Friday, 1 November 2019

Neal Smith: The Alice Cooper Drummer Talks About Past Exploits, Plans For Deadringer & Selling Houses (Really!)

Originally published in Rave-Up #17 (1989)
Interview by Devorah Ostrov & Michelle Castro
Written by Devorah Ostrov

Neal Smith and his famous Premier drum kit
"Dennis Dunaway is the most likeable, because he sees the situation clearly and accepts the reality of his role. Mild-mannered, polite, he's Mr. Nice Guy in the flesh. Not so Neal Smith, who is the archetypal rock star. All he wants is fame and glory, and he's frustrated because he can't find a chauffeur humble enough to suit him. His jealously of Alice is nearly psychotic." — Creem 1975

Promo photo from the 
Billion Dollar Babies LP
After reading that paragraph in an old Creem magazine, we were slightly terrified about our impending interview with Neal Smith, former drummer with the Alice Cooper Group. But that writer must have been talking about someone else, because (luckily) this Neal Smith was charming and delightful!

These days, Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith both live in a small Connecticut town and have respectable jobs: Dennis owns a video store and Neal is a real estate agent.

And both are in Deadringer — a hard rock group fronted by onetime Ted Nugent vocalist Charlie Huhn, with Blue Oyster Cult's Joe Bouchard on keyboards, and Archangel's J. Jesse Johnson on guitar.

The guys have just issued their debut album, Electrocution of the Heart (Grudge Records), but Deadringer actually came into existence almost five years ago — although no one, including the band, knew it.

"Joe and Dennis and I had started writing songs together," Neal told us. "It wasn't really a band we put together to record or anything. Joe moved; Dennis got a job... So, I started writing with Jesse, who was another friend of mine."

Deadringer - Electrocution Of The Heart
Grudge Records (1989)
According to Neal, it was Jesse's idea to take a demo tape of "Bring on the Night," "Unsung Heroes" and "Balls Out" to Grudge Records in New York.

The folks at Grudge loved the material and wasted no time in signing what some people are calling the first "supergroup" of the '90s.

But why did they opt to go with a niche label (mostly known for a Godz LP and some Roy Orbison compilations), instead of using their famous connections to sign with a major?

"We wanted to be involved in a situation where if we made it, the label would make it too," replies Neal.

At that point, Deadringer still lacked a vocalist powerful and professional enough to front the band. So once the deal was sorted, the search was on. "My first choice was Charlie Huhn," says Neal. "I saw him once with Ted Nugent [with whom Charlie shared vocal duties] and I was knocked out! I thought, why the hell isn't he singing all the songs?"

Deadringer - Grudge Records publicity photo
L-R: Neal Smith, Joe Bouchard, J. Jesse Johnson, Charlie Huhn & Dennis Dunaway
With Charlie onboard, the LP was recorded and released. Electrocution Of The Heart offers a combination of all-out rockers, '70s-type anthems and heartfelt ballads, which should please both younger and older fans. However, if you're looking for a heavy dose of Alice Cooper-influenced style and sound, you could be disappointed.

"There might be some influences but they're going to be small," stresses Neal. "A lot of people have commented on the rhythm section — the way Dennis and I play together. That's something you might recognize more than anything else."

Neal Smith
Live shows are definitely in the plans for Deadringer, although a 45 and video are the first priorities. Plenty of songs on the LP are strong enough for a single. As Neal observes, the decision on which to push won't be simple.

"I'd like it to be 'Balls Out' or 'When You're in You're In,'" he states. "But 'Secret Eyes' is getting a lot of attention." (Following the interview, we heard that "Secret Eyes" had been chosen.)

When the Alice Cooper Group broke-up in 1975, rumors of rip-offs and band members done wrong flew fast and furious.

While we were eager to get the dirt on Alice, we were also hesitant to broach the subject. Much to our relief, Neal was happy to chat about old times and we can report that all those rumors are completely untrue.

"We've always got along," says Neal of the band and Alice. "We've known each other since high school. We were like brothers for years. You don't burn those kinds of bridges. What happened was that we were at the height of our career when the band stopped playing. We had intended to take a year off and do solo projects, but we never got back together. That's basically it. There was no reason to hate each other. He [Alice] couldn't rip us off, there was no way. We all made the same amount of money."

An early pic of the Alice Cooper Group (circa 1969)
In fact, Neal reveals that Alice recently paid him and Dennis a visit, and they worked on a song which could be included on Deadringer's next album.

"Alice's voice sounded great," remarks Neal. "He was really healthy. It was really positive to work with him again."

This seemed like a good time to mention that we'd just found a rare copy of Pretties For You (Alice Cooper's first LP) but hadn't played it yet. "Don't listen to it!" Neal shouted at us.

After he calmed down, Neal explained: "It was a real experimental album. We worked with Frank Zappa on that album. This was in 1968, and he wanted to make what would now be CD-sized discs... Put one song on each side for a total of six discs and put them in a tuna fish can. His idea was to call it Alice Tuna. We figured we were weird enough as it was on standard format!"

"The Ballad of Dwight Fry," "Under My Wheels," "School's Out," "Sick Things" and "Generation Landslide" rank among Neal's favorite Alice Cooper tracks. And there's an amusing story that goes with the last tune on that list...

Neal and his lady in Rock Scene magazine - September 1973
Photo: Bob Gruen
"'Generation Landslide' was the last song we wrote for that album [Billion Dollar Babies]. We needed one more song to finish the album and we said, 'Where do we want to go?' We thought, how about the Canary Islands? We did a photo session on the sand dunes... You can buy all kinds of animal skins there, and our roadies went on a spending rampage! We put the skins on — that's all we had on and went walking across these dunes."

The Alice Cooper Group at the height of their fame
We're pretty sure Neal isn't sharing these exploits of his notorious past with co-workers over a cup of coffee at the office.

And he probably doesn't hand out copies of Pamela Des Barres' racy epic I'm With The Band (in which he garners a reference) as housewarming gifts.

Apparently, it's easy for Neal to separate selling upscale homes from being a rock star. So far, only one client has discovered what lurks beneath his daytime business-like surface.

"She had known me for about nine months and had told a friend of hers, 'If you ever think about moving to the country, this guy helped me out a lot.' She gave him the name of the company I work for and said, 'Ask for Neal Smith.' This guy said, 'The drummer from Alice Cooper? Hair to his waist and CRAZY!?' It was like finding out your friend is Jack the Ripper!"

Finally, we decide to question Neal about Creem's unflattering personality profile. Although it was written 14 years ago, he recalls the event that sparked his aggravation as if it were yesterday.

Neal Smith - real estate agent!
"It was a ridiculous situation," he begins. "We were playing in Canada and after the show there were three limos waiting for the band. I got into the first limo and the driver told me, 'This is Alice's car.' I said, 'What the FUCK are you talking about?' We'd all gone through the same hell for 10 years, and some muthafucker is gonna tell me to get outta a car?"

"It was one incident," Neal assures us. "And it got blown out of proportion. If Dennis had gotten into that car, he would've flipped out just as much."

But Neal does agree that a little nastiness never hurt anyone's career. So, when we suggest that Deadringer could open for Alice on his upcoming tour, Neal chuckles and emphasizes, "He can open for us."

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