Aerosmith: Hot ‘Rocks’

Aerosmith’s New Yankee Hanky-Panky

YOU CAN GET away with plenty of lechery when you’re young and in love with what you’re doing. For Aerosmith, it even pays off in money. In 1976, only Kiss and perhaps the phenomenon from Texas, ZZ Top, can rival Aerosmith’s claim as the hottest new band in America. What sets the five Yankees from Boston apart from the other sensations of ’76 is the purity of their roots. They are virtually the only natural heirs to the hard rock tradition founded by the Yardbirds and passed down into the Seventies through Led Zeppelin.

It’s been seven years since singer Steven Tyler hitched north from New York City to Sunapee, New Hampshire, where he met guitarist Joe Perry and bassist Tom Hamilton, who had been friends since they were 13. They added Brad Whitford and an old schoolmate of Tyler’s, Joey Kramer, on drums, and were soon ready to battle the J. Geils Band for rock supremacy in the Boston area. Once their first three albums had swept out into America — Aerosmith (1973), Get Your Wings (1974), and Toys in the Attic (1975) — they were socking away more cash than the perpetrators of Boston’s famed Brinks robbery.

Aerosmith’s style, as revealed on their fourth LP, Rocks (Columbia), is a powerful mixture of edgy guitar riffs backing a punk pose that’s relieved by lyrics with a delightfully lewd and clever humor — vulgarity with smarts.

And, unlike so many contemporaries who come on like fiction, they aim straight and true for the young heart, no parody added. Their music is neither artily pretentious (no ukuleles!) nor overly simplistic. The lyrics are fresh and sassy, without a ‘figaro’ in sight: “Met a cheerleader, was a real young bleeder… You ain’t seen nuthin’ ’til you been down on a muffin.” Crude, but authentic.

From Steven Tyler’s gruff tyke vernacular (“How they hangin’?”) to Joe Perry’s whip-saw guitar style (heavily influenced by Jeff Beck), they come across as a guys’ band, leading a whole new generation to the kind of raw rock their older brothers respected. As Brad Whitford notes: “I talk to my younger brother about what I used to listen to, and he doesn’t know a lot of them — and we’re only five years part. Lots of people follow us around the country, and it’s mostly guys, not chicks… a lot of guitar players.”

Aerosmith is an extremely tight-knit group, socially as well as musically. Having been a New England phenomenon two years ago, they have a unique sense of themselves as a Boston band. They hang out there together when they’re not on the road, undistracted and untempted by a nightlife like New York’s or L.A.’s, which tends to homogenize musicians into rockstar soup. “I hang around with Steven as much as I do with anybody,” Joe Perry says. “When you get up in mid-afternoon and stay up until dawn, it’s so different from what most people do.” No one in Aerosmith thinks he’s bigger than the band, they all still need each other, and no one is left behind. When four of them buy Porsches (they’re all heavily into cars), they pressure the fifth member to get one too.

“Five years ago, nobody could tell me this wasn’t going to happen,” blond bassist Tom Hamilton says with obvious satisfaction. “I could have gone to college or any number of things a hell of a lot more predictable.”

“I went to Berkeley College of Music for a year,” says guitarist Whitford. “It taught me a lot, but there were too many musicians there, everybody had their own ideas, and finally I said ‘no more.’ I think it’s really good for you to work in the clubs and just play five or six sets a night. I went out to play, and then I met these guys.”

IT WAS drummer Joey Kramer who came up with the name of the band. “We had lots of ideas, like the Hookers, but I had a band in Yonkers in tenth or eleventh grade that used the name Aerosmith, and we settled on that once I explained it was spelled A-E-R-0 and not A-R-R-O-W.”

Right from the start, they aimed for more than local recognition. “We turned down a lot of club gigs because we weren’t the kind of band that could play five sets a night for five nights,” says Hamilton. “We were always geared for the concert atmosphere.” Whitford: “We knew if we worked at it, we had something there that was good. It was loose, we didn’t care, we wouldn’t work for weeks rather than play what they told us to play in those places.”

Once they started putting out records, though, Aerosmith started gobbling up audiences all over the North. “At first when you’re on the road it’s crazy,” Whitford recalls. “There are things you gotta do, and we went really crazy for a long time. But then you do so much of it you come down to earth a little bit. Not that we don’t still get crazy, but we separate our work from our play more than we used to.”

While the creative talent is spread remarkably evenly in this band, the special importance of Steven Tyler has to be recognized. As Tom Hamilton says of the band’s formation, “One of the keys was getting together with Steven. I used to watch him perform when I was 13 or 14 years old — he was already recording in the Strangers and the Chain Reaction. He had by far the most experience.” Their faith in Tyler seems to have been instrumental in the band’s conclusion that “we were really sure of what we were doing.”

