Dennis Dunaway was one of the founding members of Alice Cooper. He played bass in the band from 1969-74, before they broke up and their lead singer took the moniker and continued his career as a solo artist. During his time with the group, Dunaway co-wrote many of their biggest hits including I’m Eighteen, Under My Wheels, School’s Out and Elected.
Dunaway was reunited with the original line-up in 2011 for Alice Cooper’s 19th solo album Welcome 2 My Nightmare, which was produced by the band’s old collaborator Bob Ezrin. Despite not playing with Alice Cooper for 37 years the two have always remained close friends, and Dunaway’s bass lines can also be heard on Alice Cooper’s up-and-coming Hollywood Vampires project, which features Joe Perry and Johnny Depp as well as an assortment of guest vocalists and musicians.
In addition to this, Dunaway married Alice Cooper’s original costume designer Cindy Dunaway, who also happens to be the sister of original Alice Cooper drummer Neal Smith. In short, Dennis Dunaway is part of the Alice Cooper family. So who better to quiz about the formative years of the Alice Cooper band?
In chronological order, here are Dunaway’s top ten songs from the first five years of Alice Cooper’s career, back when Alice Cooper was the name of a Shock Rock band scaring the world into submission.
FIELDS OF REGRET (Pretties for You, 1969) Fields of Regret was the song that Alice developed this dark character for. On Pretties for You we decided that Alice should be a different character on every song. So on Levity Ball he was in a room full of dancing ghosts, and he imagined all of these dancing ghosts while he was on stage. That character had movements that Alice still uses to this day, where he looks up as if he’s seeing things that aren’t there. And Fields of Regret had this dark, sinister feel and the lyrics were really heavy. Alice did this character for that song that turned out to be the most popular one that we did around that time. Audiences would chant, ‘Fields! Fields!’ So we eventually decided to do a whole show for that character, and it took a few years for that to take hold but this was really where it all started.
RETURN OF THE SPIDERS (Easy Action, 1970) When we were in high school there was a Back To School bash in Phoenix, Arizona and all of the bands decided that for the good of the show we’d pull our equipment and everyone would use the same gear, so there was no change over in between bands. Now, all of a sudden this surf band comes out and the drummer makes them move all the equipment so he can set up this big drum riser. I was in the audience ranking on him saying, ‘Who does this guy think he is? He’s a jerk!’ He brought the show to a screeching halt, and for what – Wipe Out? We thought we were hip you see, and that surf music was over. This beautiful blonde was stood in front of me though, and she turned around and said, ‘He’s not a jerk! He’s the greatest drummer in the whole world, and he’s my brother.’ That was the first time I met Cindy - my wife - and this month it’ll be our 41st wedding anniversary. Ha ha! Anyway, we ended up with Neal Smith in our group and we changed our name to Alice Cooper. I was talking to Neal one day about this incident and we decided that we had to play Wipe Out, because he did that Wipe Out style drumming so well. I suggested to Neal that we needed to write a song based around that kind of drumming, and that was the beginning of Return of the Spiders.
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BLACK JUJU (Love it to Death, 1971) Pretties for You was like firing a shotgun at a blank sheet of music notation, and the holes would be the songs. We’d write a song, and only after it was written would we see what it was - it would be a surprise to all of us. By the time we got to Easy Action we had began to learn how to write a song where we could preconceive what it was going to be. I was on dark, sinister kick after Fields of Regret and I wanted to write more dark songs to develop the Alice Cooper character around. Black Juju was one of those songs. We were at this little hotel in I think Buffalo, or Rochester, New York. Everybody else had gone out to party and I was in this dark tiny room with a washing machine and a water heater. I took the little metal plate off the water heater and I could see this fire inside of it. It looked like this tiny flaming inferno. I had a little bass amp with me, and I was playing my bass so loud that it had this wonderful distortion, and that’s when I came up with the riff for Black Juju - inspired by that little flaming inferno in the dark room. I played it over and over until Glen Buxton got back, and I showed the riff to him. A couple of weeks after that the band was in Cincinnati, Ohio and I wrote the lyrics. We were playing at this big festival called the Midsummer Night Festival, which was a nationally broadcast live concert, and we decided to play Black Juju on that show having never played it all the way through as a band before.
