Four String Thunder: Dennis Dunaway

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Alice Cooper, Michael Bruce, Neal Smith, Glen Buxton and our man Dennis Dunaway.

Dennis Dunaway was the bass guitarist in Alice Cooper from 1969 to 1974, before the split between the band and the vocalist who would go on to assume that name as a solo act. He was part of a rhythm section which helped to create four consecutive genre–defining albums through a singular chemistry¹. In these traits Dunaway shares a similarity with Geezer Butler, John Paul Jones and Duff McKagen, but comparatively little has been written about his playing². Like Butler, Paul Jones, McKagen, and even Motown session bassist James Jameson, Dunaway’s lines are clever and assertive without necessarily being the focal point of the song. Reputedly picking up the bass due to that classic rock’n’roll scenario of wanting to join a band and bass being the only instrument left, Dunaway played a Gibson EB0 short scale bass – four inches shorter than most basses – modified with a P Bass split coil (and mirrors), and with a plectrum exclusively for Alice Cooper’s first three albums. He switched to a Fender Jazz bass (also covered in mirrors) by 1971’s Love It To Death. Alice Cooper’s first two albums, Pretties for You and Easy Action, are generally forgotten, generally because they’re forgettable; they present a snapshot of an Alice Cooper that was still evolving, one that had not yet reached the sound that best represents them, and a Dunaway that was yet to make his mark on bass playing. As such, third album Killer, released in 1971, is the best place to start.

Under My Wheels, Killer’s lively opening number, is matched with an agile bass line, using the major pentatonic scale, particularly the major 6th, but the first real sign of what Dunaway can do surfaces on the bass intro of Halo of Flies. He stays off the root note of A, starting from the minor third (three semitones, or three frets, up – think of the second and fourth notes of Whole Lotta Love) and plays around the natural minor scale, with the result of it sounding more like a vocal line. He also likes to bounce between roots and 5ths (in music theory, a 5th, due to the number of soundwave oscillations, is harmonically very compatible with root notes – it’s like peri peri sauce, it goes with (nearly) everything) and octaves (think of the ‘where’ in Somewhere Over The Rainbow). In Halo of Flies Dunaway uses the momentum of this movement over the fretboard as propulsion to play the chord changes.

Dunaway also likes to play arpeggios going down in pitch, often when guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce, no slouches themselves, are playing ascending lines. Although not something that requires a great deal of technical ability, it’s unusual for an arpeggio to begin on a descent and not to come back up in pitch soon afterwards (Flea of Red Hot Chili Pepper fame does this a lot too). Check out Halo of Flies or I’m Eighteen for some good examples.

Dunaway’s tone was always killer, and fittingly the intro of Killer is where this is first evident; the amount of space in the production keeps each instrument audible throughout, and with the amount of space given over to the bass in these recordings it’s easy to hear that Dunaway played with a plectrum. With this space at his disposal he plays a great ascending run during the second verse, and laid back arpeggios during the harmonised guitar solo. At 3.30 the song goes full–on doomed, with a funereal bass line entering at 4.30. By 6.30, having been reminded of how good all of the musicians in this line up of Alice Cooper were (‘were’ = past tense = Glen Buxton died in 1997, I don’t rate Vincent Furnier’s recent material, and I have no idea what the rest of the band are up to), I had also been reminded, at this particular moment, of how fucked up some of their music was.

There are also lines that are simpler, such as the line that mimics the guitar line in Dead Babies (…talking of fucked up music) two octaves lower. Likewise, on succeeding album Love It To Death, sixth track Hallowed Be My Name, through to the ninth and closing track, Sun Arise, are accompanied by bass lines that are more workman–like, based on root and whole notes. In comparison the preceding five tracks are more lively; opening track Caught In A Dream shows Dunaway embellishing on the chord changes, and  Long Way To Go has a lively line and a great descending fill beginning at 0.48 which flows into a burst of lead bass at 0.55. Extended fills recur throughout the verses, and the post–solo verse has a different, more spacious line. Dunaway also has three writing credits on this album, including I’m Eighteen, Black Juju and Is It My Body. Given the lack of traditional drums on Black Juju the playing is very tight, and the bass plays a great counter–melody to the guitar intro in Is It My Body.

With all this said, had Dunaway’s only musical contribution to this universe been his playing and writing on Alice Cooper’s fifth album/third proper album School’s Out, on which he is listed as a writer on five of the nine tracks, I would still be writing all of these nice things. Some of the best bass playing ever is to be found on School’s Out. After matching the intro of the eponymous opening track, Dunaway throws in arpeggios using the 5th and octave at the interlude at 1.12 and a driving, independent line during the first guitar solo, and then a slight variation on those first arpeggios in the second, post–chorus interlude.

