Artist Spotlight: Aerosmith 1973-1993 (or; A Field Guide on How to Squander Goodwill) [Part 2 of 5]

Part 1 here.

Last week, Aerosmith released their debut album to little notice at all…

Get Your Wings (1974)

In October 1973, Aerosmith continued their nearly non-stop touring by opening for Mott the Hoople on a US tour. While the band grinding it out on the road finally got them some sales (<i>Aerosmith finally charted, and peaked, at #166 ten months after its release), it also garnered them some press, most of it bad.

Aerosmith had a reputation by the old rock fans as being for high school children, failing to realize that every generation had their own rock bands. The rock fans of the 60’s had become the establishment. “I always thought that one of the reasons we didn’t get good press was that we were actually hard to figure out for them,” guitarist Joe Perry said. “The Beatles had been the light side and the Rolling Stones were always their shadow side. But Aerosmith tried to play both sides, dark heavy songs and funny dance numbers. It was hard for people to categorize us.”

Some of the press was downright hostile. Singer Steven Tyler provides an example:

Interviewer: How did you get mixed up in this mess?

Joe Perry: We were in worse messes.

Interviewer: Are you living at home with Mommy and Daddy or is this gig for real?

Steven Tyler: Our mommy is our manager and our daddy is our music.

Interviewer: Why are you making rock? Haven’t you heard it’s dying?

Steven Tyler: Rock’s not dying if you know what you’re playing, what you’re communicating. Songs have character, and a minor chord is sadness. Are you into music?

Interviewer: No.

Imagine, thinking that rock is dying in 1973. At any rate, the band found a new rehearsal space in the basement of drum shop, and for a few months between summer and fall of ’73, the band wrote the bulk of what would become their sophomore album. Several of the songs would be played on tour with Mott the Hoople. After coming off that tour, the band was much tighter and much more finely tuned, but they still needed to find a producer for the next album. Someone who wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of their debut.

The band initially sought out Bob Ezrin, who at that time was best known for producing Alice Cooper. Ezrin hated Aerosmith, so ended up passing the production duties to his employee, Jack Douglas (Ezrin still received an “Executive Producer” credit, despite not doing anything). “[Jack Douglas] had that New York edge but wasn’t a snob about it,” Perry said. “He wasn’t like one of those record label jerks, instead he was someone you could laugh with. Bob Ezrin came in and had this fuckin’ attitude like he was God.”

Get Your Wings was released in March of 1974, and was a more true representation of what the band was about. Much dirtier and rocking than their debut, this album actually has some life to it. The songs reflect the filthy and salacious street life they had been living since trying to make it as a band. “The sessions were almost over and we needed one more song. So we locked ourselves into Studio C of the Record Plant for a night and came up with ‘Lord of the Thighs’,” bassist Tom Hamilton said. “[It was] a portrait of the street life we used to encounter walking up Eighth Avenue at dawn after work. Did you ever see Taxi Driver? The girls in the satin hot pants, the pimps with the big velvet hats. That’s what it was.”

In tradition with the first album, the band covered a cover of one of their influences. They covered Tiny Bradshaw’s “Train Kept a Rollin’”, which the Yardbirds had covered in the sixties. Aerosmith had been using to close their set pretty much since the beginning (and would often continue this tradition throughout their entire career), and Douglas added some crowd noise from George Harrison’s The Concert for Bangladesh, which fooled pretty much everyone back then. They then faded the crowd noise into a Tyler-penned ballad. “Seasons of Wither was about the winter landscape near this house I was living in with Joey [Kramer, Aerosmith drummer] near an old chicken farm,” Tyler said. “I used to lie in my bed at dawn, listening to the wind in the bare trees, how lonely and melancholy it sounded.”

“Of all the ballads Aerosmith has done, “Wither” was the one I liked best,” Perry said. “I never thought Aerosmith should do any ballads at all. My philosophy was the only thing a hard rock band should play slow was a slow blues.”