Over the past few years, Tyler — once a drummer — has admirably fulfilled the front-man’s responsibility for distinguishing Aerosmith from every other ambitious group on the scene: he gave them a face. He’s developed a visual look with a distinctly original flair — no mean feat these days — a scruffy layering of rags that sometimes make him look like either a tie-dyed leper at a carnival or a mummy in mourning. “I was always into rags,” he says of the flowing swatches he swaddles himself in. “There’s a lot of movement involved with them. I used to wear all the ripped stuff I had, and was so trashed I kept that style up. So now I go to the store and buy new material and turn it into rags.”

Tyler trims himself with the usual rings and necklaces that come with the job but, again, he’s gone about it creatively. The ear-piece he wears dangling like a lure is one example. “I made that in Hawaii. One morning we were walking down this dirt road on the way home from a luau, me and Julia singing all kinds of songs like it was the Yellow Brick Road. And we came across the remains of this beautiful bird with really long yellow-and-blue tail feathers, so I plucked them off and reincarnated him. And now I’m growing a wing out of my left ear.”

His movements onstage seem genuine too. Although it’s hard for any new singer to escape comparison with seniors like Jagger and Stewart, Tyler wears his gestures so naturally it seems unjust to accuse him of theft.

But Steven Tyler does not command Aerosmith, and the other four partners have flowered while Tyler’s showmanship, was holding the eyes of the audience. Under the studio tutelage of Jack Douglas and the lash of the road, they’ve improved steadily, passing out of the apprentice stage to become respectable artisans. All this adds up to a band that is determined to have a substantial future. In fact, as Aerosmith cracks the higher echelons of the business, one senses that the fireworks are just beginning.

THE GROUP allegedly began writing 1976’s Rocks soon after the New Year, but it seems the truth of the matter is that very little came together until producer Jack Douglas started pressuring them. Douglas is a young veteran who engineered the first New York Dolls album (“the Dolls could have been really up there if they had learned to fake it a little better”) and co-produced Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies LP with fellow Canadian Bob Ezrin. It was Ezrin, in fact, who originally turned Douglas on to Aerosmith after the release of their first album. “Bob said, ‘They’re two years away from being anything, they’re too raw, they’re just too much work for me, I can’t do it.’ But I like to get in on the ground floor with a group, and I’m an old Yardbirds fan. I saw them play a little high school dance in Framingham, Mass.; I think the Modern Lovers were on the bill too. It was full of sweaty kids going crazy.”

Two albums later, Douglas knew that pre-production was the crucial part of an Aerosmith project. “The band tours so much, getting them to rehearse is tough. I spent a month in Boston before we even came into the studio in New York. We did six basic tracks up there in their private Wherehouse with a mobile truck, and then we came back to New York for three more tracks with a different sound. You get a great live sound in the Wherehouse when you put a mike in the garage with cement walls. The roadies — and they have great roadies [led by Bob “Kelly” Kelleher] — built a tent around the mobile truck, so it was 20 degrees outside but we were warm. But being in the truck for two weeks was a little like living in a submarine, so I was a bit loony when we came out.”

The only time off came when the group jetted down to Florida, where Brad Whitford got married to a Miami girl on February 22. Two days later it was business as usual. From Boston, they headed for New York City, where they checked into the Warwick Hotel and faithfully trooped over to Studio A of the Record Plant on West 44th Street every afternoon for six weeks.

Typically, Aerosmith’s recording schedule is a curious procedure that runs something like this: the four main instrumentalists will work over a theme until they have agreed on a basic groove and chord change. At this point, Douglas will work with them individually, especially the rhythm section of Hamilton and Kramer, until the backing track is finished. Meanwhile, Tyler hangs around constantly, soaking up the tone of each song and occasionally jotting down notes. With the track dynamics finalized, nothing else can proceed until Steven has written his lyrics and laid down the vocals. Only after Steven has established his vocal melody can Perry and Whitford add lead guitar overdubs and backing vocals and turn the results over to Douglas for mixing. In a sense, then, Aerosmith does much of the instrumental arranging before the vocal melody is even written. And when Steven’s writing is coming along slowly, as it did for Rocks, the sessions drag on for weeks past the delivery date, pushing back the album’s release and frustrating the band’s management as the opening dates of a spring tour loom nearer and nearer.

