Dennis Dunaway

Earwigs, Alice, and Beyond
662
Dunaway w/Blue Coupe: Alain Boucly.

Lungs burning, sweat soaking their shaggy hair in the Arizona sun as miles passed beneath their feet, Dennis Dunaway and Vince Furnier shared endorphin highs along with an appreciation for surrealist art and deep cuts by the Beatles.

Dunaway’s Gibson EB-O “Frog Bass” now resides at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum. Photo collection by Len DeLessio

Stars on the track and cross-country teams at Cortez High School, both were imports to Phoenix; Dunaway’s family moved from Oregon when he was four years old, Furnier’s came from Detroit. After meeting in art class in the fall of 1962, they’d hang out and discuss whatever was “cool” – music, television, art, movies. “We wanted to be connected to that big world out there,” Dunaway recalls. “Vince always knew what was hip.”

Being letter winners in their sports, during Furnier’s junior year they talked the Lettermen’s Club into including them as a spoof Beatles act for the annual talent show. They enlisted a fellow runner along with a real guitarist (to create a sense of realism!), then took the stage dressed in warm-ups and wearing ratty wigs while singing sports-themed lyrics set to Beatles songs. 

The act, called Earwigs, was an absolute smash, and while they were amused by the attention, the boys had bigger plans. Wanting to play for real, they bought instruments, learned a handful of songs by the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and a few months later performed at a school dance. 

So went the baby steps of what would become the pioneering “shock rock” act known as Alice Cooper.  

By late 1965, the band had changed its name to The Spiders, ramped up the theatrics and stage decor, and began to extend its reach to regional audiences. After learning another band was using the name, in ’67 they became The Nazz. The gigs got better and eventually included major L.A. clubs, sharing bills with Buffalo Springfield, the Doors, and others. Eventually, they grew weary of confused cross-references to Todd Rundgren’s group and in ’68 came closer to their artistic vision with the adoption of the name Alice Cooper.

From the band’s beginning, Dunaway played a crucial role in developing the Alice sound, helping compose the hook-heavy licks that have placed “I’m Eighteen,” “Is It My Body,” “Under My Wheels,” “Elected,” and “School’s Out” among rock’s most esteemed tracks.

Today, Dunaway remains active in music and life. His jam jones are fulfilled in Blue Coupe, a band he formed with Blue Oyster Cult co-founders Joe and Albert Bouchard. And in 2015, he related the many fascinating tales of Alice Cooper in his book, Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! We recently spoke with him to learn more about his personal story and the instruments that helped him create Cooper tunes.

Dunaway’s 20th Anniversary Special Edition Höfner Beatle Bass.

What spurred your appreciation for music? 

When I was very young, my family would get together on Saturday nights to play guitars and sing songs by artists like Bob Wills and Hank Williams. Even then, I saw the enjoyment that music brought to people. And whenever we’d take drives in the car, dad wanted the radio on, but he listened only to country stations. I liked a lot of that music, but every so often I’d ask if we could tune-in Wolfman Jack. I’d hear that howl and be in rock heaven! I later fell deeply in love with do-wop and rock and roll. Elvis was the embodiment of that excitement.

Was there a particular event that nudged you beyond being a casual listener? 

There was! In 1963, I caught a surprise performance by Duane Eddy and the Rebels at a theater in Phoenix. When I saw that raucous band with the sax, the drummer yelling “Go, man, go!” and that low, twanging guitar, I wanted to create that kind of excitement. Then and there, I knew I was going to start a band – I didn’t even think about what instrument to play!

What trained your ear and interest on the bass?

I loved Paul McCartney’s ability to change rhythmic patterns within songs while keeping a natural flow, but I really enjoyed imitating the Stones and Animals, who were imitating American music that hadn’t gotten much attention on U.S. radio. I fell in love with how the bass moved through those chugging R&B guitars in that thundering blend that moved the whole room, and how the bass and kick drum hit you in the chest.

In 1964 came the Beatles, then the Stones. Bill Wyman was the first guy I emulated. That led to the Kinks, the Zombies, and the Who. Then we discovered the Yardbirds, and while everyone else was drooling over the innovative guitar players, I was inspired by Paul Samwell-Smith’s progressive bass style. His patterns would change completely for various songs, yet it was still blues-rooted. That freedom of exploration and invention set my chickens free! I started forging my own style based on that.

