Following the Hits Primer that virtually chose itself, a playlist of deeper Aerosmith cuts is a considerably more interesting selection of songs, purely because of the joy to be had in the novelty of hearing something a little different to their many staples of FM radio. That said, a necessary dose of realism reminds us that, at times, it is lacking a little in quality. Unlike some bands of a similar stature, where there is frequently as much joy to be had in exploring the furthest reaches of their discography as there is in hearing their most well-known tracks one more time, the Venn diagram of Aerosmith’s best and most popular songs are two heavily overlapping circles. Still, pleasingly, there are some gems to be found among the album tracks of their better releases, alongside a few intriguing experiments, most of which can be found in the playlist below.
An Aerosmith hits primer is aptly named, as they are a band that found and then re-found fame primarily on the back of a series of hit singles, rather than on the strength of consistent albums. Indeed, it is only really during the middle phase of the band’s career that, bolstered by the contributions of external songwriters, they briefly developed the ability to produce a truly coherent album that offered more than the obvious highs of the key singles. Even their twin classics, Toys In The Attic and Rocks, were dominated by the biggest and most successful songs in their canon, and to a degree owe their reputation to the monumental quality of tracks such as ‘Walk This Way’ and ‘Sweet Emotion’. And after a brief phase bookended by Permanent Vacation and Nine Lives, it might be argued that Aerosmith ceased even to be a singles band, producing a succession of somewhat dull albums, rarely enlivened by anything approaching a hit, and for this reason they are naturally under-represented on both this playlist, and the Under-appreciated and Overlooked Primer which will follow.
Train Kept A Rollin’
Get Your Wings
Seasons Of Wither
Get Your Wings
Walk This Way
Toys In The Attic
Toys In The Attic
Back In The Saddle
Draw The Line
Draw The Line
Let The Music Do The Talking
Done With Mirrors
Dude (Looks Like A Lady)
Love In An Elevator
Janie’s Got A Gun
Get A Grip
Get A Grip
Get A Grip
Falling In Love (Is Hard On The Knees)
Just Push Play
The Spotify link for the playlist can be found here:
Hot on the heels of the Hits primer comes an arguably more interesting AC/DC playlist, given the ubiquity of some of their biggest songs. Of course, their discography inevitably contains a certain amount of filler, and some of the mid-80s albums are of value primarily to completists or the most dedicated genre obsessives, but beyond their most well-known tracks lies a tier of great songs that are in some cases every bit as good as the hits, and also reveal dimensions of a sound that can be more diverse than they sometimes get credit for.
Let There Be Rock
Let There Be Rock
Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be
Let There Be Rock
Rock ‘N’ Roll Damnation
What’s Next To The Moon
Touch Too Much
Highway To Hell
If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)
Highway To Hell
Let Me Put My Love Into You
Back In Black
Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution
Back In Black
Inject The Venom
For Those About To Rock We Salute You
For Those About To Rock We Salute You
This House Is On Fire
Flick Of The Switch
Flick Of The Switch
Blow Up Your Video
Let’s Make It
The Razors Edge
Cover You In Oil
Rock Or Bust
Kick You When You’re Down
A Spotify link to this playlist can be found here:
The manifold difficulties experienced by AC/DC during the last decade are enough to fill a badly written unofficial biography, but more importantly, had surely rendered any hope of the band ever releasing a follow-up to 2014’s solid Rock Or Bust redundant. That they have made an album at all is an achievement worthy of acclaim, but to come back in such spectacular style with something as magnificent as PWR/UP is as wonderful as it is surprising. The title, a faintly embarrassing bid for modernity many years after the first bands started utilising textspeak for their own works, is the worst thing about the album, and something that can be quickly forgiven, particularly as it is thankfully no indication that the band’s music has followed a similar path. It’s well-documented that PWR/UP is the first AC/DC album to be made without the reliable presence of Malcolm Young on rhythm guitar, following his death in 2017 after an earlier dementia diagnosis, and although the band thankfully avoid any descent into mawkish sentimentality, the album functions as a fitting tribute to Malcolm’s understated genius. And Young is not just there in spirit. He continues to be credited as a songwriter on all AC/DC tracks, and while one imagines that this may be in part a perpetual doff of Angus Young’s schoolboy cap to the incalculable influence of his brother on the band’s sound, Angus has stated that he continues to mine Malcolm’s home recordings for ideas. Although it’s impossible to know which of these ideas made it as far as the final version of PWR/UP, it’s clear that even after his death, Malcolm continues to be a significant part of the band’s present.
