A YEAR IN MUSIC: ALICE COOPER – Zipper Catches Skin (1982)

Review by: Jonathan Hopkins

It’s hard for me to think of a more unjustly maligned album than Zipper Catches Skin. Almost everybody considers it the low point of Alice Cooper’s career, and those that don’t seem to have forgotten it exists. Even the few defenders these days seem to only offer lukewarm praise along the lines of “It’s not as bad as people say.” While not quite a masterpiece, I do think this is a very good album that doesn’t deserve anywhere near the hate it gets.

First, some background: This is the second of what Alice refers to as “the blackout trilogy.” His alcoholism had gotten so bad that he claims to have no recollection of this album or the two albums bookending it, although he does seem to at least have some memory of Special Forces given that he toured it and occasionally will resurrect a couple of songs from it. The same can’t be said for this or DaDa. On that album, the picture we got was rather sad and tragic, but here, humor and irony rule the day. Also, while recording Zipper, he wasn’t just plagued by alcohol abuse – he was also addicted to crack, and apparently during the sessions, he’d hit the pipe after any given take. That’s really the key to understanding this album.

I don’t want to give the impression that Zipper is about his addiction problems – it isn’t “about” anything at all. But musically, crack is clearly the primary external influence. I don’t even know how to classify this album. Most people shrug their shoulders and call it “New Wave,” but even as loose as that term is, it doesn’t fit comfortably. The album doesn’t have the herky-jerky Cars rhythms of Flush the Fashion, nor the Police guitar tones of Special Forces. There are barely any keyboards with the notable exception of “I Am The Future,” a slow sci-fi dirge which was recorded for a film soundtrack and thrown on here to fill up space. It doesn’t belong on the album at all, but since Zipper‘s goal seems to be to make as little sense as possible, it ends up working. I suppose I’d call Zipper hyperactive post-punk as a descriptor, but even that doesn’t feel adequate.

Zipper can’t really be measured in individual songs. Alice barely sings, preferring instead to snarl and bark his way through in a half-speaking/half-singing manner, and the tracks don’t feel so much composed as spewed out. However, the songs all have their own individual moments of intrigue. “Adaptable” is an undeniably catchy and well-constructed pop song, to the point where I’m amazed it wasn’t chosen as the lead single. “Zorro’s Ascent” and “Scrooge’s Song” combine their slightly off-kilter guitar work with snappy choruses. The manic riffage and completely out of place, but effective, backing vocals of “I Better Be Good” are incredibly charming, as is the way the song essentially constructs itself from the ground up with each passing line. I’ll never get the way Alice Cooper snarls out “I’ve got a Porsche and I’m leaving Grand Rapids” in front of what sounds like a twisted version of 50’s rock music in “I Like Girls” out of my head. Every song has something good to say about it, but there’s only so many ways I can pick out and phrase these moments.

It’s the moments that make the concept work, and that concept is essentially a portrait of the complete collapse of a man’s psyche, and that is why I find the album so fascinating. It starts off somewhat normally – composition wise, not in attitude or lyrics which are already off-kilter – and as it goes on, the tempos get more frenetic and the madness ratchets up very quickly. It’s hard to think that the album could get crazier considering that it starts with “I AM THE FOX AND I GO WHERE I WANT!” until you find out it ends with “THAT WAS THE DAY MY DEAD PET RETURNED TO SAVE MY LIFE!”

Zipper certainly isn’t perfect. I’ve already mentioned that the songs don’t seem to have any thought put into them, and while the style works for me for the 30 minutes it’s given to us, I could see how it could get annoying to some, and if it went on any longer, it probably would to me as well.

But those weaknesses don’t detract from what I consider to be a very intriguing and idiosyncratic experience. I think the backlash comes down to two things: what people expect from Alice and whether the style and hyper-self-effacement endears itself to the listener or aggravates them. The second point is subjective, but as to the first, I’ll say that while it may be stylistically nothing like one would expect from Alice, the spirit is there 100%. There are many albums and songs out there which depict something like a slow descent into madness – Syd Barrett and Skip Spence’s albums, parts of Peter Gabriel’s III, a whole bunch of stuff by Pink Floyd – but this is the only album I can think of which depicts not a slow descent, but a rapid plunge, and does so entirely without its creator’s consent, with the tongue-in-cheek sarcasm and irony Alice Cooper is known for on overdrive. Whether you like Zipper or not, there has never been anything else quite like it.

