DVD Recorded Nov. 8th 2015
Nick Didkovsky – guitar (GB’s parts) Nick Oddy – guitar (MB’s parts) Adam Minkoff – vocals, keyboards Max Johnson – bass Glenn Johnson – drums Paul Bertolino – vocals
Original album recorded June 1969: Alice Cooper – lead vocals, harmonica Glen Buxton – lead guitar, Michael Bruce – rhythm guitar, backing vocals keyboards Dennis Dunaway – bass guitar, backing vocals Neal Smith – drums, backing vocals
For those that have heard the legend of, or think they know thealbum Pretties For You (the thrashing proto-glam 1969 debut from the Alice Cooper group) Nick Didkovsky and his freakishly virtuosic band’s live performance will be a revelation. Indeed, for anyone who is a fan of the original Alice Cooper group and the most daring of late 1960s experimental rock, this recording is a sonic kick to the solar plexus that delivers the full impact of what the original album’s production often never sonically could, and brings roaring back from the dead some exceptionally original and
daring material that was to be discarded shortly after (during the original band’s more successful Warner Brothers years). Didkovsky and co. display the wild and insane musicality needed to restore the songs to their ravaging and surrealistic glory, and with remarkable authenticity that should be heard to be believed.
I had the chance to be at this show live back in November and the pleasure of attending an advanced screening of the recently released DVD. I believe this recording re-contextualizes the importance of the material, draws attention to the insane amount of skill and dedication needed to pull off this performance, and how being present for a live performance fundamentally changes the essence of what those songs are. First, some context…
It is not uncommon to see an established band performing a beloved album in its entirety. Stevie Wonder presented his iconic Songs in the Key of Life as the centerpiece of his last tour, The Who revisited Quadrophenia, Lou Reed had his Berlin concert, and Roger Waters has built and torn down “The Wall” on too many occasions to count. These events seem to provide fans an opportunity to hear material that hasn’t been played in decades, perhaps never in sequence, and to relive these note for note recreations in a concert atmosphere with other rabid fans. Of course it isn’t a bad business decision either, providing an often safe and satisfying way for established artists to create interest in older material.
It is much more rare to see an artist, with absolutely no possibility of financial gain (let alone recoup significant costs of rehearsals, production, and time spent obsessively practicing) recreate an album of someone else’s work, and an album that had little (if any) commercial or critical success upon its initial release; an album that was essentially forgotten about by much of the mainstream listening public and, if set lists are to be believed, even the band itself.
For guitarist Nick Didkovsky the energy, challenge, and bizarreness of such a project fit perfectly with the creative DNA of “Pretties For You.” As a part of his residency at the Stone in New York City this past November, Didkovsky and a collection of killer musicians (with guidance from members of the original band bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith) dedicated one of his twelve scheduled performances that week to a complete note for note restoration of the avant-garde and at times surrealist album, in the process realizing, rather than just recreating, the blistering rock spectacle and underappreciated potential within the songs themselves.
The want to undertake this project may rest in the often-imperfect quality that mars the production of the original album, and only a handful of bootleg recordings of the material played live. At times rushed and uneven, with pronounced bleed and mixing issues, the album would become the antithesis of what the original band would later be known for. This is certainly the case when comparing Pretties… to the later albums produced with Bob Ezrin for Warner Brothers that would bring the band their greatest musical notoriety (Love it to Death, Killer, School’s Out, Billion Dollar Babies). Dennis Dunaway, is his memoir Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! My Adventures in the Alice Cooper Group, describes the chaotic nature of the first recording day and working with Frank Zappa, to whose label the band was signed:
We were still setting up when Frank said, “Run through the songs so we can adjust the levels.” Caught off guard, we blasted through three songs. We were still tuning up along the way and were ready to do another when Frank’s raspy voice came in over the studio intercom. “Come in for a listen,” he said. “It sounds great. We’ve got some takes.” Some takes? Who was doing any official takes?
It is self evident that Didkovsky is a great fan of the album, but perhaps “lovingly obsessed” are better words, something that would be necessary before dedicating the hundreds of hours necessary to learn some of the most unorthodox guitar parts of the era:
“The first Alice Cooper record has grown to be my favorite over many years of listening. The inventiveness and sheer musicality of this record is unparalleled. It was an extremely exciting time of their creative life: they were stoked to work with Zappa, had a bunch of well rehearsed & bizarre tunes under their belts, and were poised to take over the world. The result was a record that is one of the most urgent and honest documents of a creative musical collective that you could ever hear. I love it to this day and hear more in it every time I listen to it.”
Even for a caliber of musician such as Didkovsky (whose credits include Doctor Nerve, Häßliche Luftmasken, Vomit Fist, being a member of the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet, composing for the Bang On A Can All-Stars, Meridian Arts Ensemble, ETHEL, and performances with DITHER Guitar Quartet, John Zorn, Billion Dollar Babies, and Blue Coupe amongst many others) the details involved in learning all of Glen Buxton’s original guitar parts and solos required a love and dedication to the material that bordered on compulsion. The fact that the project would appeal to similar die-hard fans of the album was also a motivating factor:
“That’s the power of being on the total freakin’ fringe of the bell curve, as far as popularity is concerned,” Didkovsky says. “To have one guy come from Sweden because his mind is so blown that we’re doing this, that means the world to me. If he were the only guy in the audience, that would be good enough.”
Songs such as “B.B. on Mars,” despite originally being only 1:17 in length, illustrate the demand placed on Didkovsky and the group. A torrent of guitar flurries all over the neck dominate the first several seconds before a series of unpredictable breaks and lurching shifts punctuate the verses, mixed in with odd poly-tonal chord interjections and solos that contain the group’s highly original brand of chromatic playing. Here Didkovsky and Oddy’s frighteningly accurate interpretations, bends, dynamics, blend, and authentic tone (insights into historically accurate gear were provided by Dennis Dunaway) jumps out of each section, and not just recreating the original articulations. The extreme preparation is evident in the authority with each delivers their part, and that authority acts as much like a glitter embossed sledgehammer.
