Music News & Reviews

Walter Tunis: Crüe and Cooper bring a double shot of rock 'n' roll excess to Rupp

Mötley Crüe performed at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas Sept. 19, 2014. Band members have signed a pact never to tour together again.
Mötley Crüe performed at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas Sept. 19, 2014. Band members have signed a pact never to tour together again. Powers Imagery/Invision/AP

From the onset of its extended farewell tour, Mötley Crüe seemed determined to pound the nails into its own coffin.

The fanfare began in January 2014 when the band signed what it called a Cessation of Touring Agreement at a Los Angeles news conference that announced the tour. Who knows how legally binding such a document is. But the intent was clear: Mötley Crüe was going to dissolve amicably with the promise to never follow the common pop practice of returning as a reunion act a few years down the pike.

Instead, it would take a mighty victory lap around the world with a tour that would visit five continents through 164 shows — including a Rupp Arena stop on Sunday that would serve as the band's first Lexington visit in 25 years. Then, after a New Year's Eve gig in Los Angeles, the Crüe would call it quits, officially and definitively.

"I really hope that when somebody else announces their final tour, their last goodbye, they're willing to sign a contract like us, and make it known that it's real," Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx told Rolling Stone earlier this year. "The whole 'reunion of the reunion of the reunion' thing — that's about money, not about music."

Formed in 1981, Mötley Crüe — Sixx, vocalist Vince Neil, guitarist Mick Mars and drummer Tommy Lee — achieved stardom as part of a rock 'n' roll generation weaned on music videos, glam rock and a practice of indulging in the familiar credo of "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" to a previously unimaginable degree.

It hasn't been a smooth run. Neil and Lee both bailed on Mötley Crüe at different points, and tales of inner band feuding and managerial entanglements have been frequent media fodder over the years. But the Crüe's numbers are clearly on their side with sales of over 100 million records worldwide and a reputation as a consistently top-drawing concert act. There hasn't been a new album from the band since 2008's Saints of Los Angeles, but that hardly seems to matter to audiences raised on pop-savvy metal tunes like Dr. Feelgood and Girls Girls Girls or the power ballad Home Sweet Home. They still turned out for the unapologetic excess that makes up a Crüe concert.

Speaking of glammed up excess, guess who is opening Sunday's Crüe swan song at Rupp? Why, it's Alice Cooper, who will be making his first visit to the venue since a headlining show in June 1978 that featured a pre-Highway to Hell, Bon Scott-led lineup of AC/DC as an opening act.

Cooper essentially penned the playbook on rock theatrics over 40 years ago when albums like Love it to Death and Muscle of Love were considered thematically provocative. By the 1978 show, though, Cooper was clearly letting the audience in on the joke. The artist famous for simulating his own death at shows took a Vegas turn and sang the title tune to his then-current album Lace and Whiskey while mowing down a troupe of tommy gun-toting dancers dressed as chickens. It was the Muppet-ization of a shock-rock pioneer.

Curiously, Cooper — who at age 67 has been in the game roughly 14 years longer than Mötley Crüe — has little interest in retirement. His current activities include a side project band called Hollywood Vampires formed with Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry and Kentucky's own Johnny Depp along with an all-star support cast. The group's self-titled album, released last month, relies mostly on covers of 1960s and '70s rock chestnuts, including an update of Cooper's 1972 classic School's Out.

But the summer also brought us The Studio Albums 1968-1983, an epic 15-disc box set that traces Cooper's full recording history from his late '60s beginnings as a Frank Zappa protégé to his early '70s commercial heyday to just shy of his '80s revival with Epic Records.

The trouble with Cooper's extensive pop reign, though, has been that invariably more attention has been placed on the presentation of his music than the music itself. Admittedly, when your stage act has been offered as a vaudevillian, tongue-in-cheek horror show for multiple decades, such an appraisal is inevitable. But scour his catalogue, especially in his early years, and you will discover several dark-shaded Detroit rock classics that include 1971's Killer (still his finest record) and the glammed-out 1973 hit Billion Dollar Babies.

Slip on any of these albums, all recorded when the original Alice Cooper band was at its creative peak, and all of a sudden stage monsters, guillotines and, yes, dancing chickens, hardly seem like necessary embellishments. These were tough-as-oak rock albums with occasional hints of pop whimsy that worked almost in spite of the Cooper character that continues to play out onstage more than 40 years after the records were cut.

"There will always be an element of satire and humor in what I do," Cooper told me in an interview prior to his 2006 concert with the Rolling Stones at Churchill Downs in Louisville. "And if I choose to flavor the music with horror, then I'll do that. There will always be part of me that will want to make records people won't want to listen to in the dark."