Alice Cooper was on a steady upward trajectory when Billion Dollar Babies topped the Billboard chart for one week in 1973. Propelled by the title track along with “Hello Hooray,” “Elected,” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” it was their first #1.
Over five previous albums, vocalist Vincent Furnier (a.k.a. Alice Cooper), rhythm guitarist Michael Bruce, lead guitarist Glen Buxton, bassist Dennis Dunaway, and drummer Neal Smith steadily perfected an image and musical style that mixed hard rock with clever, controversial lyrics presented in a theatrical stage show inspired by horror movies. Burgeoning success enabled the band to live and record much of Billion Dollar Babies in a mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut.
“We made it big thanks to ‘I’m Eighteen’ and ‘School’s Out,’ so by the time we got to Billion Dollar Babies we were living in a mansion,” said Dunaway. “And the theme was about a bunch of kids from Anytown, U.S.A., making this irreverent music and living in this giant house – we are the billion-dollar babies, the brats who really shouldn’t be in there, and neighbors all letting us know that! The trip to the top of the glittering rock pile. That is what the album was about.”
But, success also provided breathing room.
“It gave us more freedom in the studio,” Bruce added. “We had a little more money to spend, so we didn’t have to rush and be done in two weeks. It took a lot of the pressure off.”
Though he was a fantastic guitarist, Bruce said Buxton (1947-’97), had difficulties coming up with his own parts early in the band. Nearly everyone, in various combinations, was credited as a songwriter, but Buxton’s musical input was minimal; health and personal issues also limited his playing on Billion Dollar Babies. To fill in on lead, they brought in longtime friend Mick Mashbir, and producer Bob Ezrin recruited Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner.
“Glen was a unique guitar player,” Bruce recalled. “In our early band, the Spiders, he was great at covering Page and Beck stuff – he could sound just like the records. But when we started writing our own songs, there was nothing to copy, and he was kind of floundering. I never focused on playing lead because when I started, I was a folk singer. Dennis was like a lead bass – he didn’t play the traditional stick-with-the-drummer parts, and Neal didn’t lay down a John Bonham-type of heavy, chunky groove. Somebody had to hold down the fort! For me, it was a natural thing. As we moved forward, I did sneak a lead in every once in a while.”
Dunaway credits Buxton for the way his personality bled into the music.
“Even though Glen, unfortunately, didn’t play much on the record, he did have a lot to do with putting the songs together, and the attitude of the songs. He was the genuine rock-and-roll rebel – definitely an influence.
“It was Bob Ezrin’s decision that Glen simply not be invited to the sessions because his schedule was too tight. He had the clout to call that shot.”
Ezrin’s cerebral approach complemented the band’s primal instincts
“We had bigger production, and that was right up Bob’s alley, because he knew music theory and history,” Dunaway said. “We were rock-and-roll guys, below-the-belt players (laughs). He was an above-the-neck player. We combined that in a way where we weren’t betraying our rock-and-roll roots, because the concept of the album was grander.”
“Hello Hooray” was brought in by Ezrin, who presented a version recorded by Judy Collins. The band put its stamp on it. “Elected” was a reworked version of “Reflected” from their 1969 debut, Pretties for You. “No More Mr. Nice Guy” came from a simple idea.
“We always wanted to have an intro to a song where the audience would instantly recognize the song if they’d heard it before,” Dunaway added. “We thought, ‘What are some of the most exciting songs we know?’ We came up with ‘Substitute’ by the Who; listen to that intro and then ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy.’ We copped it (laughs)! That was pure pop – the kind of song Michael excelled at.”
“I wrote ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’ during (1971’s) Killer. Alice changed some lyrics,” said Bruce. “It wasn’t right for Killer or School’s Out, but Billion Dollar Babies was tongue-in-cheek, so it fit. It went on to be a huge hit.”
On the album, Bruce played a Les Paul Junior, custom Les Paul, and an SG; his acoustics were a Gibson and a Guild.
“I used to take 24 guitars on the road, and several amps,” he said. “But I never played them all, and I started to feel like I was hoarding them. Now, I have five electrics and five acoustics.”
Dunaway used two 1970 Fender Jazz basses – a white one covered with glow-in-the-dark stars, and a black one dubbed the Billion Dollar Bass, adorned with round mirrors. He recorded through a Bassman amp, but for the tour used a Sunn Coliseum that was so loud it usually wasn’t run through the P.A. (which is why he had to re-record his parts for the 1974 tour movie Good to See You Again, Alice Cooper). On “Unfinished Sweet” and “Sick Things,” he used a fuzz wah pedal.
Five decades later, Dunaway is happy that Billion Dollar Babies is so revered.
“I feel nothing but amazement and gratitude to fans who still remember the album,” he said. “We didn’t think that far in the future while we were making it. Everybody hopes their music lasts as long as possible, and we were knocking out a couple albums every year because the label was afraid that if we didn’t, people would forget about us.”
This article originally appeared in VG’s June 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.