Joe Perry Meets The Press

“I don’t care if we never make another album as long as we can play live.”

“I’ve never tried to be a guitar hero.”

Although one of the most popular American rock’n’roll bands of the ’70s, Aerosmith has never gotten much press, due partially to their unwillingness to do interviews (due partially to their unhappiness at what the press has had to say about them). Whether the chicken came before the egg or not, the fact is that Aerosmith and the press generally don’t get along. Various articles on the band that I’ve dug up and re-read mostly concern difficulties in getting to talk with Steven Tyler and/or Joe Perry, and little else. In amidst all this “bad boy-ism,” they’ve earned quite a reputation for being arrogant, self-centered, and difficult. However, they’ve also picked up a small bevy of fans who loyally buy a few million copies of each new album they release. So when Joe Perry, reticent interviewer and bona tide TP subscriber, let it be known that he was available for a chat, we decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Being publisher of a smug anglo-rock magazine, I’ve always thought of Aerosmith as just another one of those hard rock bands which appeal to a broad audience of stoned out kids all over the country. Except for a few good singles that I’ve heard on the radio, nothing they’ve recorded has made much of an impression, and, honestly, I don’t recall being particularly impressed when I saw them on stage three or four years ago. It’s not a defined dislike; more like a general disinterest in what Aerosmith is or does. Definitely the distinguishing mark of a New York rock critic.

It’s very easy to ignore superstar bands and hope they’ll go away. The sheer difficulty of getting to interview most of these bands makes for a wonderfully easy situation — ignore them and they’ll ignore you. However, rock music is a popular music form and Aerosmith is an enormously popular band. Considering that last year’s reader’s poll showed as much interest in the Boys from Boston as in Peter Gabriel, we took Perry up on his offer, and after a few days of logistical fiddling, met with him in his suite at the Plaza, where the band was staying while in town finishing up the mixdown work on their forthcoming live album with their permanent producer, Jack Douglas.

Having been warned about Perry’s reputation for chewing up journalists, I was prepared for the worst, and was pleasantly thrilled to find him a modest, intelligent chap with a healthy perspective and sharp sense of humor. He’s very much the hybrid superstar — something of the stereotypical rock heavy, but one who is not so far removed that he is no longer a fan, and is therefore able to understand the business of rock music from both the band’s and the audience’s perspective. Along with the other members of Aerosmith — Steven Tyler, Brad Whitford, Tom Hamilton and Joey Kramer — he has worked his fingers raw for years in order to get the band where it is today. After five years and five platinum (at least) albums, Aerosmith has finally arrived, earning ultimate recognition (from those to whom five platinum albums doesn’t mean enough) through their role as the evil band in the accursedly noxiousSgt. Pepper’s film.

“I haven’t been recommending the film to my friends. Just because we’re in it, it’s no affront to me if you don’t go see it. We spent about three days doing it, and I had a good time. I learned why I shouldn’t be an actor. Plus, we got a hit single (‘Come Together’) out of it. We spent about six hours with George Martin recording that. It was done ‘live in the studio,’ leads and all.”

That must have been some experience for a rock fan turned rock star. After all, George Martin represents the Beatles to some extent…

“The guy’s a genius. He didn’t say a word when we did ‘Come Together’. He’s probably the only other producer I would work with besides Jack. George Martin’s amazing — he’s the guy that produced ‘Cold Turkey’ and ‘Helter Skelter’. It’s amazing that he worked so well with Jeff Beck, because Jeff’s so volatile. Martin pretty much gave Beck his first gold album.”

Jeff Beck, I’ve read, is Perry’s personal guitar hero. When Aerosmith toured with the Jan Hammer/Jeff Beck two summers ago, it was a dream come true, and the two got to know each other. At one gig in California, Beck jammed with Aerosmith on stage, performing the two Yardbirds songs in their repertoire. Perry’s an old Yardbirds fan, and it’s no coincidence that Aerosmith performs ‘Train Kept a Rollin’ as well ‘I Ain’t Got You’. In fact, reckons Joe, “I’ve always thought that if the Yardbirds were together now, they would sound a lot like Aerosmith.”

What was it like touring with Beck?

“It was like watching a guitar lesson every night. Imagine Brad and me going out there and watching this insanity go on, and then having to follow it? To me it wasn’t headlining, it was following. Jeff knew it. A lot of other people wouldn’t have done it.” That tone in Perry’s voice was one of respect and appreciation. Talking about Beck seems to be one of his favorite topics. Joe continued, with very little prodding. “You know, Jeff’s least favorite of the albums he’s made is Beck, Bogert and Appice.I think it’s a really good album except for the singing. There’s some great playing on there. I saw’em a bunch of times, and sometimes they were really bad, but they had some hot nights.”

