Alice Cooper has been many things in his time: a rock god, a chicken-chucker, a guillotine-operator, a welcomer of nightmares – and now, it seems, a dewy-eyed advocate for the teaching of classical music in schools. Seriously. In a recording studio in central London, Cooper is embarking on one of the most unlikely projects of his half-century tenure as the world’s shock-rocker-in-chief: he’s providing the narration for a new recording of a Prokofiev classic, although his version is called Peter and the Wolf in Hollywood.
As well as updating the tale, about a boy’s encounter with a hungry wolf, the twist in Cooper’s version is the inclusion of a narrated prequel, in which the wolf escapes from a zoo in Los Angeles, where Peter lives with his grandfather. Thanks to a robot and a helicopter, Peter saves the day. Cooper introduces me to some early highlights of the piece, which has also been sumptuously animated for a lively interactive app. He’s especially fond of the voices he created for the grandfather, an ageing LA hippy, and the sleazy, self-satisfied drawl he found for the cat.
He first heard Prokofiev’s 1936 work, he says, before Alice Cooper was even a glint in eye of Vincent Furnier (as he was originally known). “Every kid listened to Peter and the Wolf,” he says of the piece which introduces children to the symphony orchestra by assigning different instruments to each character. “It was our first exposure to classical music – an easy way to get kids involved. You think you’re getting the story, but what you’re really getting is the classical music. Of course, this was in the 1950s in Detroit. Back then, you had to take a classical music test, a general appreciation. I don’t think that exists any more in schools in America.”
It’s odd to hear such rose-tinted reminiscence about the good old days of music education coming from Cooper’s lips, which are often stained scarlet with stage blood and uttering lines such as: “Ethyl’s frigid as an eskimo pie.” But the Prokofiev project has inspired him to make wider connections between his music and classical. Does he remember anything from those tests he was put through? “We learned a lot of stuff we forgot immediately because the Rolling Stones never used any of it. We dismissed it. But now, I don’t think it’s possible to write an original melody that hasn’t been written somewhere before in classical. You hear these pieces and don’t even realise you’re borrowing from them. You write a song and, later on, you hear a classical piece and go, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the melody from my song!’”
Yet Cooper – who is just as charming in person as that genteel oh-my-goshing suggests – says there’s an even deeper connection between classical culture and his work. “My stuff is built like an opera: it’s a melody line and a lyric that’s put to music. Some people call it vaudeville, but it’s as much of an opera as Tommy is. There’s storytelling and characters that come in and out. You know, if you say Welcome to My Nightmare, you’d better give them the nightmare. I was lucky because my producer on that album, Bob Ezrin, was classically trained, so a lot of the musical themes you hear – like Steven’s – he was able to craft in. We would get to a certain point and he would say, let’s go back to that theme here, let’s weave it in, to remind them. That’s a classical device.”
It sure is. It’s a positively Wagnerian approach: creating a web of connections across a whole drama, so that characters and states of mind are tied to a particular melodic idea. A leitmotif, in other words. Intriguingly, it’s exactly what Prokofiev does in Peter and the Wolf, giving each animal and human in his drama a different instrumental colour, as well as a new tune.
“We did a rock-meets-classic show last year in Germany,” he goes on. “They took five of our songs and this guy scored them for orchestra. So we had a rock band as well as the orchestra, and we were playing a song like School’s Out. I turned around and there was this tidal wave of sound behind me that I never knew could exist. It was spectacular. You know, it really turns these songs into something else. I kept looking round to watch them play my songs. It just sounded magnificent. After that, I’d go back to my band and think, ‘There’s something missing here – like 90 instruments behind me.” It was an experience that led Cooper to dwell on how rock defines itself. “What do we call ‘classic rock’? Well, it’s a song that lasts from when it came out until now. And why it’s ‘classic’ is that the music hasn’t changed – those notes still work.
“I’ll tell you something I’ve learnt about songwriting, thanks to my wife and daughters. Take a song like Only Women Bleed or You and Me. I’d know they were going to be hits if there was one point where the chord and the lyric and the emotion break the girls’ hearts. So I would play for my wife and daughters, and they would sit there listening, and I would be like, ‘Here it comes, here it comes.’ And then, on that one chord, that one lyric, they would go, ‘Ohhhh!’ And I would know, yes, I broke her heart right there, that works, that’s going to be a hit.”
And that staying power, says Cooper, just isn’t there among younger songwriters today. “I hear a great song from a young band, but 50 years from now, are they going to be playing it? No. But 50 years from now, they are going to be playing Sgt Pepper and the Who and hopefully a couple of mine, too.”
And of course Prokofiev. “These classical writers were insane, when you think of how crazy they were. These guys were out of their minds. They were just eaten by this music, they were mentally insane over it. They were the rock stars of their time. But I think they would have been a lot crazier than we were.”
Prokofiev a proto-rock shocker? Far from an aberration in a career of metal high-jinks, Cooper’s narration for Peter and the Wolf in Hollywood seems like an act of homage to a musician who was even more extreme than him.
• Peter and the Wolf in Hollywood is out on Deutsche Grammophon on 13 November, with an accompanying app from Giants Are Small available to download on iTunes.