A clown called Alice

Alice Cooper | Hammersmith Apollo, London
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The Independent Culture

The years pass slowly in heavy metal. Whereas most contemporary music is required to assimilate new ideas and modify its sound, this essentially conservative genre has remained locked in a timewarp for decades. It has the advantage of being a source of constant appeal to mutinous adolescents - as one generation grows up and moves on, there is always another waiting inthe wings. And whether it's Kiss, Ozzy Osbourne or Monster Magnet, the blueprint remains the same: big hair, ghoulish greasepaint and lashings of attitude.

The years pass slowly in heavy metal. Whereas most contemporary music is required to assimilate new ideas and modify its sound, this essentially conservative genre has remained locked in a timewarp for decades. It has the advantage of being a source of constant appeal to mutinous adolescents - as one generation grows up and moves on, there is always another waiting inthe wings. And whether it's Kiss, Ozzy Osbourne or Monster Magnet, the blueprint remains the same: big hair, ghoulish greasepaint and lashings of attitude.

Alice Cooper, for one, knows his popularity would plummet if he didn't comply with the formula. Kiss's attempts to play it straight in the Eighties were, after all, met with a frosty reception. And to be fair, Cooper blazed a lasting trail in the early days, staging wildly theatrical shows the likes of which had never been seen before. Nowadays, he can afford simply to relive past glories. If Slipknot and Marilyn Manson are the upstarts of the genre, Cooper is the grand dame whose enthusiasm for playing dress-up is showing no signs of letting up after 30 years.

Subtlety has never been part of the heavy-metal vocabulary, though, and if Cooper's show were any hammier, it would be a side of pork. An elaborate, Gothic-style set comprising an upturned car, a sci-fi pod and fascinating instruments of torture is grandly unveiled. Before Cooper's arrival, a disembodied figure warns us to flee before it is too late. The gig has it all: whips, chains, skeletons, girls dressed as nurses, sub-fetishist torturers, even a guillotine. Such shows are less an exercise in nostalgia than part of a 30-year-old tradition, not unlike Thanksgiving or pantomime.

Cooper's classics are wheeled out in all their sing-a-long glory, from "No More Mr Nice Guy" and "Billion Dollar Babies" to "It's Hot Tonight" and "Poison". Cooper is a spectacular showman, acting out each song to the last detail. "Feed My Frankenstein" sees him moving stiffly around the stage, picking up random limbs and assembling them in the pod. Later, having come to a sticky end at the guillotine, Cooper emerges triumphantly from the same pod, in his trademark white tie and tails. Despite his alarming appearance, there is something quite elegant about the way Cooper brandishes his cane and strides up and down the stage - more PG Wodehouse than Bram Stoker. Hackneyed it may be, but it's brilliant to watch.

The only time the show flagged was when Cooper was off stage. When the guitarist and drummer indulge themselves in prolonged solos, the crowd become restless and somebody shouts: "Get a day job." To everybody's relief, Cooper makes a swift return and resumes his play-acting. Underneath the cadaverous make-up, you can just glimpse eyes that radiate pure mischief.

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