What influenced the band as its music advanced?

I’ve always been a conceptual thinker, influenced by people other than musicians. Vince and I loved pop-art movements like surrealism, dadaism, and we later noticed things like the eerie, futuristic sound track for Forbidden Planet, Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples Of The Moon, and other electronic music pioneers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, who did “Gesang Der Jünglinge” (“Song of The Youths”). Those avant-garde sound collages were as much an influence as any musical scale or riff; I thought in terms of lyrical statements, visual impact, and unique sounds in a way that would impact people, emotionally. It was a complex approach, but a lot of fun. And we had five guys who were game to pursue it. The group’s collaborative willingness to go way out there is what gave us our uniqueness. We were so deep into it that we had little time or interest to look for outside ideas, though in our work you can find influences from the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, and the Who. Sticking to it required strong chemistry. 

As the crusader for originality, I always tried to alter those influences into something new. That was my goal for our music, and to that end I had control over the bass parts; I began with improv then I’d reel it in until it did what the song needed. 

Were there quirks to the way you composed bass parts?

I’ve always liked to begin creating a part without knowing chord changes. That way, I’ll stumble across notes I might not have used otherwise. I love when a mistake works.

1) The Earwigs, playing for real in ’65; Glen Buxton, John Speer (hidden), John Tatum, Vince Furnier, Dennis Dunaway. 2) The Earwigs rehearsing in ’65; from left, Glen Buxton, John Speer, Vince Furnier, John Tatum, Dennis Dunaway.

Describe your playing style.

I like to play counter melodies to the lead vocals, which often makes it harder for me to sing while playing. Still, I keep a close eye on the vocals, bass drum, and guitar patterns – in that order – and let the bass intertwine those elements. Neal and I were always keen on complementing each other, musically – lots of Gene-Krupa-style floor toms with supporting bass, or melodic, up-the-neck interludes with bell tones on the cymbals. “School’s Out” is one example. We wanted a militant, Bolero feel on the choruses and a little-kid feel on the “no more pencils” sections. “Halo of Flies” is a marathon of that approach. Sometimes, I follow drums specifically, or I might do something independent that complements whatever else is going on I deem as most important to reinforce. Sometimes, I’ll stop everybody and make the bass part dictate what they should play.

That’s the magic of music – the possibilities are limitless. You can write a song while walking your dog. A song can start with a bass pattern, guitar riff, the telephone ringing, or the fact you can’t think of a word that rhymes.

The other big factor, going back to that excitement of Duane Eddy, is that I’m lively onstage, and I’m a physically aggressive player. I enjoy playing hard, and I sweat rock and roll sweat!

As teenagers intent of forming an actual band, how did you and Vince connect with the rest of the players?

Glen Buxton was part of our Beatles spoof; Vince, John Speer, and I told the Lettermen we’d fake playing guitars, but we still wanted someone who could actually play an instrument. We didn’t know Glen, but heard he played guitar. Glen had a buddy named John Tatum, who could also play – and get beer. So of course he was in the band. 

Because the show was a huge success, the Earwigs became the adorable pests of Cortez and we “played” everywhere on campus – the cafeteria during lunch, in study hall while students were trying to do homework. Vince and I worked on the school newspaper, and it didn’t hurt that we weaseled-in stories about the Earwigs’ early days in Cesspool, England (laughs).

But then you actually started to play for real…

It didn’t take long to acquire instruments and learn to play well enough to become the house band at the VIP Club, which was a popular teen hangout. When we changed our name to The Spiders, we underwent an overnight transformation. We were a hit! John Tatum left, so we got Michael Bruce, who we’d seen perform at a local battle of the bands. He learned our cover songs in a rush but also pushed us to start writing originals, so Vince and I wrote “Don’t Blow Your Mind,” which made it to #11 on KFIF in Tucson. We were fresh out of high school, and because of radio, television, and our knack for promoting ourselves, we became known throughout the Southwest. Our show incorporated theatrical props and we kept pushing boundaries, becoming unpredictable to the point of threatening, yet audiences knew we were nothing but a ton of unbridled fun. Our shows were bold and increasingly abstract, and so was our music.

