Spotlight: Alice Cooper – Billion Dollar Babies
(2014 Audio Fidelity)
If I had a list of Uncle G's Top Twenty-Five All-Time Favorite Rock Albums, then Alice Cooper's 1973 hit album Billion Dollar Babies would certainly be towards the top of it. Here's an album that as a teen gave me my own identity. Out of everyone in my inner circle of friends back then, it was I that was into Alice Cooper. Instead of getting turned on, I turned on others. My introduction to Alice Cooper was their 1972 hit song ‘School's Out’. What's not to love about getting rid of teachers and text books? Check it out, age-wise I was barely out of my single digits. Due to lyrics I identified with and a steady rock beat, I'm like a pat of butter on freshly baked bread. My mind is open and I'm absorbing all I can.
By the Winter of '73, the album Billion Dollar Babies by the group Alice Cooper is in my record collection. It was purchased for me by adults who later on pretended to be repulsed because I was a fan of Alice Cooper's music. I’ve remained a listener, pressing on after the band’s demise and until after Alice's third solo effort Lace & Whiskey came out. If I played Alice Cooper after that, it was original band material only. Alice's solo records, I really didn't begin to appreciate except Welcome To My Nightmare in which I consider to this day, one of his best efforts, until he released Trash (1989). After that, I re-evaluated my opinion of what Alice has done since splitting with the original group. From his debut solo record Welcome To My Nightmare (1975), to the year 2014, there are more pluses than minuses. The man known as Alice Cooper is considered an elder statesman in heavy metal nowadays. Age wise, is well into his sixties and to this day is still more than capable of teaching the younger bands how to rock out as well as putting on one of the highest energy metal shows being offered. There is an occasional ballad thrown in the set list, which is more than welcome seeing how some of his best known songs are just that, ballads. Classics like Only Women Bleed, or I Never Cry. Alice Cooper is currently in the process of releasing a cover / tribute album, and performing shows with Aerosmith and Motley Crew. Not to mention this is right off the heels of charting an original band reunion of sorts with a studio album again produced by the legendary Bob Ezrin called Welcome 2 My Nightmare (2011).
Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies (1974) album, and the original band’s last album together Muscle Of Love (1974), is what seriously caught my attention. These records got the repeat plays at social functions. At least the ones I attended. For the record, Uncle G thinks anything in the original band’s catalog is worth having, especially the stuff they did for Warner Brothers. I fell into the albums Billion Dollar Babies and Muscle Of Love likely because they were new at the time when I was seriously focused. I can still remember Alice making the promotional rounds for Billion Dollar Babies on TV. One such time had Alice performing ‘Sick Things’ on a drama / mystery program called The Snoop Sisters. A show about two old tough broads solving crime, Alice was perfectly cast as the leader of a cult. It definitely motivated me to play the album more.
And yes, first it was wax in which I played on an early 1970's record box. This was modified with the original speakers being disconnected, and then the player being hooked up with better speakers and separated on each side of a bedroom I shared with two older cousins (one in which was a pothead). Why this even matters is that this ended up being one of my first lessons in what stereo really was, and how different sounds were heard from each speaker. Remember, I first grew up with mono.
In the song ‘Elected’, Alice's vocals mainly come out of one side (left), while the bands actual music, comes out the other (right). The music could sometimes overpower the vocals. So another lesson learned early on; it was important where and how the speakers were located, as well as how the the balance button on the stereo receiver was set.
Next comes the wonderful world of headphones and a company whose headphones I absolutely fell in love called Sennheiser. Now I could hear every detail. Over the decades, the record player was replaced by better and better stereos. Sound was important to me. I grew up when transistor radios were all the rage. A rock song filled with different sounds, all coming out of this shitty little speaker. Two words, fuck that.
I purchased Alice Cooper – Billion Dollar Babies after first having it on wax, cassette, 8-track, and now I have three different versions on CD, with one being the new SACD mastered by a man with a reputation for being the best at what he does in today’s music world, Mr. Steve Hoffman.
Self confession, I'm NOT a committed one-hundred percent audiophiliac. Due to having too much on my plate as a rule, when I have the free time, I come close. I don't like to be anal...not as a rule. Sometimes I think they go hand in hand. I'm glad the purists are out there. Needed for archival reasons the most, so many good recordings that now sounded dated, only because they were mastered at a time when technology was at it's best for being in the twentieth century. My review here might sound slanted a bit. I admit to being an old time Alice Cooper listener, and also to digging better sounding stereo equipment. I’m still dragging my feet in MP3 Land. The only thing I feel should be compressed is waste products, not music. MP3 music brings back the memories of transistor radios with a crappy speaker (broadcast in wonderful mono).
