A YEAR IN MUSIC: 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.