It is sort of unbelievable when one thinks about how successful Aerosmith got and how fast it happened – especially given the time at which it happened. While it’s totally believable (de rigueur, even) that a band is able to become “the only band that matters” in really short order in the twenty-first century (especially with the internet’s help), when Aerosmith first came charging out of Boston in 1973, there was no infrastructure even kind of similar to that in place. To make it back then, a band had to have good songs, good chops and instrumental prowess – you had to have a good chemistry between all of the band’s members – and you had to have the time, energy and will to commit to the music. It was a very, very tall order to fill and there were STILL no guarantees that anything was going to go right! On top of all those skills, a band still had to be both lucky and in the right place at the right time, AND do their best in front of just the right people if they wanted to have a shot at being able to do it in front of everybody else too.
Aerosmith had all of that going on and, within the first eighteen months of coming together, they were already beginning to see the fruits of that fact; formed in 1970, the band’s lineup was cemented by 1971. They were signed to Columbia Records in 1972 and released their first album (which went platinum!) in 1973. That fast, Aerosmith were kings of the world. They most definitely proved that it was good to be king indeed too – for their first three releases (Aerosmith, Get Your Wings and Toys In The Attic), the band could do no wrong and they were quickly living it up but, as they got to be bigger and higher-profile rock stars, the distractions they discovered got larger (and more expensive) as well. Drugs, alcohol and whatever else struck their fancy made daily appearances in the band members’ lives and demand never seemed to come close to exceeding supply; not for nothing did guitarist Joe Perry and singer Steven Tyler become known as “The Toxic Twins.”
It’s because the members of Aerosmith were living chemically hard and high (really high) on the hog that they began running into internal problems but, paradoxically, it was also that hard living which forced the band members to see if they were capable of change; in a similar way to Keith Richards’ and Mick Jagger’s “Glimmer Twins” period, the mid-period of Aerosmith’s career (when the band was still mostly writing most of their own music and pushing boundaries) was essential to the band becoming the respected institution they regarded as now in the twenty-first century. In tribute to that success as well as the fact that the mid-period now began almost forty years ago, Legacy Recordings – the catalogue department of Columbia/Sony Music – has reissued Aerosmith’s mid-period recordings in limited, numbered quantities (each title’s been capped at 3000 copies) on 180 gram, Audiophile vinyl for Record Store Day. That in and of itself ensures that the albums will get some renewed notice, but that’s only part of the story; read on to discover what more there was, and how Aerosmith’s history got made.
Looking back, there’s no question that a lot of the plans that Aerosmith was building probably had to be totally rethought following the release of Toys In The Attic in 1975. That third album was a juggernaut; it was certified gold by the RIAA within four months of being released, yielded two career-defining singles (“Sweet Emotion” and “Walk This Way”) and was instrumental in breaking the band into every corner of the continental U.S. and Canada. Toys In The Attic out-sold both of the albums that preceded it combined – it was a runaway success. That sounds great, but the question circulating in the band likely became, “How do we follow that?” before long. Their answer when it came time to record a follow-up was to keep everything the same; work in the same studio with the same producer and the same mindset (or try to), and try to pick up right where they left off.
How could it not work? The pieces lined up perfectly for Toys In The Attic, conventional wisdom stated that if you kept doing what you’d been doing, you’d end up just where you’d been again.
Released just thirteen months after Toys In The Attic, Rocks proves that Aerosmith was absolutely right in their logic that if they retained the same elements, the results on another album would be similar.
Already knowing how a “hit” should go, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Brad Whitford, Tom Hamilton and Joey Kramer emerge swinging hard, fast and with all their wits focused for “Back In The Saddle Again.” Almost playing to say, “Yup, we’re at it again and it’s the same as it ever was,” Aerosmith makes no bones about wanting to recapture the same kind of magic they had on Toys In The Attic a second time (the song’s title lyric almost screams that desire) and, with a melody which plays on the same rhythmic form that “Walk This Way” and “Sweet Emotion” did as well as boasting a similarly raucous rhythm guitar figure, they seem to be well on their way to that end. The similarities can’t really be criticized either; no one is directly or overtly repeating themselves, the similarity is just a matter of continuing to ride a creative high while the tape rolls.
The band keeps riding that high as Rocks continues, knocking song after song out of the proverbial park. “Last Child” plays like a street-walking, hard-talking anthem while “Rats In The Cellar” (an ode to Aerosmith’s dearly departed drug dealer) obscures lyrical poignancy in favor of rocking balls-out to make what could be a throwaway song by any other artist a genuine classic in Aerosmith’s hands (this is a trick which would serve many bands from the Eighties well, and they all have Aerosmith to thank for laying the groundwork) and “Combination” sees the band manage to really glorify drug use (although affording them is sometimes a problem) WITHOUT actually going into detail about the drugs themselves (and thereby dodging the complaints of most parental figures).
