Neal Smith - "I'm Eighteen"
|"I'm Eighteen" |
Artist: Alice Cooper
Writers: Michael Bruce/Glen Buxton/Alice Cooper/Dennis Dunaway/Neal Smith
Producer: Bob Ezrin
Album: Love It To Death
Chart Position: #21 (US)
Alice Cooper's third single was the charm. "I'm Eighteen" ushered in a sound that would take over the 1970s, adroitly combining punk and glam and heavy metal into a teenage anthem. Drummer Neal Smith was in on its creation, collaborating on many of the band's biggest hits, including "School's Out." In the mid-'70s, Alice Cooper broke up, but its namesake, Alice Cooper, continued as an iconic solo artist, while Smith pursued a career in real estate. In 2011, Alice Cooper, the band, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Taking a break from his newest project, Killsmith, Neal Smith was kind enough to fill in the details behind the creation of their breakthrough hit.
"Living," the single from our first album Pretties For You
came out in 1969 on Frank Zappa's Straight Records. In 1970 we recorded our second album, Easy Action
, and the single was called "Shoe Salesman," which was a weird song even for us, kind of casual and jazzy. The first album sold 12,000 copies and went to #199 on the charts; Easy Action
didn't even chart. We were playing around the country at festivals, so we were getting some national attention, but we were far from where we wanted to be. We'd been on the road a couple of years, living out of our suitcases. We weren't starving; we could eat, we were staying in hotels, but we were getting deeper in debt because we didn't have any hit records. In those days you played live to sell records.
Our affiliation with Zappa was sort of waning, so at some point Warner Brothers took the band over. But before they put the ink to the paper and signed the group, they wanted to hear a four song demo. We considered that a slap in our faces. But in retrospect, from a business standpoint, it makes sense.
In the summer of 1970 we ended up renting a dorm house in Cincinnati. We were getting a lot of work in Ohio and Michigan; we were working and writing all the time. We had access to a club and we rehearsed there if we weren't playing a show. Mike Bruce (guitarist) had this idea for a song called "I'm Eighteen." At first it was almost like a Pink Floyd kind of thing. We'd always been two guitars, bass, drums and the lead singer. Michael was well versed as a keyboard player, so we got a Farfisa organ and he wrote the song on that. The intro was kind of a melodic, haunting tune that built and built. Since we wrote everything for the stage, it wound up being an eight minute song. We only spent a couple of weeks in Cincinnati, but that's where the song was written.
We wanted to work with a producer who had a track record of hits. And so we focused on Jack Richardson from Nimbus 9 in Toronto, who had worked with the Guess Who. Jack hated us. Didn't want anything to do with us. We still had the reputation of biting the heads off of chickens and drinking blood and all that, so people in the music business were buying all this press stuff. They all thought we were insane. But there was a new man in their stable, a young guy, younger than us, named Bob Ezrin. We set up an audition with Jack, and Jack sent Bob Ezrin down to Max's Kansas City in New York in September, 1970. Bob came down and loved the band and the song he loved the most was a song he thought was called "I'm Edgy."
In the fall of 1970 we started working on the preproduction of this four song demo for Warner Brothers and the lead song was "I'm Eighteen." It was a song about growing up in the '60s, with lines in it like you could go to war but you couldn't vote. We had no idea it would become an anthem; we were just thinking it would be a cool song. Bob's job as a producer and arranger was to cut five minutes out of it. We worked on that song for weeks and weeks and we finally chopped it down to three minutes. We were very hungry for a hit single. We had specifically targeted Nimbus 9 because of their ability to make hit records, so we were very willing to do whatever had to be done. I had joined the band in 1967. We were going into our third year together. We had two albums out that didn't slam up the charts. We were playing every night on stage. We knew how to get a crowd excited. We were like a pot ready to boil over. But the heat wasn't hot enough yet. We always worked with a total group effort, everybody collaborating, everybody making suggestions. But Bob became like the 6th member of the band. He was the one person who had the final word.
