NEW YORK — Photo sessions are a pain in the ass. 8 x 10 glossies are made, not born; press kits aren’t built in a day. Not every magazine can afford to pay private photographers to get pictures for use with album and concert reviews. That being the case, Aerosmith had to sacrifice three hours on a Sunday afternoon to pose for the camera. It requires a major effort to round up the members of Aerosmith from their respective hotel rooms to have their pictures took. But it’s gotta be done, one way or another: the publicity machine demands personality shots for circulation because at this moment this band is riding high and you can’t let the momentum slow down. So Brad comes down to the hotel lobby, sees he’s the first to arrive and scoots right back to his room. Steven’s phone is busy. Joey won’t appear until Joe does. And so on. The publicist, the photographer and the observer sit it out while the Smiths decide what to wear and when to get this thing started. Eventually it does. All this is necessary because Aerosmith is hot. Hot.
“Aerosmith. Say it loud and there’s music playing,” ran a line devised for some Columbia Records press function honoring the band. I didn’t know what it meant when I devised it, and I don’t really know now. The group has been something of a puzzlement to me. A sign of the aging process, no doubt. But let’s not allow one man’s confusion to unduly color this remarkable progress report. Let’s get the facts in the open and then decide if they mean anything. 1975 was a record-breaking year for Columbia, with more of the label’s albums going gold than in any previous year. Leading the roster with three gold albums wasn’t Dylan, Springsteen or Streisand, but Aerosmith, with each of their LPs passing the half-million mark, and Toys In The Attic more than doubling that figure, reaching platinum status. Right now ‘Dream On’, a re-serviced single from the band’s debut album, is on the edge of breaking into the national top ten. They continue to grow as a concert draw, and are spending their days working on their fourth album, scheduled for release at the end of April.
This is supposed to be their day off, and they understandably want to spend it with their pretty and slender ladies, away from the music business and its attendant hassles. Instead they’re being escorted to a house on the upper East Side. Fame and its agonies. Steven Tyler, Aerosmith’s reptilian lead singer and fashion plate, is pissed off. With the scheduled session, with the press, with everything. He wants to be left alone. The publicist, containing her rapidly diminishing patience, scolds him. “When Robert Plant and Mick Jagger stop doing interviews, you can, o.k.?” “I tell you what,” Tyler snaps back, “I’ll do exactly as many interviews as Jagger does. Playboy, People, Rolling Stone… How’s that? They all ask the same questions: ‘How long have you been together?’ ‘What does your name mean?'” He trails off as the station wagon heads up Third Avenue.
A few years ago, 1973 to be exact, when their first album appeared, Aerosmith weren’t even strong contenders in the hard rock sweepstakes. For one thing, Boston had never been known for exporting the best in heavy metal, Columbia hadn’t been that successful in marketing it, and Aerosmith just didn’t look to have that much on the ball. But they knew what they wanted, what niche they wanted to fill, and they plugged at it. They stayed on the road. There always has to be loud live hard rock, and there really aren’t that many competent practitioners on the boards at any one time. If there were, do you think the likes of Black Oak Arkansas would even be in the running? With the acknowledged champs of the genre, the Stones and the Who, playing the cavernous halls every two or three years, someone has to fill the weekend-to-weekend void. Pickings are relatively slim, and Aerosmith has become the top of the crop.
There are still skeptics, naturally. Aerosmith is one of those bands that sell millions of albums with very little assist from the rock press or radio. Their type of music makes it on its own steam, and the lack of recognition has got to sting just a little. Bassist Tom Hamilton admitted as much. “There are so many magazines striving for ‘legitimacy’ that are afraid to be associated with so-called teenage bands. Up to a year ago, when we were headlining in Detroit, the Boston press was calling us a local phenomenon unheard of anywhere else.” Tom, who sometimes looks like a crazed zombie in the photographs but is easygoing and friendly, hangs around on the bottom floor of the house while the camera is set up. The other members of the band are diverting themselves by checking out the fascinating objects and artifacts that are on display all over the place. Joe Perry picks up a 1906 Vaseline pamphlet, marvelling at the various types and uses of the product. Tyler is testing some unusual liquor, and Brad Whitford who was left behind at the hotel and had to hop a cab to the shooting session, checks out the photographer’s lens.
