Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: Aerosmith
- Album: Honkin’ On Bobo
- Year of Release: 2004
- Country: USA
- Label: Columbia
- Format: Jewelcase CD
- Catalogue Number: 515447 2
The big question provoked by Aerosmith’s previous studio album, the disappointing Just Push Play, was that of who exactly Aerosmith were making the album for? Too passé for the younger pop fans that it appeared to be designed to appeal to, and not guitar-oriented enough for the rock fans that had traditionally made up the band’s fanbase, it was instead of interest to virtually nobody, and potentially heralded the start of a permanent decline for the legendary group. Three years later, Aerosmith followed up an album made for no obvious audience, but making one for the smallest audience of all: themselves. Honkin’ On Bobo is in many ways the ‘back to the roots’ album that Aerosmith had conspicuously swerved for some time, but rather than return to the sound of Toys In The Attic or Rocks, the band instead went back to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll itself, recording what is predominantly a covers album, mostly of blues standards. It’s not cutting edge, it’s not even especially exciting, but it is very much the sound of a band paying their respects to the artists on whose weary shoulders they have stood for over three decades, and the band, at least, are clearly enjoying themselves immensely. Whether the listener can get the same level of delight is debatable – one imagines that the excitement for Aerosmith was very much to be found in the process of plugging in and paying tribute to their heroes, and listening back to an album that is inevitably constrained by the self-imposed limitations of a somewhat rigid genre cannot hope to replicate the thrill of being in the room when it was recorded.
It appears that Aerosmith intuitively recognise this, and so Honkin’ On Bobo commences with the sound of a fake crowd, as if to suggest that the album is a bootleg tape of the band caught playing their own aftershow in a small bar. As the applause fades, the band kick straight into the very percussive 12-bar of Bo Diddley’s ‘Road Runner’. Much-covered, versions of this track have previously been released by The Animals, The Zombies and The Who, so it is easy to conclude that it’s a song that the band have been familiar with in its various guises for a long time. Aerosmith’s ‘Road Runner’ is a good song, although clearly nowhere near as startling as the original would have sounded in 1960 – every cutting edge sound unavoidably becomes safe eventually. What is also apparent is that, in stark contrast to the hideously over-produced Just Push Play, Honkin’ On Bobo is the warm, organic sound of a rock ‘n’ roll band, unadorned by superfluous sounds and layers. Aerosmith sound like a band again, five members all playing in the same room at the same time, something that is underscored by the short instrumental section featuring brief solos from the rhythm section as well as the expected guitars, and it is enough to make one nostalgic for the days when the band’s original compositions sounded this raw and authentic.
Perhaps unavoidably, the main drawback of the album is that much of it is too similar. The raw material of the blues structure means that songs such as ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’ and ‘Temperature’ occasionally blur into one long boogie, although the sparkling piano of the former threatens to elevate it to a higher level. The best moments on the record are generally to be found when the band take the road less travelled, and happen upon a more interesting destination. ‘Never Loved A Girl’ stands out for this reason. A cover of the single that set soul legend Aretha Franklin on the road to stardom in 1967, Aerosmith transpose the electric piano refrain of Franklin’s version onto the guitars, and the slow, dragging tempo makes for a gratifying change of pace that serves as a reminder that although the band have found huge success with rather more syrupy power ballads, they are more than capable of turning their hand to a more sophisticated and measured approach to this kind of sound, which relies on the clipped rise and fall of sparse instrumentation and seductive melody. The song is mesmerising in its economic charm, and represents one of the high points of the album.
Similarly, ‘Back Back Train’, which immediately follows, also adopts a sound that Aerosmith prove themselves surprisingly proficient at recreating, given that it falls far outside of their usual narrow modes of operation. One of three tracks on the album originally composed by Mississippi Fred McDowell, ‘Back Back Train’ is true delta blues, with Tyler’s mournful harmonica figure combining with the tom-tom heavy drum part to produce a funereal sound that has as much in common with the gothic blues of The Firstborn Is Dead-era Nick Cave, as it does with the more raucous Chicago sound that is the more obvious antecedent of Aerosmith’s 1970s records. The song also benefits from Tracy Bonham’s tight vocal harmonies, interweaving throughout the track with a restrained Joe Perry lead vocal, and the haunting tone that the feminine voice brings opens a new dimension for the band that it is intriguing to hear them explore. Bonham also duets with Tyler on the closing ‘Jesus Is On The Main Line’, and the spiritual gospel of that track creates a solemn and evocative texture hugely uncharacteristic of the Aerosmith oeuvre, but which they pull off with enough style to position themselves as a contender should the Coen Brothers ever require a soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou 2 (Still Searching).