We went over to RCA studios in the fall and winter of 1970 and recorded it with the other three songs. "I'm Eighteen" was the strongest track and when Warner Brothers heard it they finally agreed to do the record. By the time the album came out around the holidays in 1970, the single had been out for two months and we were getting airplay on CKLW, the big station in Windsor, Ontario, right across the bay from Detroit. Its signal went across the lake into Cleveland. Glen and I were both from Ohio and Alice was from Detroit, so when that song broke, it was really great that it was in that part of the country. They were the first ones on it. Ultimately, we were the opposite of Pink Floyd, a band that crossed our path many times in the early days. Pink Floyd was huge on the West Coast and huge on the East Coast, but they couldn't break the heartland for a long time. We were huge in the heartland but we couldn't break New York City radio, and we couldn't break Top 40 LA radio. If you look at the charts for those years it's all soft rock like "Bridge Over Troubled Water
." The harder songs were mainly funk. The real heavy rock and roll stuff had a problem. I remember when it started climbing up the chart in January, it went right along with "My Sweet Lord
" by George Harrison. I remember checking to see which song was higher in the chart each week.
Immediately we started doubling and tripling the amount of money we were making. At the festivals we played instead of being 10th or 12th on the billing, now we were in the top 5. The other acts were usually the Amboy Dukes, the Stooges, the MC5, and Bob Seger. There were only a couple of bands that I'd hang out with before a concert, and one of them was Cactus with Carmine Appice. A lot of times when the Stooges played they would stay totally isolated and locked in their dressing rooms and so would we. When you're trying to build what a band is, a lot of it is a mystique. You don't hang out with the other entities. The biggest change was that we started playing more universities. After "School's Out
" everything was headlining for the rest of our career.
The first show we did after they started playing "I'm Eighteen" was the Detroit Auto Show. It was the big teen event of the year. It was the very first time we played a song where the crowd went crazy. That's what we were trying for the whole time. We wanted to be the Beatles. We wanted to be the Stones. We wanted to take what was Alice Cooper and still make it commercial. We had the real dark side of the band, but we had to figure out a way to make a hit record and keep our identity and believe me, we couldn't figure it out until we started working with Bob Ezrin. He was the one who could see it. When he first went back to Nimbus 9 and talked to Jack Richardson, Bob told him: It's not the '60s anymore; there's a whole new wave of music coming. We can be ahead of the curve, but if we pass on this band it'll just wash right over us. So that's how he became our biggest fan and cheerleader. I can't underestimate the impact of what Bob did. Once Bob got involved that was the missing part of the puzzle that we were looking for and it took three albums to find him. For a lot of bands it never happens, but once we had our foot in the door we just kicked it down and all hell broke loose. Once we had the basic guidelines of what Alice Cooper was about we could work on writing our singles and we could still have "I Love the Dead" and "Sick Things" and "Dead Babies." "No More Mr. Nice Guy" is a good combination between the dark side and the commercial side. Bob produced every one of our albums.
The royalties on "I'm Eighteen" took their natural course, because the band stopped playing in 1975, when Alice went solo. He's always been on tour since then, but his career was sort of waning in the early '80s. And then things went to CDs, and the technology started to change, and everybody replaced their record collections with CD collections, so the royalties started shooting up in the late '80s. When we were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 there was another spike. Alice is out there playing all the time and that certainly doesn't hurt the classic songs, since the majority of the songs he plays are the songs that made the band famous.
But even back as far as "I'm Eighteen," our relationship with Warner Brothers was a continual battle and Alice Cooper was always a risky situation. According to our manager at Alive Enterprises, Shep Gordon, every time we did something all the way to the band's last album, they considered it a fluke. Love It to Death
was our first gold album, Killer
(released later in 1971) went platinum. School's Out
(1972) went double platinum, the single made the Top 5. Then Billion Dollar Babies
(1973) comes out and it's even bigger than School's Out
. So every time it happens, Warner Brothers says, it's Alice Cooper, it's a fluke. Our management has to go back to war with them. That was one of the things that was always frustrating for us. Four decades later the records are still selling worldwide and we're still making royalties, and "I'm Eighteen" and "School's Out" are the two lead songs in our catalogue. To this day there are people when their children turn 18, that song is around. It's become a perennial for generations that followed. It just shows you that Warner Brothers had no idea what they were doing.
Bruce Pollock ("The Next to Last of the Rock Journalists") is the author of 11 books on music. Visit Bruce at brucepollockthewriter.com. Check out Neal's Rock N Realtor website at nealsmith.com.
October 4, 2012.