Artist Spotlight: Aerosmith 1973-1993 (or; A Field Guide on How to Squander Goodwill) [Part 1 of 5]

Where does one start? How about with the guy The Times of London called a “glamourous stick insect”, Steven Tyler.

Steven Tyler (Tallarico) was born in Harlem in 1948. Tyler’s grandparents immigrated from Italy in the late 1880’s and were known for being musicians, and after arriving in America, the Tallarico Brothers played chamber music all over the Eastern United States. Tyler would often sit under his father’s Steinway while he practiced hour hours every day. Eventually, Tyler’s family relocated to Yonkers, where as a teen, he joined a gang… which is apparently what every young boy did before the British Invasion. After the British Invasion, those gangs turned into bands.

Tyler used to cut school a lot, and go to a nearby reservoir and climb trees. One day, he was in a large maple that he favored, when he saw a kid at the bottom climbing up.  Tyler shouted to the kid, asking him who he was, and the kid replied, “I’m Ray-zan the Ape Man! You gotta problem with that?” Tyler replied, “Get the fuck outta my tree!” Ray-zan left the tree, but beat Tyler up two days later. “Ray-zan the Ape Man beat the shit out of me. This is how I met Ray Tabano when I was twelve.”

 When the “gangs” were morphing into “bands”, Tabano played drums and Tyler played guitar, but they couldn’t really make anything happen. Tyler then switched to drums, and spent some time drumming in his father’s band, playing waltzes, fox trots, and cha-chas. Eventually, Yonkers had two bands, The Dantes which had Tabano on bass, and The Strangers/The Strangeurs, which both had Tyler on drums.

By 1965, The Strangeurs were playing 45-minute sets nearly every night, and getting paid $75 per gig, with Tyler on drums and vocals.  He was trying to get out front, but the other members were reluctant to get a new drummer because they didn’t want to split their pay with another member. Eventually, they did get a new drummer, and soon they were opening for The Byrds, The Animals, and The Kingsmen (of “Louie, Louie” fame).

Meanwhile, a third Yonkers band arrives on the scene by the name of the King Bees. Only problem was, the drummer’s dad forbade him to play rock n’ roll music. So, the drummer showed up on Tyler’s doorstep looking to borrow a drum set for that night’s gig. That drummer was 13-year-old Joey Kramer.

Tyler’s family ran a music camp in New Hampshire, so in the summers, The Strangeurs more or less moved the home base. There was a rock club called The Barn where the band played, that often had people lined up outside because the place was so packed, that they couldn’t get in. One night in the summer of 1966, two teens were turned away but stayed outside to listen for free, and they were Tom Hamilton and Joe Perry.

The next night, the band was eating at a local hangout The Anchorage. “So, I’m sitting there eating some French fries and I realize these are the best French fries I’ve ever had in my life,” Tyler recalled. “Light, crispy, thick, perfect. I’d been eating French fries at The Anchorage for fifteen years and never had anything like these, so me being me I had to go see who made ‘em. Back in the kitchen, this kid that made the French fries is flipping burgers. He has long hair over his eyes and think black horn-rimmed glasses. I complemented him on the excellent French fries, but he was kind of sullen and didn’t say much. It was Joe Perry. It later turned out he was mad because we always threw food when we ate at The Anchorage and he always had to clean up after us.”

In the late summer of ’66, The Strangeurs opened for the Beach Boys, which secured them an audition with CBS records, which led to them getting signed. The Strangeurs became Chain Reaction because of a legal dispute, and did a series of demos for the label. CBS released a single for “The Sun” b/w “When I Needed You”. The single didn’t chart, but the B-Side gained a little traction in Europe and the American South. The band soldiered on through the fall of ’66, playing gigs with Peaches & Herb and Billy Joel’s band The Hassles. They also were seen opening for The Shangri-Las, The Lovin’ Spoonful, and The Yardbirds.

“We drove up in my mother’s station wagon and arrived at the same time as the Yardbirds,” Tyler said. “I got out and carried an amp into the gym. I don’t even know whose it was. Then I go out again and see Jimmy Page carrying my mic stand. That’s how it was in those days.”

Chain Reaction began to slow down, and management attempted to sign Tyler solo as they thought the band was dead weight. Tyler refused, because of his loyalty to the band, but it didn’t matter because Chain Reaction was over by March of 1967. Tyler returned to drumming in The Chain, and they moved to Boston in 1968 after realizing they weren’t going to make it in New York. The band didn’t last, and Tyler ended up couch surfing all over the Five Burroughs.