The instrument most associated with Dunaway in the Alice Cooper band is this 1970 Fender Jazz given his personal artistic touch and dubbed “Billion Dollar Bass.”

How well did your tastes in music mesh with those of Vince?  

We were all into the obvious hitmakers of the time – the Beach Boys, Jackie Wilson, Little Stevie Wonder. Vince liked Burt Bacharach, John Barry’s James Bond soundtracks, and the Pink Panther theme. I favored do-wop, rock, and novelty songs like “Please Mr. Custer,” “The Battle Of New Orleans,” and “Surfin’ Bird.” Then West Side Story became our big favorite. Mostly, we were looking for cool things that most people didn’t know about. While 45-rpm singles were the norm, we favored B-sides and album cuts.

How did the band decide on individual roles?

Vince could never keep track of his belongings, so we knew he couldn’t be relied on to keep track of any equipment other than maybe a harmonica and a tambourine (laughs). But he could learn lyrics fast, so he was the singer. John Speer chose drums, and bass is what was left. I got a bass and dove in, heart and soul. Glen Buxton taught me how to play blues patterns. He’d often say, “Feel is the most important thing,” which later evolved into, “Never let the correct notes get in your way.”

How would you describe the band’s first efforts?

British Invasion all the way. Our goal was to learn a few new songs each week, so nobody would get tired of seeing us, so we learned almost every song by the Animals, Rolling Stones, Kinks, Pretty Things, the Who, and the Yardbirds. Paul Butterfield Blues Band was big, too; stretching out “East-West” led us into the wonderful world of improvisation. 

It helped a lot that we had connections with local DJs who would give us promo singles before songs were officially released on the radio; we played things like “19th Nervous Breakdown” before people could buy the 45. And, to give the illusion we were doing originals, we played a lot of deep album cuts and B-sides. When we opened for the Yardbirds in September of ’66, we did some of their new songs, naively thinking we were doing a tribute. But it turned out some of our followers thought the Yardbirds were doing our songs (laughs)!

The Fender Custom Shop replica created in 2011.

In ’68, you went for the big-time when the band moved to L.A.

Well, our original music had become extremely avant-garde by the time we moved to Hollywood and changed our name to The Nazz. We were obsessed with making a shocking artistic statement – visually, lyrically, and musically. Good or bad, we believed that forging a style was worth sacrificing a few followers. John Speer didn’t agree; he thought we were alienating our following and wasting our success. So, he got frustrated and quit. Coincidentally, Neal Smith had just quit his band in Berkeley and was staying at our house. Michael, Glen, and I had jammed with him, so we knew he was willing to explore uncharted musical territory with the same commitment. At that point, the chemistry was complete. We dove in and created the songs that got the attention of Frank Zappa, who recorded our first album, Pretties For You, which was a great abstract statement but didn’t put food on the table. So, after it barely made the charts, we decided to write songs that were more relatable.

But that didn’t mean you backed away from what made you unique. A lot of your stuff still had a pretty dark theme.

The dark element actually started back in high school, and horror movies were a big influence; Vince and I saw three films together – The Tell Tale Heart, Premature Burial, and The Pit and the Pendulum – that inspired the theme for the Earwigs’ first real show – The Pit and The Pendulum Halloween dance at Cortez in ’64. Vince and I made giant spiderwebs, tombstones, coffins, and a friend’s father built a guillotine – at a time when the Beatles were still shaking their moptops.

My lyrics for “Black Juju,” “Luney Tune,” and “Killer” were inspired by the tone and mood of old movies along with Edgar Allen Poe’s dialog. Our first “dark” song was “Fields of Regret,” and when we played it live, our Alice creation would take on this dark persona. The people who hadn’t run for the exits loved it, and I saw that as the direction to pursue. As our songwriting abilities improved, we became better equipped to achieve that goal. I’ve always favored minor chords and odd lyrical subjects, so I was the dark element of the group – Vince nicknamed me “Dr. Dreary.” I summoned the darkest tone I could muster when I wrote “Black Juju” for the Alice character.