First tableau, downstairs. The five boys are seated around a circular white table with a candelabra in the center, empty liquor bottles all around, and playing jacks-or-better poker. It’s never made clear what the stakes are. Lee, the photographer, puts pink filters over the lights to make Aerosmith look alive and healthy not the easiest task considering that, at 6:00 p.m., they’ve been awake less than three hours. “We should do it Barry Lyndon style,” Joe says. “By candlelight.” It’s a good idea, but Kubrick’s lens isn’t available. They make do. In an adjoining room, the girlfriends read magazines.
Aerosmith will not be unknown superstars much longer. The American Dream had paid off for them, and a little perseverance has even gotten them on AM radio in one of those freakish single success stories. ‘Dream On’, a powerfully produced, slower than usual track, had been plucked from the first album more than once before with no luck except in their native Boston. Now it’s a hit and, as might be expected, it was the group’s fans that took the initiative. The will of the people.
“There had to be some kind of demand,” Tom reasons. “Disc jockeys were calling up the record company saying, ‘if you don’t give us the record we’re going to play it anyway.’ They were getting requests.” As to why now instead of at the time of earlier release, Tom has no explanation, but he’s happy. “Because we’ve released our share of singles that didn’t go anywhere…”
It took quite a while for this aging rock hound to get a handle on Aerosmith. Toys In The Attic came across the first time through as a well-produced exercise in minimally ambitious power rock with bows in the directions of hard core R&B (‘Big Ten inch Record’), wall-of-sound and slam- bam glam, but it rarely made it back to the turntable. The live situation this past fall at Madison Square Garden (opening the show; odds are they’re ready to headline the next time out) was more of a trial, as the band spewed out a monolithic chunk of music, differentiated as songs only by longer than usual pauses, in front of which Tyler did some derivative yelping and prancing. Even the much-heralded Joey Kramer headfirst drum solo was less than advertised, and a dull example of a dull art. Why Aerosmith? The answer came near the end of the set when they thundered into a bottom-heavy but definitely exciting version of ‘The Train Kept A’Rolling’. Click!, as Ms. Magazine might put it. The raucous, guitar-dominated, unpretentious, sloppy Yardbirds, ancestors of the sludge bunch. Having A Rave Up was for many rock fans a personal, passionate discovery; a genuine word-of-mouth item. The bass line in ‘The Train’ (changed to ‘Stroll On’ for Blow-Up) was a cornerstone for an aesthetic: dynamics defined. Aerosmith, with their dual lead guitars, volume dials turned toward the ceiling, are assuredly children of that bass line, and we have no right to complain. Tradition, noise, aggression, sex… what could be bad?
The sex part is hetero, naturally — the New York Dolls, bless their dear departed hearts, could never get past the lipstick into the bosom of Middle America — since any rock band that wants to make it big needs straight sex appeal. Fourteen year old girls and seventeen year old boys. Vicarious sex, vicarious power (which is the same thing, really). Wrap up those two groups and you can tell everybody else to screw off: you’re a rock and roll star. Aerosmith covers the bases. Tyler gets the little girls turned on, Perry and the boys are loud and raunchy enough to penetrate the cerebellum of the most Quaaluded dude. With a coalition like that, they don’t even have to enter the primaries. The nomination is theirs for the asking. Today, that is.
It’s a fickle audience that they’re the current champions (or co-champions) of: an audience that in the recent past has revered and then discarded the likes of Grand Funk, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, BTO. One day they’re packing stadia and selling records like fast-food burgers, the next day some other populist rockers have unseated them. If all the indicators are right, Aerosmith hasn’t peaked yet. Their brand of basic rock could take them far, but the next steps — the follow-up to a platinum LP, the first tour as major headliners — are the toughest.
Second tableau, upstairs. Everyone is anxious to get the damned shooting over with. Brad is starving. Steven is nervous that he might not get back to the hotel in time to watch The Wizard of Oz. The thing is coming to a close, and everyone has decided to catch the Planets at C.B.G.B. There’s one last shot before take off. The pink filter is in place. “Who’s in this one?” a ‘Smith asks. “All of you,” answers Lee. “Yeah,” says another ‘Smith. “We’re all in it together.” You bet they are. Up to their necks.
© Mitchell Cohen, Phonograph Record, April 1976