In the summer of 1969, Tyler returned to The Barn, where he witnessed The Jam Band, which has got to be the most creative band name of all time. Well, maybe in the 60s. Anyway, the band featured Perry on guitar and Tom Hamilton on bass.

“I had a radio in my room, a Heathkit that my dad gave me. It was a shortwave and AM set that got what it needed… the stations playing rock n’ roll. I still have that old radio that brought Roy Orbison and Tina Turner into my life,” Perry recalled. “When I was nine, I told my parents I wanted a guitar and they ended up buying me a Silvertone from Sears Roebuck for $14.95. It had a 45 RPM record that told you how to tune it… I was running around the house and fell down and the neck broke! My father fixed it but it wasn’t the same… I played the broken Silvertone until I got a better acoustic guitar for my birthday. All this time my mother was trying to get me to play the piano because they didn’t want me to play guitar, which meant the same thing to them as a tattoo and a hot rod.”

Meanwhile, Hamilton was an Air Force kid who bounced around a lot in his early life. He was a gifted student who played sports, was in drama club, and elected school council. “I was all set up to be part of The Establishment, if I wanted it… Then I did some acid with these five girls and really got in trouble,” Hamilton said. “After that, it was Tom versus the town in everyone’s mind, including mine. If there was a robbery over at Kingsbridge – the local ski area – people thought I’d assembled my gang of five zombie women. It was us on acid busting into the lodge on snow mobiles and blowing the safe.”

Like many bass players, Hamilton took up the instrument because a.) he wanted to be in a band, and b.) no one else wanted to do it. His first band was Sam Citrus and the Merciless Tangerine, and all the members dyed their clothes orange like Hari-Krishnas. “My French teacher was our keyboard player, and the first gig we ever did was at his frat house. “I’m like fifteen years old, we’re wading through beer cans, and all of a sudden my French teacher becomes this total lunatic, dancing on top of his keyboard. I thought, ‘whoa, this is cool, I must be a man now’.”

Perry and Hamilton would start a new band every summer. 1967 was Pipe Dream, 1968 was Plastic Glass, 1969 was The Jam Band.  “I can’t remember why I went to The Barn that night to see Joe’s band. I wasn’t expecting much,” Tyler recalled. “Anyway, I saw them, and I’m listening carefully and I’m thinking, ‘that’s it, they suck’. They couldn’t sing, they couldn’t tune their instruments, they were sloppy, and they just sucked. But they were great… These guys didn’t care, weren’t interested in playing the right notes… They had a groove that was better than any sex I’d ever had up to that point.”

Not long after this, Tyler was playing drums (only) in a band called William Proud with Tabano on bass. While sitting behind the drum kit, the guitarist of the band kept yawning, which Tyler thought was unprofessional. Tyler leapt over the drums and started choking the guitar player until they were pulled apart. After the show, Tyler told Tabano, “We’ll do our own fucking band with these guys from New Hampshire, Joe and Tom. I heard them last year and they’re tighter than a crab’s asshole in mating season. Meet me in Boston in September and we’ll put this together, and it will be intense.”

Prior to the move to Boston, Tyler caught wind of guitarist Jeff Beck looking for a new singer. Tyler’s management told him to move fast to get a tape to Beck for his audition to replace Rod Stewart.  Nothing came of the tape, except that Tyler, Hamilton, and Perry agreed they sounded good together.

Perry had saved some money from his day job handling molten steel (the best job he could get without a high school diploma), and had a plan to move to Boston with Hamilton. Tyler and Perry had gotten together to discuss future plans, and were building a relationship, when Perry refused to do a band without Hamilton, and Tyler refused to have a band without Tabano. Tyler said Tabano could be rhythm guitar, which Perry initially was not agreeable to, thinking they only needed one guitarist. However, Perry relented because he knew what a great showman Tyler was an was eager to work with him.

After the move to Boston, Tabano was working in a leather shop, when drummer Joey Kramer arrived. He presented Tabano with a pack of Camels, which was his brand, and asked for his help securing an audition. Tabano said, “Joey shows up in a Captain America flag shirt like Peter Fonda wore in Easy Rider. I don’t think any other drummer even auditioned.”

Kramer started his drumming career in groups covering The Ventures, The Safaris, The Kinks, The Animals, The Beach Boys, The Dave Clark Five, and The Jan and Dean. Jan and Dean didn’t have a “the”, but I bet they felt pretty left out. Despite his father being totally against Kramer’s drum obsession, he soldiered on, and met a black singer at his day job, who got him a gig with his backup band The Turnpikes (who later morphed into disco band Tavares). This gave Kramer his first exposure to Kool and the Gang, the Persuasions, and James Brown. With the band, he first saw James Brown at the Apollo and The O’Jays at Sugar Shack in Boston.