What was your first bass?

It was an Airline from Montgomery Ward, and had a very short neck. But it sounded decent and the action was good, so it wasn’t bad for learning. I bought it in September of ’64, and when the Spiders evolved toward a scruffier image, I hack-sawed the treble horn and sanded some of the finish. Then, when The Nazz tuned in and dropped out, I painted it fluorescent colors – it still looks like it’s been in an explosion in a psychedelic factory – and switched the pickup to some off-brand deal.

The band had an accident one day on the L.A. freeway. Our van, loaded with equipment, rolled three times in rush hour traffic and slid to a stop upside-down. Miraculously, we were all okay, but Neal’s drums were smashed and the Airline’s neck was broken. I took it to a music store in L.A. and the repairman turned out to be Barney Kessel, the guitar legend! I felt guilty handing him my pathetic beginner’s bass, especially since he made a derogatory remark about the pickguard, which I’d made out of an optical illusion that had circular patterns that spun whenever it moved. I guess he could tell by my shabby clothes and how skinny I was that I was flat broke and couldn’t afford a new bass, so he said he’d try to fix it using a metal pin when he re-glued it. When I came back to get it, I paid him and he told me not to come back because the pickguard gave him a headache (laughs)! 

3) The Earwigs “play” the Letterman’s Club talent show. From left, John Tatum, Glen Buxton, Dennis Dunaway, John Speer, Vince Furnier. 4) An early performance by the Spiders. From left, drummer John Speer, Dennis Dunaway, Glen Buxton, Vince Furnier, and John Tatum.

What was your earliest amp rig?

A Fender tweed that my cousin’s husband loaned to me. He’d used it when he played pedal-steel in a country band in Oregon. It wasn’t a bass amp, so it couldn’t keep up in a rock band with two guitars. But then my dad helped me build an amp – mom did the vinyl covering for the cabinet. It was okay, but we didn’t know about matching ohms or anything, so it was a bit mushy-sounding. Then I bought a Fender Bassman.

What’s the story behind the Gibson EB-O “Frog Bass,” which now resides at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum?

I bought that in 1969. I used model-car paint to spray it Emerald Green with a silver undercoat, then glued mirrors and Swarovski crystal rhinestones all over the body. I added a Fender Precision pickup in the bridge position. Cindy, my girlfriend at the time and now my wife of many years, always thought I looked like a frog when I smiled, so she gave it the nickname.

5) The relatively polished Spiders in ’66; (from left) Glen Buxton, Dennis Dunaway, John Speer, and Vince Furnier

For most Alice Cooper recordings, you used a black 1970 Fender Jazz with some of that personal decorative style…

Yeah, the Gibson sounded great onstage, but in the studio we had trouble with the boominess of its E string. So, we rented a ’70 Jazz with a maple neck and block inlays, which I liked because I could see them when the lights went down during our shows. I’d resisted getting a Fender because so many people used them, but it proved more reliable, so I glued mirrors and crystals all over it and later named it the Billion Dollar Bass. It has a DiMarzio P-Bass neck pickup that, with my hard picking, gives it a growly tone. I searched for years trying to find someone to re-fret it because replacing the binding on the neck was such a challenge. Then, a friend took me to Tommy Doyle’s workshop, where I met Jimmy Millenchuck, who did an amazing job – he still has the old frets framed on the wall of his shop. Tommy Doyle was Les Paul’s guitar repairman, and while I was there, Les called on the speakerphone and complimented Tommy on some adjustment he’ done on a guitar. After he hung up, Tommy laughed and said, “I’ve been working with him for a lot of years and that’s the first time he’s ever complimented me!”  

Another of your Jazz basses is on display at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.

There was a stretch when we suffered a rash of stolen equipment, so I bought that as a backup. It’s also a 1970, but it’s white, and I used it with LaBella flat-wounds for ballads like “Hello Hurray” and songs that required smooth slides, like “Billion Dollar Babies.”

