Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: Aerosmith
- Album: Rock In A Hard Place
- Year of Release: 1982
- Country: USA
- Label: Columbia
- Format: Jewelcase CD
- Catalogue Number: 474970 2
1982 saw Aerosmith in not just a hard place, but a difficult place, and probably at the lowest ebb in their career. The Toxic Twins were estranged, Joe Perry having left part way through the recording of Night In The Ruts three years earlier, and the runaway commercial and critical success of Rocks had been tempered in the intervening years by a series of missteps and ill-judged decisions. Each successive album contained music of merit, some intriguing experiments, and even the occasional blockbuster song, but the overall trajectory of the band’s career was undoubtedly downwards, hastened by the interpersonal issues and chemical dependencies that so often afflict bands that rise to such lofty heights so quickly.
Despite being the only Aerosmith album not to feature Joe Perry, Rock In A Hard Place (yet another transparent title) is actually reasonably good, and far better than the disaster that it could so easily have been. The main issue with the album though, is the palpable effort that it took to complete what is ultimately not much more or less than a moderately good rock album. An issue because the best rock ‘n’ roll should sound like it’s been channelled from the ether with insouciant ease. The best rock ‘n’ roll should be spontaneous and immediate, even a little ramshackle, regardless of the fact that if one were to lift the veil, one might discover that it has taken significant toil to produce this impression. The auditory version, if you will, of Dolly Parton’s oft-quoted line that it costs a lot of money to look so cheap. Think of the Rolling Stones circa Exile On Main Street, AC/DC’s Back In Black, or Motorhead’s Bomber, and the thread that joins them all together is the uncomplicated clarity of a recorded output that comes from following intuition wherever it leads, and trusting in the outcome. It’s not uncommon for successful bands, perhaps because the wellspring of inspiration has run dry, perhaps because other pursuits have become a distraction, to start second-guessing their own music, moving between expanding their sound before retrenching to a self-conscious facsimile of what made them successful in the first place, and this undoubtedly afflicts Aerosmith at this point in their career. As good as parts of this album are, the band’s instinct for what makes great rock ‘n’ roll has been lost at this point, and the listener can hear how desperately the band are searching for their muse throughout, which cloaks the majority of the record with a vaguely dispiriting air, which only occasionally disperses.
One thing that Aerosmith haven’t forgotten though, is their formula of commencing the album with an up-tempo riff-rocker, and, of course, concluding things with a largely unnecessary ballad that attempts to replicate ‘Dream On’ for the umpteenth time. ‘Jailbait’ is the rocker in this pairing, ‘ Push Comes To Shove’ is the ballad, and both are underwhelming, the latter in the extreme. When evaluating ‘Jailbait’, it’s impossible not to address the extremely distasteful subject matter. What may have seemed risqué in the early 1980s, is now a depressing tale of the kind of abusive power imbalances that many bands even in the post-#MeToo era still take advantage of. And this is no fictional fantasy – Tyler’s 3 year relationship with Julia Holcomb during the 1970s began when Holcomb was 16, and it’s difficult to imagine that there were not other similar dalliances, especially given the more permissive (at least with respect to this kind of behaviour) social climate of the time. All of which paints Tyler’s lyrics in a more sinister light – “Girl’s a lover, never knew she’s jailbait” – and repeated references to ‘Daddy’, a recurring feature in lyrical depictions of the kind of ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ subject matter that litters the hard rock of the time. Musically, ‘Jailbait’ is reasonably good; although the rest of the song fails to fulfil the promise of a brilliant pounding, bass-led intro, the barrelling riff and punchy guitars of the chorus wrest momentum back from an awkward verse in which thin-sounding guitars follow an unsatisfying vocal melody, but the song as a whole never quite coalesces into the kind of masterful magnificence that marked their earlier, more impressive work. Still, there’s enough of interest here to suggest that the album as a whole may be salvageable from the wreckage of a band on the brink.