With the last part of the lineup complete, all five members moved into one apartment, where Tyler would cook brown rice every day (with the occasional stolen steak) while the band worked on their sound. They still had the subject of their name to work out, however. After much deliberation, Aerosmith was chosen as it was something Kramer used to scribble all over his notebooks dating all the way back to when he was in 6th grade. “I went home to Yonkers for the weekend right after Joey Kramer joined and we got the name,” Tyler said. “First thing I said to my mother when I walked in was, ‘Mom, we’re gonna have to move out of this house, because this new band of mine is gonna be so big there are gonna be kids in the bushes, kids peeking in the windows, kids all over the place’. She thought that was funny, but I knew what was gonna happen when people saw what we could do… it was only a matter of time now.”

Tyler proved himself to quite the taskmaster, being the only professional musician in the group. His bandmates refer to him as both “a sadistic drum major” and “a total fucking monster”. Perry said, “He gave us tools to work with, and he wasn’t shy about getting what he wanted from us. There were a lot of arguments.”

The band set out on their mission to rule the world. They developed a set list of half originals and half covers, but they were refusing to play Boston proper. Boston bands at that time were largely cover bands that were locked into arrangements with clubs to play four nights a week for a set fee. Instead, they played anywhere else they could in the surrounding areas, including high school gyms and colleges. After their first show at Nipmuc Regional High, Perry and Tyler had their first, of what would be many, big fights.

The fight began as being about volume, Tyler was constantly telling Perry to turn down his amps because he couldn’t hear himself sing, but Perry explained that without the volume, he wasn’t going to get good sound out of them. Further, Tyler and Tabano has stolen a shirt out of a kid’s locker. Perry said, “It’s gonna look bad, you know? A couple of weeks later, we’re playing a dorm gig at Dartmouth and I caught him and Raymond rifling a kid’s stuff and I yelled at them and they stopped. We had plenty to fight about other than volume. Plenty.”

Soon, it became apparent that Tabano was not able to keep up with the rest of the band musically. The band had returned to The Barn to see Justin Thyme (the new band of the guy Tyler strangled), and were blown away by their guitarist, Brad Whitford. For some reason, at this show Tabano decided that he was going to take over the band, giving the ultimatum, “Either you line up behind him [Tyler] or line up behind me.”

“The first time I played with Brad, it just seemed to work. The chemistry was right,” Perry said. “I took Raymond out to lunch… after a hamburger and a few beers, I just told him, ‘Raymond, you’re out of the band’. It was tough, it was really heavy, but I had a Machiavellian attitude about the band.”

“It’s hard to stress enough that Joe Perry had a clear picture. He knew where he wanted to go and what was going to happen if he kept at it,” Tabano said. “He had such an incredible drive-in addition to his talent, which is why I’m still a Joe Perry fan to this day. Him and Steven dragged the rest of us up with them, as far as I’m concerned… I was bummed out, but my wife said, ‘Hey, what do you care? They’ll never get out of the bars anyway’.”

“I was nineteen years old when I joined Aerosmith, which might seem young, until you consider that I’d already been in bands for six years. I wasn’t in awe of these guys, I’d barely heard of them,” Whitford said. Perry called Whitford and asked him to come hang out. “I listened to them for about ten minutes and I thought to myself, ‘I should probably do this’.”

In the fall of 1971, Whitford moved into the apartment (Tabano was long gone).  The group began writing what would eventually become the songs for their debut album.

Tabano left music completely, and eventually started his own catering business in Yonkers. He also appeared on both Pawn Stars and American Pickers.

Aerosmith (1973)

The band were making a name for themselves, but it wasn’t all good. They had a demo tape, but no one was interested. Epic Records absolutely hated it, and hated the band, telling Aerosmith’s management that the public will never accept a blatant Mick Jagger rip-off. Still, the band soldiered on, despite increasing death threats. As the band was coming up, T. Rex, Bowie, and The New York Dolls (who shared management with Aerosmith in the beginning) were all rocking at least glam style and androgyny, while Dolls were straight up cross dressing. Aerosmith, and Tyler in particular, were wearing mascara and some other light make up. Tyler said, “Across Newbury Street was an antique boutique called Caprice, where we bought all our clothes, jewelry, earrings, feathers, whatever we needed in the way of looking cool. If it was on the racks at Caprice, Aerosmith wore it – black lace, feathers, whatever.”

