Dominated by edgy updates of songs by long-gone figures like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and John Lennon, Hollywood Vampires’ self-titled debut album isn’t the melancholy dirge it might have been under someone else’s tutelage. There’s nothing here as delirious as the tales of Cooper’s long-ago, booze-soaked escapades with Lennon, Keith Moon, Micky Dolenz, Harry Nilsson and others — or at least nothing here feels too much like a celebration.
Instead, from the first fog-enshrouded recitation by late horror legend Christopher Lee through two gloriously grim originals and string of covers, the Hollywood Vampires push back with bleak humor and fizzy anger against the dying of the light. Along the way, the album achieves – like the best of Cooper’s work – a brilliant, brooding dissonance.
The core members of Cooper’s new Hollywood Vampires lineup – focused in the modern era on songcraft, rather than carousing – include Johnny Depp and Joe Perry. Depp, who had an early music career before becoming an actor, first worked with Cooper on the movie Dark Shadows, where they discovered a shared passion for British Invasion-era music and, as this album makes abundantly clear, a dark view of things.
Lee, who also met Cooper during the making of Dark Shadows, opens the album with a passage from Bram Stoker’s Dracula: “Children of the night,” he concludes ominously, “what music they make.” The original “Raise the Dead” carries the theme, and is followed by updates of classic-rock favorites like the Who‘s “My Generation,” Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” and Led Zeppelin‘s “Whole Lotta Love” that tend to be the album’s least interesting numbers (though replacing Jimmy Page‘s guitar solo with Cooper’s scalding harmonica is a nice touch). Hollywood Vampires hits its stride when the group tackles deeper cuts like the Small Faces‘ “Itchycoo Park,” Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” and Spirit’s “I Got a Line on You.”
It’s all sewn together by some famous friends, including Paul McCartney, who stopped by one of the sessions and ended up playing on a cover of “Come and Get It,” a hit song he wrote for Badfinger. Brian Johnson, Dave Grohl, Ringo Starr‘s son Zak Starkey, Robby Krieger, Joe Walsh and Slash also sit in.
Ultimately, however, the project rises and falls on the strength of Cooper, the core member who has the strongest connection to the original era. But he also provides the death-mocking theater needed to pull off something like this.
That spirit is best heard on “My Dead Drunk Friends,” the album-closing original in which they sing, “I’m raising my glass and tossing it back but I can’t remember why / So let’s have another for all of my brothers who drank until they died.” Hollywood Vampires move away from the maudlin here as the song evolves into a raucous sea chantey where the assembled crew happily brays, “We drink and we fight, and we fight and we puke, and we puke and we fight, and we drink … and then we die.”
Somewhere, Cooper’s dead, drunk friends are probably sharing a rueful laugh over all this. He wouldn’t have it any other way.