Reading Steven Tyler’s autobiography (Does The Noise In My Head Bother You?) is written in gonzo style that might actually be him writing. Otherwise he dictated it (the way Sidney Sheldon used to work) and someone typed up his verbal diarrhoea. If this is his actual conversational style he could conceivably be a tiresome, intense bore. Lots of telling detail but not always all that substantive or illuminating except for giving us a glimpse into the Tyler psyche. The best part is that he is much more self deprecating than his on=stage, outward persona would suggest but, then, it is trite that many rock frontmen are rather more shy in private than they are on stage where rock star is a completely different person to the human inside the hard edged shell of braggadocio.
Although the Seventies were the influential years in my musical education, being the years between ages 11 and 20, I read about bands without ever hearing the music. I was ignorant about many of the major bands of that era, specifically the American bands, because they were not covered in the South African media and received absolutely no airplay on South African radio.
Aerosmith is a case in point. By late 1974, when I began buying the US monthly rock publication Hit Parader, Aerosmith was starting to make in the USA and Lisa Robinson, the editor of the magazine, obviously had a thing for the band or maybe just Steven Tyler’s Mick Jagger influenced looks and sexual presence as frontman of a rather good rock and roll band.
Aerosmith may have been big in America but they meant diddley squat in South Africa in the late Seventies. Between 1974 and probably 1980 I read quite a bit about them without having any clue what the music actually sounded like. I also had no real biographical information on the band, at least not from Hit Parader who treated the band as superstars and who never let on that Aerosmith had released their debut album only in about 1972. On the other hand, Hit Parader would have assumed that their American readership already knew the band well. It was just me, in the rather backaward Stellenbosch of the time, who was ignorant.
Tyler was the main face of the band besides Joe Perry, who was the Keith Richards to Tyler’s Jagger, and he sure looked damn sexy and dangerous in his loose fitting low-slung outfits, resembling pyjamas, that left most of his white, hairless body bare, and the scarves and floppy women's hats. Tyler was one of the last of the typical breed of Sixties-informed Seventies rock star who clearly loved dressing up for stage and photo opportunities and for whom dressing up meant an androgynous image where the wardrobe consisted of as many items of women’s clothing, barring actual lingerie, as he could find. The look was outrageously flamboyant and this held true for his motormouth interviews and pronouncements. The way to get Hit Parader's attention was to look extremely good and to say something extremely outrageous or least highly quotable.
Up to that point my knowledge of hard rock had been pretty much limited to Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Grand Funk Railroad and Boston. This was because these bands had hit singles on local radio or mates had the records. Acts like Led Zeppelin, Kiss and Blue Oyster Cult were still just names to me and it was a while before I owned some records by these bands. The whole FM rock thing of Kansas, Boston, Angel, and others of that ilk, passed me by. I liked faster louder and not the soaring harmonic guitars and anthemic vocals of the AOR bands.
This lack of musical experience of mid-Seventies American hard rock changed somewhat when I got my hands on Toys In the Attic (1975) and Rocks (1976), the brace of albums that officially and permanently put Aerosmith on the map as superstars. My acquistion of those two records were followed by Live Bootleg (1978) and Night in the Ruts (1979). I bought all of them during the five years between 1977 and 1981 that I spent at Stellenbosch University, studying for my two law degrees, and all of them were on sale at discount prices when I bought them. This was soon after the punk explosion in the UK and even if I had not heard much of the punk songbook I was ideologically firmly committed to the punk ethos and what I perceived to be its sound, based on what I knew of the Sex Pistols and the Clash and their antecedents in the MC5 and Stooges. Therefore I took a gamble on the Aerosmith albums. I’d read about the band and now I wanted to know what they sounded like and whether the hype had any substance.
To say that I was pleasantly surprised and much astonished would be an understatement. This music did not sound like heavy metal; in the same way that Blue Oyster Cult (whose first three albums I bought at more or less the same time) was much more melodic than the bog standard heavy riffing bands of the time.
Aerosmith was far more loose and grungy and visceral than, say, Boston. There was an amazing, fierce, fuzzed-out roar to the guitars that reminded me more of the punk movement (or how I imagined the punk bands would sound) than of the British heavy rock styles I knew. Aerosmith was loud, energetic, scuzzy and rocked like a demon. To my mind I could play Sex Pistols, Clash and Aerosmith back to back and the music would be of a piece. In fact, most of London Calling was far more AOR than either Rocks or Toys in The Attic. Of course the lyrical content of Aerosmith songs, although undeniably clever, was still the basic building blocks of hard rock, namely all manner of sexual innuendo and schoolboy smut and songs about partying. Socially conscious and politically correct it was not.
When Live Bootleg came up in a discount bin I bought it because it would give me an overview of Aerosmith tunes I had not heard before plus some interesting cover versions. I was keen on live albums at the time as collections of hits played in rougher fashion than the polished studio recordings. Unfortunately Live Bootleg turned out to one example of a cheap album that was not 100% perfect in quality. Sections of the vinyl deteriorated quickly but there was also an imperfection in the vinyl that caused one of the two records of the double album (I think it was the second disc) to jump when played, which meant I could not listen to it all that much or even record it on an audio cassette. Where the records were playable, it turned out that the live versions of the songs were pretty much as grungy as the studio versions although an ad more jam oriented. As a live on stage proposition Aerosmith were the epitome of dirty rock and roll in the unvarnished Stones sense of the concept.
Not long after Night In The Ruts also appeared in the discount bins at a very good, low price and I snapped it up. I believe that it got mostly less than positive reviews taking the view that Aerosmith had become an inspiration-free band wallowing in its success, over-indulging in the rewards of mega success and losing focus. In a way it was a departure in sound and vision but in another way I found it highly satisfactory except, once again, the vinyl was scratched and the record was playable only once or twice and then no more. The earlier rough-edged sound had been smoothed out to a degree with a loss of that fuzzy grunge I had admired on the earlier records, with some heavy blues and a Shangri La’s cover. I don’t care what the rock critics say. For me Night in the Ruts remains a favourite album and a record I’d l far rather listen to than anything the band has released afterwards, especially the enormous hit albums of the late Eighties.
Ii is true though, from this late Seventies point on, that Aerosmith lost direction. Joe Perry left, briefly, then the band released a brace of mediocre albums before coming back in the late 80s with Permanent Vacation (1987) and then Pump (1989), both of which had monster radio hits that dominated even the South African airwaves and set the band on the path to serious wealth. Aerosmith may have made better rock albums in die Seventies but from 1987 they became a commercial monster with smooth well produced heavy rock made by older guys in the fashion of the time and, if the hits were good, none of them ever motivated me to buy any Aerosmith product ever again.
I guess it is the life cycle of most bands that struggle before becoming truly successful and secure in their careers later in life. In the first 5 to 10 years the bad members are young, ambitious, hard living and make records full of youthful brio and vim but do not necessarily make a bunch of money partly because they blow their income on drugs and expensive shit that come from the desire to achieve a rock and roll lifestyle. A few years into the career the band has a purple patch where they write and record an album or two with massive hits, commercial success is enormous and the band members at last achieve financial security and realise that a career can be had if they play their cards right and relax a bit into the lifestyle and do not take it to the extreme all the time. This is the corporate phase where production values are high and required to be high, lots of attention is paid to detail. Professional songwriters and producers come onto the scene to guide the band to a sustainable career with continued commercial success. Generally this is where the song writing and production become slick and the tunes sound good on the radio and the quirky rough edges are smoothed out to the degree that the music becomes far less interesting than it might have been at the beginning.
Aerosmith fell victim to this syndrome. From Aerosmith to Night in the Ruts the band released a succession of good gritty Seventies hard rock albums made by young guys wanting to make their mark and loving to rock out. From Permanent Vacation onwards the music was being written and recorded by a bunch of increasingly older guys with the older guys' attitude to what rock is or should be, with an eye on maintaining the commercial initiative and the sense of belonging to the music industry establishment and being proud of it and accepting all kinds of honours they might have scoffed at when they were very young and rebellious.
Young Aerosmith were rebellious punks who wanted to ultimate rock and roll lifestyle of women, drugs and excessive living. The older, more mature Aerosmith, who had become careerists as much as anyone else in the business who foresaw longevity provided they slowed down and observed a couple of rules, and realized that corporate rock was much more lucrative than rebellious rock and could give one the kind of comfort and luxury being a rebel and showing the establishment the finger, never could or would.
As soon as Aerosmith songs started enjoying serious airplay in South Africa the smooth, glossy pop veneer put me off. This was nothing like the satisfactory rough crunch of their early albums. They got older, more proficient, lost the drug habits and realized that their career demanded closer attention to craftsmanship and maintaining their health than punk rebellion and purely visceral rock and roll.
Somewhere along 1990 Aerosmith crossed the line from outlaw rockers to classic rockers. In my opinion Aerosmith’s best years were the first decade of their existence as band. They’ve going for more than 40 years now and will never equal those first 7 studio albums regardless of how commercially successful later records might have been.