Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: Aerosmith
- Album: Toys In The Attic
- Year of Release: 1975
- Country: USA
- Label: Columbia
- Format: Jewelcase CD
- Catalogue Number: 474964 2
I occasionally wonder whether Aerosmith are truly deserving of their exalted position as one of the world’s greatest classic rock bands. They certainly occupy an important place in the development of my own music taste, as one of their periodic resurgences of popularity coincided with my nascent teenage interest in hard rock, and I therefore encountered their best-known songs almost as soon as a distorted power chord first triggered whatever chemical reaction it is that occurs in the brain to predispose one towards the heavier end of the musical spectrum. But for all of the nostalgic pleasure that their name evokes, it is clear that they are not true innovators in the way that their key influences were – the Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin. Neither is their discography bulging with the classic albums that their longevity might suggest it should, and indeed much of their post-Rocks output is downright average at best. And then I listen to Toys In The Attic, which blows all gripes and reservations clean out of the water, in a spectacular, undiluted display of pure rock ‘n’ roll power, and emphatically answers the question of whether their status is merited.
Toys In The Attic comes out swinging right from the bell. Where the previous album drew the listener in gently, with the riff-based, but laidback ‘Same Old Song And Dance’, Aerosmith go for the jugular with the superb title-track. With absolutely no pause for breath, the breakneck blues riffing exudes frantic energy, as if they had been told they have a maximum of 3 minutes to imprint their mark on rock ‘n’ roll history, and more so than ever, Tyler’s vocal melodies offer a perfectly synchronous accompaniment to the twin guitars of Joe Perry and Brad Whitford. The track is not totally without subtlety, however. The harmonies that furnish the chorus add a layer of gloss, the key change for the guitar solo adds another melodic dimension to an otherwise straightforward song, and the thumping bassline that provides the foundation for the solo section is satisfyingly high in the mix, allowing the band to fire on all cylinders in a thrilling demonstration of firepower.
From this most exuberant of beginnings, the album barely puts a foot wrong. Quite apart from the superior songwriting, the sequencing is fantastic, meaning that the whole thing hangs together as a coherent album arguably more than any of their releases before or after. The album covers virtually all of the bases that one could reasonably expect from a mainstream rock act of the time. There are of course no peaks to scale without corresponding troughs, and Toys In The Attic masterfully utilises regular shifts in volume and tempo to create an enthralling landscape for the listener to explore. The tidal surge of the opener ebbs into the downtempo, and lyrically bleak ‘Uncle Salty’, which employs a dreamy clean chord progression to generate a gentle psychedelic feel, enhanced by a mid-section in which Tyler’s effects-laden vocals swirl around an arpeggiated guitar figure, before a ripping guitar solo brings everything back into focus. If the best-loved tracks from Toys In The Attic retain a timeless quality, some of the less-well known songs are heavily redolent of the period. In fact, so mid-70s does ‘Uncle Salty’ feel during it’s second half, one can easily imagine it playing over the top of a montage of Vietnam war footage, choppers emerging from the low-hanging mist to sweep over the dense jungle, before dropping teenaged GIs into the hitherto unimaginable hell of guerilla warfare. It’s the kind of rock no one really makes any more – consciously retro revivalists tend to stick to emulating the more obvious riff / chorus / solo formula that Aerosmith are rightfully known for, but there could be some mileage in updating this sound for the 21st century.
The mid-section of the album is where things really soar into classic territory though. After two bars of nothing but Joey Kramer’s wonderfully economical drums, one of the most recognisable riffs of all time stomps all over rhythm section. Due to the not-yet-extant nature of the hip hop genre at the time (even if the raw materials in the form of Motown basslines and John Bonham drum tracks were readily available), this version omits the scratching turntables and rhythmic rhyming of Joseph ‘Run’ Simmons and Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels that modern listeners will have become accustomed to. Whether one prefers the later version or not is immaterial, but what the original ‘Walk This Way’ proves over and over again is that Aerosmith had undoubtedly written a song so magnificent that it utterly deserved it’s 1980s rediscovery. As it has done for many overplayed classic rock standards (‘Paranoid’, ‘Ace Of Spades’, ‘Enter Sandman’), familiarity has unavoidably dulled the lustre of a song as ubiquitous as this, to the point at which it can seem more rewarding to discover the hidden gems of a band’s career in preference to hearing it even one more time. However, when all of this is set aside, what is left is an almost unbearably thrilling slice of pure rock ‘n’ roll, fuelled by possibly the sexiest, funkiest riff yet created. This is music shorn of all fripperies and unnecessary extravagances, leaving only the bare essentials, bypassing the brain and all rational thought – don’t think, just feel.
