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From Alice Cooper to ICP


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From Alice Cooper to ICP, wildly theatrical acts thrive in Detroit

March 12, 2011





It must be something in Detroit's cultural soil.

When Alice Cooper is welcomed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Monday night at a glitzy New York ceremony, he won't merely be the latest Motor City inductee. He'll also be flying the flag for a distinctly Detroit style, a genre that for decades has chugged alongside Motown polish and gritty soul-rock: a love of the freaky, far-out and theatrical.

It's stagecraft injected with wild imagination and weird extremes -- a legacy of fantastical costumes, makeup and props, often served up with a touch of horror, sci-fi and a knowing wink.

Cooper may be the best known of Detroit's shock-rock acts, but he's got plenty of company on history's timeline. Head forward from his 1970s heyday, and you'll eventually wind up at Insane Clown Posse. Head back, and you'll catch a glimpse of pioneering Detroit rock 'n' rollers like Tony Lee, who donned a gorilla mask onstage and leapt across tables in the '50s. Or Inkster R&B combo the Egyptians, who hit the stage in cartoonish turbans. Or electrifying Andre Williams, with his outrageous suits and riotous sets.

"Almost every band felt that they had to do something a little bit different and a little bit more than just play rock 'n' roll," Cooper says of his hometown. "I don't know why that was. But I do know all the bands from Cincinnati weren't like that. The bands from L.A. weren't like that. Yet the Detroit bands had that built in."

It's not that rock theatrics are exclusive to Detroit: Cooper's own influences included the eccentric British musician Arthur Brown, known to perform wearing newspapers and sheet metal, and bizarro rocker Frank Zappa, who shepherded Cooper's early record deal.

But in a town that is fixated on Halloween and craves high-energy sounds, it's no surprise that rock sensationalism found a special niche. This is the place that adopted Kiss, molded George Clinton, spawned Slim Shady and continues to churn out acts like the Amino Acids and 3D Invisibles, the latter specializing in a style they call monster rock.

It's an approach born for blue-collar audiences who lay down a clear demand: We worked hard for this cash. Now entertain us.

"Look at how much of the extreme style was born or cultivated here," says Brian Thomas of the band Halloween, which bowed on the '80s Detroit metal scene with dungeon sets, cemetery props and massive pyrotechnics. "It's such a roll-your-sleeves-up, get-dirty kind of place, and people want to be really entertained when they go out. A band that puts on a big show is an escape."

With his boa constrictor, onstage guillotines and other creepy props, Cooper's persona made him one of the most controversial arena artists of the 1970s. It was an approach he'd honed for rowdy crowds at Detroit clubs, carousing and competing with acts such as the Stooges and MC5.

"I'd know what our show was going to be: It was going to be bizarre, phantom-of-the-opera, really crazy and strange and weird and cool. But I also knew that Iggy Pop was going to go and walk through the audience on his hands, with peanut butter all over him, cutting himself up with a switchblade -- and I'm thinking, how do I go on after that?" Cooper says. "So it was always competition, but the bands were like brothers. After the show I'd go, 'What the hell were you doing out there tonight?' And he'd go, 'What was I doing? What were you doing?' "

A Detroit native who relocated to Arizona and L.A. as a teen, Cooper returned with his band in 1970 in a career-saving move: As their shows had grown freakier, the group needed a sympathetic home base. Detroit offered an audience that would not only welcome those antics, but insist on them.

On a West Coast scene still high on flower power, such theatrics had been viewed with suspicion, a façade for lousy bands to hide behind. But in Detroit, recalls Cooper, "if you didn't do a bit of a show, everybody kind of looked at you and said, 'What's wrong with you guys?' "

The influence was wide and varied: The Detroit cult band Death formed after catching a Cooper concert at Cobo Arena. And while George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic productions are more freak than fright, the zany costumes and sci-fi trappings evoke the same Motor City spirit. It's embedded in the city's hip-hop too: One of the most influential acts in Detroit rap history is Esham, the MC who helped launch the horrorcore movement two decades ago, with provocative, evil themes over dark, trippy beats. His most obvious descendants can be found in the wicked-clown rappers of ICP and their Psychopathic Records family, a $10-million annual business and one of Michigan's most successful music enterprises.

