Alice Cooper’s remarkable 50-year career has been lazily reduced to titles like “Father of Shock Rock” with a corresponding focus on his hyper-theatrical blood-spattered stage show.
In 1973, Alice Cooper was unstoppable.
The moniker “Alice Cooper” was not yet the sole property of singer Vincent Furnier; it still also referred to the tough and tuneful hard rock band that backed the vocalist. Starting with Love It to Death in 1971, the group tweaked its experimental psychedelic rock with the help of producer Bob Ezrin, creating the classic Alice Cooper sound: muscular guitar-driven rock coupled with anthemic, insanely catchy tunes, driven by and Cooper’s sneering, sinister and often satirical vocals.
Over the course of their next three albums, 1971’s Killer, 1972’s School’s Out and 1973’s Billion Dollar Babies, Cooper, Ezrin, bassist Dennis Dunaway, drummer Neal Smith and guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce explored the boundless flexibility baked into their template. The Alice Cooper band’s crowd-pleasing and relatable rock encompassed everything from the galloping garage rock of “Under My Wheels” to the exuberant teenage hymn “Schools Out” to the macabre progressive rocker “Ballad of Dwight Fry.”
As “Ballad of Dwight Fry” illustrates, Cooper and his cohorts embraced ’70s movie-fan culture with compulsive geekery. The sepulchral Doors-influenced “Desperado” was inspired by Robert Vaughn’s gun slinging character in The Magnificent Seven, and the entwining twanging guitars on “Unfinished Sweet” owed a debt to Monty Norman’s iconic James Bond theme.
“That’s all the music we like,” Cooper cheerfully admitted in a March 1972 Rolling Stone interview. “We swiped about 11 bits from the Goldfinger soundtrack on the first album [and] just redid them in guitar.”
So why not do a James Bond theme for real? In 1973, the band went into the studio to record Muscle of Love, which would prove to be the last album released by the original Alice Cooper band lineup. Alice Cooper, the singer, would continue as a solo act, while Dunaway, Smith, Buxton and Bruce would soldier on as Billion Dollar Babies, a group that foundered after their sole release, Battle Axe, stiffed.
During the Muscle sessions, the band recorded “The Man With the Golden Gun” as a possible theme for the ninth entry in the James Bond series, and Roger Moore’s second outing as MI6 Agent 007. Though rumors have spread that the band was contracted to record the tune by Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, it seems more likely that Cooper cut the theme song on spec, reasoning that if movie-makers had opted for Paul McCartney’s title tune for the previous Bond outing, Live and Let Die, they might be similarly inclined to pick a tune by the group that took Billion Dollar Babies to the No. 1 Billboard spot.
But it was not to be. According to Cooper in a December 2011 interview for The A.V. Club, “Golden Gun” was delivered too late to Broccoli and Saltzman, who had already contracted Scottish singer Lulu to perform a theme written by John Barry with lyrics by Don Black. (Early efforts to get Elton John or Cat Stevens to record the track had fallen through.)
Listen to Alice Cooper’s ‘The Man With the Golden Gun’
“It actually came in a day too late,” Cooper said. “By the time [the producers] heard it, they’d already signed for Lulu’s song. I went, “You’re gonna take Lulu over this? ’Cause it was perfect for The Man With the Golden Gun. It had helicopters, it had machine guns — it had the Pointers Sisters, Ronnie Spector and Liza Minnelli doing background vocals! We went to every single one of those John Barry albums to try and invent the perfect James Bond song.”
Cooper can be forgiven for being biased toward his effort, but in this case he’s right. “The Man With the Golden Gun” is a damn near perfect Bond theme, not pegging the needle as high as Shirley Bassey’s performance of “Goldfinger,” or McCartney’s symphonic thrill ride for Live and Let Die, but it’s a notch or two above Barry’s tense ticking time bomb instrumental theme for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Duran Duran’s underrated rendition of “A View to a Kill.”
Credited to the entire lineup of the band, but recorded without Buxton, who was replaced by session pro and Lou Reed sideman Dick Wagner, “The Man With the Golden Gun” eschews the near-mimicry of James Bond tropes displayed in “Unfinished Sweet” for a more organic approach. A Bond feel is attained with many John Barry-esque motifs subsumed into the Alice Cooper band’s supple and athletic hard rock sound.
A grimy guitar riff suggests the blaring brassy horns of ’60s James Bond themes like “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball,” as Cooper’s gritty vocal slips the film’s title into the lyrics right off the bat. Cooper ascends an octave into the chorus, augmented by dissonant stabs of real brass, a far better use of horns than the distracting triplets Barry folds into the lugubrious official theme song sung by Lulu. In fact, Lulu and Barry have subsequently disparaged their theme.
“I think mine was probably the worst one ever,” the singer said to British journalist Dylan Jones in 2017, while Barry felt the entire scored was cobbled together too quickly over a three-week period. “It’s the one I hate most,’ the composer said on the 2006 U.K television show James Bond’s Greatest Hits. “It just never happened for me.”
Listen to Lulu’s ‘The Man With the Golden Gun’
In contrast, Cooper’s theme is bursting with a barrage of satisfying surprises. A bridge with bubbling bass suggests Norman’s James Bond theme without copying it, as chiming guitars and spooky theremin-style keyboards segue into a swaggering reprise of the chorus. Then a double-time outro gallops on agitated ascending horns and whirligig brass like a cyclone. Cooper puts a button on the theme with a dramatic pause followed by a drawn-out wail. It’s a bold and rewarding finish to a varied and punchy theme, altogether a lot more muscular and on-target than the flaccid spy adventure it was written for.
“Even Christopher Lee, who played [the villain] Scaramanga in the movie, said, “Oh, man, why did we take the Lulu song? This song is the one!’” Cooper said in the A.V. Club interview. As a consolation prize, Cooper put the tune on Muscle of Love. “I said, ‘I don’t care, I’m going to do a James Bond track no matter what.’”
In the pantheon of near-miss James Bond themes, Cooper’s is the biggest loss. Several, like Ace of Base’s unused theme for GoldenEye and Pulp’s stab at the title track for Tomorrow Never Dies — which the band re-purposed and released as “Tomorrow Never Lies” — seem pallid in comparison. Only Johnny Cash’s abandoned theme for the 1965 underwater 007 adventure Thunderball comes close, but that tune’s spooky locomotive canter seems better suited for a spaghetti western than a James Bond movie.
Other unused entries, like the Pet Shop Boys’ 1987 theme for The Living Daylights and Blondie’s 1981 tune for For Your Eyes Only, are credible and catchy songs, but they don’t capture the James Bond spirit with the same affection and verve as the killer combination of Alice Cooper, the man, and Alice Cooper, the band. Their “Golden Gun” hits its target dead center, a sleek silver bullet conveying action, intrigue, sex and danger.