Striking throughout is the power and effortlessness by which drummer Glenn Johnson leads the group through the a-metric stops and tempo changes. Johnson’s drives the band with an extreme sensitivity to dynamics that locks the band into even the most unpredictable hits, completely internalizing every nuance of Neal Smith’s original parts but adding a modern power that the original band could only foretell. Make no mistake, this music is hard, but never sounds that way during the show. The band allows the listener to reel in the impact of these petulant rhythms instead of ever noticing the high wire musical juggling act that is taking place in front of them.
The band takes advantages of songs like “Swing Low Sweet Cheerio” to opening up solo sections, stretching and expanding the already dramatic dynamic arch of the song. As in every tune, the vocal harmonies recreated by lead singer Paul Bertolino and keyboardist Adam Minkoff are as sharp and accurate as the blade of a guillotine, a staggering feat considering that the band was performing without a proper vocal monitor system. Indeed, Bertolino has one of the most challenging tasks in that he is recreating a stage presence and vocal style of one of rock’s most iconic front men. Aside from having a range and technique that seem to make every line seem effortless, Bertolino’s experience and authority lend something to the vocal that the original never could; experience. While by 1969 the Alice Cooper group had several years of heavy performing under their belt, they were still relatively young, with Vincent Furnier yet to realize the full range of what would later become known as the character of Alice Cooper. Bertolino’s slips into the Alice skin, dare I say, as authentically as the original, and brings the confidence and vocal chops a young Furnier perhaps was not as yet consistently capable of. His skill and confidence allows the vocal to sneer, growl, hiss and pop with the subtle impact that was to only be developed later. And while unfortunately the band chose not to recreate any of the notorious stadium-filling feather pillow explosions that were typical of the band in 1969, Bertolino’s masterful small-scale manipulation of gesture, movement, interpretation, and perfect dynamic balance within the ensemble, more than represent the dramatic element of the original band.
Didkovsky realizes that a core ingredient of the material is an uncompromising musical originality from performers, a quality necessary for these musicians to realize while still remaining faithful to the songs themselves. Hearing these musicians expand solo sections, fill, or adjust subtle nuances adds a new dimension to the project that draws attention to the ability of the songs to live apart from the musicians that created them, an unexpected internal strength of the material to be shaped by other musical personalities. Max Johnson epitomizes this with a masterful interpretation of Dennis Dunaway’s bass parts but with an original sound and ensemble skill that is a major component of what unites this DVD performance together. This is evident when one realizes that the impressively balanced and detailed sound of the DVD was produced solely through the use of room mics and no multitracking. In such a fragile recording environment the ability for Johnson to jump out and drive without obliterating other musicians, or support passages without getting lost in the mix is impressive. Bass and drums match the independent energy of the original rhythm section but consistently blend with each other in a manner the often-inconsistent mix of the original record couldn’t represent. In particular, the groove produced from the rhythm section on the DVDs highlight, “Fields of Regret” is as heavy as anything the original band ever recorded, and should help to cement this song as one of the heaviest of the era, by any group, including all primordial heavy metal emerging concurrently from Birmingham England.
Above all, the most striking element of Didkovsky’s DVD is just how ridiculously tight the band is. Dunaway’s testimony of the recording process describes how at times various elements were not able to be fixed, tuned, or mixed to the band’s liking; in contrast Didkovsky’s group executes the songs with seemingly effortless precision and a fist to the throat level of impact. This is some extremely heavy musicianship, with amazingly vivid dynamics, pocket, drive, balance, and never leaving a note out of place. When coupled with the unity of sound a single band in a single venue on a single night can provide (some appropriately heavy in person volume) the songs sequence in a way that to these ears actually has more continuity than the original album could have. Didkovsky’s group also has a palatable excitement and sense of danger in attempting the feat that was not present on bootlegs of the original group, a band that played the material with the familiarity of nightly performances and a deliberately loose and wild approach. That unity helps to create an arching impact to the material. This of course doesn’t take away from the quality of material the original Alice Cooper group created, in fact it ferociously illuminates it and shows listeners up close what was there once and also what is there thorough a fresh interpretation.
With Didkovsky’s band taking obviously large amounts of time to craft these elements, along with having a great live mix, consistency from song to song, and a wall of copious physical sound vibration coming at you, the result is an experience that changes what those songs are in a fundamental way. It’s raw rock and roll, loud and in your face, with moments where your head seems to spin around 360 degrees without dropping a beat. It dawns on you that this originally was not a young band trying to be weird simply for its own sake, an element that can get lost in the muck of the original recording. Didkovsky summarizes his realization of this, and what it must have sounded like when the original band played in person, the role of live performance vital to actualizing these elements:
I have always wanted to hear this material live. Imagining the opening chords of Fields of Regret exploding at concert volumes, hearing Levity Ball in high fidelity without track bleed, experiencing the open improv sections of songs like Sing Low Sweet Cheerio take off in a live setting…
What was befor an album, spirit, nerve, and singular period in rock history created by five musical rebels has been brought back by a kindred group of six. It really needs to be played again and again, live, and for more and more people. Perhaps Didkovsky is right in pointing to the vitality of music such as this when it lives out on the edge of the bell curve, but this DVD shows the music has the balls to move as far into the middle as it wants, and without compromise. That is, if people have a chance to hear these guys do it again. If you can’t get to their next show, buy this and play it with the volume up (considerably of course) and hear why for yourself.