Originally white, Dunaway gave this 1970 Jazz Bass its green finish for Billion Dollar Babies, a mid-’70s Alice Cooper offshoot that included Mike Bruce and Neal Smith. The group recorded one album, Battle Axe. In ’74, Reggie Vinson used it to record four of the songs on John Lennon’s Rock ’N Roll album.

And your third ’70 Jazz is finished a funky green…

Yes. I liked the white Jazz so much I bought another just like it. It was white until 1976, when I had it painted fluorescent Lime Green for the Billion Dollar Babies Battle Axe shows. The neck-position EMG pickup gives it a rounder tone. I once loaned it to “Rockin’ Reggie ”Vinson, who was at the Record Plant in New York recording with John Lennon for the Rock and Roll album. It’s on “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” “Stand By Me,” “Peggy Sue,” and “Bring It On Home To Me”/“Send Me Some Lovin.”’

Given your influences, it’s probably not all that odd that you have a 1984 20th Anniversary Special Edition Höfner Beatle Bass…

Höfner asked me to endorse the Beatles bass, and in the discussion asked what changes might make it appeal to more players. I suggested an adjustable bridge, and they had me meet their production guy, who seemed insulted. He said the bass was “as perfect as a Stradivarius!” They gave me two fancy versions made with decades-aged wood in exchange for me doing an ad for them. I later traded one for a Teac reel-to-reel four-track recorder, but I still have the Anniversary model. It’s great for coming up with parts I wouldn’t normally gravitate to. It’s bubbly. I played a Höfner that belonged to the Cowsills on the Alice Cooper group’s second album, Easy Action; “Shoe Salesman” and “Laughing at Me” are bubbly.

How did you end up working with the Fender Custom Shop to build the replica of the Billion Dollar Bass?

When we found out that Alice Cooper was going to be inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, I approached them about doing a signature model. Thinking they must get thousands of requests every year, I thought, “I better pitch something memorable.” So I suggested building a Billion Dollar Bass covered with real diamonds, and for the night of our induction ceremony it should be insured for $1 billion (laughs)! To my surprise, they flew me out to meet their team. 

Master Builder Paul Waller makes exact replicas of my original – every scratch is duplicated. I play my replica all the time and it sounds and plays every bit as great as the original. The Fender team and the Custom Shop are amazing. 

You still gig a lot. What’s your approach toward physical health and keeping up with demands of playing live? 

I’ve always watched my diet and practiced moderation. I eat fish and eggs, but avoid red meat. I favor fresh veggies – organic whenever possible. I work out, swim, and walk the dogs. I don’t do drugs and I rarely have a drink before I play – I get my rush from playing music.

In the mid ’90s, your life was a bit limited while you dealt with Crohn’s Disease…

Yeah, it caused a lot of pain for a lot of years – got so bad my diet was down to soup and noodles. But, since my surgery in 1997, it’s been under control.

(FROM LEFT) Dunaway onstage in 1971 with the Frog Bass, in ’73 with his white Jazz, and with Furnier and the Billion Dollar Bass in May of ’72.

How did Blue Coupe come together and what is its musical focus?

In 1972, Blue Öyster Cult toured with the Alice Cooper group and we’ve been friends ever since. Occasionally, we’d jam or write songs and record demos for fun. Then, on one of the final weekends of CBGB’s in New York City, I found myself onstage with Joe and Albert. There was a guy in the audience who owned a club in the Poconos, and he approached us with an offer we couldn’t refuse. Before we knew it, without any rehearsals, we played three sets for an enthusiastic crowd at his resort and had so much fun we decided to continue.

Since then, we’ve played opera houses in England, France, Corsica, and the Thousand Islands, in upstate New York. We toured with the Animals and Steve Cropper, played to millions in the Halloween Parade in New York City, and even played at Lincoln Center. We also opened for Alice on several occasions. We have two CDs – Tornado On The Tracks with special guests Robby Krieger and Goldy McJohn, and Million Miles More, which was mixed by Warren Huart and Jack Douglas and with special guests Alice Cooper and Buck Dharma.

Tish and Snooky Bellomo sing backup vocals. They’re known worldwide for their Manic Panic hair dye company. We all love music and enjoy meeting fans, so we’re ready to play anywhere that makes us another offer we can’t refuse.


This article originally appeared in VG April 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.