For a band that many would (quite fairly) consider to be the epitome of good time rock ‘n’ roll, the soundtrack to alcohol-fuelled revelry and endless nights of loud music and shouted conversations, it’s notable that tragedy and hardship seem to have been the catalyst for some of their very best work. The thematically dark Powerage was made with Bon Scott very much down on his luck and apparently considering it something of a last throw of the dice in terms of his musical career, Back In Black famously appeared only months after the doomed Scott’s death, and PWR/UP fits neatly into this line, sharing many of the same qualities as these other landmark albums. AC/DC seem to be at their best when an almost imperceptible layer of solemnity is injected into their music, with the songs taking on a slight underdog quality, celebrating life, while simultaneously aware of its fragility. PWR/UP exudes this exact feeling, and perhaps also because of the tough time during which it has been released, it seems like the music that we not only want right now, but actually need.
There are a handful of knowing nods to some of their earlier classics on PWR/UP, and the album itself starts with one of them, the backing vocals introducing opener ‘Realize’ reminiscent of a similar line on ‘Thunderstruck’, but the similarity ends there, as an archetypal rugged, but sparse guitar riff, backed by the same steadfast rhythm section that built the indestructible backbone of Back In Black, drops in, and everything feels instantly familiar, including the huge chorus that crowns a superb start to the album. AC/DC have a gift for conjuring songs out of the ether that display such outrageous simplicity that it seems implausible that they don’t already exist, and as such, the speed at which new tracks assimilate themselves into your consciousness is lightning quick. Of course, it would be disingenuous not to note that part of the reason for this is that clearly their music continually reconfigures itself from a relatively small number of components, but of course, if it was that easy, everyone would be doing it. They have been through phases during which contemporary production touches have added layers of extraneous sound, or altered the guitar tones, or the overall final mix, but it’s not unreasonable to state that AC/DC sound best when the production is minimal, and we are left simply with the warm, barely distorted tone of Angus and now Stevie Young’s guitars, with Brian Johnson’s inimitable wail adding the high end, sounding perpetually as if he has gargled shards of gold, and washed down the remnants with a fine single malt. That is exactly what we get here, along with one of the band’s leanest, meanest and most brutally concise set of songs ever released, and it’s a joy from start to finish.
History tells us to be prepared for a front-loaded AC/DC album that starts with a bang, only to peter out somewhat, as we approach the middle of the record, but PWR/UP is remarkably consistent, with a magical opening run of songs which ensure that not only are we eight songs in before we discern the merest hint of filler, but which also stake a reasonable claim to be the band’s best clutch of songs since the peerless and filler-free Back In Black. Few of the tracks have the monster choruses that so decorate the best tracks on that album, and it is probably this that holds PWR/UP back from all-time classic status, but instead the songs are insidiously catchy, clever hooks burrowing their way in almost unnoticed, until each track is transformed into an un-skippable masterpiece. The major exception to this is the first single, ‘Shot In The Dark’, which contains all of the dextrous rhythmic and melodic brilliance of its neighbours, but also bolts on a gigantic singalong chorus, purpose-built for opening the band’s live show, as and when they are finally able to take to the stage once more, or alternatively commence an extensive tour of New Zealand. If one could follow a formula to create the perfect AC/DC song, ‘Shot In The Dark’ would be the result. Never guilty of stringing things out unnecessarily, the playful blues lick that becomes the central riff of the track is played by Angus Young, unaccompanied, to create a miniature intro, the rest of the band joining with thunderous stabs of chords on an open-chorded cadence that completes the guitar figure, before settling in unison into the kind of mid-tempo groove that almost any rock fan would immediately recognise as AC/DC. Even better is the way in which the feel of the groove is deftly altered by a variation of the main riff utilised for the pre-chorus, adding a single beat of space at the start of the lick, a perfect example of the kind of attention to detail that bridges the gap between good and great, and all that is left is to transition seamlessly into an unforgettable chorus, pulling everything together into a song that could comfortably slot on to Back In Black without lowering the stunning calibre of that particular album. The lyrical message of the song seems to be that nothing of value comes easily, and no doubt sounding this effortlessly brilliant is tougher than the band make it appear, but it requires little effort to enjoy the fruits of the band’s labours, over and over again.