Dunaway chooses his shots well on this album; Luney Tune is driven by a sinister, prowling bass line with swift slides thrown in, and in sixth track My Stars, the bass, except for brilliant moments when it follows the descending vocal lick, hands it over to the piano. The bass intro of Gutter Cats Vs. The Jets, on which Dunaway is listed as a co–writer, makes his use of a plectrum very clear, and the resultant tone is to die for, being equally sharp–edged, gritty and thick. The intro consists of a descending melody, speeding up at the completion of the chord sequence, chucking into triplets as the whole band begins to swing at 0.38. The space in the production really makes it clear how the bass is the bridge between the drums and guitars, and although it’s not as though Dunaway invented the role of the bass, this is why he is one of the best. I don’t like The Beatles³, but when it comes to Paul McCartney it’s a case of game recognising game, and Dunaway’s counter–melody playing is comparable to Macca’s.

A filthy bass riff drives the ‘field recording’ Street Fight, with chromatics played with up and down strokes on the plectrum (which creates on/off/on/off accenting – think of the intro to Metallica’s Whiplash) low on the fretboard on the E and A strings. It fades out into the descending chromatics of Blue Turk, then a call and response with a piano. This is Dunaway at his best here. At 2.10 under a sax solo he starts to walk, leading in from chromatics, through to the end of the solo at 3.50. Momentarily stripped of all other instruments, the tone at 4.00 is to die for, sharp–edged and gritty yet still thick. At 4.50 the bass line begins to descend through chromatics in a leisurely manner, until it feels as though he has fallen off the fretboard and will keep on going forever.

The whole of Public Animal # 9 (the best song name ever) rolls along with the bass riff, eschewing fills to just stick to the action. In contrast, the bass line of following number Alma Mater partially mimics the vocals, throwing fills in with tight slides and at 2.40 goes higher, punching out the strong beats. Closing track Grande Finale has a bass intro (that tone!) that screams excitement, throwing in non–root notes when it changes to West Side Story.

By and large the bass playing is far more fundamental on 1973’s Billion Dollar Babies, and with the exception of a few moments, there isn’t much of note until fifth track Unfinished Sweet. The bass riff zigzags downwards through chromatics during the guitar solo at 2.40 in opening track Hello Hooray, there are a few arpeggios in the questionably titled Raped And Freezing, there is an interesting little run up and down in Elected at 1.30 and lots of quavers and a prominent descending line at 3.00, and a fast ascending riff, which then becomes a motif, at 2.28 in Billion Dollar Babies.

On Unfinished Sweet the tone of the bass suggests heavy palm muting with a plectrum, and at 1.55 there is a turn on the penny change led by a smoking bass riff. There are lots of tempo changes across these four albums, and Dunaway shows his skill in staying tight with the drums to execute these changes, such as the tempo and time signature changing from 4/4 and 128 bpm to 6/4 at 156bpm, which then, inexplicably, rolls into the James Bond theme tune. There is an excellent independent bass riff in the introduction of No More Mr Nice Guy, some nice fills pre–chorus, and between the first two choruses there is an extended high–register fill. And on the last four tracks, there isn’t a great deal of note. It feels as though Dunaway had less creative input and freedom on this album, especially compared to School’s Out; he has writing credits on two tracks (Elected and Generation Landslide), compared to four on Killer, three on Love It To Death and five on School’s Out.

Following album Muscle of Love (another questionable title) has some good tracks – namely, Never Been Sold BeforeHard Hearted Alice, which has some walking bass, and Working Up a Sweat, but there is little bass playing to really talk about. This album is more about the story–telling, cabaret element of Alice Cooper, and less about awesome bass lines. While Muscle of Love has it’s charms (let’s be blunt, some of the tracks aren’t great), it misses the interaction and chemistry of the preceding four albums. This was the last Alice Cooper album with the classic line up, with Alice Cooper becoming a man, rather than a band, so to speak, by the time next album Welcome To My Nightmare was released in 1975.

Sabbath had Geezer. Zep had Jonesy. Guns’n’Roses had Duff. Motown had Jameson. And for four consecutive, genre–defining, perfect–chemistry albums, Alice Cooper had Dennis Dunaway.

  1. Battle Axe, the album released by the post–Alice Cooper band Billion Dollar Babies in 1977, misses all of this magic.
  2. Nor, it should be said, has there been about original Alice Cooper drummer Neal Smith and guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce.
  3. That’s right, I said it.
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