre Cooper was just a character he played onstage. Even as an adult, he got a kick out of rankling other so-called grown-ups. When watching the children’s recording session, which is included in the band’s 2012 box set Old School, you can’t help but think the song is actually written for them. At one point, a clearly excited Cooper even eggs on the kids on by yelling, “I hate school!”
“One of the best moments in rock history, I think,” Ezrin told Konow, “is when those kids come on that record.” (While producing The Wall in the late 1970s, he convinced Pink Floyd that a school choir should sing on “Another Brick in the Wall [Part 2].”) To emphatically punctuate the song, Ezrin also added a school bell and the sounds of children screaming with joy. For the first time, Cooper was sure the band was onto something. “If that’s not a hit,” he remembers thinking, “I need to be selling shoes somewhere.”
“School’s Out” hit the airwaves in May 1972, two months before the album’s release, and just in time for the start of summer vacation. Los Angeles design firm Pacific Eye & Ear designed the iconic cover art, which consists of a photograph of an old desk desecrated with the carved initials of each member of Alice Cooper. Inside is a collage that includes, among other items, crayons, marbles, a slingshot, and a switchblade. (Billboard magazine reported that planned in-store School’s Out displays would feature “a giant suspended pencil.”) And, on the suggestion of Shep Gordon, the record came encased in a pair of paper women’s underwear.
To the band’s delight, the juvenile touch caused an uproar. That June, 500,000 pairs of the English-made panties arrived at U.S. Customs in Philadelphia. But if the prank wasn’t ridiculous enough, it came with an even more laughable problem. You see, the underwear failed the Federal Trade Commission’s flammable fabrics test. (Here are two actual headlines from the next day’s papers: “Customs Douses Hot Promotional Idea” and “Panty Prop Real Flop For Record.”) An Associated Press article stated that an FTC spokesman said that “five of the panties burst into flames within 3.5 seconds after being placed in special ovens.” The story didn’t elaborate on the “special ovens,” but it mentioned that during concerts, “Alice Cooper, the all-male group’s lead singer, usually gets hanged, strangled, or electrocuted — a simulation, of course.”
Customs seized the flammable panties, but by then a previous shipment already had been distributed. The government inadvertently had created a collector’s item, and Cooper, for one, was thrilled. When Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene called him for comment, Cooper started laughing. “This is amazing,” he told Greene. “This is great. This is incredible. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to us. We were on the Today show this morning. I can’t believe we got so lucky.”
For Alice Cooper, this was a good omen. Within months, both School’s Out (No. 2) and its title track (No. 7) had rocketed up the Billboard charts. Smith claims that the reasoning behind its success is simple: The song was a “perfect marriage” of the full-out ridiculousness of Alice Cooper with a mainstream sensibility. “I think even the parents that didn’t like Alice Cooper kind of went, ‘Jeez when I was in school, that would’ve been my favorite song, too,’” says Cooper. “It’s just such a universal statement.”
That the song is still iconic nearly 40 years after the original lineup broke up is a testament to that universality. And the band knows that every year around this time, they’ll hear the song blasting out of car radios. It hasn’t gotten old yet. They’re still kids at heart. And as Smith says, “I still hate school.”
Alan Siegel is a writer in Washington, D.C. Contact him at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @alansiegeldc.
Photos courtesy of the Alice Cooper Archives.
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