Sometimes your first album is a hard one to beat — all those months gigging, getting tight and perfecting your sound and amassing a bunch of great, original songs. The Cars, Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Liz Phair, Sex Pistols, Guns N’ Roses, Weezer, Joy Division, The B-52’s, The Strokes, Devo, Lorde, Television and maybe even The Ramones never topped their debut albums.
I can’t imagine the Alice Cooper band thought they’d nailed it with their debut, at any point. It’s not terribly tuneful. It’s not well-produced nor as crazy and memorable as their still-developing live act. Pretties For You is pretty unique, though, and I prefer it to much of Alice’s catalogue — particularly the awful From The Inside with Bernie Taupin and his late ’80s metal stuff. In fact, most people with only a passing knowledge of Alice Cooper would ever guess it was him/them.
I say them because the album predates Cooper’s solo years, which began with 1975’s Welcome To My Nightmare and legally changing his name to Alice Cooper from Vincent Furnier. When Pretties For You came out in June 1969, Alice Cooper was a band, not a person. This is one of the albums in my collection which I consider essential, even though it’s absolutely awful and I never listen to it.
The reason is this: Bob Ezrin. There are two Alice Cooper albums prior to the arrival of producer Ezrin — this one and the followup Easy Action. A good producer helps musicians stay in their lane. Ezrin wasn’t always good at this — just listen to what he foolishly demanded out of Peter Criss on Destroyer — but he was able to make the musicians in Alice Cooper sound their best by eliminating the things they don’t do well. On this album, that list includes the many horrific attempts at syncopated prog, vocal harmonies and avant-garde lyrics. There aren’t any good singers in the band, even Furnier himself. He is what he is, and that’s awesome — but he is not a good singer. The band were not good enough or committed enough to do prog. Any time their syncopated hits come together, it’s clearly a coincidence. And the words are awful. Eventually Furnier found his realm amongst B-movie lore and tales of glam excess, but on Pretties For You it all sounds like buzzwords for dumb people.
But as a historical and foundational artifact, this album is so fun to have and to hold. It also deserves some forgiveness and understanding. Signed to Straight Records by Frank Zappa, the album had little input from the Mothers of Invention leader. The cover artwork comes from a painting which used to hang in the Zappa family home. Frank was hardly present in the studio, preferring to leave his brother in charge — who managed to record the band rehearsing and running through songs intended for the album. This, along with a live performance of the Interstellar Overdrive-inspired Levity Ball, is what was released.
So when you listen to the record, pretend you’re a producer. You’ll find parts which work and parts which do not. There are sequences which you may wrestle with as the band to try to reproduce, and others you’ll forbid them from doing anywhere near a microphone. That’s how you listen to this record — as a fly on the wall. “Here’s what you have to work with.” Sadly, nobody really did that until Ezrin came along. Don’t worry, it all worked out. They’re in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, eh.
It opens with the instrumental Titanic Overture, which is fine, but not much of a statement. It’s short, at least. On any caring person’s album, this should be followed up by a tight, banger. But not here. Instead we’re treated to the horseshit 10 Minutes Before The Worm. It’s basically a minute long, annoying psychedelic thing — poorly executed. It’s whimsical, but not “ye olde” whimsical (no gnomes).
Next up is the epic (almost six-minute) Swing Low Sweet Cheerio. This one has lots going on — acoustic and electric guitar, and — verses! It’s kind of like a San Francisco song of the previous few years. A concert song, but not really a great album track. It’s very busy and not at all catchy. The best thing I can say about it is this is one of the few songs which hints of the theatrical cool stuff to come on Killer in three years. Oh, and it has a harmonica solo. I love when Furnier plays harp.
Today Mueller comes after. It’s a little bit reminiscent of pre-fame David Bowie. The first song with a hook. Short, and with a barrage of awful backing vocals which fill your ears like a squirt gun. Annoying, jarring and brief — but done in a spirit of fun.
The next song is actually awesome. Living was recorded with the band playing very, very loud. It gives the song a Stooges Raw Power explosiveness and excitement. The drums are great, the overdriven bass is savage and barely under control. It also has a decent melody. A few more run-throughs and this could have been a real keeper. Very atypical Alice Cooper lyrics. “The only real person you need to know is you.” OK, Alice.
Side 1 ends with Fields Of Regret, another epic. Loud and seemingly mostly live. This one had potential with further rehearsal and better dynamics. It starts full-on, rather than getting a groove on. Not that Alice Cooper were ever known for grooves. I guess what I mean is, the song doesn’t get a chance to build and come together. The structure sucks. It just sounds like you fast-forwarded into it and started listening at 35 seconds in. There’s a weird spoken-word section which I like, amidst the animals-in-a-burning-barn instrumental/guitar solo freak outs on either side. I think this was meant to be the album’s centrepiece.
Side 2 begins with the jazzy No Longer Umpire. Jazzy? Yeah, I guess, if you imagine a jazz musician with their pajamas around their ankles, tripping down the stairs. It’s too fast and too loud, especially the drums. Again the dynamics are lacking, which suggests a lack of rehearsal or producer input. This could have been a great keeper. It has a great opening lyric: “We’ve been so caught up in the subject of personnel.”
Levity Ball is next, another possible centrepiece. This is a live performance. I’m not sure from where, but it gives you an idea of what you would have heard if you’d gone to see the band after they changed their name to Alice Cooper from Nazz (Todd Rundgren already had a band with that name).
B.B. On Mars follows this — it starts all a rage, almost hardcore. Then turns absolutely terrible as soon as the loose, unrehearsed vocals come in. It’s another short one — one of six songs on the album under two minutes long.
The best song on the record is heavily buried, appearing next. If you’re an Alice Cooper fan of any degree, Reflected will sound familiar to you. That’s because it was later reworked in 1973 to become the popular Elected. The choruses are different, but the verses are similar, apart from the lyrics. Compare: “Look upstanding with your head held high / You will be reflected” vs. “I’m top prime cut of meat, I’m your choice / I wanna be elected.” Reflected is tighter than much of the stuff on Pretties For You, but nowhere near the punch and clarity of Elected. The production is godawful.
The failed Apple Bush is next. It’s a gentler number without crashing, banging and distortion. They seem to be after a sort of contemporary feel, something like Cream meets Love. This is not a good song, but it does have more harmonica — performed just as the band loses its grip on the tempo a little. The song has a cool intro and last verse. I wish they’d just kept it all like that, it would have almost been XTC-esque.
Earwigs To Eternity follows this, and is another one I kind of like (Reflected, Earwigs To Eternity and Living). This is a prog number with cool little parts. It just needed to be refined and rehearsed. Perhaps even made longer. They wrap the album with another fairly together song, Changing Arranging. This one should have been Track 2. It has a proper structure, seems worked out and has got some great hooks.
This could have been a great debut if they had a producer who took the reins, cut some of the bad songs, fleshed out the better ones and included the early concert staple Nobody Likes Me, which was left off the album for some reason.
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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check him out on Discogs.