A Chat with Original Alice Cooper Band Member Dennis Dunaway

A Chat with Original Alice Cooper Band Member Dennis Dunaway

The band. Photo: Cindy Smith Dunaway
The band. Photo: Cindy Smith Dunaway

During their initial run in the early ’70s, Alice Cooper was hands down the most dangerous band in the world.

Long before KISS, Motley Crue, Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson, the Misfits, and King Diamond appeared on the scene, Alice Cooper  was the band your parents loved to hate. They were also a band revered by their peers with the likes of John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Elton John hurling props their way.

And while Alice Cooper were pioneers of theatrical rock, many that followed in their footsteps fell far short on the musical side of things. Not so with Alice Cooper. Between 1971-1974, these future Rock & Roll Hall of Famers created an electrifying canon of timeless rock and roll numbering such classics as School’s Out, No More Mr. Nice Guy, Elected, Under My Wheels and I’m Eighteen, built on machine gun riffs, anthemic choruses and cutting edge lyrical content.

Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs!, a new book penned by original bassist Dennis Dunaway, the mayhem, magic and mystery of Alice Cooper is evocatively chronicled putting the reader knee deep into the action. In our career spanning conversation, we discuss with Dennis life inside the rock and roll circus. (And if you haven’t yet, click here to enjoy our recent interview with Alice himself).

Rock Cellar Magazine: Decades since the band disbanded, what made this the right time to do a book?

Snakes! coverDennis Dunaway: Well, it has to be with my daughters growing up hearing me correct interviews (laughs) and taking them to a concert and saying, “Oh, we did that way back then” and finally they just said, “Hey Dad, write a book.” (laughs)

So they planted the seed. I have Crohn’s Disease and I had a long decline and I ended up in the hospital in critical condition for a month. All of this snail mail came from fans all over the world; this was in ’97. I decided, okay, I’m gonna write that book and so I started thinking about what I wanted to do. I mean, part of it was a mental rationalization that if I decided I was gonna write a book then I had to pull through because I had to finish the book. (laughs)

Yeah, so it was Easter of ’97 that I decided I was gonna write the book because I realized all these fans still remembered me and cared about me. I decided I would share the story that I have and then I wrote for years, many years. I kept going back because the tone of it wasn’t to my liking and I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted to relay the fun that the band had as opposed to the demise and all of that because that’s what it was all about.  We had so many good times.

Rock Cellar Magazine: What was it like for you to dig deep and relive those days?

Dennis Dunaway: I had a few revelations concerning various people in the band that I know as well as family. All of a sudden when you start writing it down you start seeing these things repeating that you didn’t realize added up to the amount that they did at the time. (laughs) Neal Smith getting stoned and going on stage and climbing up and jumping off the top of the P.A. speakers; that happened more often than I realized until I stated writing those incidents down. Later on, Neal and Michael and I buckled down and didn’t party until after the shows but back in the early days we were pretty crazy.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Alice Cooper is hailed as the inventor of “Shock Rock”. Shows were built on shock and outrage. Were those theatrical ideas something that came from the entire band?

Dennis Dunaway: Alice and I were both interested in dada art movement, mostly on the surrealistic side of art. We always favored that and liked abstract ideas. We became the house band at the VIP Club in Phoenix, Arizona with the understanding that we’d change our names from The Earwigs to The Spiders.

The owner of the club felt he could promote that better than the Earwigs. It was a wholesome, no drinking, Dick Clark/American Bandstand kind of a club for teens. The owner would bring in a house band and they’d be a new one. So I thought, we’re only gonna be here for a month. Let’s keep changing so fast that a month from now we’re not even the same band anymore. So we started incorporating new songs every weekend and new theatrical ideas every weekend and that escalated into one for each night and then that escalated into something new for every set.

At that first show at the VIP Club, we built a stage called the “Spider Sanctum” and we put a giant spider web across the front of the stage. Alice and I did that with white clothes line. Then when we were in Detroit, all of sudden we were on the bill with all these high energy bands like the MC5, the Stooges and Ted Nugent. Now I’m thinking “we’re on the same bill as The Stooges, how do we compete on with those high energy bands?”

We decided we would do it with our theatrics; we wouldn’t try to out power them musically, we would just get more dramatic. Alice and Iggy both had a threatening image and we were both very much in competition with the Stooges, even though we were friends. We were brainstorming theatrical ideas and I came up with the electric chair. Everybody’s like, “Oh yeah, where are we gonna get an electric chair?” And I said, “I’ll build one.” A roadie of ours, Marty Preece, went and got the lumber and we went out in the garage and built the first rickety prototype.

Alice and Dennis (photo: Dennis Dunaway private collection)
Alice and Dennis, high school era (photo: Dennis Dunaway private collection)

We had it all set up with these lights that blinked. We got Alice to come out there. We turned out the lights in the garage and turned on this flashing chair and told Alice this is what we’re gonna do. So Alice’s execution was incorporated into the set. Then once that worked it was easy to come up with the idea of the hanging and then the guillotine. It was just one upsmanship, a “How can we do that better?”

Rock Cellar Magazine: In terms of the look of the Alice Cooper, the clothing and the costumes were very important.

Dennis Dunaway: We dressed pretty crazy back in the real early days for the times. The very first did we ever did as Alice Cooper featured us on the same bill with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Blue Cheer.

All of us were standing in the audience looking at these other guys and I said, “Every single musician in this show has on Levi’s. We look just like they do. We have to be different.”

