– 3 essential albums, an overlooked gem, a wildcard, one to avoid, and the best of the rest –
It used to be easy to categorise the different phases of Aerosmith’s career. By the 1990s, there were two distinct phases – old Aerosmith and new Aerosmith, or – if you knew your stuff – good Aerosmith and bad Aerosmith. But looking back now in 2019, those iffy albums recorded for Geffen between 1985 and 1993 can now been seen as some kind of weird, golden mid-period for the band. Because no matter what you thought of Dude (Looks Like A Lady) or Love In An Elevator, things got far, far worse when the band entered the 21st century.
As horrific as the band’s newer material is, one thing is for sure: that classic first run of studio albums recorded on the Columbia label between 1973 and 1982 is brilliant. Blistering rock and roll, with each album building on the last until it all started to fall apart in a drug-fuelled blaze of glory. Just like the editions on AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones this Buyer’s Guide will take you through the highlights and lowlights of Aerosmith’s first decade.
Start off with: Toys In The Attic (1975, Columbia Records)
It might include two of the band’s biggest showpieces – Walk This Way and Sweet Emotion – but the brilliance of the their third album is in the space it has to breathe. From the non-stop rock of the title track through to the piano-ballad of You See Me Crying, Aerosmith show that they’re more than just long-haired heavy rockers. The plaintive Uncle Salty shows a band tackling a serious topic, Adam’s Apple proves that Joe Perry can write a sick guitar riff equal to Steven Tyler’s raspy vocals, and Big Ten Inch Record is sure to put a dirty smirk on your face. On the flipside, No More No More might just be the greatest song about touring in a rock and roll band, and Round And Round shows a heavier side of the group. Jack Douglas, given full production duties after co-producing their previous record, manages to capture the essence of a band just as they changed from New England wannabes to national rock stars.
Follow that with: Get Your Wings (1974, Columbia Records)
There’s a charm to the band’s sophomore release that they only ever got close to recapturing on 1985’s Done With Mirrors, another album which pre-empted bigger things. If their tentative, toe-in-the-water debut proved they can play, the follow-up showed a maturity in their songwriting skills. The band sounds like America’s best-kept secret, and co-producers Jack Douglas and Ray Colcord are struggling to keep a lid on everything. With the same sense of space as its breakthrough follow-up, Get Your Wings finds Aerosmith starting to hit their stride, with Lord Of The Thighs – strangely not picked as a single – serving as the blueprint for the band’s sleazy rock for the rest of the decade.
Then get: Rocks (1976, Columbia Records)
Public opinion usually places this record as the band’s greatest achievement, but for me it’s a little overcooked. Gone are the nuances of Get Your Wings and Toys In The Attic, and I instead we get 34 minutes of balls-to-the-wall rock and roll, that doesn’t let up for a second. By this time, Aerosmith and Jack Douglas were masters at their game, and the album sounds effortless as a result. But if anything, it’s just too much. Even the now-traditional piano ballad closer Home Tonight is far from subtle; it feels like enjoying a meal too quickly, and burning your mouth as a result.
Criminally overlooked: Night In The Ruts (1979, Columbia Records)
Joe Perry claimed that by 1978 they had gone from musicians dabbling with drugs, to drug addicts dabbling with music. A year later, things were really starting to come off the rails. Mid-way through recording sessions, Perry literally quit the band over spilt milk (Perry’s wife Elyssa threw a glass of milk over Tom Hamilton’s wife Terri, in a heated argument backstage). With Perry only contributing guitar parts for five songs, the remaining parts were completed by Brad Whitford, Richie Supa, Neil Thompson, and Jimmy Crespo. Perry-clone Crespo stayed on as the band’s lead guitarist as the album, originally titled Off Your Rocker, was released as Night In The Ruts. It’s an uneven affair but definitely has its moments. Chiquita is perhaps the greatest deep cut the band ever recorded and Cheese Cake, Three Mile Smile and Bone To Bone (Coney Island White Fish Boy) all show the band at their best.
The long-shot: Rock In A Hard Place (1982, Columbia Records)
The band limped on into the new decade as rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford followed Joe Perry out the door. Replaced by another Perry-clone, Rick Dufay, the new blood revitalised the band into a record that is far stronger than it deserves to be. Costing an estimate $1.5 million to record (a fortune at the time) due to Tyler’s constant drug-fuelled procrastinations, the album reunited them with Jack Douglas. The opening salvo of Jailbait, Lightning Strikes, Bitch’s Brew and Bolivian Ragamuffin feels like the last death-rattle of a band that could really have imploded there and then, had fate not intervened a couple of years later.
Avoid like the plague: Classics Live! (1986, Columbia Records)
After the band reunited and decamped to greener pastures with Geffen Records, their old record label was left with the rights to the material from their first decade. Both Classic Live! and Classics Live II feel like cynical cash-ins, to benefit from the band’s resurgence, but the first volume is particularly bad. Featuring overdubs by stand-in guitarist Jimmy Crespo, and re-touched drum sounds akin to ZZ Top’s re-worked CD remasters of their ‘70s albums, it doesn’t sound like a genuine live album. The album’s only saving grace is the inclusion of a studio outtake, Major Barbra, originally recorded for Get Your Wings.
Best compilation: Gems (1988, Columbia Records)
After 1980’s Greatest Hits included a couple of singles edited for radio (effectively removing key elements of songs, e.g. Sweet Emotion without the talk-box intro section!), Columbia issued a more representative compilation in 1988. Cashing-in on the band’s Permanent Vacation comeback, with cover-art reminiscent of the Rocks cover, Gems is a heavier album of deep cuts drawing from their first seven studio albums. The cherry on top is the studio version of Richie Supa’s Chip Away The Stone, previously only available as a live version.
Best live album: Live! Bootleg (1978, Columbia Records)
A sloppy mess of a double-LP live album, Live! Bootleg was released while the band were in no state to record a follow-up to Draw The Line. It was originally intended to be a warts-and-all recording, akin to the bootleg live recordings the cover art suggests. It actually sounds great; the band are just a mess, full of flubbed-guitar lines and incoherent vocals, and I love every minute of it. It’s not all stadium-rock bonanza though – we get a club recording of Last Child, a rehearsal space run-through of Come Together and a 1973 radio broadcast of I Ain’t Got You and Mother Popcorn.
Yes, Aerosmith might not sail the same seas as the Led Zeppelins and Rolling Stones of the stadium-rock world, but to me they’re essential. I’m so glad this was the first band that really stung me; I’ve always found it easy to look beyond the questionable Geffen years and everything that came after it. Their first decade was brilliant and includes everything I look for in a rock band. For me, there’s simply nothing better than Toys In The Attic blasting out of the stereo on a hot summer’s day.