SLUMPED INTO a metal folding chair in the Record Plant, tapping his foot nervously, wiry Joe Perry talks softly but quickly about his love of science fiction movies. “I plan my day around them; in fact, we’re missing the 4:30 one now. I really dig the Japanese ones, those drive me crazy when the guy dresses up in the Godzilla suit. We haven’t played Japan yet, and we can’t wait. We wanted to go there this spring, but people said no, so we’ll probably go this fall.

“And I read science fiction novels all the time, especially when I’m on the road. I buy stacks and stacks. I like comic books too, but they’re not so hot anymore. I think the bass player from Kiss [blood-spurter Gene Simmons] is really into that stuff too, but I’ve never had a chance to talk to him about it. He must really be having a gas, dressing up and getting it out like that.”

It was Perry who came up with the title for the latest Aerosmith album. “I wanted to name the last album Rocks, but it didn’t make it. We almost named this one Aerosmith Five, but then we switched to Rocks.“Presumably, someone suggested to them that a fourth LP named ‘Aerosmith Five’ might confuse their audience a little. Joe takes a new step in his career with the band on Rocks — he sings. “Actually, I used to sing lead when I was younger, but when Steven came along I jumped at the chance to have a lead singer in the band. Since then I’ve wanted to, though, so this is a first attempt. I haven’t written words before and I always wanted to, so I tried it.”

For his vocal debut, Joe wrote ‘Combination’, with lyrics that goof on his own recent “dude” phase. Joe dresses stylishly, often shopping for hand-made Italian shoes at Manhattan’s Chelsea Cobbler and for leather clothes at a place called Skin Clothes, where they cut things especially to fit him.

‘Combination’ has all the clever tone one has come to expect from Tyler’s previous Aerosmith lyrics: “Walkin’ on Gucci, wearin’ Yves St. Laurent/I can barely stay on, ’cause I’m so fuckin’ gaunt.” Says Tyler: “Joe really came home on that one.”

Another song Joe wrote the music for is ‘Back in the Saddle’, once a possible album title. “I got a new six-string bass, so I wrote a song to use it on,” Joe explains.

“Jack Bruce used to use one, but it’s kinda hard. The strings are halfway between bass and regular guitar and you can get some really flipped-out sounds out of it. I’m gonna use it onstage.”

In contrast to the lean and jittery Perry, Brad Whitford is offhand and laid-back almost to the point of drowsiness. It’s a personality difference that is reflected in their playing styles. “Joe might play faster, with a little more rock feel,” Brad acknowledges, “whereas I might be a little more fluid, a little more bluesy, with a more melodic sense of rock & roll changes. We both do leads — whoever’s most comfortable with a particular section.”

Brad wrote two songs on the new LP, one of which is ‘Last Child’, the disco baby Tyler says “is going to be played everywhere.” Although the band has never really recorded a cut with a black feel before, they used to play plenty of James Brown numbers in their club days. Joey Kramer, in fact, has an extensive background in soul bands. “That’s where my roots are,” he says. “Before I joined Aerosmith, I used to play with the big black soul revues — the Unique Four, the Turnpikes — and they turned me on to a lot of things like Kool & the Gang and the O’Jays. I had to go to every rehearsal to help the singers with their choreography. I don’t really like fancy drumming, I like stuff that’s real solid, like Bernard Purdy.”

For Brad Whitford’s other composition, Tyler wrote lyrics about earthquakes and, with his typical punning humor, titled it ‘Nobody’s Fault’. In fact, Tyler, Perry, Douglas — seemingly all of the Aerosmith crew — share a special phobia about the earth cracking in half. (Joe Perry has first-hand reports from a friend who was caught in the Guatemala City quake — “more awesome than you could imagine”). The song’s subject stems from a newspaper article they read during the recording period. What really stirred Tyler’s imagination was a mention in the article that earthquakes aren’t confined to the Pacific Coast. “They found another fault in New Jersey,” he says in horror. “It runs right by an atomic plant. Isn’t that crazy?”

TOM HAMILTON’S offering on Rocks is ‘Sick as a Dog’, with lyrics by Tyler. “I’m proud of the young man,” says Steven with mock benevolence. “It’s one of my favorites so far.” Jack Douglas agrees: “Tom is coming along in his writing. He’s got a lot of tunes, and even though there’s only one on this album, there could have been more. He plays guitar on ‘Sick as a Dog’ and Joe Perry plays bass.”

“Jack is a very open person,” Tom says modestly. “He always has time for what people come up with. ‘Sick’ started on guitar and I wasn’t sure about it, but playing it for Jack I realized it had a lot of potential. We recorded it last, and I’m glad because everybody was hot then.” Hamilton also does much of the band’s arranging. “That’s one of my fortes, but Steven has a certain veto power because he has to sing these things we come up with.”