Esham's influence even extends to Eminem, who name-checked the Detroit veteran on his national breakout album. Eminem's early Slim Shady persona -- with his "Friday the 13th" masks and "Brain Damage" imagery -- was unmistakably a Detroit product.

"Eminem is so ridiculously theatrical, it's unbelievable," says Cooper. "I don't think people give him enough credit for that."

And it's not just the homegrown acts. Kiss, the New York band that arrived lathered in makeup and spitting fake blood, became a Motor City superstar as it toiled to crack other markets. Detroit has remained one of the most reliably lucrative stops for gory costumed acts such as Marilyn Manson, Gwar and Slipknot.

"Detroit has theatrics in its soul," says Rick Franks, a top Live Nation executive who knows better than anyone what sells tickets in Detroit. "We may be the blue-collar capital of America, but there's always been an appreciation here for pushing art to the edge, whether it's on a rock 'n' roll stage or the wall of the DIA."

Halloween's big fans

The notion of dressing up and rocking out jibes with a broader Detroit phenomenon: This place is bewitched by Halloween.

Cooper recalls his boyhood days near Lincoln and Kelly in East Detroit, where "Halloween was the biggest night of the year and the second-biggest thing next to Christmas. In Detroit, if you didn't have three shopping bags of candy, you weren't even trying. I took Halloween very seriously."

Indeed, those who have spent their lives here may not realize how uniquely attached Detroit is to Halloween.

In the Halloween industry, southeast Michigan is regarded as the country's haunted house capital -- more than 70 attractions in a 50-mile radius, according to Fear Finder publisher Ed Terebus, with perennial attendance of about 750,000. There's the region's sometimes problematic embrace of Devil's Night, an Oct. 30 revelry unknown in much of the United States. And Detroit TV buffs will recall campy late-night hosts such as Sir Graves Ghastly and the Ghoul -- the latter blending B-movie horror and trashy rock 'n' roll with a countercultural zing.

Following in their footsteps is Wolfman Mac -- Bay City native Mac Kelly -- whose Saturday night program, "Wolfman Mac's Chiller Drive-In" ( chillerdrivein.com ), showcases local bands alongside creature features and pun-happy skits.

"I lived in Southern California for a while, and Halloween there is nowhere near as interesting and fun as it is here," he says. "If I'd tried to start this show in California, I'm not sure it ever would have been accepted."

Wolfman runs a concert production firm, booking local bands such as Graveside Manner and the Phantom Shakers. He also operates one of the few year-round haunted attractions in the country, Sinister Haunted House and Glow Golf in Shelby Township.

"People here are absolutely fascinated with it," says Wolfman. "There seems to be an electricity right through Halloween every year -- people can't wait to get to the cider mills, pick pumpkins, start shopping at the Halloween stores. I've never figured out what it is, exactly, but it's a pretty amazing thing."

At least one group took it all the way: Since forming in 1983, the band Halloween has enjoyed a dynamic career on Detroit's club scene, delivering a heavy metal show steeped in spooky imagery and tales-from-the-crypt tunes. The comparisons to Cooper came almost immediately.

"We're happy with the association, because we always felt Alice gave you your money's worth," says bassist George Neal. "We really picked up on that philosophy. We wanted people to worry about missing a show because they might be missing something cool."

Amid a rich musical legacy where it can be tough to stand out, going big is a way to separate from the pack.

"If you grew up here, you were spoon-fed a lot of really, really good music. It was constantly in arm's reach around you," says Neal. "Being theatrical was a way you could put icing on the cake. Detroiters expect something more. And so it's become a standard here."

It won't be far from Cooper's mind when he and his surviving band mates step to the Waldorf-Astoria podium Monday night, reminiscing about those crazy nights at the Grande Ballroom and Eastown Theatre.

"They were," he says with a wicked laugh, "the best rock dungeons in the world."

Contact Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or

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