On a lesser AC/DC album, such as Fly On The Wall, or Blow Up Your Video, the magnitude of a song such as ‘Shot In The Dark’ would cast a long shadow across the remainder of the album, but so strong is this collection of songs, and so cleverly do the band work through all of their subtle variations of hard-hitting rock ‘n’ roll, that this is not the case here. ‘Through The Mists Of Time’ is an immediate change of pace, and something of a departure, the palm-muted major key guitar line suggesting an indie feel, although the glam-rock tones of the chorus ensure that things do not get too introspective on what is intended to be a slightly oblique tribute to Malcolm. Lyrically, this tribute is not overly explicit, but the nostalgic reflection on the band’s halcyon days is nevertheless oddly touching, and a sweet tribute to their erstwhile brother and guitarist, without descending into cloying sentimentality. As the mists of time dissipate, and with a perfect sense of sequencing, the band don’t dwell too long on the past, ramping up the pace again with the raucous ‘Kick You When You’re Down’. This is a hugely memorable highlight of the album, pairing a pounding 1950s-style tom-tom drum pattern with a fiddly blues riff and riotous chorus, which incorporates muscular gang-vocals and the kind of efficient chord sequence that the band have made a long and successful career from.
As already mentioned, there is some filler – ‘Wild Reputation’ and ‘No Man’s Land’ are both plodding rather than pulsating, and lack sparkle in terms of the vocal melodies – but even the worst songs are considerably better than some of the material used to pad out the albums that they released during the trough section of their popularity curve. They are also swiftly forgotten, due to the calibre of the closing one-two punch of ‘Money Shot’ and ‘Code Red’. The former contains a brief snatch of laughter presumably captured in the studio during recording, as the excellent riff that the rest of the song is built around is introduced. It’s a relatively well-worn device that has been used by other bands to briefly break the fourth wall, but it’s an entertaining inclusion here, as the band’s joy at their own creation mirrors the listener’s, and also brings a welcome note of humanity into the final product, furthering the connection between AC/DC and their audience. The latter is an immaculate closer, musically vicious and aggressive during the verses, but changing tone with the full and stately chorus, which offers lyrical allusions to ‘For Those About To Rock (We Salute You), with references to battle stations firing, and drawing a clear line between PWR/UP and the band’s acknowledged classics.
It’s not unwelcome of the band to highlight this, but it is unnecessary – the album makes its own case, and makes it in style. The only legitimate question mark hanging over PWR/UP is whether my own desire to hear one more great AC/DC album is artificially enhancing the perceived quality of the record, meaning that I hear what I want to hear. It’s not unprecedented for this kind of wishful thinking to combine with the novelty value of a new album and cause a listener to temporarily inflate their opinion, creating a kind of inverse nostalgia. Metallica’s St Anger, and Roots by Sepultura are both albums that wowed me on release, only to diminish a little in my judgement over time, as I have come to re-evaluate them in the context of the bands’ overall output, and there is a danger that I will one day feel this way about PWR/UP. However, it is also noticeable that each listen reveals a new favourite track, or throws up a new moment of ingenuity (the bass line that lights up ‘Witch’s Spell’ for example) that had previously gone unnoticed, and in my experience this often tends to be the sign of a good album. It may well be that the coming years add or subtract 5%, and make the difference between PWR/UP being considered a good album or a great album, but for now it is sufficient to say that not only is this an album that many of us thought we would never hear, but that it is also a masterful exhibition of economic songwriting which exceeds every possible expectation and demonstrates the ecstatic and timeless appeal of rock ‘n’ roll.
