Obituary: Glen Buxton
Monday 03 November 1997
Striking, outrageous frontmen often obscure the contribution other musicians make to a particular band. Indeed, before its singer branched out as a solo artist, the American act Alice Cooper was very much a group creation. Glen Buxton was one of the original guitarists with the Seventies shock- rockers and contributed to some of their most enduring and influential hits like the immortal teenage rebel anthem "School's Out", a British No 1 in 1972.
Born in Akron, Ohio in 1947, Buxton was the guitarist in the Sixties with the Spiders (originally the Earwigs), a Midwest garage band which also featured the singer Vincent Furnier (the preacher's son from Detroit who would later assume the Alice character) and the bassist Dennis Dunaway. They had met at Cortez High School in Arizona while working on the school paper - and taking part in sports events. Having impersonated the Beatles at a talent show, they had moved on to performing Rolling Stones covers around the Phoenix area but, with the arrival of guitarist Michael Bruce from local rivals The Wildflowers, they started to write their own material and even put out a single, "Don't Blow Your Mind", on the local Santa Cruz label.
However, in 1968, rednecks didn't take too kindly to long-haired musicians playing psychedelic rock. So, hoping for a major record deal, the Spiders relocated to Los Angeles, adding the drummer Neal Smith to the line-up and became the Nazz. Todd Rundgren was already using this name and, in desperation, the band and their friends convened a seance with an ouija board. To their amazement, it spelt the name Alice Cooper. A legend, involving a 16th-century English witch, was born.
In California, the late Sixties were heady days. The members of Alice Cooper hung out with the Doors, Love, David Crosby, and supported Led Zeppelin and Buffalo Springfield. Frank Zappa was setting up his own label, Straight Records, and saw in Alice Cooper kindred spirits to his infamous Mothers Of Invention, who were already attacking the hippie dream from within. He signed up Alice Cooper and, at the end of 1969, released Pretties For You, which reached number 193 in the US album charts.
Furnier, Buxton, Smith and Dunaway were art majors and started to complement their recordings' cinematic feel with theatrical stage effects. The singer would fight with the drummer, then tear up pillows and feathers would fly everywhere. The director Frank Perry used this stunt when the group appeared in the 1970 film Diary Of A Mad Housewife.
Despite being tagged the worst band in Los Angeles, Alice Cooper made some headway, appearing at the Toronto Peace Fesival with John Lennon and Gene Vincent. D.A. Pennebaker filmed them throwing a chicken in the audience and the ghoulish grapevine of rumours started. Given the group's name, their long hair and flashy stage clothes, some people even thought they were transvestites. But Easy Action, their second album, went nowhere and Warner Bros took Zappa's label over. The band moved back to their Midwest stronghold and concocted a new stage set which would reflect the dark hole in the heart of America.
In 1971, under the guidance of the Canadian producer Bob Ezrin, Alice Cooper stepped up a couple of gears and recorded Love It To Death, featuring their first hit single, "Eighteen", as well as "The Ballad Of Dwight Fry" which became one of the high-points of their live set, complete with the singer tied up in a straitjacket and tortured by a nurse. They also used an electric chair but, for the Killer album and tour six months later, graduated to gallows, a boa constrictor and plastic babies. America was truly shocked but teenagers loved it, flocking to the concerts as if to a horror film.
School's Out, released in the summer of 1972, saw the group become a worldwide phenomenon. The album, packaged in a mock-up of a schooldesk with a pair of disposable paper panties inside, had parents gasping, but the rousing title track remains one of rock's finest moments. Glen Buxton came up with the opening guitar riff, though originally only fellow guitarist Michael Bruce and Vincent Furnier were credited for the song (a later ruling split the credit between all five members).
According to Bruce (who wrote the excellent and revealing book No More Mr Nice Guy: the inside story of the Alice Cooper group, 1996), "Glen never wrote a song, he wrote great guitar parts. He played real good slide guitar and, ironically, he got in Guitar Player magazine's best riffs of all time for for 'Eighteen'."
In 1972, the glam, gory, macabre and glittery Alice Cooper show triumphed at Wembley Arena (with Roxy Music as support) and the band topped it all with Elected, another nightmarish vision for America to contend with at the time of Watergate. They then recorded part of the following album, Billion Dollar Babies, in the UK with hangers-on like Marc Bolan, Donovan and Harry Nilsson contributing. It entered the British charts at No 1. The group had their own plane and were making millions of dollars, playing a live set which now climaxed with a guillotine execution.
"Hello Hurray" and "No More Mr Nice Guy" were hit singles in 1973, but by now all five members were drinking heavily, especially Buxton. This became a major problem and, little by little, he was edged out of the recordings for the Muscle of Love album. The producer Bob Ezrin brought in session heavyweights such as Mick Mashbur to replace Buxton while he was in a rehab clinic. On the next tour, Mashbur was actually hiding in the wings, filling out the sound while, on stage, Buxton had become a shadow of his former self.
By 1974, the Alice Cooper identity had become to all intents and purposes the band's singer. He was now holding court with Salvador Dali, Liaza Minelli and Groucho Marx. There was talk of a movie, of solo albums by various members and law suits were festering between Shep Gordon, Alice Cooper's manager and Herb Cohen, Frank Zappa's manager who had sold the group on to Warner Bros.
Cohen won the publishing rights on all recordings up to Billion Dollar Babies and, in a desperate move, Gordon convinced Alice to ditch his colleagues and go solo. "Welcome to my Nightmare" (which used Vincent Price's portentous vocal tones a good nine years before Michael Jackson's Thriller) was a great success for the singer, while Bruce, Smith and Dunaway floundered with their own Billion Dollar Babies offshoot band.
Later, Buxton drifted back to Arizona, tried to commit suicide and lost his house to the Internal Revenue Service. He eventually moved to Iowa, got married, and worked on his farm while still jamming with local bands.
The original Alice Cooper act strongly influenced Kiss's use of make- up and pyrotechnics and the New York Dolls' louche debauchery. Along with MC5, the Stooges and the Velvet Underground, Alice Cooper lit the fuse for punk via the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. In 1976, Johnny Rotten actually sung along to "Eighteen" on the juke-box when auditioning to join the Pistols. More recently, shock rockers like Marilyn Manson have taken on Alice Cooper's theatrical mantle and reintroduced horror spectacle to the grunge generation.
Glen Buxton's original guitar riffs remain at the core of Alice Cooper's solo concerts to this day. On hearing of Buxton's demise, the singer paid him a fond tribute: "I grew up with Glen, started the band with him, and he was one of my best friends. I think I laughed more with him than anyone else. He was an underrated and influential guitarist, a genuine rock'n'roll rebel. Wherever he is now, I'm sure that there's a cigarette and a guitar nearby."
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