This song is about the feelings of a frustrated teenager, which described many of Alice Cooper's fans. 18 was an interesting age in America at the time, as in many states, you had to be older to vote or drink alcohol, but you could be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. The group's drummer, Neal Smith
, told us: "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."
The band ("Alice Cooper" was the name of both the lead singer and the group at the time) wrote the song in the summer of 1970 when they were living in a dorm house in Cincinnati. Their drummer, Neil Smith, told us how the song came together: "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."
"I'm Eighteen" was eight minutes long in it's original form. The group had an elaborate stage show with lots of gore and histrionics, so they wrote longer songs that would give them time to build a story with their visuals.
An 8-minute freakout was fine for a live performance, but the group needed a hit: their first album had made #199 on the charts, and their next one didn't chart at all. They were signed to Frank Zappa's Straight Records label, but when Zappa's interest waned, the Straight's parent company, Warner, took over the band and made them produce a 4-song demo to prove their worth. They went to the producer Jack Richardson, who had worked with the Guess Who, looking for help. Richardson wanted nothing to do with them, but he dispatched a young producer working at his Nimbus 9 studios named Bob Ezrin to see the band perform. Ezrin went to New York and saw them perform this song at a club called Max's Kansas City. The band was so raw that Ezrin thought Cooper was singing "I'm Edgy," but he saw lots of potential in the group and in the song.
Alice Cooper recorded their 4-song demo with Ezrin at RCA Studios in Chicago, and "I'm Eighteen" was the standout track. With Ezrin at the controls, they polished the song down to 2:56. The label was impressed, the song became a hit, and Ezrin continued to work with the band, helping them craft radio-friendly Rock songs without compromising their caliginous image. Neal Smith told us, "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."
Cooper was not really 18 at the time. He was 23 when they recorded it.
This song was released in November, 1970 as the first single from Love It To Death, which came out in January, 1971. The song got a lot of early support on the Windsor, Ontario radio station CKLW, whose signal went into Cleveland. Most of the band's support was in the midwest, and they often toured with Detroit groups like the Stooges, the MC5, and Bob Seger. They were usually very low on the bill, but when this song came out, they moved up a few rungs. Neal Smith recalls, "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."
John Lydon auditioned for The Sex Pistols by singing along to this song for the group's manager, Malcolm McLaren. This took place in a pub, when Lydon was hanging out after closing and McLaren asked him to mime some songs. Lydon said that the jukebox was filled with "that awful '60s mod music," and that "I'm Eighteen" was the only song on it he could tolerate. McLaren gave him the job and renamed him Johnny Rotten.
Lydon, who was always a huge fan of Alice Cooper, narrated a 2000 BBC documentary on Cooper and wrote liner notes for his 1999 boxed set.
Creed covered this on the soundtrack to the 1998 movie The Faculty.
In 1998, the publishing company that owned the copyright of this song sued Kiss, claiming that "Dreamin'," from their Psycho Circus album, resembled this too closely. The case was settled a year later.
Alice told Mojo magazine December 2010 how producer Bob Ezrin contributed to this song: "Eighteen was a jam that we'd warm up with, it wasn't even a song, and Bob said, 'That's a hit.' 'How?' we said. He kept saying, 'Dumb it down. Make it simpler.' He'd add a piano on the bassline, and we'd go, 'You can't put a piano on an Alice Cooper song.' But he was absolutely correct. When we got done listening to Eighteen, we just could not believe it."
The single was issued with the title "Eighteen." On the album, it's listed as "I'm Eighteen," which is how it's most commonly known.