Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: Aerosmith
- Album: Rocks
- Year of Release: 1976
- Country: USA
- Label: Columbia
- Format: Jewelcase CD
- Catalogue Number: 474965 2
Aerosmith Rocks. That, clearly, could be the review, and it would arguably be no worse than the several hundred words that it will take me to reach essentially the same conclusion. Maintaining the impressive, and by this point chemically-assisted, productivity that had seen the band release three albums in as many years, Rocks was released just over 12 months on from the splendid Toys In The Attic. This time round though, and for the first time in their career, Aerosmith were releasing an album which came with a certain level of anticipation and expectation. Buoyed by the success of the classic singles ‘Walk This Way’ and ‘Sweet Emotion’, that album had sold well in the US in particular, and the band’s heavy touring had seen them amass a loyal fanbase, hungry for the next chapter in the Aerosmith story. Although in many ways, quite a different record from Toys…, it is to the band’s immense credit that it is equally impressive, and stands tall today as one of the highlights of their extensive back catalogue, both continuing to find new variations on their signature raucous rock ‘n’ roll sound, but also successfully expanding and developing their sound, with some of their most overtly funky and heaviest material to date.
Over the previous albums, Aerosmith have built a tradition of opening their records with a barnstorming rocker, and ‘Back In The Saddle’ is no exception, taking the template established by ‘Make It’, ‘Same Old Song And Dance’, and ‘Toys In The Attic’, and somehow improving on all of them. Moreover though, as the haunting, fragmented intro explodes into life with one of Joe Perry’s most colossal riffs, it is clear that something has changed at the heart of the Aerosmith psyche. Where Toys In The Attic was blissful in its uncomplicated and impudent hedonism, Rocks (a triple-entendre of a title?) reveals the dark side of the band’s indulgences. It’s as if the band skipped merrily down the technicolour yellow brick road to Oz, only to cross the threshold and find themselves in the New York City of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The whole album is suffused with existential dread, a cluttered and oppressive production, and frequently bizarre guitar tones projecting a constant, creeping anxiety. Contrast one of the many available live versions of ‘Back In The Saddle’ with the murky, percussive thump of the album version, and one can envisage how thick and bright it might’ve sounded had the band not chosen to cloak Rocks in a drug-addled haze. Thankfully, the band were presumably too far gone to question such odd sonic choices though; as repeated listens allow the layers of Rocks to reveal themselves, the air of menace sets this album apart from the rest of the Aerosmith discography, adding a certain mystery that continues to intrigue decades later.
As the album progresses, the band pleasingly combine the familiar sounds that they were primarily known for with a subtle exploration of new sounds and tones. For every ‘Sick As A Dog’ or ‘Rats In The Cellar’ (a tip of the hat to ‘Toys In The Attic), the kind of ramshackle rock ‘n’ roll shitkickers that lesser bands would’ve based entire careers around, there’s a ‘Last Child’, or ‘Nobody’s Fault’. The former is deliciously funky, built on a deliberately dragging tempo and riff that is more than reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’, flowing into a more psychedelic chorus which twins angelic harmonies with a gloriously fluid and prominent bassline, before a brief burst of Allman Brothers-style twin guitar introduces a heavy riffing conclusion to an enormously satisfying track. Picking up where ‘Round And Round’ on the previous album left off, the latter is thunderously heavy, with fuzzed out, chugging guitars providing a base for an outrageous, shrieking vocal from Tyler, rightly observing that “Everything’s on fire”! Providing a lesson in heavy metal song structure for that embryonic scene, the way in which the overwhelmingly full sound of the verses gives way to the sparse, staccato guitar runs of the chorus, allowing the rhythm section to bleed through the noise, is absolutely thrilling, and the band reach a feverish level of intensity here that they have rarely, if ever, matched since.
And it’s not just the youthful metal bands that would flourish in the 1980s that the band inspired, but also the alternative rockers of the 90s, who would ultimately become their peers commercially. Despite Kurt Cobain’s public avowal of his love for Aerosmith, the musical influence on Nirvana and grunge more generally isn’t frequently apparent. ‘Nobody’s Fault’ is an exception though, its ragged metal assault providing an audible connection between 70s hard rock and the early works of Nirvana, Soundgarden and many other bands of that era. It wasn’t just the younger residents of Seattle making furious notes while spinning Rocks either. Although neither Joe Perry nor Brad Whitford can match the virtuosic guitar pyrotechnics of a certain Netherlands-born guitarist, everything else about ‘Combination’ pre-figures the sound of early Van Halen, most clearly in the deft harmonies of the chorus, which sees a melody constructed primarily from multi-part harmonies shifting around Tyler’s largely static lead vocal, a neat trick repurposed extensively by David Lee Roth and the brothers Van Halen on their own debut a few years later.
If there is any criticism to be levelled at the mostly superior Rocks, it’s that it runs out of steam a little across the final third of its run-time, and also continues to recycle the formula of placing an unpleasantly saccharine, string-laden ballad at the end of album, frittering away a small portion of the splendour that the rest of the album has so diligently created across the first 6 virtually flawless tracks. Only Tyler’s magisterial vocal comes anywhere close to saving the sub-Queen pomp of the horrible ‘Home Tonight’, wistful longing dripping from a voice that may not be technically perfect, but has soul in abundance to scythe like a speeding motorcycle through the middle of the road fare that threatens to suffocate an undeniably brilliant performance.
In the final analysis, it’s difficult to separate Rocks from Toys In The Attic, the twin classics of 1970s Aerosmith. The best songs on the latter are pure hard rock perfection, and the carefree, open sound perfectly captures a young, hungry band on the way up. Rocks though, with layers of guitars and percussion coming at the listener from all directions, combined with lyrics shot through with real-world unease as the American dream threatens to turn into a nightmare, is arguably the more interesting record, and therefore just shades its predecessor. Rocks sees Aerosmith at their most hard-edged, attacking their instruments with blistering intent, vindictively dismissing the critics that suggested they were little more than talented mimics, imitating the Stones and Led Zeppelin. Rocks is the ultimate riposte to such accusations, as the band deliver something subtly different from simply a synthesis of their influences, offering a truly great album that fascinates as much as it ever did. Aerosmith Rocks.