At the tail end of the 1970s, Alice Cooper found himself battling some dark demons. Not just those from his own imagination, paraded nightly from the stage for the entertainment of a paying audience, but some much darker, very personal demons. Following the release of 1977’s ‘Lace & Whiskey’, an overworked Vincent Furnier had been all but consumed by his much-loved alter ego and had descended into a world of addiction that ended with him being hospitalised.
The beginning of this dark chapter had given him the inspiration for the songs that filled 1978’s ‘From The Inside’, arguably his best record since 1975’s ‘Welcome To My Nightmare’. With Alice given sterling support from members of Toto – the session hard-men who’d shaped Steely Dan records – and lyrical help from the legendary Bernie Taupin, ‘From The Inside’ is very much a product of the time in which it was created, but never the worse for it. With Westcoast sounds and a fluid, sometimes even funky musical backdrop all topped by The Coop’s distinctive growl, it shouldn’t work, but it does – and works brilliantly. Equally surprising records followed on a yearly basis, and as the orange and brown world of the 70s gave way to a brighter and more technological era, Cooper embraced a world of new sounds. Kicking off the new decade with ‘Flush The Fashion’, a new wave inspired thirty minutes, he strayed from rock and yet still managed to unleash a genuine classic in ‘Pain’, and although ‘Special Forces’ and ‘Zipper Catches Skin’ (released in 1981 and 1982, respectively) combined new wave quirks and sly humour less effectively, those records still showed off a songwriter more than able to change with the times.
At the beginning of 1983, Alice was at a distinctly low ebb. Enter legendary producer Bob Ezrin – the man behind many a classic Cooper record from the 1970s, though absent as a guiding hand since 1977’s ‘Lace and Whiskey’. Having produced Lou Reed’s masterpiece of misery ‘Berlin’ in 1972, Alice’s own career defining ‘Welcome To My Nightmare in 1975 and Pink Floyd’s double platter ‘The Wall’ in 1979, it would be fair to suggest that Ezrin never thought small. As a producer, he also knew Alice better than anyone. If any producer could push our hero back into the realms of greatness, it was Ezrin, and as expected, the Cooper/Ezrin team really delivered the goods on 1983’s ‘DaDa’.
The first thing that’s surprising about ‘DaDa’ is that it doesn’t come in with all guns blazing. Both ‘…Nightmare’ (1975) and ‘Goes To Hell’ (1976) opened with Cooper and Ezrin setting the scene with overtly theatrical performances and lyrics that seemed to communicate directly with the audience, as if actually witnessing a live show. ‘DaDa’, by contrast, opens with something that sounds like the soundtrack which plays under the opening credits of a John Carpenter movie. A Fairlight keyboard sets up a heartbeat, the pulsing of which is hammered home with a giant echo; a small child calls the title at intervening moments, and a wobbly keyboard line tops everything with an understated tune. There are effective key changes and a sense of a slow, creeping movement, but as a listener, it never gives too much away too quickly. …And what of our hero? Where is The Coop’s grand entrance? There isn’t one: he belatedly appears in a quiet speaking role, talking to a psychiatrist. Mixed very low under the keys and heartbeat, we get glimpses of things he says, but never a full picture. In typical Ezrin style, it replicates the feeling of uncertainty and the mood of a broken mind… One of the core themes is that of family and ineffectual parenting, which leads rather neatly into the first real song. ‘Enough’s Enough’, lyrically, deals with the protagonist’s relationship with a domineering father and dying mother. If this sounds all too bleak, fear not: Alice’s darkest lyrical strains are sent off by a band performing with a real punch. Pitching a hard guitar chord against a synth backdrop, Cooper band regular Dick Wagner adds a sharp edge which rarely subsides throughout the number, eventually culminating in a furious solo – the kind you’re possibly not expecting in such an unashamedly eighties sounding piece. Cooper recounts the tale of a terrible upbringing with suitably sharp meter, creating a hard melody for a verse, eventually exploding during a slightly more AOR chorus. The push and pull between the two styles really holds the attention with the tune feeling forever buoyant. The inclusion of a frighteningly blunt lyric only suggests an angrier side to Alice, certainly sounding more spiteful than we’ve been allowed to hear for a few years.