Finally, in July 1972, Aerosmith was signed to Columbia Records. They were paid an advance of $125,000 which would include all of their recording costs, of course this would be a debt the band would carry against future royalties. “It would be three years before we saw any more money from out record label,” Hamilton said.

In October of the same year, the band entered the studio to essentially play the setlist they’d been playing for a year. It was everyone’s first time in the studio, except for Tyler, but it was his first chance to make a record. “You can hear how uptight the band was, how little confidence we had,” Perry said. “Steven even changed how his voice sounds.”

“I changed my voice when we did the final vocals. I didn’t like my voice, the way it sounded. I was insecure, but nobody told me not to do it,” Tyler said. “It sounded like a neutered or castrato voice and I wanted to sound a little bit black because I was from Yonkers and back then James Brown and Sly Stone were the only ones saying anything in music… I got a lot of shit for it, too.”

“We recorded on equipment that now seems to have come from some archaic era,” Whitford said. “The mixing board looked like it was made out of cardboard. But we just thought it was so exciting, so incredibly cool to be making our first record.

Despite having “Dream On”, one of Aerosmith’s signature songs, Aerosmith is kind of flat and lifeless. Aerosmith isn’t Aerosmith yet; they haven’t really mixed their hard rock with funk and R&B they loved so much. There’s no dirt, here. It’s a straight-up blues pastiche record, with songs inspired largely from songs they had been covering from other artists. The most glaring example being “Walking the Dog” originally by Rufus Thomas, which was also covered by The Rolling Stones on their debut record.

However, the songwriting was taking shape. “Mama Kin” was a song that Tyler had so much faith in, that he had its earlier title (“Ma Kin”) on his arm. The song had its origins pre-Aerosmith, but when Tyler showed it to Perry, they built the rest of it together.

This came out 3 years before I was born, so I was exposed to it in the late 80s when I was using my allowance to go and by the back catalog (more on that later). There were plentiful copies of those really cheap cassettes, you know, the tan-colored tapes and the covers were just the LP cover, with a giant white space at the bottom with the band name in blocky red and the album title in thin black letters. Very basic. Anyway, I saw the band on the cover (photographed on the steps of Caprice) and thought, ‘who are these dorks’? I spent hundreds of hours playing Nintendo and had a rat tail, but they were the dorks. Even though it wasn’t as good as other releases, I still loved it.

The band played the album track by track for the label executives, and as you can probably imagine, their response was that they didn’t hear any singles for the album. Columbia has made their money by building up artists like Barbra Streisand and Simon and Garfunkel, a band like Aerosmith was a little out of their wheelhouse. “That’s when my heart sank and I knew we were in for a rough ride with our record company. Nobody gave a fuck,” Tyler said. “They were all excited about another first album they were releasing at the same time as ours by a new guy from Jersey named Bruce Springsteen, and they also had Blue Oyster Cult from Long Island, which was like New York’s local rock band after the Dolls. So, we knew it wasn’t even gonna be east to get noticed at our own label.”

“So, our album was released in January 1973 amid less than total national joy,” Perry said. “There was no fanfare, no parades, no critical accolades. There was nothing at all. No press, no radio, no airplay, no reviews, no interviews, no party… Some of us got discourages by the lack of attention, but I was the eternal optimist. I just kept saying, ‘we gotta get out there and play and spread the word’, I knew that’s how most bands did it.”

That’s what the band did, doing tours opening for Mahavishnu Orchestra and The Kinks, which were not very well received. They continued playing clubs and anywhere that would have them… including a high school prom. A major label rock band, playing a high school prom. Incredible. They played the Hopedale High senior prom on June 16th, and June 23rd they headlined the Cape Cod Coliseum. This band was willing to play anywhere and everywhere to make it happen. But Columbia Records had other plans.

Aerosmith had only sold 30,000 copies in the Boston market, and 10,000 in Detroit. That was pretty much it. Columbia Records informed the band that they would not be picking up the option for the next record. Their management did something unprecedented. Steve Leber called the president of the label, and told them to just give them some more time on the road to prove themselves, and then begged the label to release “Dream On” as a single.

And that’s it, Aerosmith was over. Thanks for reading!

The single was released on June 27, 1973 in a remixed and edited version, and it didn’t do much initially. It did, however, give the band its stay of execution. The single would be released again in 1975, and would peak at number 6 in April of 1976.

To be continued next week…