Tom, who started playing guitar in eighth grade, lists the Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady and Paul McCartney as bass influences. “McCartney has always been my top favorite,” he says. “I suppose if I were really into acrobatics on the bass guitar I’d be a Stanley Clarke fan, but I’m much more into the bass as applied to a song. See, McCartney’s bass playing complements not only the drums, but the guitars in every part, dynamics and everything, and to me that’s the way to play bass guitar. Sometimes it means playing ultra-simple. Good bass is whatever is creative and pushes the basis of the song.”

Jack Douglas echoes Tom’s self-perception. “He plays bass really well, but he’s still got some exploring to do. I don’t want to discourage him from playing the way he does, though — a very rooty, elementary bass — because that’s really good for the band.”

Steven Tyler has once again composed himself a ballad. This time it’s the closing cut of the LP, a “goodnight song” called ‘Home Again’. Steven plays the tack piano himself, and he also did the string arrangements. “It was nothing I wrote down on paper, it was just something I had in my head.”

To those who are familiar with Aerosmith’s catalogue, Rocks is obviously their most polished performance yet. One thing everyone agrees on is that the first LP in 1973 should have been better. “We went into the studio absolutely blind,” Brad Whitford says, shaking his head ruefully. “The only good thing about it was that the material was there, but it could have been just incredible if it was produced really well. We just didn’t know what we were doing.”

No one appreciates the difference more than producer Douglas. “They just played and Adrian [Barber] would say ‘Oh, that felt good, that’s a take.’ There are a lot of mistakes and wrong notes on that first album, although the energy was right and the band was excited about doing it. When we started with Get Your Wings, there were many hours of practice, just getting them to sound professional by my standards. They were a young band — in fact, they still are — and they were afraid of the studio. It used to be that, as soon as the red light went on, they’d choke and make mistakes. Plus we had some hassles because we had some people there that shouldn’t have been there.

Toys in the Attic was better, and by this album, once we started to cook there was no problem. Now it doesn’t mean anything to them that it’s going on tape. Now when the guys do their leads they do them right in the control room. They just sit next to me and we run lines out into the studio and I put on the effect that’s going to be on so they can hear what they have to do. I can talk to them — I can even yell notes right into their ears while they’re playing.

“Brad Whitford is not a rhythm guitar player anymore, no way. He’s a great lead guitar player and he’s getting better in leaps and bounds. Same with Joe Perry… the whole band. Joey Kramer has always had good time, but he’s gotten more confident. He’s playing less fills but they’re tastier. I didn’t have to get on his back much; in fact, neither did Steven. Steven used to be always… well, this time he didn’t have to.”

Now, with the album finally in the record stores and the band touring again, Aerosmith can settle back into the normal frenzy they’ve been living for the last seven years. Producer Douglas — awaiting the call for number five a year or so from now — has moved on to work with Ronnie Montrose and a new group he discovered at the Sunset Bowling Alley in Waukesha, Wis., Cheap Trick. For a couple of days in April the band got a break. Brad Whitford had a chance to get better acquainted with his new bride. Joe and Elissa Perry moved into a huge, recently purchased 60-year-old Italian villa not far from Boston College. (“I didn’t want to get too far out of the city because I hate long cab rides to the airport.”)

But by the end of April, Aerosmith was once again back on the road that spawned them, criss-crossing America to headline the big outdoor festivals and arenas — four dedicated Yankee craftsmen chopping out sounds for the guy upfront in the glad rags with the Bird of Paradise flying into his ear. 

Joe Perry: He met Jeff Beck when the Englishman was up in Boston rehearsing his band. “We took him to see Muddy Waters, but we didn’t talk about guitars, we talked about Corvettes. His and mine are identical, except his is red.”

Brad Whitford: On his free days, he likes to drive, take pictures, and never goes to concerts. “When you play professionally like this, you have to separate, you have to spend a lot of time by yourself to do what you want, because the work is so hectic.”

Tom Hamilton: “It used to be a bitch to play ‘Sweet Emotion’ onstage. I used to worry when I did that introduction by myself that it wouldn’t have enough balls going out into that big hall, but eventually I loosened up.”

Joey Kramer: His assistant, Henry, used to work for Zeppelin’s John Bonham. “He didn’t pass on playing tips, but little things, like what Bonham does to his sticks, how he keeps his hands dry…”

© Stephen DemorestCircus, 17 June 1976

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