I’M EIGHTEEN (Love it to Death, 1971) This is the song that put food on our table. It started as a long sprawling song with a bluesy organ that Michael Bruce played and it built and built throughout the song, which was probably about five minutes long to begin with. It actually started as some chord changes that we used to warm up with at soundcheck. Alice would play harmonica and each of us would sing whatever lyrics would pop into our head. When we decided to directly target America’s record buying public, we realised the key group was 18 year olds who still lived at home with their parents and had the money to buy records with. That was the start of I’m Eighteen. When Bob Ezrin heard us play in New York at Max’s Kansas City, he thought the song was called I’m Edgy. So when he became our producer and showed up in Detroit to help us produce a hit record he said, ‘Let’s start with I’m Edgy’. We had to break the news to him that it was called I’m Eighteen. We knew how to write songs and do powerful stage shows at this time, but we didn’t know how to write a hit single and that’s where Bob Ezrin came in. He took that long song and helped us whittle it right down. He made us throw out everything that we didn’t need, and it only took one afternoon to turn it from this long blues jam into a hit single. And that was the song that put us on the map in America.
UNDER MY WHEELS (Killer, 1971) This was another song that I wrote. I remember singing the song to Glen Buxton about this guy who’s just bought a brand new car and he’s going over to pick up his girlfriend and take her to the movies. Glen was like, ‘We don’t do girl songs!’ And I was like, ‘No, the guy runs over the girl.’ So he said, ‘Oh, OK.’ Ha ha! Anyway, Under My Wheels is about a guy who accidently runs over his girlfriend, who he’s trying to impress with his new car. It was a fairly decent hit in America, and we also plugged it in Britain. We did a Killer tour over there when the single had just been released.
KILLER (Killer, 1971) I used to write in a book called Dream Poems. Travelling so much and always being in different time zones and always feeling exhausted and not sleeping soundly, whenever I had a dream I got in the habit of waking up enough to write out lyrics that had to do with dreams that I’d had. Killer was that. I dreamt that I was floating alongside a prisoner who was walking down Death Row towards the electric chair, and I could read his conscience. His conscience was saying, ‘What did I do to deserve such a fate?’ So the lyrics are pretty much what that dream poem was.
LUNEY TUNE (School’s Out, 1972) This is the song that John Lydon always quotes as being the scariest song he ever heard. I don’t know what else we need to say about that. Ha ha! This was also from a dream poem by the way.
SCHOOL’S OUT (School’s Out, 1972) This is the big one – the one that struck accord with every teenager that’s ever gone to school. And no matter how old you are, you can still relate to the clock ticking down to those final minutes where the bell rings and school is out. It starts out with Glen Buxton’s rebellious, spit in your face attitude on the opening riff, and the kids from the back of the class had their anthem. We were trying to recapture the power that I’m Eighteen had with this one. Be My Lover and Under My Wheels came between, but they didn’t quite strike the same chord with the nation. So that was the thinking behind School’s Out, and it was easy for us to write because we had all gone to school together. We had all had the same experience and we could easily revert right back to being teenagers. It all fell into place beautifully.
ELECTED (Billion Dollar Babies, 1973) As School’s Out kept getting played year after year – to this day it still gets played all the time and it was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame this year – we wanted to write another song that would have that kind of repetition over the years. And it was time for election in America, which is coming up again here at the moment, so we wrote Elected. It was actually an overhauled version of Reflected from the Pretties for You album, and I decided we’d tap into our influence from The Who and get that kind of excitement into the song. I think this was also the song where somebody coined the phrase that I love in relation to my bass playing: ‘cascading bass line’. Ha ha!
GENERATION LANDSLIDE (Billion Dollar Babies, 1973) We’d just finished a British tour and we were all not feeling well. We had what people were telling us was the London Flu, and we took a flight down to the Canary Islands where it was nice and warm and we stayed in a hotel where we were the very first people ever to stay. We had all of our equipment set up on the top of the building, and we just needed one more song for the Billion Dollar Babies album. So the five of us got together and we wrote Generation Landslide in one afternoon up on that roof. I think across the board it turned out to be one of our best songs, and it proved that the band could do what we had always done if we didn’t have all the outside influences distracting us all the time. So I thought that song was a big turn around for what seemed to be the amount of distractions that were coming our way at that time. It was getting in the way of the band unity, and so I was extremely happy when we wrote this song together. I think Alice’s lyrics were at his best here, and Bob Dylan even cited those lyrics as being great. What a compliment!
Dennis Dunaway’s new book, Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! My Adventures in the Alice Cooper Group is available now.