I know the words and music to Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies by heart. I also probably know more then the average Sick Thing when it comes to the band Alice Cooper, and the original bands music catalog. I’ve never seen myself as a fanatic though. My association with Sick Things (fans of Alice Cooper) has gone from rather well to horribly wrong. In all that time, I had a few entertaining moments meeting members of the original group and hanging out with them for a spell. I’ve conducted / coordinated interviews with Michael Bruce and Neal Smith. I also did a beer and a cigarette run for Glen Buxton (RIP). I'd like to meet Dennis Dunaway and Alice (formerly Vincent Damon Furnier) one day. So, before you are my credentials for reviewing this SACD. A story that needed to be told, especially if you the reader were so inclined as to like and follow up after reading by buying if you have not already, this new SACD.
For the record, the Alice Cooper band sixth studio album, Billion Dollar Babies, was a team Alice project. All involved from Shep Gordon in management, to the albums producer Bob Ezrin, deserve credit in this being as successful as it was. Plus some additional musicians that played shall we say, a tad under the radar, and contributed to the best of their abilities, such as Donovan, Steve Hunter, Dick Wagner, and the much underrated talents of Mick Mashbir and Bob Dolin, who went on a few years later to form a band called Billion Dollar Babies, with original Cooper members Bruce, Dunaway, and Smith. They did one album called Battle Axe. It would be wonderful if Steve Hoffman could re-master Cooper’s Muscle Of Love and the band Billion Dollar Babies Battle Axe in the same way. Anyway, the BIG secret at the time was that lead guitarist was having health issues. Explains the other hands in the BDB project. All that mattered was the end result, with everyone being a team player focused on making the best Alice Cooper record they could. In a imagined That Metal Show showdown, Billion Dollar Babies would surely be a contender as one of Alice's best, with or without the original band.
Comparison: I enter as exhibit A the original Billion Dollars Babies CD that Warner Brothers first offered. Exhibit B is the Rhino 2001 two CD re-mastered version. Exhibit C is the new SACD put out just recently by Audio Fidelity. Exhibit A has been played in the presence of Glen Buxton, Michael Bruce, and Neal Smith without them saying anything bad about the audio. All discs are in near mint or mint condition. The Uncle G Music Collection is kept up nicely and stored in a dry and cool place. Playback of each disc was done on a real home stereo (Sony – Phillips) and on a Blu-ray player (was lunch time and the living room was more convenient having a meal in then our home office). I would like to make clear...NEVER ONE TIME...was any of these versions of Billion Dollar Babies heard via a computer. Am sure the iTunes version is cool and all, but that's not really what this is about. First off, it's considered an honor that a company like Audio Fidelity would be interested in re-issuing any CD. I see it as a way to properly preserve and recreate with newer technology what was not available at the time. In my mind, there is no improving the work Bob Ezrin or all those that helped make this brilliant album did. What Steve Hoffman and Audio Fidelity materialized forty years after the Billion Dollars Babies release, let’s find out.
Uncle G reviews Alice Cooper – Billion Dollar Babies (2014 Audio Fidelity)
The first thing I did was listen to the Warner Brothers CD of Alice Cooper – Billion Dollar Babies. My earliest comparison would be that of the CD to the memories of the Billion Dollar Babies album I grew up listening to. The CD had its advantages. No flipping the album over from Side A to Side B. No skipping anywhere. The stereo mix was the same as I remembered from the album. No difference in clarity that I could remember. I took care of my turntables and records. Back in the 80's / 90's my home stereo was made up of either Pioneer or Kenwood equipment. I admit, more convenient to have on Compact Disc. Seems to play / sound the same each and every time.
The original released CD to the Rhino version, I found interesting. Of course, the Rhino edition is presented LOUDER. The re-mastering process isn't bass-friendly all the time. That can be evident on the albums closing number, ‘I Love The Dead’. The plus side is a fuller sound in parts, especially in the piano lead homage to transvestites, a show-tune called ‘Mary Ann’.
Wake the kids and gather the folks from the hood, it's Hybrid SACD Time!! First off, I took care in opening it. Artwork from the album is re-created, and much to my surprise and approval, so is the BILLION Dollar bill that came inside the album that I of course, taped to my teenaged self’s bedroom wall. The one included today is suitable for framing. My SACD was numbered; “Limited Edition 1101.” I took pictures, I was so impressed.
