❉ The Alice Cooper-less Alice Cooper Band’s sole album exhumed from the archives. But is it a Killer?
“Calling themselves Billion Dollar Babies after their previous band’s most successful album, the new act hit the studio to produce what turned out to be their only record: Battle Axe… To answer the most obvious question – yes, of course it sounds like an Alice Cooper work; Michael Bruce has stated that the project was originally planned and written as the farewell AC record. Bruce’s vocals have a similar tone and timbre to those of Vincent Furnier, if not quite the same levels of expressiveness or charisma.”
When the original members of Alice Cooper left the stage in Rio De Janeiro in 8th April 1974, they were planning to take a year-long hiatus, write some new material, maybe do a solo album or two between them, and then reunite fresh. Personalities had been clashing, tempers had been fraying, substance use had been getting out of hand, and it was time for a break. As it transpired, they never did entirely reconvene; frontman Vincent Furnier adopted the band name as his own and ran off with it, taking the band’s career with him in the process. The enormous success of his first solo record Welcome To My Nightmare sealed the fate of the original band.
The remaining members, understandably disgruntled, eventually reassembled in 1976 (minus lead guitarist Glen Buxton, who had also been absent from the last Alice Cooper album Muscle Of Love due to “problems that Glen was having with the demons of rock and roll at that particular time”) to form a new band. Calling themselves Billion Dollar Babies after their previous band’s most successful album, the new act hit the studio to produce what turned out to be their only record: Battle Axe. The line-up solidified as AC alumni Michael Bruce on rhythm guitar and lead vocals, Dennis Dunaway on bass, and Neal Smith on drums, along with the AC band’s touring keyboardist Bob Dolin and newly-drafted lead six-stringer Mike Marconi.
Unfortunately, events continued to conspire against them. The planned stage show, conceived on the same sort of scale as the Alice Cooper shows, turned out to be prohibitively expensive, and the tour was iced after a mere four dates. The album, when completed, was released with a mastering flaw that caused the stylus to jump out of the groove, rendering the LP unplayable, and the consequent recall killed the marketing effort, the album’s sales momentum and, ultimately, the band. This is a shame, as Battle Axe is a very good album. To answer the most obvious question – yes, of course it sounds like an Alice Cooper work; Michael Bruce has stated that the project was originally planned and written as the farewell AC record. Bruce’s vocals have a similar tone and timbre to those of Vincent Furnier, if not quite the same levels of expressiveness or charisma.
Opener Too Young covers similar generation-clash lyrical ground to the likes of Eighteen or Teenage Lament ’74, but the album – bereft of Furnier’s macabre, blackly comic approach to writing – does tend to lean much more towards the old staples of relationships (Shine Your Love, Wasn’t I The One, I Miss You) and rock ‘n’ roll (Dance With Me, Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio) than their previous work. It’s all good solid state-of-the-art mid-70s hard rock fare, complete with big choruses, bigger backing vocals and sweeping, orchestrated ballads. The closing Battle Axe Suite – the instrumental Ego Mania, Battle Axe itself, the 43-second linking piece (Sudden Death) and the celebratory anthem Winner – really call to mind the old AC band in their most epic frame, in the grand tradition of Killer or Ballad Of Dwight Fry.
There are three discs in this exhaustive archival release; the first is the original album, the second a selection of demos, and the third a recording of their first ever live show. The demos disc is an interesting listen; the tracks that made it to the album changed little between the demo stage and the final form, but more intriguing is the material that didn’t make the cut. Want To Go Home, Rock ‘n’ Roll Prison (both the same growling blues-based track with different lyrics), I Don’t Know Babe (a strangely Elton John-esque affair doused in electric piano), the ballad Wallow Through This Madness, the gutter-rocking High Heels Hollywood and two instrumentals called Runaway and Only One Will Walk Away.
The live disc, probably the only live recording that exists of Billion Dollar Babies, is a fascinating artifact. It’s a better quality recording than most mid-70s bootlegs, if not really release-standard, but it does reveal a tantalising look at what might have been if things had worked out as planned. Alongside a scattering of tracks from the album, there’s a medley of AC songs (comprising bits of Hello Hooray, No More Mr Nice Guy, Elected, I’m Eighteen and School’s Out) as well as the set-ending Billion Dollar Babies. The centrepiece of the show is the Battle Axe Suite that finishes the album, which is here augmented by a mysterious extra track, Nights In Cracked Leather, a pre-recorded martial piece which apparently soundtracked one of the more theatrical parts of the show, in which the two guitarists come on dressed as gladiators and set about each other with axe-shaped guitars. Unfortunately no video evidence of this spectacle is known to exist.
If things had turned out differently and Vincent Furnier had sung these songs, would Battle Axe be held in such high regard as Alice Cooper’s classic pre-Nightmare run? From this perspective it’s impossible to say; as released it doesn’t seem to be in quite the same league as those hallowed records, but those classic Cooper songs are so deeply ingrained now that it’s difficult to be objective, especially in comparison to the utterly unfamiliar Battle Axe material. But as an enjoyable listen in its own right, and an intriguing glimpse at an alternative timeline, it’s well worth a close look
❉ Billion Dollar Babies: Battle Axe – Complete Edition (HNE Recordings HNECD142T) is available from Cherry Red Records, RRP £17.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Lee Terry is a regular We Are Cult contributor and a member of The Kingcrows, Leeds’ scuzziest sleaze-punk-n-roll maniacs.