Why Alice Cooper Calls Chuck Berry the Greatest Rock-and-Roll Songwriter

Alice Cooper plays the Paramount Theatre on Monday, June 12.
Alice Cooper plays the Paramount Theatre on Monday, June 12. Rob Fenn

If paranormal is defined as “other than normal,” that pretty much sums up Alice Cooper’s five-decade career. Cooper, who's performing in Denver Monday, June 12, takes it a step further when he says, “My whole life has been paranormal.”

So, it’s fitting that the shock-rock pioneer and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, born Vincent Furnier, is dubbing his first album in six years Paranormal. It comes out July 28 on earMUSIC.

“You would think that Paranormal would be an Edgar Allan Poe kind of classic storyline,” Cooper says. “But it’s just the opposite of what it is.”

Rather than go for a storyline that runs through the album, as he’s done in the past, Cooper and longtime producer and collaborator Bob Ezrin ditched the storyline concept with Paranormal and just culled the best dozen tracks of the 25 cuts that Cooper recorded.

“I said the best twelve songs, no matter where they come from, are going to be the twelve songs that we do,” Cooper says. “They have to be Alice songs. They have to fit what we do. They have to be hard rock. They have to have my sense of humor. I’m going to write the lyrics anyway on them, so I’ll make that happen. I said, ‘Let’s make sure that every single song is a gem.’ And that’s how we approached it.”

Cooper recorded Paranormal with his current band as well as guests Dennis Dunaway, Michael Bruce and Neal Smith (who were in Cooper’s original band in the ’70s and wrote and recorded two new songs for Paranormal) as well as ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. and Deep Purple’s Roger Glover.

Cooper says the title track, one of the few that actually deal with the paranormal, is a love song about a guy who’s dead and can see his lover on the other side.

“She’s alone, and he does things to let her know he’s there,” Cooper says of the song. “He’ll leave his cologne on the lace of her dress so when she puts the dress on she can smell it and go, ‘Wow, that’s his cologne!’ Or she might wake up because he brushes her hair at night. Or the phone might ring and he’s telling her, ‘If the phone rings at three in the morning and there’s nobody there on the other end, that’s me.’ So it’s a love story.... That’s probably the spookiest song on the album.”

With some of the other cuts on Paranormal, Cooper says he always tries to write songs that have a bit of a twist at the end.

“I fashioned a lot my lyrics after Chuck Berry,” Cooper says. “Chuck Berry could tell you a story in three minutes and make it funny, and at the very end of the songs, you go, 'Oh.' Like ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ — you think he’s talking about his girlfriend, but all he’s trying to do is talk to his daughter. And to me that was a great twist; that was a terrific twist.”

And when Cooper met Berry, he told the rock legend, “I still say you’re the best lyric writer in rock and roll.” Cooper has admitted that his 1971 song “Under My Wheels” was “pure Chuck Berry,” while his early hit “I’m Eighteen” uses the twist at the end.

“When I did ‘Eighteen,’” Cooper says, "I did, ‘I’m eighteen, I’ve got to go to war, but I can’t vote about it. I’m half a man, I’m half a boy, I’m eighteen and I like it.' Instead of 'I hate it,' it was 'I like it.' I like the idea of having this chaos in my life. So that was a twist ending on that.”

Cooper says he also uses twists on some of the new material, like Texas-feel tune “Fallen in Love,” which Gibbons plays guitar on, or “Rats,” an ode to his fans with the line "Give the rats what they want."

“And they know I’m lovingly calling them rats, and they don’t mind being called the rats,” Cooper says. “It’s kind of endearing.”

While Cooper says his lyrics have always told a story in three minutes and tried to get a bit of the twist at the end, he usually goes to Ezrin, his collaborator since his 1971 major-label debut, Love it to Death, for advice on songs.

“I’ve worked with Ezrin on every major album that we’ve ever done,” Cooper says. “And he’s still my guru when it comes to writing.”

Cooper says Ezrin “has always been my George Martin,” offering wisdom like, “I love the verse on this. I love the chorus. The B section is weak. It doesn’t take me to the chorus right. The verse, you can do better on the verse on this, or this chorus doesn’t pay off the way it should.”

Cooper then goes back to the song and rewrites it, knowing where the weak spots are. Cooper says that Ezrin sat up all night at times working on bridges to get from one section to another, making them sound right.

And it was Ezrin’s call to bring in Mullen, which Cooper says totally came out of left field. Cooper says that Mullen, who plays on nearly three-quarters of the album, did something different from what he’d seen from other drummers.

“He would sit down and say, 'I want to see the lyrics before we do the song,’” Cooper recalls. “He says, 'I play to the lyrics. I don’t necessarily play to the bass drum or to the — I want to hear what the lyrics are saying, and I would rather interpret the drums that way.’"

Cooper appreciates that, adding that Mullen wouldn't necessarily play hi-hat and the snare drum for a 4/4 beat, but maybe snare, then tom-tom, which Cooper wouldn't expect.

"That’s what gives the album a different twist to it," Cooper says. "It’s not what our normal albums would sound like. And that’s what I kind of liked about it — the fact that it gave Alice a different, fresh sound.”

Alice Cooper, 8 p.m. Monday, June 12, Paramount Theatre, $49.50-$85, 303-892-7016.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon