AEROSMITH (1973–PRESENT). Steven Tyler ( vocals), Joe Perry (guitar), Brad Whitford (guitar), Joey Kramer (drums), Tom Hamilton (bass). Perhaps the single most important hard rock band to come from the U.S., and one of the most popular of the seventies, Aerosmith had their roots in the blues influenced British bands that dominated the rock scene during the late sixties and early seventies. Drawing much of their inspiration from Cream, Led Zeppelin, the first Jeff Beck Group, as well as the Rolling Stones (whose frontmen Mick Jagger and Keith Richards Aerosmith’s Tyler and Perry emulated imagewise), Aerosmith took the blues-based rock form and translated it into a quintessentially American version of often sleazy and catchy bluesrock. After a drug-induced low-point in the early eighties (at which point both Perry and Whitford had left the band), the group came back to their full commercial, if not creative, strength. The band’s roots were in the vacation town of Sunapee, New Hampshire, where Tyler, Perry, and Hamilton originally met while vacationing with their families. Perry and Hamilton had played for four summers in the Jam Band, playing the blues-based rock of their day—Jeff Beck Group, Led Zeppelin—when they met Tyler, who was fronting another local band. After graduating from high school, Perry and Hamilton moved to Boston and hooked up with Tyler. Drummer Joey Kramer was soon enlisted, and the band started gigging around the Boston area. After working a while with rhythm guitarist Ray Tabano, the band caught a performance by the band Justin Thyme featuring guitarist Brad Whitford. Impressed by Whitford’s accomplished playing style, the band invited him to join them, which he did.
After polishing their act in the clubs and colleges of Beantown, the band secured a record deal with Columbia, who issued Aerosmith in 1973. Recorded quickly with producer Adrian Barber, Aerosmith was a serviceable if raw debut, but gave little indication of what the band would ultimately be capable of. Nonetheless, songs like “Mama Kin”, “Somebody” and “One Way Street” were solid rockers with their roots in the blues, and Tyler’s raspy vocal approach, along with Perry and Whitford’s riffing guitars, made for a unique take on the British bluesrock that the band had cut their teeth on. While the album failed to chart initially, it contained what would later become their first radio hit, the ballad “Dream On”. Following their debut, they began touring, supporting such stalwarts as Mott the Hoople and Bad Company, and began to get a reputation as a dynamic live act, based on Tyler and Perry’s charisma, as well as the band’s increasingly tight performances.
For the band’s second album, 1974’s Get Your Wings, the band hooked up with producer Jack Douglas, who helped to polish their studio chops and deliver an album that delivered on their live reputation. The album was a strong one and featured what would become some of the band’s best-loved tracks, including “Same Old Song and Dance” and the band’s cover of “Train Kept a Rollin’.” Although “Train” sounds like a live recording, it was actually a studio recording that Douglas added an audience track to in order to emulate the excitement of a live show. He also went so far as to run speakers out to the studio building’s stairwell and played the track at full volume. He then rerecorded the echoing sound back onto the track to simulate the sound of a concert arena. In a move that must have been difficult for the band’s guitarists, he also enlisted A-list rock session and touring guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner (of Alice Cooper and Lou Reed’s touring bands) to play the incendiary lead breaks (uncredited) that punctuate the tune. The result was the hottest live track the band never recorded live. Nonetheless, “Train” and the rest of Get Your Wings went a long way to building Aerosmith’s reputation as one of the best rock bands in the U.S. Supported with relentless touring, the album spent over a year on the charts.
1975 saw the release of perhaps the best album of Aerosmith’s career, Toys in the Attic.If Wings had kicked the band up a few notches from their debut, Toys certainly kicked it up a few more again. Douglas’s production was polished, yet didn’t sacrifice the band’s raw sensual power. The title track was a powerhouse rocker, and “Adam’s Apple” might well be one of the coolest guitar riffs ever devised. And tracks like “Walk This Way” and “Sweet Emotion” would be some of the best hard rock that would make it onto Top 40 radio. The album peaked at number 11 on the charts and prompted the re-release of “Dream On,” which went into the top ten. Toys was the band’s commercial breakthrough and one of their creative high points. It is for the most part devoid of filler and continues to be one of Aerosmith’s most popular albums.
With Rocks in 1976, the band continued their winning streak with another collection of great songs and performances. The album’s title worked with its cover art (which depicted five diamonds, i.e., “rocks”) to convey a bit of a pun. And rock Aerosmith did. If anything, Rocks was overall a heavier album than its predecessor, and while there were no Top 40 hits to be had, the album made it to number three on the charts, and provided some of the band’s heaviest tunes and a number of what would become live chestnuts: “Back in the Saddle” with its air of gunslinger bravado, and Whitford’s classic riffed “Lost Child”, with its deft melding of rock power and funk groove. Other tracks, such as “Rats in the Cellar”, “Lick and a Promise”, and “Nobody’s Fault” contributed to making Rocks one of Aerosmith’s most enduring and rocking albums and clearly a major influence on bands such as Guns N’ Roses who would appear in the following decade. With Toys and Rocks, Aerosmith had hit the big time and were experiencing both the prizes and the perils of stardom. Drugs were one problem, and no one in the band seemed immune. All the hard work that the band had put into pursuing success was paying off, and they were enjoying that success, but at the same time, having difficulty in maintaining the touring and recording schedule that they were being held to. As a result, tensions between band members, especially between Tyler and Perry, became strained. All the same, the band marched on. Draw the Line was released in 1977 and was the first album that failed to match its predecessor in its general quality or in sales. The album’s title track and “Kings and Queens” were the standout tracks and received airplay, but the album was generally less inspired and indicated that the band were as well. Around the same time, the band also participated in the ill-advised movie version of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s album, which also featured Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees. The band portrayed heavies in the film and performed a version of “Come Together”, which received airplay as a single.