Just Push Play is Aerosmith’s 13th studio album, and in many ways it is to their credit that it’s taken nearly 30 years for them to produce an album that for the first time results in the band sounding like something of an anachronism, a band unsuccessfully chasing the pack that they once effortlessly ran with, and even lead on occasion. In some respects, it has been to Aerosmith’s advantage that they have never really been musical innovators, in the way that many of their inspirations were. Instead, they rose to prominence by successfully synthesising the blues and rock ‘n’ roll that inspired them into a lean and energetic distillation of something that already existed, and combined this sound with an unerring ability to write enormous, memorable pop choruses. This allowed them to craftily adopt elements of the prevailing sonic trends of the 1980s and 1990s, without ever losing their essence, and importantly without their motives appearing obviously cynical. Aerosmith have always been musical magpies; unfortunately on Just Push Play, their ability to discern the treasure from the trash has deteriorated. The result is an album that is the disjointed aural equivalent of a midlife crisis, a creaking father trying out his teenage son’s clothes for size, before a night at the “discotheque”.
In some respects, the band’s continuing desire to challenge convention and expand their sound is admirable, and maybe preferable to a phoned-in and fundamentally dishonest ‘back to the roots’ effort. However, unlike some of the successful experiments found on Nine Lives, where the band branched out into Eastern atmospheres and folky singalongs, the experimentation is largely confined to the window dressing of sound design and production, applying what now sounds like horribly dated sonics to mostly pedestrian pop-rock, and the end product is an uneven and incoherent document of a band riven with confusion, driven only by a misguided wish to remain relevant. Most of the songs contained on the album exhibit the flaws outlined above, but the most egregious (albeit darkly amusing) example of everything coming together in a perfect shitstorm of incompetence is ‘Outta Your Head’, found towards the end of the album. Processed breakbeats and an unusually discordant guitar line herald a frankly bizarre foray into an approximation of rap-rock. The stabbing guitars crunch like prime Rammstein, which on many records would be a cause for celebration, but on an Aerosmith record is simply jarring and incongruous, and what could at least be a memorable chorus is cruelly marred by intrusive string and vocal loops that add absolutely nothing of value. There are a number of instances of Tyler attempting something approach rapping on this album, and the verses are delivered in this way throughout this track – one imagines that the band have been hoodwinked by the way in which Run DMC transformed Tyler’s heavily rhythmic delivery on the classic ‘Walk This Way’ into thinking that the gulf between vocalist and MC was one that could be traversed, but in fact the results here show that just because you can see the other side of the abyss, it doesn’t mean that you should jump. The song is not completely devoid of merit – the sweeping strings of the post-chorus interlude suggest an opulent vision that briefly comes into view, but any sparks of hope are extinguished by the clumsy and cack-handed execution.
Elsewhere, there are glimmers of Aerosmith’s former glory which provide moments of enjoyment less afflicted by the painful production. The brash opener, ‘Beyond Beautiful’ is powered by a propulsive, thrusting riff, the quality of which is only mildly impaired by the synthetic tone, bizarrely reminiscent in its industrial-lite stylings of moderately popular 90s rockers Filter, and although the facile lyrics are off-putting, the chorus soars in standard Aerosmith fashion. It is also blessed with an enjoyable guitar solo, Perry’s rich blues tone cutting sabre-like through the electronic muddle of the rest of track in a way that triggers a brief acid flashback of full-bore 70s Aerosmith, before the valium of mid-2000s Aerosmith gently nudges the listener back into a soporific stupor almost immediately. The first single from the album, ‘Jaded’ shows up as the third track, and it’s easy to see why it was chosen for that particular honour. It’s a conventional, well-constructed mid-tempo rocker, but on Just Push Play, a solid song with a memorable chorus and no superfluous layers of sound is riches indeed, and it’s uncomplicated elegance is a high point for the album. Another such pinnacle is ‘Under My Skin’, which sees the band come within touching distance of brilliance. Were it not for the programmed beats competing pointlessly with the kind of greasy, climbing riff that Perry and Whitford once specialised in, the infectious chorus and deceptively complex harmonic interplay of the horn accompaniment would render the song a late-period classic. As it is, it’s undoubtedly a track that would effectively occupy the band’s live set, with a little less polish and a little more heft accentuating the latent power and energy of a song that could sit fairly comfortably on Pump.
