Question: what connects ‘shock rocker’ Alice Cooper and beloved Australian naturalist Harry Butler? Answer: not very much—except, perhaps, for the Rolf Harris song ‘Sun Arise’. This well-known slice of Australiana, co-written by Butler and Harris, was the latter’s first US hit, reaching number 61 on the Billboard Top 100 singles charts in 1963. Eight years later, Alice Cooper concluded his third album, Love it to Death, with his own interpretation of ‘Sun Arise’—perhaps one of the most unlikely cover versions in rock history.
After all, ‘Sun Arise’ is perhaps the last song, with the possible exception of ‘Jake the Peg’, you would expect from a man whose name has become synonymous with the macabre and freakish. And yet according to Alice’s former bandmate Dennis Dunaway in his memoir Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! My Adventures in the Alice Cooper Group, Cooper had liked the song since first hearing it as a high-school student in the early sixties. He included ‘Sun Arise’ in live shows at the beginning of the following decade; the next logical step, it seems, was to record it and stick it at the end of Love it to Death.
In interviews around that period, Cooper himself claimed that he preferred listening to Burt Bacharach than rock music, so maybe ‘Sun Arise’ wasn’t such a huge leap after all.
But it’s a pretty weird song in its own right: not exactly pop, nor folk, nor the sort of novelty/comedy record of the ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down’ variety for which Harris might be better known (these days he’s probably best known for being a convicted sex offender, but that’s another story). ‘Sun Arise’ seeks to capture the feel of Australian Aboriginal music, to which Harris was introduced by Butler, but the didgeridoo-like drone is in fact achieved by multiple double basses—perhaps at the suggestion of the song’s famous producer, George Martin.
The song also features the twang of what sounds like a Jew’s harp, and those wooden sticks being rhythmically banged together are claves: more Afro-Cuban than indigenous Australian.
Given this peculiar combination of instruments, coupled with Harris’ calypso-style delivery, the song is downright multicultural—perhaps an early example of what has come to be known as ‘world music’, even if the key personnel were white and Australian/English. It may also be the first pop song to mention the Kangaroo Paw, a plant native—like the song’s composers—to Western Australia.
Alice Cooper’s ‘Sun Arise’ is played at the same tempo as the original, but its standard rock instrumentation—drums, bass, and Glen Buxton’s wailing guitar—behind Cooper’s slightly menacing and occasionally off-key vocals (“Sun a-rieeese/She come every moh-nain’”) make the Harris version seem rather limp, if more faithful to the Aboriginal music that inspired it. After a relatively subdued beginning, Cooper’s version builds to an uplifting conclusion, in which the refrains ‘Every every every every day’ and ‘Sun arise/Whoa-oh-oh’ repeatedly overlap. Coming directly after ‘Ballad of Dwight Fry’, the story of a mental-institution inmate—subject matter that would seem closer to Alice’s heart than sunrises and Kangaroo Paws—this dynamic final track, like the sunrise itself, does indeed ‘drive away the darkness’.
A few other artists have had a crack at the song since Cooper made it his own. UK new wave band The Godfathers released it as a single in the mid-1980s—heavier than both its predecessors, it features a ‘sample’ of a Reverend Desmond Tutu speech—and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page performed a semi-improvised and fairly woeful version on the Denton show in the 1990s. Neither interpretation adds much to what Cooper and his band did with the song in 1971. He saw this eccentric composition’s rock ‘n’ roll potential and transformed it into something markedly different from the original—which is what the best cover versions do.
Harry Butler died in 2015, aged 85. No doubt he will be remembered less for writing songs and more for wandering around the bush in a khaki hat picking up tree snakes (an unexpected second link to our other famous snake enthusiast). Harris, now 90, was released from prison in 2017 after serving three years of a five year and nine month sentence for indecent assault. Cooper, at 68, is not only alive and not in gaol, but still performing. And what does the degenerate shock rocker do in between concerts? He spends time with his family, plays golf, and drinks copious amounts of Diet Coke. What a sicko!