Ah, the Hollywood Vampires. That most notorious of drinking gangs that lurked in the dark corners of the Rainbow loft on Sunset, as well as in various London holes, in the 1970s. Alice Cooper, still in his days of wild abandon, was the president, ruling over a court of jesters that included Monkee Micky Dolenz, Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon and Ringo Starr, with regular cameos by the likes of Marc Bolan, Keith Emerson, John Belushi, John Lennon and Bernie Taupin.
It was quite the scene and, with the benefit of rose-tinted nostalgia goggles, it’s all part of the historical rock & roll glamor of the Sunset Strip. The biggest musicians in the world, getting together to drink to excess and regale each other with tales of excess. Who wouldn’t want to be in that room, just to observe?
It’s likely that the reality was less impressive though. The “haze” was that they had to outdrink each other, and anybody who’s ever been in a room with similar games taking place knows that it rarely ends well, dignity in place. The Hollywood Vampires, the drinking club, are a relic of a bygone age. Moon and Nilsson, as well as some of the guest players, are sadly gone, in many cases because of that excess.
Some, but not all. The president himself cleaned up his act a long time ago and, in 2015, formed a band called the Hollywood Vampires with friends Joe Perry of Aerosmith and actor Johnny Depp. As with the drinking club, it has its core members and then a number of rotating guest stars. The current drummer is Glen Sobel from Cooper’s band while journeyman Chris Wyse is playing bass, but former players have included Duff McKagan (Guns N’ Roses), Brad Whitford (Aerosmith), Matt Sorum (Gn’R, The Cult) and Robert DeLeo (Stone Temple Pilots).
So the theme, one of rock & roll’s elite getting together to have a great time in a dark room, is one that the Hollywood Vampires band shares with the Hollywood Vampires club. The difference is the stimulant because, this time, the music is enough. That’s what is floating their collective boat. Still, it’s a link not lost on Cooper.
“Most of those guys were on the first album, although not Micky,” Cooper says, over the phone. “I asked him. Mind you, Micky, Bernie Taupin, Ringo and myself are the only ones still alive. Ringo is difficult to nail down — he tours as much as I do. I’d love to have gotten Micky on it though.”
The self-titled debut album came out in 2015 and featured guest appearances from (no less than) Sir Paul McCartney, Robby Krieger, Dave Grohl, Christopher Lee, Slash, Brian Johnson (AC/DC), Joe Walsh, Perry Farrell and, somehow appropriately, Zac Starkey. That the current Who drummer and son of Ringo has guested with this Hollywood Vampires following in the footsteps, albeit in a healthier way, of both his dad and Moon, feels all kinds of right.
That first album included 11 covers and 3 original tracks. Those new songs pointed to the dark themes explored by the group while also paying tribute to fallen comrades — if “The Last Vampire” wasn’t clear enough, “My Dead Drunk Friends” certainly was. The new album is called Rise, and the balance has shifted — this time there are just three covers and a full 13 new songs.
Mind you, the choice of covers reveals that they’re still wallowing in the same morbid glamor. Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died,” sung with a knowing croon by Depp, feels perfectly in keeping, as does Johnny Thunder’s near perfect “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory,” given a raw, deadpan vocal treatment by Perry, and Bowie’s “Heroes,” again sung by Depp.
“Johnny Chose ‘People Who Died’ by Jim Carroll because he knew him, so I said he should sing it and he does a great job,” says Cooper. “He said to me, ‘I don’t sing,’ but I said, ‘What do you mean — you did Sweeney Todd.’ That’s basically an opera, and he did a great job. That song has a cool punk vibe that Johnny can do well. Johnny Thunders’ ‘Can’t Put Your Arm Around A Memory’ needs a deadpan kind of approach, and Joe does that well.”
As for the original tracks, Cooper says that the influences of the other guys played a greater part, as opposed to trying to make the songs “Alice-like.” That shows, from opening song “I Want My Now” (which clocks in at a whopping 7:13), with it’s croaky swing. Elsewhere, “The Boogieman Surprise” sounds precisely like Cooper fronting Aerosmith, while “Who’s Laughing Now” is classic Coop. Meanwhile, there's a guest appearance by Jeff Beck as well as "king of sleaze" movie director John Waters on "Welcome To Bushwackers."
In fact, the more you listen to the album the more it becomes clear that, weirdly, Depp and Perry are bringing out the best in their frontman. Gone is the '80s and '90s polish — a lot of this is reminiscent of old school Alice Cooper Band.
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“Johnny and Joe wrote together, while I was out with Glen Sobel who also plays in my band,” Cooper says. “Then we’d bring it together. It really feels like a real band now. Everyone is busy doing their own thing but then we come together and it’s very natural. It was fun to sing somebody else’s angst. Johnny’s had a rough year, so a lot of his lyrics have been about that. Jeff Beck is a hero of mine so having him on is a treat for me.”
Still, Cooper has a solo career, Perry is still busy with Aerosmith, and Depp is doing what he does. How does Cooper make the balance work?
“You know, it’s very easy because it’s very different,” he says. “With the Alice Cooper show, I play a role, a character. That’s what I’ve always done. Here, it’s a band and I’m one of them. We call ourselves a bar band — that’s what it is and it’s the same for all of us. Our guitarist is Johnny Depp, but we don’t think of him as Johnny Depp the actor. Music was his first love, so to us he’s just our guitarist. It’s nice to be back in a band again.”
Hollywood Vampires plays at 8 p.m. on Saturday, May 11 at the Greek Theatre. The Rise album is out now via earMUSIC.