Deep Cuts with Rickman: Aerosmith
Today, we dive a little deeper into the vast library of one of Rock's most iconic bands, Boston's very own Aerosmith. With 25 gold albums, 18 platinum albums, and 12 multi-platinum albums, there's certainly plenty of material to cull through.
For this installment, we'll explore five of my personal favorites. And, as always, a brief disclaimer...
Yes, if you're a hardcore Aerosmith fan, these are hardly "deep" cuts - but we're not exploring bootlegs and demos here. Think of this more as a primer for someone relatively new to the band that longs to explore beyond the Greatest Hits.
So, that being said...let's dig:
5) PRELUDE TO JOANIE/JOANIE'S BUTTERFLY
From the album 'Rock In A Hard Place' (1982)
Backstory: Stephen Tyler and Joe Perry had both developed serious drug and alcohol problems by the late 1970s. Joe quit to get sober (and he almost did) after 1979's 'Night In The Ruts' album. Steven, meanwhile, soldiered on with a terrible heroin addiction and a new guitarist and songwriting partner, Jimmy Crespo.
The writing process was slow. Often because, as Tom Hamilton recalls, Steven would take power-naps in between takes (translation: he was nodding off due to the heroin). It became so frustrating that founding member Brad Whitford also quit the band.
This left Aerosmith as a trio of strung-out Steven, the powerhouse rhythm section of Tom Hamilton and Joey Kramer...and new-comer Jimmy. So, yeah...no pressure, Jimmy. You can help pull this mess together, right?
Why It Rocks: While the album itself is understandably disliked among the Aerosmith faithful (it's missing Tom and Joe, after all), it had some really great moments that even the band unfairly shuns to this day.
Joanie is an ideal example.
It begins with some weird, flanged-out poem by Steven, which is about...I have no idea what it's about. And then, a bright acoustic jam happens.
The rest of the song is an excellent Aerosmith workout. It's quite obviously missing a Joe Perry/Brad Whitford muscular riff session in favor of Jimmy Crespo's more subtle and Americana influenced chord sessions. Nevertheless, Joanie still holds up in 2016 as a solid and, rarely referenced Aersomith gem.
4) REEFER HEADED WOMAN
From the album 'Night In The Ruts' (1979)
Backstory: Well, as previously mentioned, Aerosmith was spinning out of control in the late 1970s/early 1980s due to booze and drugs. 'Night In The Ruts' would prove to be their last album with the original line-up for a bit. Everyone deserved a break after that album title. Do I have to say it? "Right In The Nuts". Yeah. Get it? See. They thought that was clever. Yep. Time for a break.
Huge (and sometimes hilarious) financial problems loomed. For example, Joe Perry owed over $80,000 for past room service fees that the band couldn't pay.
You didn't read that wrong. Eighty thousand dollars. Room service. Fees.
What the hell kind of room service...wait, I don't wanna know.
Bottom line, they needed money and they needed it fast. It was time to settle in and make a new, awesome album.
Yeah. That didn't happen. Couldn't happen because everybody was messed up. As Tom Hamilton recalls: "We worked on the album, but we couldn't finish it. It was supposed to come out in June (1979) and be called Off Your Rocker, but there were no lyrics. It was a big crisis. I can't remember what happened."
Why It Rocks: I remember, Tom! You had no lyrics so you decided to try some covers! Well, I don't "remember" that so much as I read about it online many years later. But, yeah. Aerosmith were desperate to get the songwriting process going, so in hopes of jump-starting things, they tried on a couple of cover songs.
The first, and perhaps best known, was a cover of Shadow Martin's 'Remember (Walking In The Sand)', which had been made famous by the 1960s girl-group The Shangri-Las. Upon release of the album, it was issued as a single and became a (very) minor hit for Aerosmith; it still turns up on most of their Greatest Hits collections, though.
Also, Aerosmith tried their hand at Jazz Gillum's 'Reefer Headed Woman'. Here's the original:
"Hey! Wait a minute, Rickman! That's not the same song!! You can't fool me. I know words and those aren't the same...words!"