Even more successful though, is ‘I’m Ready’, a cover of a Muddy Waters single from 1954, which was released on the legendary Chess Records. Much like early Led Zeppelin did repeatedly on their first three albums, Aerosmith take the raw materials of the original and reassemble in a way that underlines the direct connection between early rock ‘n’ roll and blues, and the hard rock and metal of the 1970s. A simple harmonica line on the original becomes, with the aid of a wah pedal mysteriously rarely employed by Joe Perry, a slinky, coiling minor key blues riff, which constructs a tense, almost oppressive atmosphere balanced expertly by the more spacious mid-section of the track, which utilises a gloriously doomy descending guitar figure that is heavy enough to pass for early Black Sabbath. It’s a completely fascinating track, and opens a door to new sonic possibilities for the band, albeit perhaps later in their career than would have been ideal.
In direct contrast to these highlights, the least successful covers showcased on Honkin’ On Bobo are those that most closely resemble the originals. ‘Stop Messin’ Around’ takes the breezy British blues of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, and replicates it, but stripped of the energy and purpose of Green’s vibrant band, and ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go’ does something comparable to their rendition of Them’s cover of Big Joe Williams’ delta blues original, although it preserves the menacing feel of the pounding bassline, which saves the track from total ignominy. Them, of course, featured the soulful tones of a young Van Morrison, and it’s strange to hear Tyler so closely aping the quirks and idiosyncrasies of another singer, when he would usually bring so much personality of his own to bear on such a track. Perhaps the band’s reluctance to depart too far from the most well-known version of tracks that have been regularly covered since their first release is understandable though, given the confusion of ‘You Gotta Move’, another Mississippi Fred McDowell track, but better known from the Rolling Stones version included on their superlative Sticky Fingers album. Aerosmith are clearly at pains not to simply imitate the Stones’ here, but also fail to capture the quivering fragility of the primal original, falling between two stools and failing to make the song their own.
In fact, both of the aforementioned tracks raise the most obvious question that needs to be asked in relation to the album as a whole – just what is the point of it? Covers albums are not intrinsically a bad idea, but are fundamentally most interesting when they either bring previously obscure songs and artists to wider attention (see Metallica’s Garage Days series), or alternatively arrange the original components in a way that offers a completely different interpretation, which opens up new possibilities hitherto unimagined (see Johnny Cash’s later works). Aerosmith, on the other hand, tend to favour faithful recitations of songs whose definitive versions have already been recorded, and one has to question both the wisdom of this, and also the depth of their professed love for the blues, considering that they were unable to identify more esoteric and deserving options for a track-listing that could’ve been made considerably more interesting with a little more thought.
Additionally, it would be remiss not to address the complicated issue of the appropriation of the blues by white musicians, something that led to fame and fortune for Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and many more, while the original composers of the songs that they variously covered or plagiarised died unknown, unappreciated and frequently in penury. While these and many more bands undoubtedly held a sincere admiration for the music that they emulated and incorporated into their own sounds, and of course the progression of music is naturally an iterative process which inevitably synthesises the influences of other artists to produce something novel, the alacrity with which blues-derived music gained an audience in the 1960s and 1970s shorn of the (at the time) provocative images of the poor black musicians that developed the form, is an indictment of the endemic racism of the time (some of which sadly persists today), and also challenges the motivations of the white bands that failed to credit or remunerate the bluesmen and women from whom they borrowed. It is only fair to note that this is not something that Aerosmith should be found guilty of here – all of the original writers are credited as such on this album, and Honkin’ On Bobo is surely a well-intentioned tribute, not a cynical theft.
In fact, the best thing that can emerge from an often entertaining, but partially redundant album, is that it provides an impetus for anyone who hears it to seek out the original versions of the tracks that it contains, most of which are superior to the versions herein. To hear the wonderful horn arrangement and searing saxophone solo of Smiley Lewis’s original version of ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’, or the majesty of Aretha Franklin’s vocal on ‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) is to discover just the tip of the iceberg of a treasure trove of blues and soul singles that are less well-known, although no lower in calibre, than the more obvious genre classics that are a standard part of the popular music canon. As Aerosmith songs, however, they may have been better utilised as B-Sides, or perhaps issued via a series of EPs. Additionally, the album would have served a greater purpose had the band learned the lessons of the more sympathetic production and instrument tones that work so well for them here, but unfortunately the band’s next effort sees something of a return to the synthetic sounds of Just Push Play, suggesting that they took nothing of lasting value from this particular trip down memory lane. Still, it was fun while it lasted.