“He made Keith Richards look like a Boy Scout.”
That’s how Neal Smith, drummer for the original Alice Cooper Group, sums up the rebellious spirit of bandmate Glen Buxton. Throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s, Buxton wore the band’s hard-living image with real-life authenticity. His physical countenance alone—wiry, thin-lipped, rings on every finger, bones and chicken claws dangling from bracelets and necklaces—embodied the band’s shock-rock reputation. More importantly, that spirit fueled a guitar style that would shape some of rock’s most memorable songs. Wielding his iconic white SG Custom, Buxton—along with fellow guitarist Michael Bruce—put muscle into such classics as “I’m Eighteen,” “Elected,” and “School’s Out.”
“We always tried to make the guitar parts as meaningful to the tune as we could,” says Alice Cooper Group bassist Dennis Dunaway. “Michael had a clean, cutting sound, and distinct notes, whereas Glen was more about feel, and was more edgy and loose. His playing was like an angry hornet. He would bend notes, and play notes where he didn't pick every note. And he used a spoon for a slide. He did lots of things that were unconventional.”
The band’s first two albums—Pretties for You and Easy Action—sowed the seeds for the dual-guitar attack soon to come. Neither album met with commercial success, but with 1971’s Love It to Death, the Alice Cooper Group forged a meaty, melodic hard-rock sound that hit home with American listeners. By that time Bruce, especially, had developed into a superb songwriter, crafting such guitar-centric pop-rock as “Caught in a Dream” and “Long Way to Go.” He and Buxton also hit on a technique of doubling their rhythm parts by playing the same chords, but an octave apart.
“Michael would often play in the open-chord position, and Glen would play the same chord further up the neck,” Dunaway explains. “The intro to ‘Long Way to Go’ is a good example. It sounds like one rhythm guitar, but it’s actually two guitars, doubled. But the real dynamic, in the case of Glen and Michael, is that they had totally different styles and sounds, and yet they complemented one another without creating distraction or conflict. They were masters of that.”
Love It to Death was the first in a string of albums—released between 1971 and 1973—that have since become classics. Killer, the band’s next effort, featured the hit single “Be My Lover” and the fan-favorite “Dead Babies,” but tracks such as “Halo of Flies” and “You Drive Me Nervous” showed even greater musical growth. The latter track, in particular, constitutes an example of Buxton’s talent for fitting his playing to a song’s lyrical content.
“You could talk to Glen in abstract terms, and he understood right away what you were talking about,” says Dunaway. “For ‘You Drive Me Nervous,’ I said, ‘Glen, play nervous.’ And he did exactly that. The same was true for ‘Ballad of Dwight Frye,’ from Love It to Death. We told Glen to play as if he’d had a mental breakdown, and he did just that. I've known very accomplished guitarists who couldn't think that way, because it has nothing to do with following scales. But as Glen used to say, ‘I never let the proper notes get in my way.’”
Buxton’s main rock influences were the Beatles, the Stones, and the Yardbirds, but as Smith and Dunaway note, he was also an avid fan of Les Paul and Chet Atkins. The latter influences surfaced in sublime ways on the 1972 album, School’s Out. Tracks such as “Gutter Cat vs. The Jets” and “Blue Turk” expanded the band’s rock sound to include a beatnik vibe. Both songs were structured around Dunaway bass lines, with Buxton and Bruce using their SGs to add power and personality.
“Our early material had a lot of huge, heavy sounds,” Smith says. “Later, as that got watered down, the jazzy side of Glen emerged. ‘Blue Turk,’ ‘Luney Tune,’ and even ‘Public Animal #9’ are examples of that.”
Dunaway concurs. “Glen’s guitar tone on ‘Blue Turk’ is like something from the ’50s,” he says. “That’s him returning to his traditional influences. Whenever Glen sat around playing for the fun of it, he tended to play things like ‘Misty.’”
Of course Buxton’s most famous riff—and the one for which he’ll be best remembered—is the one that drives School’s Out’s title track. Along with similarly iconic riffs in “Layla,” “Walk This Way,” and “Smoke on the Water,” the ferociously rendered “School’s Out” riff remains emblematic of the era. Buxton came up with the part long before the song was written, and in fact he’d used variations of it on Pretties for You and Easy Action. Dunaway says Buxton landed on the riff while jamming with a friend, songwriter Reggie Vincent.
“‘School’s Out’ had been kicking around for a while before we based a song around that intro,” he says. “‘I'm Eighteen’ was like that too. ‘I’m Eighteen’ was originally a warm-up song we did at sound checks. It was a jam song for quite a while before it got condensed into its ‘single’ format.”
Buxton went on to do fine work on the 1973 album Billion Dollar Babies, but by that time his self-destructive lifestyle had taken firm hold. The guitarist suffered from pancreatitis during the making of the album, and was absent from many of the sessions. Opinions vary on the extent of his contributions. Dunaway says the rhythm guitar that reinforces his bass lines on the title track is, in fact, Buxton playing his SG. Smith says the guitar solo on “Sick Things” is Buxton as well—and he rates it among the guitarist’s best.
What is clear is that Buxton figured little on the 1974 album, Muscle of Love, which also proved to be the group’s last. In its wake Buxton returned to Arizona—where the band had gotten its start—and spiraled further downward. Years later he moved to Clarion, Iowa, where he at last achieved a degree of peace and happiness. On October 19, 1997, at the age of 49, he died from complications from pneumonia.
“He called me a couple of weeks before he died,” says Dunaway. “He had written a song, and he played the song for me. He was excited about doing new things.”
“I got to spend several days with him near the end,” says Smith. “He was happy, he was playing great, and he was having a lot of fun. He was more a pain in the ass to himself than to anybody else. He was the nicest guy in the world. He had a heart of gold.”
Glen Buxton's Gibsons: