Way back in January we did a Back Tracks feature on Aerosmith’s Columbia discography, just as Steven Tyler was beginning to crazy it up on American Idol. However, since then Tyler has become a solid asset for Idol fans, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the end of the show’s current season didn’t dovetail into some sort of Aerosmith resurgence.
With that in mind, let’s take a look from where we left the band in the last Back Tracks special. 1982’s Rock in a Hard Place saw original guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford gone (Whitford appeared on one track), Tyler almost irreparably strung out and the music taking a nosedive. Nonetheless, the group continued to tour, and had something toward success when, in 1984, Perry and Hamilton reunited with the band. A resultant tour, Back in the Saddle, was a moderate success tempered by the fact that the band hadn’t released a new album in several years, and the band were still battling their substance-based demons.
Things were only looking so good for the band. But they’d about to reach a second plateau of success that most bands can only dream of.
Done with Mirrors (Geffen, 1985)
The first new album with all five reunited members, the best tune was a cover of “Let the Music Do the Talking,” a song Perry had done while working on his own solo outing, The Joe Perry Project. But despite decent reviews, the LP didn’t catch on with audiences. (The LP only ever received one release on CD, where it had an extra track, “Darkness,” later released as a single with some live B-sides.)
It took a cover of one of Aerosmith’s most beloved songs to make that happen, and it was a rather unique artist doing the covering. Queens-based rap group Run-D.M.C. were recording their third LP, Raising Hell, when producer Rick Rubin suggested the group use “Walk This Way,” with its distinctive guitar riff and freestyle-ready verses, as the basis for a song. Initially, only turntablist Jam Master Jay was interested, but gradually, “Walk This Way” became a favorite in-studio. With the participation in-studio of both Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, who contributed new vocal and guitar tracks to the song, the stage was set. Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way” became a U.S. Top 5 hit, a staple of MTV thanks to a unique video featuring both Run-D.M.C. and Tyler and Perry and the most solid proof that rap music was here to stay in American popular culture.
Of course, the new “Walk This Way” revitalized Aerosmith as much as it did vitalize Run-D.M.C., and the hits were about to come at a rapid pace.
Classics Live I & II (Columbia, 1986/1987/1988 (Europe) – remastered 1993)
Recorded at various dates between 1978 and 1986, these live records are a ball of confusion, with some four guitarists playing on the tracks but none receiving any exact credit. There is one notable factor for collectors: a heretofore-unreleased song, “Major Barbara,” written during the Get Your Wings sessions. Each disc was released separately in 1986 and 1987 and reissued with the rest of the Columbia LPs in 1993. Only in Europe were the sets ever collected in one package, as Classics Live Complete in 1988.
Permanent Vacation (Geffen, 1987 – remastered 2001)
Here’s where Aerosmith started to take off. The secret? A polished set of tunes (written by the band with superstar co-writers such as Desmond Child, Holly Knight and Jim Vallance) and production from Bruce Fairbairn, who’d just helmed the smash Slippery When Wet by Bon Jovi in 1986. “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” and “Rag Doll,” both punctuated with bluesy progressions and brass, were Top 20 hits, while the ballad “Angel” became the group’s biggest hit yet, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard chart. A straight remaster was released in 2001 with no bonus tracks (though there certainly are some to go around, notably the non-LP B-side “Once is Enough” from the “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” single).
Gems (Columbia, 1988 – remastered 1993)
A deep-cuts collection released as the band began taking off on Geffen. All the tracks were previously released on an album except “Chip Away the Stone,” which was the original B-side to the band’s cover of “Come Together.”
Pump (Geffen, 1989 – remastered 2001)
How do you follow-up a surprise commercial smash like Permanent Vacation, with five million copies moved in the U.S.? Give ’em more of the same. Pump again featured Fairbairn as producer and co-writing from Child and Vallance. The result was even more commercial success: seven million copies sold, plus three Top 10 hits in “Love in an Elevator,” “What It Takes” and the Grammy-winning “Janie’s Got a Gun.” Once again, there was a bonus-free remaster that had a few possible extra tracks, B-sides “Ain’t Enough” and “My Girl” plus the band’s take on the theme to Wayne’s World.
Pandora’s Box (Columbia, 1991)
Columbia watched on the sidelines as Aerosmith returned to the pop/rock stratosphere, and decided to weigh in with a box set that revisited the band’s ’70s glory years (as well as the lesser material of the late ’70s and early ’80s). There were plenty of previously unreleased tracks, including never-before-heard outtakes, new remixes and vintage live performances, to make this one of the more valuable purchases in the early days of CD box sets.
Get a Grip (Geffen, 1993 – remastered 2001)
The Fairbairn/song-doctors formula strikes again, and it’s yet another success. The endgame was hits, of course, but by trying some newer, more somber songs on for size like “Livin’ on the Edge,” “Cryin’,” “Amazing” and “Crazy” (the latter three augmented by heavily–played videos starring a young Alicia Silverstone), the band strengthened their fan base. The album took home another two Grammys, as well.
Big Ones (Geffen, 1994)
Believe it or not, there were only four Aerosmith albums on Geffen Records. It was still enough to fill this 1994 compilation to the brim, even without material Done with Mirrors. The biggest hits from the ’80s and ’90s are here, along with two new cuts (“Blind Man” and “Walk on Water”) and the rare “Deuces Are Wild” from The Beavis and Butt-head Experience compilation. A companion video, Big Ones You Can Look At, was also released.