As we have already observed, originality has never been Aerosmith’s strong point, and they have rarely been afraid to plagiarise themselves. Several albums feature attempts to re-write ‘Dream On’ for example, and ‘Walk This Way’ crops up as a reference point throughout their discography, including this album’s title track. As if to emphasise the plunge in quality that Just Push Play represents though, even the songs that the band are mining this time round are hardly genre classics. ‘Fly Away From Here’ is at least catchy, but is very much a mediocre sequel to the more successful pairing of ‘Cryin” and ‘Crazy’. The minor key verse melody leads fluidly into a widescreen chorus, effectively injecting a dose of redemptive optimism into an otherwise downbeat tune, and the string arrangement is undeniably lovely, as are the perfectly judged vocal harmonies, but overall, the song just fails to traverse enough of the emotional and melodic spectrum to bring the kind of theatrical drama that is required to create a world-class power ballad, and so it remains ever so slightly dour and unremarkable. Even this is delightful compared to the horribly plodding ‘Luv Lies’, which covers similar territory and again reminds the listener not just of the Get A Grip mega-ballads, but of many similar bands of that era, albeit without seeming to directly rip off anything identifiable. This is a familiar theme throughout the album – a vocal line, or rhythmic idea often recalls another band or song, and that would suggest that there is simply not enough of Aerosmith’s own personality infusing the music, enabling it to stand alone. The same applies lyrically, where it seems that a tired Tyler has run out of ideas, and the kind of ribald, attention-grabbing turn of phrase that one can usually rely on an Aerosmith album to provide is entirely absent here. As such, Just Push Play mostly passes the listener by without making a lasting impact.
Although it reclaims a little of the lost ground with the unexpectedly wonderful light psychedelia of closing track ‘Avant Garden’, which belies the gauche pun of its title with a lightness of touch and sense of dynamics that is not found anywhere else on the album, Just Push Play is not a good album. Perhaps this verdict is partially because it’s an Aerosmith album, and therefore my own expectations of what it should sound like inevitably play into my evaluation, and this certainly raises an interesting question as to whether it is possible to judge an album entirely on its merits, when one is so familiar with the previous work of the band that has made it. Certainly there are albums that I view with a greater degree of fondness than the music might objectively deserve because of the band that produced it (a number of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest albums probably fall into the category), and similarly other albums are all the more crushingly disappointing for the same reason. After careful consideration though, I suspect I would reach the same conclusion were this album released by anyone else; it simply doesn’t maintain a high enough level of interest for long enough. The most confusing element of all, is just who the band made this album for. There seem to be some deliberate attempts to court pop fans with a production that contains surface elements of contemporary popular music, but it is simply not modern enough to reach a new audience in an extremely fast-moving scene that is largely dominated by music deriving from hip hop and electronica. Similarly, despite the occasional bursts of riffola, and the odd blazing lead that seems to be included as a sop to the more traditional tastes of Joe Perry, it is not enough of a rock album to either satisfy existing fans, or reach younger rockers newly turned on to guitar music by the tail end of nu-metal, or the fast-rising emo-punk scene of the early noughties. Just Push Play is ultimately just not enough, and at this point the worst album of the band’s career.
Following their stellar tenth album Pump, which saw the band refine and perfect the sound of modern Aerosmith after a number of transitional efforts that charted their attempt to climb out of the rut that they spend more than the intended night in, it is no surprise that Aerosmith continued to utilise a sound that in many ways has defined them for much more of their career than the sound that initially caused their rise to prominence in the first place. As such, there is much to enjoy here, even if the self-confidence that came with the stratospheric success of their renaissance caused them to fall victim to an extent to that scourge of many a rock band – hubris. A familiar scenario in rock ‘n’ roll, the band’s feeling that they could now do no wrong, that they were bulletproof, led to the release of an overlong album on which the killer to filler ratio is a little less favourable than that which we found on Pump. We should not wish to eliminate this kind of hubris altogether – after all, this kind of vaulting ambition coupled with the capability to pull off a ground-breaking vision has been responsible for some of the most fascinating albums ever made – Physical Graffiti, The Beatles’ White Album, and Electric Ladyland to name just a few. More often though, the result is flabby self-indulgence, on which the reality fails to match the aspiration. The bands listed above were all progressive in their own way, expanding from their origins through successive albums that experimented with a variety of sounds and genres – indeed this diversity could be said to be a key component of their wide appeal. It is not unfair to Aerosmith to suggest that the core of their appeal is their comparatively narrow breadth of sound, and that their success has been a result of an ability to weld memorable singalong choruses to raucous riffing, and leaven the mix with the occasional ballad. Therefore, it is perhaps inevitable that 15 sprawling tracks of Aerosmith attempting to stretch a little beyond the fundamental principles that had served them well over the course of two decades was a bridge too far. The outcome is a good, but not great, album.