No. No, it's not. Aerosmith began jamming on the original and, as jam sessions often go, they soon had the original blues number that appears on this list. Still, Joe and Steven gave credit to the original songwriters nevertheless, as their work was certainly inspired by the original, jazzy 'Reefer Headed Woman'.
If only, other artists could learn this lesson (*cough* Led Zeppelin *cough* Jimmy Page specifically).
The best thing about 'Reefer Headed Woman', of course, is that it is Aerosmith at their bluesy, raunchy best. Much later in their career, the band would make a full-on blues record, Honkin' On Bobo, that largely went unnoticed in the great scheme of their career.
In the 70s and 80s, however, when Aerosmith would drop one of these blues treats on their records, it was always a really cool moment. Steven's exhausted lament about his 'Reefer Headed Woman' is probably one of their finest and it often gets no love.
3) NOBODY'S FAULT
From the album 'Rocks' (1976)
Backstory: Rocks lands at #176 on Rolling Stone's list of The Greatest Albums of All Time for very good reason. Perhaps more than any other record in their catelogue, this is Aerosmith at the peak of their powers.
The two most famous cuts from the album are 'Back In The Saddle' and 'Last Child' and bands like GNR and Metallica have cited Rocks as their go-to Aerosmith collection.
The band were coming off their most successful album to date, Toys In The Attic. Despite the big record sales and selling out shows all over the U.S., the critics still hated them. With Rocks, Aerosmith sounds like a band with something to prove. It's raw, it's creative and, at times, it's just full-on brutal hard rock.
Rocks also marked the band's slow sojourn into drugs and alcohol. As Joe Perry put it, "There's no doubt we were doing a lot of drugs by then, but whatever we were doing, it was still working for us."
Soon, it wouldn't work at all and the band would be plunged into a heap of addictions and debt but, for a moment in the late 70s, Aerosmith absolutely nailed it.
Why It Rocks: This is Aerosmith at their most Metal.
Eyes will roll when one might point to Aerosmith as 'godfathers of Metal' and I get it. Of course they're not Motorhead, they're not Maiden, hell, they're not Zeppelin. Aerosmith never pretended to be in that crowd.
Which is why it's cool that they turned in this truly Metal masterpiece from Rocks.
'Nobody's Fault' pre-dates grunge a full decade plus in every possible way. It's down-tuned Sabbath-like sludge with vocal harmonies that you just know Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell took special notice of. It has chunky Brad Whitford riffs, funky wah-wah Joe Perry solos and that Hamilton/Kramer rhythm section channels its inner Jones/Bonham as Steven leads the charge with lyrics as apocalyptic as 'War Pigs'.
2) SEASONS OF WITHER
From the album 'Get Your Wings' (1974)
Backstory: Aerosmith's debut had been greeted with a great big shrug from critics and American rock radio. It's kind of hard to imagine that now. While their first record is no master-work, hell...it included 'Dream On'. But, it would still be three years later until some radio DJ happened upon it in the long-forgotten records pile and played it on the air, making it the iconic song we know today.
For the moment, Aerosmith were still slugging it out as an opening act in arenas but packing clubs on the East Coast. As far as the record company was concerned, though, they were freaking out. They'd sunk a lot of money into this band that they wanted to be the next Rolling Stones...and they were losing their collective asses.
And so, Aerosmith were paired with a guy named Jack Douglas. At this point in his career, Jack's main claim to fame was having engineered John Lennon's Imagine album. Something clicked. This collaboration would prove to be just what the band needed and Jack would go on to be a mainstay on Aerosmith albums in the future. With good reason, Get Your Wings is generally regarded as the album that finally allowed Aerosmith to blossom from raunchy bar-band to full on force-to-be-reckoned with.
Why It Rocks: If you were a stoned teenager in your parents' basement in 1974, jammin' out to 'Train Kept A Rollin'' for the first time with headphones and then suddenly the enraptured live crowd at the close of the song morphs into some weird psychedelic mind-warp and then becomes wind, man...which then fades into 'Seasons of Wither'....OMFG!