The first side of Rocks effortlessly picks up the thread thrown down by Toys In The Attic but, on the second side of the album, Aerosmith begins to boldly push their limits and boundaries. “Nobody’s Fault” takes the prize for the heaviest song on Rocks (at moments sounding a bit like a boozy Judas Priest) but still manages to sound like a highlight of the album, while “Get The Lead Out” manages to overcome a really lousy title by focusing on the ‘rhythm in Rhythm & Blues and adding a bit of rock for good measure to make one of the best hybrids in the band’s canon. The only weak song on the album is the revved up ballad which closes the proceedings, “Home Tonight,” which just sort of sputters out, (understandably) exhausted.
While it doesn’t end gracefully, there’s no question that Rocks represents an excellent show of power by Aerosmith. Toys In The Attic may have been the band’s breakthrough album, but Rocks is the one which proves that the band wasn’t just a one-album wonder; they had more creative irons in the fire, and they were just as hot as anything they band had done before.
Draw The Line
After the band wrapped the recording of Rocks, Aerosmith was still riding the adrenaline from the sessions and was ready to roll. They began a world tour in support of the album two weeks before release day (it began on April 16, 1976 and the album dropped on May 3) and remained on the road until February 9, 1977, but they didn’t stop there; still burning hot, Aerosmith immediately began working on new music for a follow-up album.
The decision to “just keep going” was both a good and terrible idea. The truth is that many bands NEED a bit of downtime after a tour so they can downshift out of the “party” mode which tends to power a concert tour – that was especially true in the sometimes sordid and overly hedonistic climate of the business in the Seventies. Aerosmith didn’t get that chance though, and things immediately became more strained and labored because of it; while Draw The Line still came out on December 1, 1977 (making the gestation period for the album less than eleven months) it didn’t take much effort to find the frays in the fabric of both the band and the album.
From the moment Draw The Line‘s title track rolls out, it’s clear that not everything is perfectly right with Aerosmith. Steven Tyler’s voice sounds uncharacteristically thin and more than a little raspy, but that’s not all; the guitars knocked out by Joe Perry and Brad Whitford sound muddled and stringy, and Tom Hamilton’s bass just bounces around the mix, totally aimless. This is very troubling; it still sounds like Aerosmith, but it most definitely doesn’t sound like Aerosmith on their best day. The trend of being just a hair below the band’s standard continues at every turn throughout Draw The Line. “I Wanna Know Why” comes off as petulant AND forgettable as Steven Tyler clearly continues to wrestle with his vocal tone, and “Get It Up” does anything but as the arrangement of the song robs it of all potency.
The band fills none of the ample room they’ve left for improvement on the flipside of Draw The Line too. “Kings And Queens” attempts to sound dramatic with its mid-tempo time signature and string accompaniment, but ends up sounding more than a little moribund because of the added instrumentation. On “The Hand That Feeds,” Steven Tyler over-extends his already fatigued-sounding voice and just ends up sounding like the angriest Muppet ever created by Jim Henson. “Sight For Sore Eyes” takes a little of the ground lost by the band back for them by falling into a good rock guitar line, but that proves to not be enough to redeem the laundry list of wrongs committed elsewhere on the album. By the time “Milk Cow Blues” wanders through to close the proceedings, even some of the most dogged supporters in the band’s corner will just be happy to see it go.
At the time of its release, there couldn’t have been many Aerosmith fans NOT wondering what the hell had happened to the band in the span between the releases of Rocks and Draw The Line. In many ways, it doesn’t even feel like the same band and it’s because of that fact that fans began to get worried; at the time, they were wondering if Aerosmith would burn out. Really, they would have if they’d continued with the sound and style presented on Draw The Line – and it wouldn’t have taken long at all.
Night In The Ruts
The troubles that Aerosmith ran into while making Draw The Line endured, sadly, and ran full-steam into Night In The Ruts. One listen tells the whole story; a petulant tone overtakes Steven Tyler’s vocals and the guitar lines are consistently less-than-inspired. The result is well below the standard that Aerosmith set with Toys In The Attic and Rocks but, by the same token, the band’s sixth album does feature a couple of stylistic developments which would eventually become commonplace in Aerosmith’s songwriting practice and help to make songs like “Eat The Rich,” “Permanent Vacation,” “Pink” and “Dude (Looks Like A Lady)” become platinum-festooned fare later in the band’s career; the sounds are close but just not quite there yet on Night In The Ruts.
The just-inches-to-the-left-of-a-hit theme of the album begins the moment Aerosmith nostalgically opens “No Surprize.” There, amid a street-fighting guitar rock rhythm, Steven Tyler unloads what no one will argue is the most petulant and snotty melody to be found ANYWHERE in Aerosmith’s songbook; lines like “Riding on the wheels of hell, smokin’ our axle grease” sound half-good, but the way they’re delivered just comes off as second rate and it sounds like Perry, Hamilton and Whitford KNOW they’re re-treading old ground. It’s just disappointing all around, but the saving grace proves to be how Tyler doubles up his vocals and veers back and forth between sounding like he’s bored and sounding like he’s so pissed off he’s stuttering. This vocal device would serve the singer very, very well for years to come and hearing it this first time saves “No Surprize” from seeming like a diminished return – on the right day.