*ahem*

“I wanted to call it Bobbing for Piranha,” Tyler recalled. “Here’s the album cover: little kids around a barrel, hand tied behind their backs, flesh-eating fish hanging off their faces, graphically detailed noses and chunks of flesh missing completely, a bloody mess.”

And there you have it; Steven Tyler invented the Cannibal Corpse album cover. Tyler’s a weird dude. He also had other bad ideas for the album. “If we had $300, we could buy ten twenty-five-pound backs of peanuts, enough peanuts to fill a small room waist high and have the instruments and lots of naked girls’ legs sticking out of the nuts, girls’ arms holding the guitars, and the band just sitting there in the nuts, and we call the album Right in the Nuts… It got passed on.”

Despite Tyler’s best efforts, their management was still working for them. They wrote a ten-page letter to Columbia Records, because they still weren’t getting label support. Management told them that if Get Your Wings didn’t do well, the management company would be out of business. Unexpectedly, Columbia actually put some money into promotion and released “Same Old Song and Dance”, “Train Kept a Rollin’”, and “S.O.S. (Too Bad)” as singles. None of the singles really worked at radio, however.

Even though the singles weren’t taking off, Aerosmith was not finished yet. They went back to their plan of working hard on the road. When they played New England and Detroit, they would headline, but they covered the rest of the country opening for Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Argent, Slade, REO Speedwagon, the Guess Who, Santana, the New York Dolls, and Kiss.

“We played with Kiss a bunch of times. They’re doing heavy makeup, smoke, and firebombs. And we’re going, ‘What the fuck is this? Are we gonna have to dress like this? What is happening in this fuckin’ business?’,” Perry said. “We saw the response they were getting, putting on this show… They’d have their pyro and smoke and then we’d come out, five drunk guys arguing between songs about what to play next… The competition was intense, but there was also comradery… They were good people surrounded by shit. That was Kiss.”

The press was finally warming up to the band as well, but that situation was not without its problems. Get Your Wings got a good review from Rolling Stone, and newer, youth-oriented magazines were giving them space. “I was very distrustful of reporters because I’d been burned by so much bad press,” Tyler said. “I was nervous in interviews and… I used to use other people’s anecdotes about hanging out with Jimi Hendrix and things like that. I was insecure, couldn’t remember stuff on demand… What else could I tell them – how fuckin’ stoned on pills and blow I was all the time?”

Aerosmith’s efforts were not wasted. Get Your Wings sold 500,000 copies and became their first gold record. Their concerts were so successful, that Aerosmith reentered the charts for about six weeks in the summer of 1974.

Toys in the Attic (1975)

For the first time, the band came off the road fired up and ready to record. They spent all their time in hotels, back stage, at soundchecks, collecting riffs for future songs. Tyler, for the first time, had actually started keeping a notebook of lyrical ideas. The group holed up in an attic for pre-production and rehearsed until they could play the songs in their sleep.

“Our confidence was built up from constant touring,” Perry said. “I don’t feel great about saying it was drugs, but the plain truth is we were beginning to make money and could afford better dope… We started to get ahold of the high velocity un-stepped-on Peruvian cocaine and the whole thing kind of took off.”

“I got a little coke and started to practice for hours every day, major calisthenics, so my fingers got really strong and nimble,” bassist Tom Hamilton said. “When we started Toys, I felt better about my playing for once, that it was up to this higher level where the rest of the band had already progressed.”

While the band was amped up on marching powder, the sessions weren’t without their problems and arguments. One of their biggest hits was one of the most difficult. “I was into funky stuff, I had played James Brown songs over the years and at the time was listening to lots of the Meters from New Orleans, one of the best bands in the country, and I was asking, ‘why don’t we write our own songs that have that feel to them? Let’s try to write something funky so we don’t have to cover James Brown’,” Perry said. “At the sound check in Hawaii, I came up with that riff, added it to another one I came up with while watching a Godzilla movie – my favorite compositional methods – and Steven wrote the lyrics in the stairwell of the Record Plant.”

