Alice Cooper | My Music: ‘There have always been strong operatic elements in my songs’
Monday, April 5, 2021
The rock singer on discovering rock‘n’roll and how classical music has influenced his own work
As a child I didn’t hear any classical music. My dad was a fan of big band music. He liked Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Dorsey. I absolutely loved that music too. Then Elvis came along. I was six or seven years old at the time. One day my uncle, who played guitar, came over to our house and put on this record. It was Chuck Berry. My uncle played along with it and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. So that was my introduction to music. From that point on, rock‘n’roll was really my music.
My dad was a preacher but he could tell you who played electric bass for The Animals or who played electric guitar in The Yardbirds. He would listen to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and say, ‘This is really good!’ He wasn’t one of those guys who said, ‘This is the devil’s music’.
‘We always used to open our shows with Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain. That music really set things up. You could almost see the old castle on the mountain with the lightning striking’
My first experience of classical music was at junior high school. Everybody had to study the classics – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin. Then I met my wife, who was a classical ballerina. She was completely steeped in classical music and ballet so I’d hear a lot of classical music around the house because she was always practising and rehearsing.
You know, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms were the rock stars of their day. They were pretty crazy! They probably did things that were considered outlandish by a lot of their fellow musicians. At the time they were probably considered really avant-garde. But we don’t see them like that these days.
There have always been strong operatic elements in my songs. Bob Ezrin, who produced many of my most successful albums, and who also worked with Lou Reed, Pink Floyd and a number of other artists, was classically trained. He added a classical touch to the theatrical ideas I had. My songs had rock-based chord structures but Bob taught us to think classically. He added these classical touches and turned our songs into something different. I liked that. I liked the idea that those things could collide and create something new and refreshing. Great composers will hear something and store it up somewhere in the back of their minds. Then when they’re composing, suddenly that line will be in there again, but they won’t remember where it came from.
When we recorded albums such as Welcome to my Nightmare, Bob Ezrin would come in and add a little bit of Bach here or maybe a phrase from Chopin there. He would play a little piece on piano and say to the musicians in the studio, ‘You go play this on electric guitar, you play that on bass guitar’. So suddenly in the middle of this rock song you’d hear something that was classically oriented.
We always used to open our shows with Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain. That music really set things up. You could almost see the old castle on the mountain with the lightning striking. We used to use that music all the time!
Probably every kid in the United States heard Peter and the Wolf at school. It was their introduction to classical music. I’d completely forgotten about it until I was invited to narrate Peter and the Wolf in Hollywood. Narrating the story was sort of like going back to being seven years old again. It’s a modern, up-to-date version of Peter and the Wolf – kind of a rock‘n’roll take on it. For example, Peter doesn’t expect his grandfather to be an old hippie at all, and that kind of gives the story an interesting dynamic.
The National Youth Orchestra of Germany – one of the best youth orchestras in the world – perform the music. In addition to Prokofiev, a whole bunch of other composers are featured, including Wagner, Schumann, Mahler, Elgar and Grieg. The animation is great too. The New York-based production company Giants Are Small built their own cardboard sets and then they filmed the sets with the animations. The set is something in between sculpture, painting, photography and video. It’s so cool and really innovative. I’d never seen anybody do it quite like that before.
This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today