Although Get A Grip is hindered by flaws that could have been addressed with more judicious editing, this is not to say that the album is a complete failure. Even at its most meandering and patience trying, Aerosmith’s swagger and vibrancy is fully present in a way that it simply wasn’t on Night In The Ruts for example. Most importantly, a sense of joy and fun pervade the atmosphere of the record. At its best, Get A Grip showcases a number of the band’s strongest and most enduring songs, including a trio of quasi-ballads that are undeniably monstrous songs, even if they provoke some conflicting emotions with their obvious and calculated pop appeal. It was possibly not her pop appeal that saw the worryingly young Alicia Silverstone cast in the videos for ‘Amazing’, ‘Cryin”, and ‘Crazy’, but the partnership was extremely successful for both parties, and the ubiquitous presence of these promos on screens worldwide across 1993 and 1994 ensured huge sales for a third consecutive album.
The big singles cast a long shadow across the rest of Get A Grip, and the inconsistency of the rest of the album might cause one to question whether it is just a vehicle for the hits, but there are other joys to be found once the eyes adjust to the dimmer light among the silhouettes. After a pointless, but mercifully brief intro, which mystifyingly incorporates a brief snippet of ‘Walk This Way’, ‘Eat The Rich’ commences proceedings in fine style. One of the few truly hard-rocking tracks on the record, and something of a nod to the band’s earlier days, the song is driven at speed by a thunderously rhythmic and wonderfully greasy main riff, Perry snaking his way around the fretboard, forever building new shapes from the same limited materials. The song is a great example of the strides that the band (and their rapidly multiplying compositional partners) have made since the dark days of the early 1980s. Where once the quality of the riff would have been asked to carry the full weight of the song like an overworked mule, here it is just one thrilling facet of a song that develops through an understated verse which recalls their spiritual protégés Guns N’ Roses, with Tyler uncharacteristically singing in a much lower register, before yet another weighty riff is paired with an infectious and powerful chorus. The lyrics strike the right blend of sardonic, risqué humour and memorable hooks, and as a whole, ‘Eat The Rich’ makes for a tasty and satisfying meal.
As ever, Aerosmith are guilty of front-loading an album that starts like an unstoppable juggernaut, but finishes like an unreliable sports car that needs its engine tuned. ‘Eat The Rich’ is swiftly followed by the seriously groovy title track, boasting a filthy and monolithic bass-heavy feel that suggests the strangely appealing alternative history of mid-90s era Soundgarden as an 80s hard rock outfit. Not for the first time on Get A Grip, Aerosmith also recall their now-contemporaries Guns N’ Roses. An unusual case perhaps, of a band being influenced by another band who would not even have existed in the first place were it not for the inspiration of the band that they in turn are now influencing. ‘Fever’ maintains the momentum with a blast of up-tempo, shit-kicking country-rock, not very far away from the kind of sound that Jason And The Scorchers came close to popularising around the same sort of time. Basic in the best possible way, the song is full to the brim with ringing open chords, nifty licks and a virtually flammable rhythm section performance in which Aerosmith become the world’s best produced bar band, topped off by a firebrand turn on the harmonica from Tyler, all five members channelling their younger selves knocking out covers and originals as they toured Boston, New York and nearby cities on the hunt for the record deal they craved.