In ‘Former Lee Warmer’, the mood changes for what’s arguably the album’s most essential cut. Understated and rather spooky piano lines kick things off, making no secret of the horror aspects that are about to emerge. The keyboards embellished with string sounds invite the vocal to take the stage and Alice seems theatrically hushed as he delivers the opening lines. All the best Cooper albums have this moment dark storytelling, but fewer conjure such vivid imagery as this this track. The tale of an upstairs room, the protagonist speaks of a brother locked away; a family black sheep. Unable to speak, he calls out via an old piano played in “a twisted key” and we visit him when his meals are taken on a tray. Ezrin really ups the ante with a great arrangement; it never becomes bombastic, but the string sounds swell and create tension, though never lose the sense of sadness that’s evident in other Cooper tunes such as ‘You & Me’ or ‘Only Women Bleed’. Darker than anything since the Alice Cooper Band days, this is given an extra twist, as it’s never entirely clear whether the boy who has “no dreams go in or out of the hole in his wrinkled head” is alive and severely disturbed, whether he’s a cadaver locked in an attic, or just an emotional skeleton that’s just a fragment of Cooper’s own imagination while speaking to the family psychiatrist.
At the point where the listener could be convinced that ‘DaDa’ is a concept album about coming to terms with family demons – possibly in both the metaphorical and the very real sense – things then take a left turn. The remainder of side one (after all, for those who’ve actually heard it, this will surely be an album associated with the vinyl format) still deals with the human spirit and relationships, but in a broader fashion. ‘No Man’s Land’, a rather quirky pop-rocker casts Alice in the role of department store Santa. He’s not the obvious choice, but he got the role because he “was the only one the suit would fit”. Dealing with the demanding kids is a doddle; things go awry when he meets a blonde temptress, deserts his post and leaves an angry mob of parents and tearful toddlers in his wake. In The Coop’s time honoured tradition, this is the humorous flipside to the disturbing elements of preceding tracks. It still comes with a feeling of unease, but a tongue in cheek humour and a hard rhythmic backdrop – adding a few chunky guitar chords to what’s still an undeniably very eighties piece – really helps to lighten the mood. In what sounds a little like an overhang from 1980’s ‘Flush The Fashion’, ‘Dyslexia’ closes the first act with three minutes of shameless mechanics, over which Alice puts us in the shoes of a bespectacled geek who appears to be struggling with his inner emotions. His world has been turned upside down and back to front with feelings hitherto unfelt. Love is a tricky beast at the best of times, but the confusion that ensues results in a strange indifference. Even with some sharp, Devo-esque twists in a synth-heavy arrangement, this is arguably ‘DaDa’s weak link. Even with a terribly bad pun that borders on classic Alice humour (“Is this love, or is dys-lexia?”), it’s no match for ‘DaDa’s best tunes.