I would argue that 'Seasons' is the finest moment from Aerosmith's sophomore album. 'Same Old Song And Dance' and 'Train' are the two tracks that most people take away from the record but this one has always been my favorite. It highlights Aerosmith making a solid effort to stick to the same songwriting prowess that produced 'Dream On' and it proves that, from the beginning, Aerosmith wanted to be more than just some Stonesy boogie rock band.
Remember that when Get Your Wings was released, 'Dream On', from their first album, still hadn't been discovered by American radio. So, Aerosmith were far from encouraged to continue down that path. What little recognition they received at the time were as nothing more than Rolling Stones rip-offs. So, it's commendable that they insisted on trying to bank on something more than the record company making a quick buck.
They succeeded. Add 'Seasons of Wither' to your Aerosmith playlist.
1) EAT THE RICH
From the album 'Get A Grip' (1993)
Backstory: This album is ridiculous. Anyone surprised that Steven Tyler 'sold out' and joined the judging panel on American Idol all those years ago clearly missed this Aerosmith era. It all started with Permanent Vacation.
When Aerosmith suddenly found themselves not only Rock stars but Pop stars as well, thanks to MTV, they began to cash in. And who could blame them?
We've already talked about the booze, the drugs, the money. Given half the chance, you would do the same thing. Right?
Unlike most MTV-era Pop stars, Aerosmith had paid their dues. Granted, they'd already once been rich and famous pre-MTV and then pissed it all away...but, hey...who doesn't deserve a second chance?
In Aerosmith's case, they were determined to rebuild their fortunes and thanks to a stage show light-years ahead of younger rockers and experience in the studio second to none, they'd staged a comeback on the heels of hair metal not unlike many of their 70s contemporaries like Kiss, Alice Cooper and Whitesnake just to name a few.
Everyone was happy to have Aerosmith back.
That is until they started collaborating with the likes of Diane Warren, known for her schmaltzy ballads (you have Warren to blame for "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing").
By the time Get A Grip rolled around, Aerosmith was in the midst of what many refer to as their "CommercialSmith" phase. Big ballads were the stock-in-trade. Lyrically retarded songs like 'Love In An Elevator' sold millions. Gone were the days when Aerosmith turned in rockers like any of the above on this list.
Why It Rocks: While Get A Grip (which, by the way, featured one of the most unnecessary album covers of all time...do I need to remind you? Here:)
I mean, WTF, Aerosmith? What were we talking about again?
Oh, yeah...the music. It was pretty bad.
"Cryin'", "Crazy" and "Amazing" were the hits from the album and all were written by outside songwriters (Perry and Tyler get songwriting credit on all three but their contributions are negligible at best). Every song was aimed firmly at MTV and at the top of the Billboard charts.
Again, I don't disparage Aerosmith for this. Those just aren't my favorite Aerosmith songs.
So, for me, there were two saving graces on this record. The first being the minor hit, 'Living On The Edge' (with its creepy-ass video that starts with Steven holding his dong). It's pure bombast that sounds more like it belongs on a Meatloaf album than an Aerosmith record...but the band delivers it well. I'll turn it up when it comes on the radio.
The second shining light on Get A Grip is 'Eat The Rich'.
I mean, don't get me wrong. The song is stupid.
Aerosmith is basically railing against their fellow rich people. Did they try this number out at the country club before they recorded it?
But, what makes the song fun is hearing Aerosmith truly Rock again. There are great Joe Perry riffs here, Steven sounds in top form and even though the song was co-written by Jim Vallance (who is known in the industry as "The Song Doctor"; i.e. his job is to make your songs more Pop friendly...he used to be in Glass Tiger. Remember them?), you can still hear the old Aerosmith screaming to escape from their plastic bubble.
Thankfully, they would a few years later. But take this track for what it is.
OK...next week, we'll dive into another Classic Rock artist and find some hidden gems you can add to your playlist. Stand by and add your favorite, overlooked Aerosmith cuts in the comments below.