Another fave rave of Perry’s is David Johansen and the New York Dolls. Back in 1973, the Dolls and Aerosmith formed the basic stable of Leber-Krebs, the publicity/management firm that has now become rich from not only Aerosmith’s platinum stardom, but that of Ted Nugent, as well as such eccentric moneymakers as theBeatlemania Broadway show. In those days, the small staff of Leber-Krebs vainly tried to explain the Dolls to a not-quite ready world, while attempting to get Aerosmith bigger and better gigs with which to woo the kids. Although friends of mine remember the feelings between the bands a bit differently now, Perry “used to love the Dolls. I used to see them every chance I’d get. I remember the first time I saw them at the Mercer Arts Center it was just after we’d signed with Leber-Krebs. I thought they were the best band in the world, although it took me a couple of minutes to get my ears adjusted to the fact that they were out of tune most of the time. The rest of the guys in Aerosmith hated them.

“I was going to produce David Johansen’s album with Jack Douglas, but I couldn’t give full time to it and neither could Jack, so I ended up playing on a few tracks. David was working daytime with Richard Robinson downstairs (at the Record Plant in New York), and me and Jack and Steven were upstairs working on Draw the Line. We were sweating blood trying to get the thing together, and I didn’t want to be involved half-assed with David’s album. A couple of times I stayed up all night doing a session with Aerosmith and then waited for David’s crew to come in the morning so I could do a session with them.”

Somehow, the conversation worked around from fond reminiscenses of the New York Dolls to Joe’s thoughts on Draw the Line,the Hirschfeld-covered album that is Aerosmith’s most recent studio effort. (By the way, I have never been able to find the third “NINA” in the drawing. and how can people stand to be ridiculed like that?) To me, Aerosmith albums break up into three categories — before Toys in the Attic;after Toys in the Attic; and Toys in the Attic.The early ones are underproduced and flat, the last two were well-produced but flat, and only the middle one shows the proper blend of good songs and effective studio fidgeting to make it varied and interesting. Put simply, Draw the Line sounds just like Rocks to me. But then I must admit that Perry is a bit closer to the albums than I am: “I don’t think Draw the Line is a good as Rocks. It’s not as hard-edged. We got a little bit too into it — it was a real self-indulgent album. I like most of the songs on it, but we took our time doing it too much.” As for the early albums, they “sound a bit dated to me now. I appreciate them for what they were — that was the band then. We were still learning how to get sounds and stuff.”

Which got us talking about making albums in general. I was a bit surprised to hear Joe declare, “I couldn’t care if we never made another album just as long as we get to play live.” Just a few minutes earlier, we had been discussing studio memories, and he seemed both knowledgeable and interested in recording technique. Joe told me that Aerosmith had once had to record illegally (because of missing work permits and visas) at George Martin’s AIR London studio, where they employed an ancient compressor once used by the Beatles to make table-tapping soundlike claves. Describing the sessions for Rocks, he recalled a bit of weirdness that occurred while recording ‘Sick as a Dog’, written by bassist Tom Hamilton. “Tom wrote the song on guitar, so when we recorded it I played bass and he played guitar along with Brad Whitford. I was in the control room so that I could hear what I was playing on bass better, but when it came to the solo at the end, I gave the bass to Steven, ran out of the control room and picked up a guitar. For the end part, there are three guitars and Steven playing bass. We did it three or four times, the whole routine, until we got a good take. It didn’t seem weird at the time, but we could have done it a lot easier by overdubbing. It wouldn’t have had the same feel, though.”

This being the Trouser Press, the need to ask a few historical questions seemed appropriate, even though I knew the likelihood of major revelations was fairly slim. However, after several years of watching bands in New York struggle for fame, I’ve developed a strong curiosity about what it looks and feels like from the other side of abyss. We went at it from a couple of angles, and Perry presented a humorous, self-critical analysis of it all. In something of a break with standard rock’n’roll tradition, instead of praising the record business and his band’s record company to the skies for the gifts of commercial success, Perry came off as causticly bitter about both the industry and its role in the early struggles of Aerosmith. “I like to say that we’ve made it in spite of the music business. We never got any promo that helped us but as far as I’m concerned, that’s bullshit anyway — if you need promo to help you make it…” His scornful attitude towards hype-made bands. “If you’re good and gonna make it, the record companies don’t matter. If the band breaks up after six months, it’s the band’s own fault.”