The band worked on the song for four nights, but Tyler just wasn’t getting anything for the lyrics. Often times, he would take a break and walk around and night and talk to the prostitutes and other street people to get inspiration.  He came back with nothing, and the band decided to go see Young Frankenstein. The next night, the band told Tyler the song was called “Walk This Way”. That night, Tyler went back to the hotel and wrote the lyrics. The only problem was, he left the notebook in the cab the next morning. When he ran into the studio, he realized he forgot the notebook, and the rest of the band didn’t believe he wrote anything. “I got really pissed off at how helpful to the situation their comments were. I couldn’t go back to the hotel, so I grabbed a pencil and paper and took the elevator to the sixth-floor stairwell, where I could be alone and sing and yell,” Tyler said.

The song was a top ten hit for the band. Frankly, I’m tired of it.

The other big single from the album originated from Hamilton’s “cocaine calisthenics”. Hamilton said, “I wrote the arrangements, the guitar parts. Steven took the intro, turned it around, changed key, and we used it as the tag. Brad, Joey, and I went home. Next time we heard ‘Sweet Emotion’, it had the overdubs, the vocals, and I flipped out. I loved what they did with it.”

You probably already know that the lyrics are based on Perry’s then wife, Elyssa. I haven’t mentioned Elyssa, but Perry had pined for her for years, and she wasn’t interested until right before Aerosmith signed with Columbia. None of the band members, or the band’s wives, liked Elyssa. She got into at least one physical altercation with Hamilton’s wife, and bit Perry on the face in a dispute, and he had to perform on stage with his face bandaged. Joe and Elyssa split in 1982.

“’Sweet Emotion’ is all about Elyssa… It’s all about my negative feelings for her because I couldn’t get next to Joe when she was around, which was all the time,” Tyler said. “She was doing all his drugs. Before she came along, I was doing all his drugs. It was a big problem.”

“I was writing about what was happening to us,” Tyler said, “but when I’d burn out on that, I’d start checking out my resources. That’s how we got ‘Big Ten Inch Record’.”

“It was the first time I remember working with a big horn section, the Brecker Brothers, Stan Bromstein with his bass saxophone,” Perry said. The band got a tape of the original 1953 version by Bullmoose Jackson from being played on Dr. Demento. “We go, ‘wow, what a great fuckin’ song’. It was an R&B big band thing that we just reduced and did the old ‘white boys from suburbia do their version’.”

In either late 1987 or early 1988, Aerosmith was in their second coming. I was either 11 or 12, and I had no idea that Aerosmith had been around for a long time. I knew the recent singles, and they were better than the other running radio hair metal at the time… truthfully, they’re one of the godfathers of all that shit. Anyway, I have mentioned before that I had a terrible step-father at this age, but as bad as he was, he gave me two things: Black Sabbath and Aerosmith. While looking at his cassettes dubbed from original vinyl, I found one with Toys in the Attic on the A-side, and Rocks on the B-Side. When no one was home, I put it on and listened (I probably would’ve been punished had he known I was touching his music).

The album is highly regarded for a reason, and it launched the band into the stratosphere. My favorite song on the album, even more than the singles, was “Round and Round”. The track is one of the heaviest in the Aerosmith cannon, and that’s because of Guitarist Brad Whitford. Whitford doesn’t get much space in my articles, but he doesn’t usually get much to say in my sources, but this song was primarily written by Whitford with lyrics by Tyler and this song is why I think he’s secretly the best guitarist in Aerosmith.

Toys in the Attic was released in April of 1975, and was immediately a smash hit. It started selling millions right away, and even brought Aerosmith and Get Your Wings back onto to charts momentarily. The album peaked at number 11 on the Billboard charts, and eventually pushed all three albums into Gold status.