However, at the point at which hopes are raised of a non-stop white knuckle ride of an album, ‘Livin’ On The Edge’ brings a dramatic change of pace and feel that is rather jarring despite the high calibre of the song itself. On this track, one becomes aware that the band nurse an intense need to be perceived as serious and mature songwriters, after years of gleefully plumbing the depths of low culture. The song itself is superb – twinkling, almost drone-like guitars, and dextrous harmonies working cleverly with the chromatic chord sequences of the guitars, and memorable melodies bolstered by multi-tracked harmonies, which stack voices atop one other in a way that enables them to amalgamate almost into a single voice, reminiscent of prime Queen. Here, it would be churlish to argue that the band failed to meet their objectives, but in creating the simultaneous existence of two Aerosmiths which co-exist uneasily throughout the rest of the album, the band create a conflict in the mind of the listener that prevents the album from cohering into a unified statement, and this fatally undermines the overall assessment of this work. This feel is underlined by the sudden appearance of ‘Walk On Down’, a rare Joe Perry lead vocal, a complete throwback which stands out like a sore thumb amidst the glossy tracks which surround it. Generally speaking, I’m mostly an enthusiast for nu-Aerosmith, but given a glimpse of the kind of loose and effortlessly cool workout that could have sat comfortably on Rocks, I can’t deny that I find my resolve wavering a little, and wishing just briefly that the band would embrace this side of their personality once more.
From this point forward, Get A Grip swings wildly between mature, mainstream rock, infrequent blasts of more raucous rock ‘n’ roll, and pure filler. The desultory ‘Flesh’, pedestrian cod psychedelia of ‘Gotta Love It’ and simply dull ‘Can’t Stop Messin” all fall into the final category, although the last of that trio can at least be excused by the fact is was added as a UK-specific bonus track, and therefore never intended to be an integral part of the record. Why the splendid non-album track ‘Deuces Are Wild’ could not have been added in its place is a mystery. ‘Line Up’, co-written with Lenny Kravitz is marginally better, but even this feels like a rewrite of the excellent ‘Shut Up And Dance’ which distinguishes itself in a blaze of horn-augmented funk, with some of the heaviest guitars on the record pounding out an unforgettable syncopated riff that brings their earlier sound right up to date, and benefits from a full and polished production.
Sprinkled liberally across the second half of the record are the songs that were responsible for the band’s huge sales during the mid-90s, the aforementioned Silverstone trilogy. So bankable were Aerosmith at this point in their career, that both their previous and current labels were releasing best-ofs and box sets more often than the band were producing new output, and despite the generally obvious and repetitive track-listings of these compilations, they reliably shifted units in the millions globally. The best of the trilogy is ‘Cryin’. A portentous crash of chords dissolves into a sweet arpeggiated verse, with synths unobtrusive enough to add a subtle additional layer, rather than an overbearing distraction. A spectacular vocal performance from Steven Tyler brings drama and dynamics, and melodically, the song is one long hook, a yearning verse transforming into a soaring chorus that seems plucked from the heavens themselves. The song climaxes as the band dramatically drop out, and Tyler nails one more theatrical high note, and not unlike ‘Angel’ on ‘Permanent Vacation’, the track is a masterful display of entirely calculated brilliance. After something so perfectly pitched, ‘Crazy’ feels like a pleasant, but pale imitation, employing the same vaguely 1950s love song formula, but failing to generate the same level of magic from similar ingredients. ‘Amazing’ is better, but although one can’t deny that the John Lennon plays Elton John feel of the verse is well-executed, overall the track feels a little staid and predictable. It is ‘November Rain’, if Axl Rose had managed to dissuade Slash from adding the epic guitar coda that allows that particular song to jump into a whole other realm of heroic majesty, a majesty that sadly eludes the ultimately hyperbolically titled ‘Amazing’.
As we evaluate Get A Grip, it seems strange to note that it is an album that is nearly thirty years old. Partly because these songs were the first Aerosmith songs that I really became familiar with and therefore it is difficult to accept that the passing of time since I was initially bewitched by their particular brand of hard rock has been so substantial, and partly because in some ways the album marks the start of an ongoing final phase of the band’s career. An odd reflection, when this ‘phase’ has lasted for longer than the rest of the band’s entire existence, but the reality is that at this point it is clear that Aerosmith have settled on a set of parameters that they intend to sit comfortably within for the rest of their career. As such, Get A Grip is both the perfect representation of the modern sound of Aerosmith, and also a bittersweet farewell to the band that they once were, but will never really be again. At times joyous and triumphant, at times uneventful and plodding, Get A Grip is an album that contains many moments to admire, but rather fewer to truly love.
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.
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.
