Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: Aerosmith
- Album: Night In The Ruts
- Year of Release: 1979
- Country: USA
- Label: Columbia
- Format: Jewelcase CD
- Catalogue Number: 474968 2
It’s hard from a distance to truly evaluate the impact of the kind of outsized success that Aerosmith experienced in the 1970s following the release of Toys In The Attic and Rocks, on both the mental health of a band, and also their creativity. There are, of course, plenty of examples of artists who have enjoyed long careers of continuous artistic fulfilment and perpetual commercial success by successfully re-imagining, or developing their sound – David Bowie, Nick Cave and Radiohead all successfully reinvented themselves a number of times without losing the unique spark that sets them apart. More often though, it seems that bands appear spent after pouring everything into a small number of classic records, and thereafter commence a long, sometimes terminal, decline. This is not necessarily accompanied by a corresponding reduction in popularity in the live arena; bands such as Kiss, Motley Crue and Def Leppard still draw huge audiences, despite having not released any new music of real significance for many years. Perhaps due to the obvious limitations of their sound, which is not wide-ranging enough to permit significant deviations from a well-established form (at least not without risking total humiliation), Aerosmith were always destined to fall into the latter category, a situation exacerbated by the band’s herculean consumption of a diverse array of pharmaceuticals. Draw The Line may have just about maintained some forward motion, but Night In The Ruts is very much the sound of a band unwilling, and unable, to arrest an inexorably downward trajectory, even if it occasionally displays glimpses of the band that they once were.
Even the title suggests that the band were in some way resigned to their fate. The supremely confident and cocksure band that made the amusingly arrogant, but coherent Rocks, is a fading memory, and the bestowing on their sixth album of the moniker Night In The Ruts is a fairly clear anti-statement of intent. It intimates that the LP was carelessly tossed off in a few hours, but in fact, the recording process was lengthy and beset with problems. A band that previously operated on an annual cycle of record – release – tour, took over 2 years to painstakingly piece this album together, and such was the animosity within the band, that after recording his guitar parts, Joe Perry promptly decided he no longer had the patience to wait for Steven Tyler to compose his lyrics and melodies and left the band in a sulk that would last for 5 long years. Even after the tortuous recording process, the result was an album on which a third of the songs were covers, no more than a third had any real artistic merit, and the final third were treading water at best.
Let us deal first with the few tracks that offer some kind of succour to the Aerosmith fan, and represent the main reason for acquiring Night In The Ruts. No one familiar with their discography will be shocked to discover that two of these kick off the album, before the disappointment of the first cover stalls momentum three tracks in. ‘No Surprize’ is good enough, although not spectacular in comparison to the kind of sensational openers of albums gone by, and that in itself is symptomatic of the clear drop in quality that Night In The Ruts as a whole represents. Lyrically, it’s the Aerosmith origin story (“1971, we all heard the starter’s gun / New York was such a pity / But at Max’s Kansas City we won”), and it’s not the first self-referential track on the album; the band perhaps unconsciously trying to bridge the gap for the listener between their diminished current incarnation, and the band that they once were. The hazy production of Draw The Line has been replaced by a gratingly metallic sound not dissimilar to The Stooges’ Raw Power, but sadly the majority of the album is lacking the urgency and intensity of that landmark album. Musically, the track is fairly strong, with an insistent string-bending blues figure that recurs throughout the song providing some real substance, but the vocal melodies are simply not memorable enough to deliver the kind of hard rock classicism that the band are known for.
‘Chiquita’ is much better, and cruelly raises hopes that Night In The Ruts is going to improve as the album progresses. The clipped riffing that opens the track and returns for the bridge section effectively utilises interweaving lead and rhythm guitars in a way that the band have rarely done in the past, and provides a certain amount of support to Joe Perry’s claim that the guitars that he recorded prior to his departure were breaking new ground in terms of the lead and rhythm combinations between himself and Brad Whitford, even if the case for the defence becomes untenable by the final track. The unusually complex and snaking riff that dominates the verses is undoubtedly one of Perry’s best (not to mention an obvious inspiration for a certain top-hatted Guns N Roses guitarist), and an already sonically heavy song even manages to up the ante with a piledriving chorus that benefits from a truly fevered, exquisitely unhinged, performance from Tyler. The final track that leaves an especially positive impression, despite the nonsensical lyrics (“Take a look at my old billy goat / He used to raise all kinds of hell / He took a dose of my radiation dope / A back in the barn is where he fell, like hell”), ‘Three Mile Smile’ is splendid. Riding on an effortless and serene groove that acts as a throwback to more carefree times, things really take off when the song hits the chorus, the guitars and rhythm section locking into a synchronous, monolithic rolling riff, prefiguring the kind of huge sound that Rage Against The Machine developed based an entire career around over a decade later. It’s absolutely thrilling, and it’s impossible not to wonder what might have been, had the band had the focus to maintain this level of quality for the duration of the record.
The three covers that flesh out the record, however, show that this was a band incapable of applying themselves for any length of time, given the other distractions available to them. As we know, Aerosmith have a long history of paying recorded tribute to their (musical) influences, and indeed ‘Train Kept A Rollin” was so brutally and brilliantly claimed as the band’s own on Get Your Wings that it would be churlish to deny Aerosmith the opportunity to do the same again on Night In The Ruts. It is an opportunity missed by some margin, however. ‘Remember (Walking In The Sand)’ offers an interpretation of The Shangri-Las 60s hit, but the joy that pervaded this type of doo-wop pop is entirely absent from their desultory and downbeat version. ‘Reefer Head Woman’ is more conventional Aerosmith territory – a straightforward 12-bar standard. It’s far from terrible, but also, far from interesting. One imagines that the band enjoyed recording it rather more than the listener enjoys hearing the fruits of their labour. ‘Think About It’, originally recorded by The Yardbirds, is comfortably the pick of the covers, but even so, the band’s combination of raw blues riffing with British beat combo vocals on the chorus feels somewhat incongruous for a band that has always thrived on a less mannered and more free-wheeling version of rock ‘n’ roll than that proffered by the bands that inspired them from the other side of the Atlantic.
The remainder of the original compositions that comprise the balance of the album are sadly no more then mediocre, even if sections of ‘Bone To Bone (Coney Island White Fish Boy)’ threaten to ignite, before it fizzles out due to the total lack of memorable vocal melodies. ‘Mia’ attempts to contrive a return to the formula of closing the album with a piano ballad, and in its favour, it does contain the kind of vocal hook that much of the rest of the album is lacking. However, it’s a transparently desperate attempt to update and recapture the magic of ‘Dream On’ from their debut, but with a fraction of the charm, and as such, it’s a disappointing and monotonous way to end what is ultimately a disappointing album. The final, repeated, piano note that emerges from the rubble of ‘Mia’ sounds so funereal, that it is difficult to interpret as anything other than the death-knell of the Aerosmith that produced such a strong run of albums up to this point. As we know, following the returm of Joe Perry in 1984, Aerosmith were able to recover both critically and especially commercially, but it’s impossible to see Night In The Ruts as anything other than a confused misstep that sees the band stumbling, drunk and stoned, from the pedestal on which they had previously stood.