What about the early days of Aerosmith?

“We weren’t ready to become the superstars we wanted to be at the time of our first couple of albums. If we had known that then, it would’ve been a lot easier on us. We were getting upset about everything, but meantime the band wasn’t, hot enough to deserve better. It made us work harder.

“We’d been together about two or two-and-a-half years when we recorded the first album. We’d played around a lot, mostly weekends, rehearsing during the week as opposed to playing in a club for a week and then being too dead to rehearse. Having to play four sets a night of other people’s material really drains you. That’s a trap a lot of young bands fall into — they get used to that $1000 a week they are pulling in playing at a club. It becomes hard for them to break out of that. You have to rehearse and you have to do new material. We avoided that trap by playing high school dances out in the country, getting maybe $300. We had a great time then — it was a lot of fun. We never worried about ‘making it.’ In fact, when we got our first manager’s contract, we had to choose between signing it or facing an eviction notice from the apartment we all lived in.”

Perry, and I gather the rest of the band agrees with him, feels very strongly that touring is the most important factor in breaking a new band. He’s obviously given a lot of thought to the dynamics involved in breaking bands in this country. I suspect he’d make quite a manager for some up-and-coming Aerosmith-type outfit. “There shouldn’t be any apprehension about trying to make it by playing live, that’s the only way. When you’re not getting airplay, and you don’t have a new single out, kids are still gonna come to see you because they enjoyed the show last time — that’s what counts. Look at BTO, they packed the places whenever they had singles, but as soon as they didn’t have anything on the charts, no one would come to see them. It’s true of a lot of bands — it’s a lesson to be learned.”

On the lighter side of road work. Perry finds nothing wrong with having a good time, on stage as well as off. “I could go out and play licks from the album, make it sound fine, get the moves right; just the same way every night, everything nice and standard, but where’s the fun? Where’s the sport? For the band to go out and do exactly the same stuff every night is boring — it’s a cop-out to do just what’s on the album. If you fuck around, sometimes you have genius nights, sometimes you have shit nights. The last show we did in Cleveland was voted ‘Worst Show of the Year.’ My sense of humor gets out of hand sometimes, which really bugs the hell out of Steven. He’d like me to play straight-ahead rhythms, but I like to make a lot of noise and shit. Rick Nielsen and I are a lot alike as far as that goes.”

My eyes lit up. Finally we had hit upon something we could fully agree on — Cheap Trick. “There’s nobody that can come close to them. They have a definite tongue-in-cheek attitude, but the whole band is into it. The personalities are a lot different in Aerosmith,” Perry commented with more than a hint of wistfulness. When you really think about it, groups like Cheap Trick and Aerosmith have a lot in common. Except for Trick’s overriding sense of humor, there isn’t all that much musical distance between the bands. They both have classically British influences, hard rock/quasi-heavy metal credibility with young kids, and the ability to turn out polished albums that show more subtlety than can be achieved on stage. Which is not a direct quality comparison of the two bands. It’s simply a matter of objective criteria — they come from roughly the same school, if not the same class. Perry, to borrow a TV phrase, seems to feel strongly both ways.

Through a not-so-odd coincidence, we got around to talking about Kiss, mostly about Gene Simmons, on whose forthcoming solo album both Perry and Rick Nielsen play. Considering that Kiss appeals to roughly the same kind of audience (except I imagine Kiss’ average fan is a few years younger…), it made sense to ask Joe about them. “Not to put them down, because their show is pretty amazing, but they’d like to think they’re a rock band. But take the make-up off, put them in a small club with no flames and no costumes, and do you have a rock band as good as an Aerosmith or a Cheap Trick?” Hmmm, good point… Perry continued: “I don’t know about Gene or the others, but I know that Ace is better than he plays on stage, and they’re probably a lot better than what they do. To go out and not play as good as they can — I don’t know how they can consider themselves a rock band.” Perry also had a few choice remarks about the quality of Gene Simmons’ solo LP, but the suggestion of “discretion” in repeating them dooms that segment of tape to the cutting room floor. After all, these rock star types do cross paths now and again…

