Aerosmith isn’t dead, but it may as well be. Frontman Steven Tyler was preposterous in his first televised appearance as a judge on American Idol (though there was some very funny writing about the whole ordeal), and if you’re like me, you wish Tyler had stepped away from such ridiculous duties and went on to perform with what many have called America’s greatest rock and roll band – even if it sounded more like their recent, pop-oriented rock instead of their bluesy, pre-metal days.
To celebrate Tyler, guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, bassist Tom Hamilton and drummer Joey Kramer, we’re taking a trip down memory lane through the music of Aerosmith. They’re not a band bursting with vault tracks, though they’ve had their share of remasters, box sets and compilations, as you’ll soon see over the next few days. Walk this way toward our first part of the Aerosmith journey, which covers their first stint on Columbia Records.
Aerosmith (Columbia, 1973 – repressed 1976, remastered 1993)
The band’s first album was a culmination of chops, hard work and luck. F0ur of the five classic members of Aerosmith had been playing local shows in the Boston area during the late 1960s. Tyler initially fronted a band called The Strangeurs – later called Chain Reaction – while Perry, Hamilton and Kramer had been in a free-form blues band aptly named The Jam Band. When both bands found themselves on the same bill in 1970, they decided to combine, but Tyler, who’d drummed and provided backing vocals for Chain Reaction, wanted to move away from the kit and became the frontman. (The band’s name came from a word Kramer used to write on school notebooks.) Original rhythm guitarist Ray Tabano, a friend of Tyler’s, was replaced by Whitford a year later, and the band started to get serious, booking shows outside of Boston. A gig at Max’s Kansas City in New York was attended by an impressed Clive Davis, who signed the band to Columbia in 1972.
While Aerosmith’s self-titled debut was not initially a massive seller, it did feature some of the band’s best-known songs, including the bluesy “Mama Kin” and “Make It” and the slow-burning “Dream On,” which would be edited and released as the band’s first single. That version climbed to No. 59 on the charts, but there would be more success for the band and the song in the years to come. The album was re-pressed in 1976 after said success was attained; that version had a different front cover and corrected a typo on the sleeve that misattributed “Walkin’ the Dog” as “Walkin’ the Dig.” A remaster was released on CD in 1993 with no bonus tracks alongside all the original Columbia LPs, all mastered by Vic Anesini; future remasters remain moot, as part of the album masters cannot be found. (For this reason, Aerosmith had to re-record as-yet-commercially-unavailable versions of “Dream On,” “Movin’ Out,” “Mama Kin” and “Make It” for their entry in the Guitar Hero video game series.)
Get Your Wings (Columbia, 1974 – remastered 1993)
After some time on the road, the band reconvened in the studio with new producers, Ray Colcord and the now-legendary Jack Douglas, and attempted to do more than “get” their wings; they tried spreading them as well, across experiments with metal and protopunk (“S.O.S.”), straight-ahead soul (“Pandora’s Box”) and some jazzier blues (“Same Old Song and Dance,” which featured saxophone work by Michael and Randy Brecker). “Song and Dance” was edited and slightly altered (one drug-oriented lyric was changed) and released as a single, where it fared slightly better than any of their singles thus far (No. 54). The best was still yet to come, however.
Toys in the Attic (Columbia, 1975 – remastered 1993)
With Jack Douglas again at the helm, the band took to New York’s Record Plant studio to record its third album. The perfect storm of production, arranging and songwriting took hold, and the album fast became a classic of ’70s hard rock. Tracks like the talkbox-heavy, densely harmonic “Sweet Emotion” and the fast-paced “Walk This Way” would all crack the Top 40 (and a reissue of “Dream On” went to No. 6). But there’s not a bum track on this record, from the title track to complex ballad “You See Me Crying” (which prompted then-label president Bruce Lundvall to proclaim as “much more fun” than the Herbie Hancock session he had just heard). Aerosmith were now stars in their own right, which was great – for now.
Rocks (Columbia, 1976 – remastered 1993)
With Toys in the Attic a huge smash and the public hungry for Aerosmith, what was next? A clumsy follow-up? General decline? Astoundingly, not yet. Rocks, again produced by Douglas, is just as good as its predecessor, thanks to strong tunes like “Back in the Saddle,” “Last Child” and “Nobody’s Fault,” and an overall heavier sound that’s actually been credited as influential by the likes of Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. It’s one of the earliest Aerosmith albums that could warrant a reissue, thanks in particular to its original quadrophonic mix.
Draw the Line (Columbia, 1977 – remastered 1993)
Here is where Aerosmith’s rock star excesses – Tyler and Perry’s “Toxic Twins” period – got the better of them. The bluesy sound is still there (thanks to more great production by Douglas, who was keeping the band afloat with co-writing), but the songs don’t stick quite like the last few albums. The best thing about the album has got to be its album sleeve, drawn by iconic caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.
Live! Bootleg (Columbia, 1978 – remastered 1993)
An intentionally cheap-looking double-album with some deceptively good material therein, drawn mostly from the previous year’s tour (except for three tracks taken from a Boston radio broadcast in 1973). All the fan favorites are here, alongside some interesting covers of The Beatles (“Come Together,” a studio version from the otherwise maligned Sgt. Pepper film soundtrack would become their last Top 40 hit for awhile), James Brown (“Mother Popcorn”) and Frank Sinatra (“Strangers in the Night”).
Night in the Ruts (Columbia, 1979 – remastered 1993)
If Draw the Line was a disappointment compared to its predecessors, Night in the Ruts feels like…well, the album title with the “N” and “R” switched. The band was awash in drugs and petty feuding that Jack Douglas could not fix while in the producer’s chair, so Columbia first sent the band out on a tour and then booted the producer. Unfortunately, midway through the tour Joe Perry had enough and left the band. He would be replaced by guitarist Jimmy Crespo, but the damage was done for the time being. The most memorable tracks are an original “No Surprize” and a cover of “Remember (Walking in the Sand).”
Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits (Columbia, 1980 – remastered 1993) / Greatest Hits 1973-1988 (Columbia, 1997)
A compilation of the band’s biggest singles at the time that is a solid intro to the band’s glory years; it’s the band’s best-selling album by a few million. The only non-LP track (other than single edits of “Same Old Song and Dance,” “Sweet Emotion” and “Kings and Queens” from Draw the Line) is that studio version of “Come Together.” When the band triumphantly returned to Columbia in 1997, the label put out a new version of the album with a new title, full album versions, some deeper cuts and one rarity, a 1991 remix of “Sweet Emotion.”
The First Decade (Columbia, 1982)
A definite oddity: this eight-LP box – all white label promos – covers everything from Aerosmith to Live Bootleg!, then skips over Night in the Ruts and adds Greatest Hits instead.
Rock in a Hard Place (Columbia, 1982 – remastered 1993)
How does it get worse than being a rock band without its killer guitarist? Being a rock band without either of its killer guitarists; Brad Whitford departed midway through the recording of this album. With “Lightning Strikes” making a good but not great showing on the U.S. Mainstream Rock chart, and Tyler beset with health problems (he was hospitalized in 1980 after a motorcycle accident, and collapsed during several concerts in subsequent years), it seemed like the end for Aerosmith. Astoundingly, it wasn’t…but that’s for another day.