“We’re all humanary stew, if we don’t pledge allegiance to… the black widow!”
The very first Alice Cooper solo effort is a wicked force to be reckoned with. During Alice’s days in the band, he built a reputation of slimy horror, stage theatrics, and general chaos that shocked many parents in the early ‘70s. Although their music has always had glam-rock flavors and advanced songwriting, Welcome To My Nightmare marks the first significant change in Cooper’s sound (assuming we ignore Pretties For You). Upon going solo, the albums began to incorporate more theatrics into the music itself to go along with the image. Welcome To My Nightmare acts as a horror film on musical format, making it one of my favorite records to spin around the spooky season. It even has two different sequels, much like a lot of horror films seem to do. Alice Cooper Goes To Hell would immediately follow this, and in 2011 Welcome 2 My Nightmare would act as a reboot. Most importantly, this dark concept has reached its forty-fifth birthday, so I see no better time to dig up the bones and examine them.
For those that don’t know, the concept on Welcome To My Nightmare details a sequence of nightmares had by a young boy named Steven. Some of the songs are meant to run together as different parts of the same nightmare, where others stand completely alone. The “Devil’s Food” and “The Black Widow” combo are a solid example of this, dealing in a museum of spiders, some very deadly. Horror actor Vincent Price provides a long monologue to add effect to the story, which turns into something more suspenseful. “Years Ago,” “Steven,” and “The Awakening” is where we reach the creepiest climax of the record, which hints at an adult version of the boy meeting himself. It’s unclear what the nightmare itself is focused on, but the music provided and lyrics would suggest abandonment, loneliness, and insanity.
What’s neat about this record is that many of the tracks are gray, being left open for interpretation. I believe the ending is supposed to represent how all of the songs preceding swap back and forth between horrors to a child, as well as realistic adult problems. The classic ballad “Only Women Bleed” pretty clearly details an abusive relationship, and “Cold Ethyl” is reaching into The Coop’s bag of songs about necrophilia. It could subtly represent a comparison with alcoholism, but as I said, that’s up to the listener to decide. In any case, there are few times where the lyrics cast feelings of happiness.
Lastly, I look at the book-ending tracks as Steven falling asleep and waking up. The title track opens in a way that casts auras of falling into a dream, where “Escape” swings things into a more upbeat direction. That represents the morning, which is a (temporary) escape from the nightmares of child and as well as an adult.
Of course, none of this would mean anything without proper execution, much like how a good film concept is often ruined by a bad director. In this case, Alice is the director, and boy does he ever deliver! I’ve already touched on the theatrical jump that Welcome To My Nightmare makes from the previous efforts. Utilizing a lot of Lou Reed’s band probably helped this out, with them posing as the actors alongside Alice himself.
The theatrics take the heaviest precedence in the spookier numbers. Looking back at the “Years Ago” / “Steven” / “The Awakening” sequence, you’ll notice that these are actually some of the softer ones. Acoustic guitars build up “Years Ago,” with horrid noises and voices being audible in the background, meant strictly for suspense. “Steven” then lays on piano leads that heavily relate to The Exorcist theme, adding to what feels like a broken music box, and vocals reminiscent of a panicking child. This then erupts into an epic chorus, which we can call our “jumpscare.” “The Awakening” closes that off with aimless instrumentation, casting vivid energies of insanity. The piano is out of tune until the leads and orchestration begin letting in lighter vibes. “Escape,” as I mentioned, rigs up far happier melodies, which was a phenomenal way to close this disc.
Earlier on, with the “Devil’s Food” / “The Black Widow” combo, we can get a foreshadow of the ending tracks. The music here lets on suspense without overdoing it, but the heavier guitar passages and steady drumbeats don’t let it go beyond slightly unsettling. Between both song sequences is where we get a bit of a mix of styles. “Cold Ethyl” is likely the most straightforward rock ‘n roll banger present, keeping things concise and punchy. On the other hand, you have “Some Folks,” which is a borderline dance number containing chanted gang vocals. “Only Women Bleed” could pass for an epic if it were longer, seeing that it has drastic changes in mood and tempo. There’s also a lot of suspenseful crawls in this one alone, and the horn sections add immense amounts of life. String instruments and brass glitter throughout Welcome To My Nightmare as a whole. “Department Of Youth” is a lot of fun, albeit less-fitting due to how happy it sounds stuck right in the middle. The synth backing glazes a cleaner finish, and the kids backing Alice at the end certainly adds some charm. And of course, the infamous title track samples a taste of everything – hard licks, a symphony, minor tempos, and incredible overlays.
I think it goes without saying how influential this record is. It may not be the heaviest album ever released, but the parts where hard guitars shine through the theatrical tropes are beautifully placed. The arrangement of the songs, the fluid-structure, and the vibes that create horrific images simply with instruments are untouchable. In a way, this is a prerequisite to what King Diamond would write for the majority of his solo career. If you’re a fan of his work but have never heard Welcome To My Nightmare, I highly recommend checking it out. Musically it’s not the same at all, but the ideas sprout from a similar garden.
To that point, this has aged incredibly well. Forty-five years later, and the signs of the time don’t tarnish any of the work. Despite all of the corny 1970s-like horror-isms, they do nothing but add darker charm. The production worked in a way that boosted the heavier guitars as well as all of the glitter thrown on top for effect. This is celebrating its forty-fifth birthday, and I’ve been listening to it for about a decade. But every time I hear it, it’s like it’s the first time. You can pick up different things the more you listen, and everything about it is phenomenal.
Welcome To My Nightmare came out on March 11th, 1975, through Atlantic Records (Alice’s only release to that label). There is an abundance of this classic in circulation, available in all of your favorite formats, with reissues and old pressings everywhere. Find yourself a copy of any version of this right here.