As a certified Yardbirds fanatic, I guess that Perry might have some ideas on the concept and role of “guitar heroes.” After all, with Clapton, Beck and Page starring in the Yardbirds at various times, that band has to be given mucho credit for the notion of guitar hero-dom. The subsequent stellar axemen who also filled that role in the mid-’60s — Hendrix, Alvin Lee, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards — as well as the later garden-variety (Duane Allman, Ronnie Wood, Mick Ronson, Ritchie Blackmore) have all stood as conquering idols of rock’n’roll at one time or another. For a while, about 10 years ago, nothing else seemed to matter — it was all down to who was the better, faster, flashier guitarist. Never mind the band — the only purpose they served was to provide a framework for the virtuoso soloing of the lead guitarist. Somewhere along the line, that line of taste went out the window, replaced very quickly by lead vocalists, bands, songwriters, and everything else that really forms the basis of rock. It sounds very strange to someone who grew up as a disciple of the Clapton-is-God religion to overhear kids at a concert discussing Fred Nugent vs. Michael Schenker in the same way we argued Beck against Page when the latter inherited the former’s place in the Yardbirds. Perry sees it much the same way:

“It’s a different trip now — the reason the guitar heros made it was because they were playing in new styles — they were at the forefront. At that time, the guitar hadn’t been fully explored; those guys — Beck, Hendrix, Clapton, Page — they opened it up. The guitar’s been taken to its limits — there’s no one now to replace them, because there’s no one that’s gonna come out sounding more outrageous than Hendrix.

“I’ve never tried to be a guitar hero, just like I’ve never thought it should be ‘Steven Tyler and Aerosmith.’ Lead singer heroes have definitely become the new stereotype, but we’ve tried to avoid having one person be too influential in the band.’

But what about your own feelings as a guitarist looked up to by millions of young hopefuls?

“I don’t think about that too much. I know how good I am and how bad I am. I have no illusions about my playing. I did an interview once where the last question was ‘What do you tell somebody who wants to be a good guitar player?’ I said, ‘I don’t know — go ask a good guitar player.’ If kids appreciate what I’ve done, fine, but I’m not someone to be idolized.”

For someone who’s supposed to be stuck up and arrogant, that’s a pretty healthy dose of modesty. The guy happens to be a very good hard rock guitar player. Fortunately, he realizes that what he’s doing on guitar has, for the most part, been done before. For musicians in this day and age, the maxim about “nothing being new under the spotlights” goes double. Anyone with a good set of live albums from the ’60s is not likely to be surprised by any current guitar players. Pleasantly nostalgic perhaps, but undoubtedly not awestruck.

Next thing on Aerosmith’s agenda is the release of their live album. (No points for guessing how many discs it comprises…) Talking about the album, Perry seemed genuinely embarrassed by the patness of the idea, but beamed when discussing the somewhat bizarre nature of the record. Except for a few tracks, the bulk of the tunes were recorded on a two-track tape deck during a live radio broadcast. When the powers-that-be outside the band found out that the tapes left little room for correcting mistakes, adding studio embellishments, or adjusting mixes, they were not especially thrilled. But then Aerosmith have few qualms about irking said powers, and might even be said to take an evil delight in thumbing their collective nose in that particular direction.

The album contains a trio of non-originals that have found their way into Aerosmith sets over the years, with the Yardbirds’ ‘Train Kept a Rollin’ and ‘I Ain’t Got You’ leading a pack which also includes Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rattlesnake Shake’. (That’s the Fleetwood Mac of the Peter Green variety, not the wishy-washy MOR band that masquerades as F. Mac these days.) Judging by a tape of ‘Rattlesnake Shake’ Perry played after the interview, this album may be the wildest, weirdest, loosest and funkiest concert document since Big Brother and the Holding Co. During the long jam, tunings went in and out, volumes rose and fell with none of that computer-driven studio polish we’ve all come to know and, well, know. The only word available to describe the sound and performance is “realistic.” Whether or not kids will be as thrilled to hear gonzo guitar clutziness (amid moments of real brilliance) at the prevailing prices remains to be seen when the album is released, but I find myself fully in favor of such foolhardiness. Perfection was last year’s thing — this is most certainly not Aerosmith Comes Alive! (but then that LP was a bit less than live, according to studio insiders I’ve spoken to).

We ended the interview with two hometown Boston queries: What did he think of (a) the band and (b) the Bosox. Match up the outfit with the comment:

“I think they’re gonna have a lot of trouble. They dug themselves a big hole, and I feel bad for them.”

“Of course I’m a fan. We’re gonna win this year.”

© Ira RobbinsTrouser Press, November 1978

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