Box of Fire (Columbia, 1994)
Sure, Aerosmith were huge on Geffen, but those Columbia LPs would not be ignored. So when all of the main albums (every studio recording, live album and the Greatest Hits and Gems compilations) were remastered in 1993, the label set them up in a massive collector’s box across 13 discs, the last one being a five-track bonus set of unreleased material, including the band’s live version of “Dream On” for MTV’s 10th anniversary and a cover of “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.”
Pandora’s Toys (Columbia, 1995)
This single-disc distillation of Pandora’s Box was no ordinary set, featuring a disc of Aerosmith cuts, a “documentary CD,” a sticker, a sew-on patch and a certificate of authenticity, all packed in one of 10,000 limited, numbered wooden boxes. It didn’t get much of a release in the U.S., making it even more of a collector’s item than all of the free swag would suggest.
Nine Lives (Columbia, 1997)
After an incredibly successful tenure on Geffen, the boys from Boston went back to where it all began: Columbia Records. With the usual suspects of songwriters (Desmond Child, Taylor Rhodes, Glen Ballard, Jim Vallance) and a new producer, Kevin Shirley, Nine Lives was a raw, rocking affair. But it lacked the hit singles of the Geffen material, with only “Pink” and “Falling in Love (is Hard on the Knees)” denting the Top 40. Sales were lower, too, with the record only mustering 2 million copies sold.
The band didn’t take much time on their laurels, though; their first post-Nine Lives single was a seismic shift for the band. A power ballad penned entirely by Diane Warren, the tune “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” was released on the soundtrack to the action blockbuster Armageddon in 1998 and became the band’s first and only chart-topper in America. (The film, of course, co-starred Liv Tyler, who had in recent years become aware that she was Steven’s daughter; the song and her appearance in the film and video provided an extra emotional underscore for the tune.) It was one of a handful of bonus tracks included on international re-releases of the record.
Made in America (Columbia, 1997)
This Wal-Mart-exclusive EP included five Aerosmith hits and one unreleased live performance from 1994. For the hardcore collectors only, of course.
A Little South of Sanity (Geffen, 1998)
This double-live album on the Geffen label covered the Get a Grip and Nine Lives tours, meaning it captured in a live context pretty much all of the hits at the time. Though it borders on the ridiculous – Tyler has a terrible habit of singing profane versions of some lyrics, which earned the set a parental advisory sticker – its presence on the label was of crucial usefulness a little ways down the road.
Just Push Play (Columbia, 2001)
Though even the hardcore fans were being tested by the pop/rock version of Aerosmith, there was at least one more great single in the band, the Top 10 hit “Jaded.” That was as good as it got, though; despite selling a million copies, it is, to date, the last original Aerosmith LP.
Young Lust: The Aerosmith Anthology (Geffen, 2001) / Gold (Geffen/UMe, 2005)
This two-disc set covers the Geffen years even more thoroughly than Big Ones, including all of those tracks plus a helping of rare B-sides and soundtrack appearances. (It’s also the first Geffen compilation to feature tracks from Done with Mirrors and the Run-D.M.C. version of “Walk This Way.”) And thanks to A Little South of Sanity, there were even live appearances by some of the band’s biggest Columbia hits. You could certainly excuse some new fans for springing for this set first. The set was reissued in 2005 under the Gold compilation banner.
Classic Aerosmith: The Universal Masters Collection (Universal International, 2002)
This European-only was an odd one, featuring some of the Geffen hits but mostly concerned on smaller hits and album cuts. There was nothing particularly rare on this disc, but those looking to dip more toes in the waters of the Geffen material would be well-served here.
O, Yeah! Ultimate Aerosmith Hits (Columbia/Geffen, 2002)
The first compilation to span Aerosmith’s entire career covered all the hits and two new tracks, “Girls of Summer” and “Lay It Down.” International editions feature another rarity, the theme to the classic ’60s cartoon adaptation of Spider-Man as recorded for the soundtrack of the 2002 film adaptation.
Honkin’ on Bobo (Columbia, 2004)
Fans tired of the pop songs Aerosmith were putting out for nearly 20 years were satiated by this down-and-dirty album of obscure blues covers like “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” “Eyesight to the Blind” and “You Gotta Move” (plus a new track, “The Grind”). It wasn’t a massive seller, but it certainly proved that the boys could still rock.
Rockin’ the Joint (Columbia, 2005)
A live album taken not from the Honkin’ on Bobo tour but the Just Push Play tour in 2002, the song selection is unique (if ill-sequenced) but this is not an essential Aerosmith set, live or otherwise.
Devil’s Got a New Disguise: The Very Best of Aerosmith (Columbia/Geffen, 2006)
Another compilation that unites all phases of Aerosmith’s career on one disc, the first phase of Columbia is incredibly underserved but it’s the ideal cheap career-spanning set. The new tracks, “Sedona Sunrise” and the title track, were culled from outtakes written during the late ’80s and early ’90s; both are good, but neither have the impact of those late-career hits. We’ll likely be waiting a little while longer to see if Aerosmith are capable of reaching those glory days one more time.