As the band’s success increased, so did the touring commitments, and of course… so did the need for drugs.

Rocks (1976)

With some money in their pockets, the band needed to find a permanent home base. The band deputized former guitarist Ray Tabano to find, design, and build a command central for the band. Tabano found an old warehouse in Waltham, MA, which was appropriately dubber The Wherehouse. A stage was built and major $3000 wiring overhaul (In 70’s money, that’s a lot of coke) was installed for the band to practice. The Wherehouse also became the base for the band’s merchandising operation and fan club.

“I used the upstairs offices for the band’s T-shirt business. I started out in 1974 putting some Harley wings around an “A” inside a circle with AEROSMITH in block lettering underneath. [Manager] David Krebs changed the name to script lettering. We put this on 100 yellow t-shirts… sold them in half an hour,” Tabano said. “Two years later, we were selling hundreds of thousands of T-shirts at the shows. David Krebs made me sign away the credit for the logo and T-shirt designs for $1.00 or I’d get fired. I signed… Later on, Krebs accused me of stealing, but I know who was really stealing from who.”

“There were five trays for fan mail in the office,” Whitford said. “four usually had five or six letters. Steven’s tray was always overflowing.”

The band commandeered the Record Plant’s mobile recording unit and placed it in The Wherehouse. Whitford, Hamilton, and drummer Joey Kramer already had already had “Last Child”, “Round and Round”, “Sick as a Dog”, and “Rats in the Cellar”. “Last Child” was the lead single, with music written by Whitford and lyrics by Tyler, and they slapped a banjo on it when they did the final recording in New York.

Meanwhile, Perry is the sole credited songwriter on “Combination”, which he says is “about heroin, cocaine, and me. It’s also my debut lead vocal on an Aerosmith record” (It’s actually a dual harmony vocal with Tyler). Perry also wrote the music to “Get the Lead Out” which Perry says is another attempt at funk, but really comes off as a blues work out, and they got a singer from the Metropolitan Opera (?!) to sing back up on it.

However, things were a mess internally with the band, and it would end up getting worse. Tyler was stalling so much in getting lyrics completed, which he says is everyone else’s fault, because lyrics come last after the music.  Perry states that Tyler held up the album because vocals had to be done first before doing the harmony vocals and guitar overdubs, and Tyler stalling also caused tour dates to be cancelled, because they had to complete the album first. Perry isn’t wrong, but the guitar situation is also a mess. Perry isn’t contributing as much, to the point that there are songs Perry doesn’t even play on, and then you have “Sick as a Dog”, in which Perry, Whitford, and Hamilton would play guitar, and to work it out they put Tyler on bass.

My favorite on the album, is the other heavy song in the catalog, “Nobody’s Fault”. The song is also primarily written by Whitford, who plays rhythm and lead on the track, with lyrics by Tyler about earthquakes and other disasters. Kramer said, “’Nobody’s Fault’ was almost totally recorded at The Wherehouse. It was never a popular Aerosmith number and we didn’t play it live, but I still think it’s some of the best drumming I did.”

In 1976, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) created a new certification, Platinum, for units sold in excess of 1 million. Aerosmith’s Rocks is one of the first album to ship Platinum. While most people consider Toys the band’s best album, for my money, Rocks is unimpeachable. It’s dirtier and more immediate than the band’s prior outings, despite taking longer to record.

“We were on tour and the record was said to be selling 10,000 copies or more a day. We had some 100,000-unit weeks,” Perry said. “People ask me about outtakes from this record, and I just tell them, ‘There are none because there was too much happening to record extra stuff’. As soon as we had enough songs for an album, we stopped recording and went back on the road.”

More touring means more money, and more money means more drugs, more drugs means more fatigue. The band was jet setting across the United States, playing everywhere to huge audiences. Eventually, the band did their first tour of Europe, which was a disaster. However, they also did their first tour of Japan, which was a huge success.

Unfortunately, everything that goes up, eventually comes down.