Flipping to side two, the mood darkens again, as mechanised drums and keyboard patches lay down an Eastern – possibly North African – sound that isn’t far removed from a low-budget movie soundtrack. The percussion rattles like chains, the keyboards eventually evoke the unsettled mood of a stretched tape and – BANG – ‘Scarlet & Sheba’ switches gears and gives the listener a melodic rock number that’s heartfelt and very eighties, but never loses sight of the grand feel of the album as a whole. The verses come with a great, crunching guitar, with Coop’s growl the most assured it’s been on the album thus far; the chorus is a touch cheesy, but very much looking forward to Alice’s work with Desmond Child, but much like ‘Enough’s Enough’, the track belongs to Wagner whose soaring guitar leads counterbalance the 80s mood with a very 70s tone, with lots of vibrato topping the return of the theatrical tune that formed the intro. Yes, it sounds like two separate and possibly incomplete tunes spliced together, but with everything it offers, ‘Scarlet & Sheba’ comes out winning. …And although – much like the whole of ‘DaDa’ – it possibly has its detractors, it’s arguably superior to anything on the previous year’s ‘Zipper Catches Skin’. The track then segues surprisingly – and rather effortlessly into ‘I Love America’, a sprightly pop-rocker where the lyrics always outshine the music. Against hard chords and a solid electronic drum beat, Alice places himself in the shoes of a second hand car salesman, reeling off all the things that supposedly make America great. Between mentions of Mount Rushmore, Kentucky Fried Chicken, the A-Team, 4th of July fireworks, gorgeous women and hot dogs, a booming choir intones the song’s title in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. There’s also a hint that this middle aged patriot is so patriotic he’s treading a fine line towards intolerance and racism, so in the usual Cooper tradition, none of this is genuinely patriotic at all, just a giant backhanded slap – and very funny it is, too.
Another of ‘DaDa’s weaker numbers, ‘Fresh Blood’ attempts to blend a horror and blood theme with a (then) contemporary synth pop tune. The verses are only a small step from the likes of Heaven 17 and Imagination (both chart heavyweights at the time), and it’s nice to hear Cooper not being tied down stylistically, but the best musical elements are hampered by a slow, rather lumpen delivery and synthesized brass. Over this, Alice sounds as fine as ever, though, and during an ambling mid section, Wagner gets the opportunity to throw out a couple of bluesy noodles. There are glimmers of something interesting here, but given the brassy female backing vocals and hard slapped bass, it’s all rather dated. Still, you have to hand it to Alice: he was never one to get stuck in the past and was always happy to experiment – even if things didn’t always work out, at least he had the guts to put himself in the firing line and try. Finishing everything on a high, albeit with Cooper’s preferred dark tone, ‘Pass The Gun Around’ opens with a pan-pipe keyboard and heartfelt vocal, but quickly explodes into a chorus that demonstrates Ezrin’s big production style: honking organs, harmony vocals and big drums are the order of the day, as an AOR chorus takes shape, but underpinned by the kind of grandiosity last heard on ‘Alice Cooper Goes To Hell’ some seven years earlier. Cooper is in arguably his finest voice this time out, prefiguring the sounds of his albums for the rest of the decade, while Wagner’s fretboard work lends melody, edge, a little extra grandeur and a whole lot of class. From ‘DaDa’s synthetic beginnings, we leave the album in big theatrical rock mode…and Cooper’s future appears wide open.
…But that future would have to wait. Following ‘DaDa’s release, Cooper took a break from recording for almost three years. Having released fifteen studio albums in just over a decade and a half, no-one could deny he was in need of a rest. Upon returning, Alice delved back into the world of rock music, crafting some of the purest rock sounds since the original Alice Cooper band called it quits in 1974. From there on, it would be onward and upward until Desmond Child helped put Cooper back at the top of the chart with the radio friendly sounds of ‘Trash’ and its lead single ‘Poison’ – a track that would ultimately become as much a classic rock radio staple as ‘School’s Out’. With Cooper firmly re-established in the late 80s, ‘DaDa’ seemed all to quickly forgotten – and that’s a tragedy. Despite the Fairlight synthesizers, despite the new wave overhangs – on their last legs by 1983 – and despite being a far cry from Alice’s glam rock glory days, ‘DaDa’ is a terrific album, a worthy companion to ‘Flush The Fashion’ in terms of showing off the breadth of The Coop’s talent. While in a different league to ‘Killer’, ‘Welcome To My Nightmare’ and ‘From The Inside’, ‘DaDa’ is equally indispensable. With smart lyrics, some great choruses and one of Alice’s best ever horror stories, there are fewer records from world renowned musicians that are any more deserving of the tag “overlooked gem”.