Think of Alice Cooper and what comes to mind is theatre, heavy make-up, crazy stage shows and hard-hitting, sometimes daft, sometimes singalong heavy rock. Alice himself - Vincent Furnier - is often noted as the single driving force behind matters. That’s wrong; the Alice Cooper Band was begun thanks to bass player Dennis Dunaway.
“I started the band in 1963 because I’d seen Duane Eddy & The Rebels play during a feature film,” recalls Dunaway.
“I went back to my 16-year old buddy, Vince Furnier, and then the Beatles hit and we had to start a band. We decided in art class that we were going to incorporate theatrical ideas. Everybody else chose their instrument - and bass was what was left.”
Finances and access to equipment are always central to a nascent career, and in Dunaway’s case the restricted options cut a bit deeper.
“At the time I had a crappy record player, so when I played a song I couldn’t hear the bass,” he remembers. “Glen Buxton [original Alice Cooper guitarist] sat down with me and started teaching me the names of the notes and where they fell on the neck. I fell in love with it, playing along with Rolling Stones records.”
The original idea was to write for various characters that Furnier would play; alter egos that would enable a chameleon presence onstage and open up countless possibilities. Originally, Alice Cooper was only one of those characters, but it quickly became clear that Alice was the best of them - and a perfect vehicle for the band’s larger-than- life performances.
Artistry was present from the very start, as you can hear in the basslines Dunaway provided for the six albums recorded with the original band between 1969 and 1975.
“I always wanted to have my own style when I’d paint pictures,” Dunaway continues. “At the time, everyone called me The Artist. I basically didn’t want to be like anyone else. I wanted it to be interesting.”
An early inspiration was Paul Samwell-Smith of The Yardbirds, whose way of taking blues-based patterns and making them more progressive taught Dunaway “that bass didn’t have to stay in the groove”.
“You could take it anywhere that you wanted,” he says. “Back then, the competition was The Beatles, The Stones, Hendrix: everybody was trying to do something different from the rest. So the bar was set very high. Everything we did from the very beginning was as a collective, all in the same room. We’d start from ground zero. There was a lot of finagling and exploration.
“Glen was very willing to experiment and we would exchange ideas, pushing each other to try things in a different way. It was infectious. I was always the crusader for doing something different and would blurt out all these crazy ideas, not all of them good. But it kept the creative atmosphere swirling.”
Outsiders viewing the Alice Cooper band’s writing process would sometimes get the wrong end of the stick, given the harsh-sounding put-downs and sarcasm flying about. However, the creative tension and openness to all ideas was central to the process.
“It was all to make it better,” Dunaway says. “We had a rule that if anybody had an idea, you couldn’t vote it down until you gave it a good try. There were five of us, so we had a vote and would move forward with no grudges. We would try every idea under the sun for every part of every song, and then decide what we thought was the best part.”
Tone and technique
So which were Dunaway’s favourite basslines?
“Early on we had a song, Return Of The Spiders. When we got drummer Neal Smith in the band, he’d been in a surf group in Phoenix, Arizona. He played Wipeout and we did it at rehearsal. Then we took the drum idea and made a song out of it, with a rolling bassline. It was quite a physical workout to keep the bass part going at that tempo.”
Equipment limitations made an impact on what was possible. Dunaway’s first bass was an Airline, which had a short-scale neck; he found it difficult to play due to the closeness of the frets. That didn’t stop him using the plank on the band’s 1969 debut, Pretties For You, released by Frank Zappa’s label, Straight Records. The bassist then went through a period of losing instruments in cheap motels.
“Every time something would get stolen; I had off-brands I didn’t even know. Later, I got a Gibson EB-0 with one pickup, so I added another one in the neck position. With each instrument change, your style changes.”
A turned-over truck on the LA freeway also impacted on the band’s second album, Easy Action.
“All our equipment was destroyed. We weren’t ready to record, and I didn’t even have a bass. David Briggs, the producer, directed me to a cupboard and in there was a short-scale Hofner. The bass is bubbly, with that kind of Paul McCartney feel,” Dunaway says, revealing that he still has a Hofner and pulls it out on occasion when working on a song.
Dunaway’s career with Alice Cooper - plus the rest of the band - came to an end when Furnier went solo with a new band in 1975. Dunaway talks about it at length in his recent book, Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! Tales of boiling strings and on-the-road shenanigans with crazed biker gangs are numerous. There’s plenty of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll too, all the way up to the original band’s triumphant reunion and induction into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame.
Still, Dunaway is refreshingly ungeeky about aspects of his craft.
“People ask, ‘What’s the setting on your amp?’, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know, I’m just trying to get a good sound that lets people hear all the notes.’ Most of the time I don’t change a dial to get a different tone, I just pick closer to the neck or mute with my hand. The variation in tones is due to how the strings are played.”
“There are so many bass players out there and they all have their own technique,” he adds. “Which is fine. Do what works for you. Every time I plug into an amp I tweak it differently to take into account the acoustics of the room or whatever. Maybe I’d be a better bassist if I did focus more on technique - but I’m more concerned about the notes I’m going to play.”