Pressing the play button, the first song on Billion Dollar Babies ‘Hello Hooray’ begins to play. My hand reaches for the volume knob. I turn it up from 2 to 3, and then 4. No distortion. It's not as much in the red as Rhino's re-mastering job. At this point, I have all three versions of BDB in separate CD trays and can pause and play from any of the three, at any time. It's obvious the SACD is superior and that's just hearing the first song.
The second track ‘Raped and Freezin' proves it more. Keyboards in the background are clearer after the 2 minute mark, as is Alice's vocals all throughout.
Track three is ‘Elected’. Alice's vocals mostly come out the left speaker and the music mostly on the right. Listening in any format, it was always due to a placement of speakers as to if I could clearly make out every lyric, and even the political banter at the end. It's all good here on the SACD release. Remember we have two vital ingredients to Alice Cooper; audio and visual. Every word Alice sings is important, for they paint a visual in which the music helps to project. These songs are like tiny plays. It's theater for the mind. Some might have labeled Alice Cooper art rock because of this, but most just saw them as a hard rock act, even when touring with a guillotine and an electric chair as props. Not exactly the same as Deep Purple being a real hard rock act. KISS was Alice on steroids times four. And what drama they ended up being.
I noticed when all three CDs were in my players that I had three different total times on display. The Rhino / Warner Archives comes in at 41:05 – original Warner Brothers version at 41:08, and the new SACD leads the pack at 41:14. I asked myself why that was.
Easy explanation concerning the extra five seconds between original BDB and the Steve Hoffman mastered one. The Hybrid SACD version kept in the studio banter found before the song, ‘Billion Dollar Babies’. It goes something like this:
“OK I need one more. Tape four Dolby version.”
Could it be Mr. Ezrin in the control booth? I LIKE rarities, and it sure does sound RARE, for it didn't appear on the BDB album I had as a teenager. Don't know why it was included here on the hybrid SACD, but as a purist, I don't really dig it being there. So much for a perfect 5 star review. The song itself sounds GREAT!! It's a real hard-rocking drum song, and Alice Cooper's drummer Neal Smith simply smokes on this one. I CRANKED the volume up listening to it. When I listen to Alice Cooper, so do my neighbors. I can report no other audio ID surprises. I feel weird bitching, but it is what it is. I’m just not used to that being inserted before hearing Neal's drum intro after the lapse of silence in-between songs. Maybe I’m a tad anal? Because of the type of record this is, I feel it ruins the atmosphere that the songs played before this one set up. The mind should be fully focused, and it kills the concentration. Saying that I must point out that it's easily re-established once the number starts up.
‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’ gives me the opportunity to say that without the song writing ability of Michael Bruce, the successful writing team of Bruce / Cooper would not have ever existed. Michael Bruce's real talent is to write music that remains in your head long after the song had stopped playing. Alice knew / knows how to make a song his own by creating words and phrases his onstage character could react to. And here's how you got one hit composition after another. The same formula is used on Welcome 2 My Nightmare with the newest Bruce / Cooper composition (with the additional help of Bob Ezrin) being ‘When Hell Comes Home’. This is the FIRST a Alice Cooper record charted in the Top 25 since Trash. Congratulations to all involved.
Also worth mentioning in the song ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’ is Dennis Dunaway's bass and how clear one can hear his playing, not only on this song but throughout the whole SACD release. Dennis' bass work is simply superb. Explains why he was consistently at the top of the best bass player polls in those 1970 rock magazines year in and year out.
‘Generation Landslide’ is the next song and sounds as crisp as I’ve ever heard it. Followed by The Cooper's heartfelt appreciation to their fans, a rather darker number called ‘Sick Things’. Pay attention, for the work of Glen Buxton can be heard, as can be said on the albums closer ‘I Love The Dead’. Minor contributions but important ones nevertheless. Would be Glen's last time working on a Cooper project. Dude's really no where to be found on the originals band next, and last Alice Cooper album, Muscle Of Love.
For the louder I played this CD, the clearer the music became. Enjoyed it to its last lyric and closing note.
Rating: Using the one to five star rating system, Uncle G gives Alice Cooper – Billion Dollar Babies (2014 Audio Fidelity) – mastered by Steve Hoffman, 4.75 stars. It's perfect in every way except well...you know (see above).
American Correspondent for Classic Rock Radio (Dot EU)