The trad rock ‘n’ roll of their version of ‘Big Ten Inch Record’, much covered, but made famous by Bull Moose Jackson, might be mildly irritating in another setting. Here though, it somehow functions as an effective palate cleanser between the twin main courses of ‘Walk This Way’, and the untouchable ‘Sweet Emotion’. In the pantheon of Aerosmith covers, it doesn’t come close to the attaining the high watermark of ‘Train Kept A Rollin’ from Get Your Wings, but it’s lightweight, knockabout fun is an opportunity to recover a measure of composure before Tom Hamilton’s inimitable bassline causes cool to be dramatically lost once more. As one of the great rock grooves is layered with crisp drums and dulcet harmonies, it is impossible not to be affected by the kind of transcendent power that only the purest musical ingenuity can create. In a distant echo of the unusual structure of ‘S.O.S. (Too Bad)’ on this album’s predecessor, Aerosmith somehow fashion a rock classic from a song that positions the chorus at the start of the track, and drops a huge riff with back-masked snare hits into the place where the chorus should be. In between all of this is a swaggering verse riff and snarling vocal from Tyler succeed in marrying the disparate sections of a towering masterpiece into a single earth-shattering whole.
Many records would struggle to hold the attention at the conclusion of such a monstrous pair of songs, but Toys In The Attic just about holds it together. The honky-tonk Stones worship of ‘No More No More’ is diverting enough, but the blunt assault of ‘Round And Round’ is utterly intriguing. Triangulating Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, the song is built around an unusually doomy main riff, which is probably the most overtly metallic Aerosmith have ever been. Tyler affects something not dissimilar to Ozzy Osbourne’s mournful wail, and the guitars develop the rudimentary thud of the riff during the course of the song in a way that elevates the song from a basic riff workout into something both stranger and more satisfying than one would initially expect. The other side of the coin is ‘You See Me Crying’, which closes proceedings. The woodwind and sweeping strings of the introduction can mean only one thing – the first true Aerosmith power ballad. A raw, emotional vocal from Tyler hints at the kind of alchemy created by ‘Dream On’, and ‘Seasons Of Wither’ on previous albums, but unfortunately the stripped back arrangements that served those compositions so well are replaced here by a rather cloying production, reminiscent of the polarising orchestration found on The Beatles Let It Be, a resemblance not helped by piano chord progressions that recall some of Lennon’s work on that same album. All of which means that what could have been a delightfully lilting conclusion to a wonderful album instead comes across as overwrought and marginally unsatisfying.
It would be churlish to let this cloud the judgement when it comes to evaluating Toys In The Attic as a whole though. Unlike most of the band’s albums, this is a consistently excellent piece of work, enhanced by Jack Douglas’s stellar engineering and production that rectifies the shortcomings of Get Your Wings, and delivers a full, thick, organic sound that still allows space for the rhythm section to breathe. Indeed the understated bass playing throughout the record is one of the joys that is unlocked by repeated listening, as Hamilton frequently strikes a perfect balance between finding interesting counter-points to the guitars, but also locking in with the drums to anchor a solid groove. Toys In The Attic is not a revolutionary album – for the most part, Aerosmith synthesise their blues, rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelia influences into a distinctive, but not novel sound. However, innovation is not a mandatory requirement for great rock ‘n’ roll. What is mandatory are memorable songs, played with intensity, and palpable soul and personality, all of which pour from virtually every note of this outstanding, landmark album.