Live Bootleg was released in 1978 and charted at number 13. By the time the band’s next studio album, Night in the Ruts, was released in 1979, Perry had exited the band to form the Joe Perry Project. After considering numerous guitarists, including Michael Schenker and Derringer’s Danny Johnson, the band selected Jimmy Crespo to take Perry’s place. The band toured in support of Night, but its success—peaking at number 14 and selling half a million copies—paled in comparison with the band’s earlier albums, and after the tour, guitarist Whitford had left and would form the Whitford-St. Holmes Band with Derek St. Holmes, former vocalist and guitarist with Ted Nugent. The band continued on, hiring guitarist Rick Dufay to replace Whitford and recording the 1982 album Rock in a Hard Place. The album only got as high as number 32, failing to even match the sales of Night in the Ruts. At the same time, rumors were flying that the band members were dealing with various addictions to drugs and alcohol.
After two years, both Perry and Whitford had rejoined the band, and Aerosmith began an attempt to win back their reputation and status. Their first attempt was Done With Mirrors, which was the first for their new label, Geffen Records. Featuring a questionable reworking of Perry’s solo tune “Let the Music Do the Talking”, the album was serviceable, but not quite the return to form that the band and Geffen were after. And when Tyler passed out on stage during the subsequent tour, concerns were raised about the band’s ability to beat their addictions. Fortunately, the band had allies in new manager Tim Kelly and their Geffen A&R man, John Kalodner. Under their guidance Tyler, Perry, and eventually all of the band underwent rehab programs. In 1986, Tyler and Perry appeared on the recording and video for Run-DMC’s cover of “Walk This Way”. The video exposed a new generation to Aerosmith and set the stage for Done With Mirrors’ followup. The band then began collaborating with a number of outside songwriters, most notably Desmond Child and Holly Knight. The new songs that appeared on the album Permanent Vacation tweaked the old Aerosmith sound in a more melodic, radio-friendly direction, and on the album’s release in 1988 helped it to sell over three million copies and reach number 11 on the charts. At the same time, the singles “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)”, “Rag Doll”, and “Angel” became hits, in part, thanks to a series of highly stylized videos that helped the band to craft a new image in the public eye.
Permanent Vacation’s follow-up, Pump, released in 1989, continued the band’s comeback success, with hit singles and accompanying videos for the songs “Love in an Elevator”, “Janie’s Got a Gun”, and “What it Takes”, helping the album to sell four million copies and peak at number 5 on the album charts. Likewise, 1993’s Get a Grip replicated Aerosmith’s new formula for success.
While some fans of the band missed the raw immediacy of the group’s classic seventies work, there was no doubt that the input of professional songwriters had helped the band to find new commercial success, even as it somewhat dulled the band’s former hard rock edge. And it was difficult sometimes to see the band attempt to retain their visual image of their halcyon days while moving further and further away from the blues rock riffing that had built their reputation. But a new day had dawned, and the band had traded their rags for riches and weren’t about to trade them back again.
In 1990, at the height of their comeback, the band had signed a multimillion dollar deal with their former label, Columbia, and in 1997, after their obligations to Geffen were fulfilled, the band released Nine Lives, their first new album for Columbia. The album’s recording had been difficult, and an earlier version of the album had been scratched before the band tried again with producer Kevin Shirley. Keenly anticipated, the album debuted at number 1, but failed to stay there, quickly dropping off. 1998 saw the release of the live album A Little South of Sanity. In 2001, the band got a big shot of publicity when they took out their old warhorse “Walk This Way” for an appearance at the Super Bowl halftime show, along with pop and rap stars Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, and ’N Sync, setting the stage for the release of Just Push Play. In something of a concession to fans of their earlier work and to themselves, the band reunited with their former producer Jack Douglas to record an album largely comprised of blues-infused covers strangely entitled Honkin’ on Bobo (a reference to playing a blues harmonica). Bobo was released in 2004, along with a live CD, Rockin’ the Joint, and a DVD, You Gotta Move, both of which included a healthy helping of their seventies-era material, along with more recent fare. 2006 saw a new hits package in Devil’s Got a New Disguise.
Discography: Aerosmith (Columbia, 1973); Get Your Wings (Columbia, 1974); Toys in the Attic (Columbia, 1975); Rocks (Columbia, 1976); Draw the Line (Columbia, 1977); Live Bootleg (Columbia, 1979); Night in the Ruts (Columbia, 1978); Rock in a Hard Place (Columbia, 1982); Done with Mirrors (Geffen, 1985); Permanent Vacation (Geffen, 1987); Pump (Geffen, 1989); Get a Grip (Geffen, 1993); Nine Lives (Columbia, 1997); A Little South of Sanity [live] (Geffen, 1998); Just Push Play (Columbia, 2001); Honkin’ on Bobo (Columbia, 2004); Rockin’ the Joint [live] (Columbia, 2005); Live in Philadelphia (Immortal, 2008).