Autumn was always a big deal in my family…and still is. As a little girl I was raised to thrill at the sight of pumpkins, the sounds of theremins and cackling witches, and the pure elation of falling leaves. This time of year was a sensory playground, and that included my father’s vinyl collection. Complete with spoken word albums by Vincent Price about witchcraft, there was one record that embodied all things I held most dear about the season. By the age of 9 I had memorized both sides of Alice Cooper‘s “Welcome to My Nightmare”, and over the years it remains my most awesome Autumn soundtrack.
Released in 1975, “Nightmare” was Alice Cooper’s first solo album apart from his usual band. Among the fresh recruits were guitarists Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter (fresh from Lou Reed’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal) and producer, co-writer and mixer Bob Ezrin (who would later go onto co-produce Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”). Together they developed this epic concept album, taking us on a journey through the nightmares of a child named Steven. After listening to this record countless times over the last 30 years, I’m still taken back by the quality of musicianship and the overall production value. It’s dark, and damn good.
The conceptual progression of “Welcome to My Nightmare” could be broken up into three sections.
The Introduction section encompasses the first few tracks. They’re among the strongest thematically and revolve around the basic fears of a child. We begin Steven’s journey into nighttime terrors.
The title track Welcome to My Nightmare sets the tone and invites us in. Insisting that we’ll feel right at home in this dark place, the track unfolds with a dated groove and distorted guitar accents that roll like smoke. A full horn section accompanies the layered guitar lead which shreds its way to the very end…and right into the beginning of Devil’s Food. Serving as more of an interlude, the musical portion of this track is my current favorite. It’s solid head-banging rock and roll. The louder you play it, the better it sounds. Engineered guitar flourishes literally sound like hair-rising spider legs on the back of your neck….which leads us into one of the most memorable monologues of all time. Vincent Price plays the part of a museum tour guide with a twisted lust for arachnids. His passion is that of the black widow, and communicates his belief of its superiority over man…which takes us into the classic jam The Black Widow.
The middle section addresses more mature themes, and raises questions as to whether Steven is a child at all, or a delusional adult.
The tone shifts abruptly with the sleazy Some Folks. Almost cabaret with its snapping fingers and hammering piano lines, this track touches upon the loathsome urges of mankind. Only Women Bleed is this album’s hit ballad, and faces the challenges of domestic abuse. We then get a deeper look into Steven’s psyche in the scandalous Cold Ethyl. This guy’s one sick puppy. We discover his necrophilic tenancies with a woman he keeps in his freezer. Even if this is shock rock, it was extremely controversial at the time of its release.
The final section is the big reveal. The tracks become a dark and personal narrative of Steven’s journey and mindset. Rock and roll takes a break, and instead music becomes the accompaniment to Steven’s musings.
Years Ago has a chilling oom-pah-pah carnival feel. Orchestrated with what sounds like a child’s toy piano, there’s ambient whistling, voices, and the sounds of machines failing to start. The child Steven laments the loss of his toys, and how all his friends went home long ago. He’s alone and miserable, yet insisting on staying a child. That is…until we hear the voice of the adult Steven contradicting that he is in fact a man. The soundscape paints a dismal and dusty picture which culminates in the most chilling moment of the album. The separate voices of the split personality ask the question in unison: “Isn’t that our Mom calling?” The question is answered by a ghostly woman’s voice getting lost in the wind, “Steven…come home.” (This is the part where I’d maliciously ditch my sister in the room alone. She hated that. THIS…is Autumn.) The story continues with Steven, where we discover that he has committed a murder. The Awakening is as it sounds. Steven wakes up, and I interpret him to be incarcerated. These tracks are morbid, but technically fun to listen to from a production standpoint. The rock and roll returns with Escape, where we assume that Steven has escaped his confinement to wreak havoc elsewhere.
This album could be summed up in one word: theatrical. In fact, the tour was just that. Complete with wild sets and costumes, the “Welcome to My Nightmare” tour was the biggest of its time grossing $9 million. In conclusion, to commemorate the beginning of Fall 2012, I’d like to submit for your consideration, Alice Cooper’s “Welcome to my Nightmare”. It’s one of my favorite records of all time, and a must-listen for the season.