Neal’s sister, Cindy, came to help support the band. She had a job and helped buy groceries and she was doing that for her brother. She also knew how to sew. So she had ideas. My wife, Cindy, started this whole thing coming up with all our costumes and our look. Cindy was friends with the all-girl group, The GTO’s. They showed us where all the good thrift stores were in L.A. They dressed pretty outrageous themselves so there was some influence there.

Cindy designed all our costumes. Every album cover featured what she designed for us. For each album that we did we tried to come up with some image idea. When we’d be thinking of the concept and the songs for an album, the lighting guy, Charlie Carnell and Cindy would be there too. She would draw ideas of what the costumes should be for each member of the band and then we’d sit down with her and go over it and say, “Well, I like this but maybe you can change this?” She had a great imagination and sense of what would work.

Also, she wasn’t afraid to so something that nobody else had done. That androgynous look of our band, it’s impossible to imagine how much impact it had back then. Now it seems so tame (laughs) but back then it got people’s attention. It made people get mad at us and scream insults and walk out of the room when we played.

When we played the Hollywood Bowl Elton John was backstage, up until then Elton John wore conservative clothes. That night he was backstage raving going on and on about how we dressed. Cindy wasn’t there and might have been out in the audience.  We were tuning up and getting ready to go out but there was a delay because the union guys had a problem; there wasn’t a guy to shovel up after the camel if it did anything onstage.

So there was a big argument going on, Elton John was in the room and he was raving about our stage outfits. He came over and looked at mine and he was just totally thrilled about it.  Cindy should get full credit for a lot of our look. Even when she would use safety pins on Glen Buxton’s pants, the punks picked up on that. But this was being done in the ‘60s.

When people write about hair bands and glam bands a lot of times they overlook us but we were doing that before they were.

Rock Cellar Magazine: What was the most challenging song to nail in the studio?

Dennis Dunaway: Well, some of the ones that you would expect to be really hard were easy like Halo of Flies and Black Juju; we pretty much knocked those out. But we did have radical tempo changes and we had sections where we would slow down a section of the song and jump right back into the tempo. Some of those songs like that presented the biggest challenge in the studio; songs like I Love the Dead.

As far as writing songs, some of them fell in your lap, usually the best ones like School’s Out which just seemed like a gift. But others like You Drive Me Nervous, we worked on that for years. We would shelve it for a while. We knew the song had potential but we just couldn’t get it right. So we’d pull it off the shelf and then we’d put it back on the shelf and then we’d pull it off. That song was kicking around for a quite a few years before we finally got it right. But that’s the writing process. By the time we got it written and walked into the studio it was easy to record.

Rock Cellar Magazine: When did you realize that Alice Cooper was one of the biggest bands in the world?

Dennis Dunaway: Well, I think it hit the others more than me ‘cause I just didn’t think about stuff like that. I was just so obsessed with that the band was gonna do next and how we were gonna up the presentation to another surprising level.

I remember reading this interview with Elvis Presley early on and they were talking about his hit records and he didn’t know he had a hit record because they were driving around in a car (laughing) with no news or anything on the radio. So it was a lot like that. We were just so busy.

And also, the other factor was the Alice Cooper Group had a lot of detractors. We had a lot of threats and we had a lot of people that wrote nasty stuff about us all along since the beginning. I mean, the way we dressed in the Southwest with cowboys and anybody looking for a fight. (laughs)  I mean, a cowboy would start a fight with another cowboy just over the fact that his hat wasn’t straight or something.

But look at us walking into a place to play for them. It was rough in the early days. It was common for us to play in a place with cowboys looking for a Saturday night fight and we were a big target. They’d chase us out of town with guns after we’d finish playing. They didn’t need much of an excuse to start a fight. All they wanted to do was go back to work and even if they had a black eye, they’d have something to brag about. (laughs)

Photo: Dennis Dunaway
Photo: Dennis Dunaway

Here we came, there was a lot of shoving and there were fights in our early days. Glen Buxton, Neil Smith and our original rhythm guitar player, John Tatum and the original drummer John Speer, they were all fairly used to fisticuffs; Vince (Alice) and I were the wimps. (laughs) We were up for trying to talk our way out of it. (laughs) We were able to do that most of the time but I did get jumped by a gang in parking lot one night in Tucson, Arizona and our roadie Mike “Ampboy” Allen and our original drummer John Speer came out to my rescue.

Dennis and book co-author Chris Hodenfield (photo: David Cluett)
Dennis and book co-author Chris Hodenfield (photo: David Cluett)

There were about six guys all over me in the parking lot. I was sitting in a car with a girl taking a break because it was so hot in the club and a guy said to me, “Are you in the band? Can I get an autograph?” I’m thinking, “What?! An autograph from me?” Then he said, “Can you open the door?” So I opened the door and he kicked me in the chin and then I got out to retaliate. He whistled and all of a sudden all these other guys were jumping off the top of cars on top me. (laughs)

Mike and John heard me yelling and came out just in time to run out and they got the gang to run off.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Bring us back to the band’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The group had passed over for many years, did your induction feel like a vindication?

Dennis Dunaway: Oh absolutely. That whole day was like levitating ten felt above the ground. It was just wonderful in every way; from morning until the wee hours of the next morning drinking Manhattans in the bar and they were trying to kick us out and we wouldn’t leave. (laughs) By eleven thirty in the morning we had been on stage with Elton John, Darlene Love, Bette Midler, Dr. John, the CBS Orchestra, a whole choir of singers, John Densmore from the Doors. Everybody that was in the show was on that stage and we were all singing Da Doo Ron Ron. I was thinking, it can’t get better than this and this isn’t even the show! (laughs)

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Related: Super Duper Alice Cooper (The Interview)

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