By Simon Reynolds
Forty-four years ago, Alice Cooper ran for president.
OK, not really — but the singer and his group did release the single “Elected” in September 1972, timed for the final stretch of Richard Nixon and George McGovern's race for the White House. A bombastic blast of proto-punk fury, “Elected” proposed Alice Cooper as the leader of “a new party, a third party, a wild party” that would “take the country by storm.” The single was accompanied with an uproarious promo video, in which Cooper drives around in a Rolls-Royce, glad-handing voters, and revels in the barrow full of donor cash wheeled in by his campaign manager, a roller-skating chimpanzee.
The idea for “Elected” actually dated back to the previous presidential contest in 1968, which inspired Alice Cooper to write a song titled “You Shall Be Elected.” That lyrical concept fell by the wayside, but the tune survived as “Reflected,” a track on the group’s 1969 debut album Pretties for You. Flash forward to ’72, and the Alice Cooper group were now the most infamous band in America, thanks to their shock-rock concerts involving the dismemberment of baby-dolls and faked but hair-raisingly realistic executions of the singer by gallows and guillotine. Following the chart success of “School’s Out,” the group were on the brink of the superstardom they’d been chasing for four grueling years. So they decided to jump on the election-year bandwagon and drastically remodeled “Reflected” with the original lyric concept restored and intensified. Instead of “You Shall Be Elected,” the hook line became “I wanna be elected”: a messianic power trip for a singer who justifiably saw himself as a leader of youth.
Bob Ezrin, the group’s producer, came up with a shrewd ruse to generate the declamatory demagogue vocal that “Elected” needed. “To get the performance I had a full-length mirror placed in front of Alice on an angle,” Ezrin told an interviewer. “That way he could see his entire body in reflection.” Gesticulating like an orator, Cooper rasped out lines about how the “kids want a savior, don’t need a fake” and vowed that very soon “we’re all gonna rock to the rules that I make.” Ezrin added horns suggestive of statesman-like pomp and distorted bursts of TV newscaster voice-over in the style of Walter Winchell. After $10,000 of studio time and 80 hours of obsessive mixing, the result was one of the hard rock classics of the first half of the '70s.
From its whiplash opening riff through Cooper’s abyss-plunging scream to the portentous descending bassline in the outro, “Elected” can also stake a claim to be punk rock four years ahead of historical schedule. The tone of apocalyptic glee mingled with megalomania anticipates “Anarchy in the U.K.” (Johnny Rotten was a huge Alice fan, and his audition for the Sex Pistols involved miming to “I’m Eighteen” on a jukebox). There’s a lyrical preview of punk, too: During the fade, Cooper reels off a list of U.S. cities that have “problems,” then whispers “and personally ... I don’t care” — a glimpse ahead to the taunting nihilism of “and we don’t care” in the Pistols' “Pretty Vacant.”
Listening to “Elected” recently while working on my new glam rock history, Shock and Awe, I heard another element of prophecy: Cooper’s drunk-with-the-promise-of-power performance reminded me of nobody so much as Donald Trump. Like Cooper, Trump is an entertainer moving into politics, using showbiz techniques that bypass reasoned analysis and policy proposals and instead conjure a baseless aura of authority. When Cooper rants about “you and me together / young and strong,” it sounds like Trump’s blasts of hot air about America being great again, how “we’ll win so much.” There’s a touch of Trump Tower bling, too, when Cooper brags about being “your Yankee doodle dandy in a gold Rolls-Royce.”
Long before Trump ever featured in its pages, Alice Cooper made the front cover of Forbes. In the financial magazine’s April 15, 1973, issue, the band were held up as exemplars of “a new breed of tycoon” that had emerged thanks to the '70s rock business’s bonanza of platinum albums and mega-grossing tours. Beneath the headline “the rockers are rolling in it,” an interview with Cooper saw the singer describe himself as a true patriot: “I’m the most American rock act. I have American ideals. I love money!” In another interview — with Bob Greene, a political journalist who followed his Nixon/McGovern campaign chronicle Running with a book documenting an Alice Cooper tour — the singer talked about his success in Trump-like terms, as the result of a pure will to dominance: “It was nothing but positive thinking. I’m very competitive ... That’s my main life drive — being better than everyone else.”