Although the confused, keyboard-driven scuzz of ‘Lightning Strikes’ immediately suggests that these hopes will be dashed, to the band’s credit, things do get much better quickly. Jimmy Crespo, for all of the success he has had in carving out a career as a solid session live and session player with other artists, will never have much more than cameo walk-on role in the Aerosmith story, but in the absence of Joe Perry, he takes up the slack, delivering a strong contribution that deserves more recognition than he has (understandably) received. The first true sign of life is the excellent ‘Bitch’s Brew’. For perhaps the first time since Rocks, some real musical development is apparent, the band channelling the darkness and existential dread stalking their lives outside the studio into a harder-edged and more gritty sound. In fact, not just on this track, but also on ‘Bolivian Ragamuffin’ which immediately follows, the heavy, rolling grooves are reminiscent of the kind of metallic melodicism that Soundgarden would make a core part of their sound over a decade later. Another reminder that the grunge explosion of the 1990s, often positioned as some kind of rebellion against, and reaction to, mainstream hard rock, was actually in many ways a continuation and development of the sound of the bands that had inspired them to pick up guitars in the first place, albeit combined with inspirations from punk and hardcore, and a more introverted and at times socially conscious lyrical bent.
Even better, following the inconsequential atmospheric spoken word interlude ‘Prelude To Joanie’, is ‘Joanie’s Butterfly’. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the single best song of this part of the band’s career, that being the run of albums between Draw The Line and Permanent Vacation. Too often across these records, a single acceptable riff or melody is stretched to breaking point, carrying the song in the absence of any compelling vocal line, the band presumably hoping that the listener’s memory of what Aerosmith once were generates enough sentimental attachment to ensure that the band is forgiven for what is realistically rather lazy songwriting. On this track though, everything comes together so magically that it triggers something more than a false memory; an authentic experience in fact, the band genuinely recapturing something that it seemed had been lost forever. What really stands out here is the lightness of touch that allows the folky acoustics and jazzy chords of the intro to transform with a flourish into a theatrical mid-tempo rocker. Tyler’s vocal is, for once, majestic, the catchy descending vocal melody of the chorus integrating perfectly with stabbing guitar chords in a way which feels supremely natural, with Jack Douglas’s organic production allowing plenty of space for the rhythm section to fill the space left by the economic guitars. A baroque string line is integrated seamlessly into the mix, subtle enough to avoid drowning the band in syrupy schmaltz, but prominent enough to provide another layer of composition that, unusually for Aerosmith, culminates in a deceptively complex, but euphoric anthem that exudes pure joy. That it happens to be included on one of the band’s less heralded releases means that it is not more widely known, a shame for such a life-affirming and life-enhancing track.
As good as ‘Joanie’s Butterfly’ is though, it stands out in part, because it is nearly drowned in the sea of mediocrity that surrounds it. Both the title track and ‘Jig Is Up’ are practically the definition of filler. The former, leaving aside a self-plagiarising riff that harkens back to ‘Uncle Salty’ from Toys In The Attic, appears to be an attempt to develop their sound into the kind of brass-augmented glossy pop-rock that would prove so successful for the reunited band later in the decade. It is possible that although they were unable to fully realise their ambitions here, the band registered the potential buried somewhere within the track, and that this contributed in part to their eventual commercial renaissance. If these tracks are average, both the cover of the jazz standard ‘Cry Me A River’, and the closing track ‘Push Comes To Shove’ that round out the album are a hideous affront to music and should never have found their way on to the album. One can only assume that at this point, such was the paucity of available material, and so low was the interest in the band from their label, that no one had the courage to tell truth to waning power. On the former, it is possible to divine what Tyler was aiming for, even if the target is missed by a wide margin. One imagines that he envisaged himself on stage in a smoky basement bar, a lone stagehand sweeping the broken glass and spent cigarettes from the floor, as a tearful crooner pours his heart out to the tiny audience that can’t quite tear themselves away. The latter is simply bizarre, a strange showtune pastiche from which no one emerges with any credit, and which is best forgotten.
In some respects, Rock In A Hard Place is an improvement on it predecessor, which is absolutely the sound of a band falling apart committed to tape. At its worst, it is grimly fascinating, and at it’s best it is superb. However, much of the album is the sound of a band knocking on the door of excellence, but fumbling for the keys, when they should quite simply blow the door off its hinges. Also missing from large stretches of the album is any real feeling of joy and excitement. This would be less of a problem were Aerosmith playing funeral doom, or blackened death metal, but for a band that should be the life of the party, this is more of a problem. This means that Rock In A Hard Place is best viewed as a document of a difficult period of the band’s career, and a small and essential step in the right direction, when it could so easily have been a step into permanent obscurity.