YEZDA URFA – Sacred Baboon (1989)

Review by: Eric Pember

Assigned by: A.A

This feels like some sort of Frank Zappa-style parody of prog. The vocalist sounds like a less-distinguished Jon Anderson. The songwriting is unstable to the point where the songs feel randomly assembled. There is a heavy use of vibraphones and similar unconventional instruments that have been traditionally beloved by prog. It’s so whacked that it should work just from that alone, and actually kinda does.
However, from what I can tell these guys were completely serious about the music they were making, and from there, you start to notice all the problems. While I honestly quite like Anderson and consider him kinda underrated, this vocalist doesn’t really add any spice at all. The weak songwriting undercuts any emotion they could elicit from the listener. Most of the instruments don’t really add anything to the songs.
It’s worth a listen just to know how whacked-out prog can get under the right circumstances, but you probably won’t want to come back to this again.
[Note: this album was recorded in 1976]

A YEAR IN MUSIC: THE CLASH – Combat Rock (1982)

Review by: James Hodgkiss

Combat Rock, the last album by the Clash*, is an interesting album, taking the experiment that was Sandinista! and refining it, making it more coherent and blending it with their established sound to create something that really defies any attempt at categorisation other than “a work of genius”. I’ve not tried to properly review anything before, and doing it in the middle of the night like this probably won’t help, but whatever – the following is written, track by track, as I’m listening.

“Know Your Rights” as an opener sets the tone for the whole album, really: angry shouting and guitars in the name of social justice as you’d expect from the Clash, but a ska beat with the piano behind it and vocals that follow their own idea of what the song sounds like, utterly fantastic and at the same time unusual.

“Car Jamming” is even more unusual, I have no idea how to make any kind of examination of it other than that it’s great. I’m trying to think of more to say because it needs more than one sentence, but honestly I can’t describe it, it’s a Combat Rock song and immediately recognisable as such. Echoes of Joe’s later stuff, certainly, but unmistakably a Clash song nonetheless.

“Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” is the most normal song on the album, and again it’s just fantastic. Easily the most accessible, the bass tone is a tad strange, that’s not at all a bad thing, just a reminder that it’s still Combat Rock. Come on, who doesn’t love it?

“Rock The Casbah” now, following genius with genius. All the music written by Topper Headon, and the piano at the start played by him too (and the bass, or so I read somewhere), as if his drumming wasn’t enough to make us remember how great a musician he is. This is the Combat Rock sound at its most accessible, definitely not the regular Clash sound but just as glorious, as I’m sure anyone could hear, not just people who already like them.

“Red Angel Dragnet” – Paul and Topper providing a weird, massively cool beat with occasional stabs of guitar while Joe…fuck knows, I have no idea what he’s talking about, but it’s got the ineffable essence of the Clash that makes it great anyway.

“Straight To Hell” is an incredibly powerful song, it might take you a while to realise it but when you do it’ll hit you like a punch in the stomach. Just listen to the frustration, anger and pain in Joe’s voice, and I don’t know how to describe the music accompanying it in a way that’s not repeating what I’ve said about other songs already and that’s not good enough because it is different, there’s a different feeling to it and it compliments the vocals perfectly, like I said I don’t know how to describe it but just fucking listen to it, really listen to it, and you’ll see what I mean.

“Overpowered By Funk”… despite what the title claims this is actually the exact amount of funk to be cool as fuck rather than overpowering, though that is helped a lot by it being The Clash playing it because let’s be honest, it’s hard for them not to sound cool as fuck. I still have shit all idea what Joe’s talking about but it doesn’t matter because it’s him saying it.

“Atom Tan”. This just sounds great, again it’s unmistakably a Combat Rock song, I can only get vague scraps of meaning from it but as with Joe’s later stuff, I know there’s a meaning there even if I can’t work it out.

“Sean Flynn” is definitely reminiscent of Joe’s later stuff (can you be reminiscent of the future?) in feeling, though perhaps not as much in instrumentation. It’s Joe making a point in the obscure way he does, you might not get it as a song if you don’t really try, but if you do you’ll find it’s bloody good. It knows what it’s doing and where it’s going, even if you don’t.

“Ghetto Defendant” now, a weird song that again you probably won’t get unless you try, and again I don’t really know what it means but I know it has a meaning, Joe is trying to tell us something important in a way he understands but nobody else ever could.

“Inoculated City” is far more easily understood, and not as weird either (by Combat Rock standards), it’s an underrated song. Not sure what else to say, everything I could write about it could be gained just as easily by listening to it.

“Death Is A Star”… part song, part spoken word, none of it understandable, but still with that gripping Clash sound. Again I’m not sure what else to say, but that’s because it defies description really, it’s unlike anything else and no other band could do it.

All in all it’s a truly sublime album, unlike anything else, a fitting note for the band to end on and what I’ve said obviously hasn’t done it justice because no words ever could. It’s the Clash, how could they?

*Yes, absolutely definitely the last album. There most certainly wasn’t an album under their name released called Cut The Crap, that did not ever happen.