“Elected” was the taster for Billion Dollar Babies, the 1973 album that propelled Alice Cooper to mainstream megafame. A brazen celebration of money-making, the album stomped on the last vestiges of hippie idealism still lingering on from the '60s: Instead of sticking it to the Man, why not become the Man? Billion Dollar Babies’ physical packaging was styled as a snakeskin wallet bulging with cash; inside, fans found a facsimile of a billion dollar bill. The accompanying tour, which raked in a then-astronomical $4 million for 64 concerts, was the most spectacular and lucrative that rock had yet seen. The group traveled between cities in a private jet with a dollar symbol on the tail. In a preview of Gordon Gecko, Cooper got a special license plate that said "GREED" for his Rolls.
In interviews, the singer described the album and the show as a celebration of decadence — then an in-vogue concept because of the movie Cabaret. “It’s happening in the States now, all that German thing of the Thirties,” Cooper told Circus magazine’s Steve Demorest. “There is so much money in the U.S., and everyone has as much sex as they want. All we’re doing is reflecting it. I like the idea of the American Seventies producing a cabaret of over-opulence. ... I’m a nationalist. I know the States is the best place in the world to live in.” Indeed, Billion Dollar Babies concerts ended with the band unfurling the Stars and Stripes to the sound of “God Bless America.”
Dismayed pundits at the time took the commercial success of Alice Cooper’s sick humor and cynical worldview as proof that the assumed link between rock and progressive politics had proved illusory. All those benefit concerts for McGovern played by rock bands had done nothing to forestall a landslide reelection for Nixon, self-proclaimed champion of the silent majority. Some critics outright identified Alice Cooper as Nixonian rock. In truth, the singer had not even voted in ’72 — something he professed to feel ashamed about. But Cooper did say that “I wouldn’t have voted for McGovern,” mainly because he thought the candidate was wishy-washy and changed his mind too often.
Generally, Cooper professed to find politics “so boring,” quipping that “if elected, I would impeach myself.” The finale to the Billion Dollar Babies concerts involved a Nixon lookalike bounding onstage only to be roughed up and bundled off by the band. Yet in interviews, Cooper expressed sympathy for the president, who was by then embroiled in the Watergate scandal shortly after his reelection triumph. “I think Nixon’s got a rough job,” Cooper told Greene. “And if he’s guilty of anything, I don’t think it’s anything new. He’s just the first one to get caught. I think Nixon’s a star. ... He’ll go down as one of the biggest personalities ever to come out of the United States, just by being so notorious. ... I would love to spend some time with him. I’d probably sit down and talk about golf.” That never happened, but Cooper did get to play golf alongside Nixon’s vice president and successor, Gerald Ford, in a celebrity tournament. In further bizarreness, one of the singer’s four homes was right next door to the Phoenix, Arizona, residence of Barry Goldwater, hero of the conservative wing of the Republican Party and a failed presidential candidate in his own right.
Like the acting profession, rock has continued to lean left and liberal for the most part. But the existence of right-wing rockers — Ted Nugent, Johnny Ramone, Kid Rock, Gene Simmons, Avenged Sevenfold, and Alice Cooper himself, who’s been described as a “quiet” supporter of George W. Bush but whose intentions in 2016 are undeclared — shows that there is no innate and irrevocable link between rock and progressive politics. Indeed, rock’s combination of populism and individualism arguably inclines more logically with a libertarian agenda than with socialism.
The “rock star” version of rock — the model for unbridled freedom and flagrant excess that’s recently been so influential in rap — ultimately has far more in common with Trump’s worldview than, say, Portlandia values. “Rock star” rock runs on ideological-emotional fuel like vanity, wasteful splendor, and alpha-male display. There’s a reason why Trump soundtracks his stadium-concert-like rallies with songs like Queen's “We Are the Champions” and Tom Petty's “I Won’t Back Down,” and why he could plausibly add Twisted Sister's “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and Journey's “Don’t Stop Believin’” to the playlist too. Magical thinking, vacuous self-aggrandizement, an appeal to gut feeling and irrational uplift, us-versus-them postures: If not the rock candidate, Trump is at least the hair metal candidate.
There is some hope left: Although a Top 5 smash in the U.K., “Elected” did not repeat the success of “School’s Out” in America, stalling at No. 26. Let’s hope this is a good sign for November.