The same half-good and tolerable-on-the-right-day form of “No Surpize” continues throughout Night In The Ruts with thoroughly mixed results. “Cheese Cake” is the one track which really hits closest to being a genuinely awesome hit (lyrics like “I met a babe in a backseat drive-in/ Back in the saddle she’d sit/ Pulled on the reigns just to keep me risin’/ She loved to chomp at the bit” are the kind of suggestive fare that fans have always loved from Aerosmith), but “Three Mile Smile” and “Bone To Bone” do reasonably well too – even if Tyler’s toxicity levels are running high enough that he can’t believably hide them. That’s a problem certainly, but the most inexcusable thing about Night In The Ruts is the number of covers that appear on an album comprised of only eight songs; the three covers (which aren’t great songs anyway) leave listeners feeling as though they just bought a really polished-sounding tape that Aerosmith made while in rehearsals for a tour. That might be excusable for some untested, novice band, but this was fucking AEROSMITH; they had already taken over the world and all Night In The Ruts leaves is the impression that the band had no idea what to do next.
The album itself may continue to feel diffuse, but behind the scenes of Night In The Ruts proves that the trouble with the music stemmed from trouble both in the studio and in the band itself. Joe Perry actually left the group midway through recording the album (he was replaced by Jimmy Crespo) and producer Jack Douglas was produced by Gary Lyons – so everything was in complete disarray. Other bands might have been able to hide all the upheaval but, as Night In The Ruts proves, such a feat was beyond Aerosmith.
Rock In A Hard Place
After the fairly catastrophic chain of events which revolved around the making of Night In The Ruts (the numbers speak for themselves – the album wasn’t certified Platinum in the U.S. until fourteen years after its original release, and it took seventeen years to go Gold in Canada), even big Aerosmith fans didn’t know if the band would be able to come back in any positive form. The band was a wreck; lead guitarist Joe Perry was out of the band (rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford would end up leaving the band before the recording of Rock In A Hard Place began too – he was replaced by Rick Dufay until 1984 when both Perry and Whitford returned), the writing powers were really at half-mast and, even though Jack Douglas was back on the mixing board, singer Steven Tyler was trying to help in that regard as well, which sent flags up as an enormous X-factor at the time.
For those reasons (and the fact that the album took an eternity to complete by the band’s standards), nothing about Rock In A Hard Place looked promising on paper but, in fact, Aerosmith’s seventh album remains a shockingly solid and stable effort.
While it does start off rocky in all the wrong ways (“Jailbait” sounds like a half-assed rewrite of AC/DC’s “Jailbreak” with Steven Tyler’s vocal performance light on good lyrics but sounding heavy on amphetamines), the band doesn’t take too long to find a way to function and the band begins casting off sparks of rocky goodness as early as “Lightning Strikes.” There, in spite of the guitars at least occasionally sounding like they might be wrapped in spandex, the song flies high on the strength of a carnal, hip-swinging rhythm and a REALLY, REALLY GOOD Steven Tyler vocal contribution (which works – no matter how close to being a “Cat Scratch Fever” rip it comes). “Bitch’s Brew” follows that victory with a slab of glammy, proto-cock rock which is very much “of its time,” but a real surprise can be found in “Bolivian Ragamuffin”; between the “ya know what I mean” innuendo cast by Tyler into every corner of the song, the guitar interplay between Crespo and Dufay matches the funk rock that John Frusciante would turn Platinum with the Chili Peppers years later on Blood Sugar Sex Magik. THAT thread continues through the bastardized hard feelings ballad “Cry Me A River,” where Tyler warbles dry-eyed over a spare, “Cali Rock Sound” guitar progression. He does get pretty overwrought by song’s end, but the singer straightens up quite a bit and gets pretty solid on the acoustic “Prelude To Joanie,” the glittering Eighties rock anthem which is the title track and the cock rockin’, voice boxin’ timepiece “Jig Is Up.” Through that series of songs, Aerosmith makes believers out of some of the cynics who assumed that, with only one Toxic Twin involved, Aerosmith being able to thrive as a creative entity would be impossible.
After releasing Rock In A Hard Place, it didn’t take long for Perry and Whitford to get the clue that Aerosmith could continue without them and, with their new projects proving to be horrible, they were getting more reasons to look warmly on the prospect of rejoining the band by the minute. Both of them would be back in the band’s ranks by 1984 and, by 1987, Aerosmith would be back stealing the Number One spot on the charts every three or four years (with Permanent Vacation, Pump and the megalithic hit Get A Grip). Because the level of acclaim that the band would reclaim later was so impressive, Rock In A Hard Place has sort of become a forgotten, stolen season. That’s unfortunate because it’s the record which proves that Aerosmith could have gone in a very different direction successfully if Tyler, Hamilton and Kramer had chosen; instead, it has to be the album that even big fans have to take a chance on – and that’s a shame because it deserves better.
The limited edition, numbered vinyl reissues of Rocks, Draw The Line, Night In The Ruts and Rock In A Hard Place were released on Record Store Day. Get to your favorite local independent record store and buy them before they’re gone!