Little more than a year after the release, and modest success, of their self-titled debut, came Aerosmith’s second album, the aptly-titled Get Your Wings. Aptly-titled, because following the flawed, but not unenjoyable, debut, Get Your Wings is the moment that we hear Aerosmith maturing into the sound that characterises the vast majority of their work from this point forward. Where previously we found a band whose abilities failed to keep pace with their energy and obvious ambition, culminating in a slightly awkward set of mostly mediocre songs which were clearly in thrall to both of their influences (Mick and Keith), we are now presented with a more confident band who clearly know what they are now trying to achieve, but this time have the swagger and songwriting ability to pull it off. It’s surely also no coincidence that Aerosmith find their sound at the same time that they commence their long and productive relationship with producer Jack Douglas, an associate of the legendary Bob Ezrin, also peripherally involved in the production of Get Your Wings.
From the moment the louche, coiling blues riff of the excellent ‘Same Old Song And Dance’ unfurls itself, it is clear that we are dealing with something considerably more dangerous and exciting than the callow and confused youths were able to deliver a year earlier. A riff that needs only to be heard once to embed itself permanently into the consciousness of any right-thinking listener, it is precision-engineered to be peeled from the fretboard of Joe Perry’s low-slung Les Paul, as he prowls the very edge of an outdoor stage at one of the US mega-festivals of the 1970s, lit cigarette hanging from the corner of a curled lip, satisfied with the knowledge that with not much than a syncopated blues scale, Aerosmith have forged a path to the core of what it means to make and to embody rock ‘n’ roll. With Tyler’s now instantly recognisable vocals providing the perfect, insouciant foil to the deliciously filthy guitarwork, the band sound thrillingly and undeniably cool in a way that will simply never date. Douglas’s light touch doesn’t so much as steer Aerosmith in the right direction, as gently persuade them to take the correct turning at every junction – his production allowing the band to sound raw, authentic and live, while simultaneously adding unobtrusive bells and whistles that subtly enhance the songs, such as the layers of horns that adorn the chorus of the opening track.
Despite the somewhat cringeworthy title, ‘Lord Of The Thighs’ maintains the quality set by the opener. Almost unbelievably, Tyler apparently believed that the painful pun on William Golding’s literary classic ‘Lord Of The Flies’ would demonstrate the band’s intelligence, rather than retrospectively expose their unpleasant sexism. Somewhere in America, the Spinal Tap creators were taking note. Unlike its lyrical themes, however, the track itself is an unexpectedly progressive song, and almost feels like a dry run for the better known ‘Walk This Way’, the first version of which appears on Toys In The Attic, the next entry in the band’s discography, with it’s spacious, rhythmic groove. ‘Lord Of The Thighs’ waits until the bridge before deploying the killer riff though, developing through an unusual piano-led verse, which has an almost avant-garde feel that wouldn’t be out of place on Bowie’s Hunky Dory, together with a thrusting, priapic Tyler vocal. When Perry can delay gratification no more, and drops the hugely satisfying riff that dominates the mid-section of the song, the masterful simplicity and bruising swagger of the two-note groove recalls the rarely-matched brilliance of Tres Hombres era ZZ Top, and when it comes to pure, thoroughbred rock ‘n’ roll, there are few higher compliments than that.
Lest we get carried away, we should at this point note that not all of Get Your Wings is this good. In many ways, in contrast with for example AC/DC, Aerosmith are the archetypal singles band. As their career progresses, numerous are the stories relating accounts of a drug-addled band arriving at the studio with barely a note written, forcing out enough good material for a few singles, and stuffing the rest of the album with half-formed ideas and covers, with the aim of selling a new product to generate interest in the next tour of the world’s enormodomes. While the band had not yet attained the fame and fortune needed to fund the loss of almost everything they had worked for, and consequently Get Your Wings is not so afflicted by this issue, there is undoubtedly some filler here that presumably would’ve functioned as an effective way of providing time during the live set for fans to visit the bar to purchase the drinks that they would soon be losing skywards as the band hurtled into ‘Train Kept A Rollin’, another highlight of this album. ‘S.O.S. (Too Bad)’ is arguably the pick of the middle third of the album, that outside of some Queen-esque lead flourishes on ‘Spaced’ struggles for impact, and not unlike ‘Lord Of The Thighs’ testing the water for ‘Walk This Way’, is perhaps the template for the far superior ‘Sweet Emotion’, featuring as it does a driving riff in place of anything that could exactly be described as a chorus.
Everything clicks once more, however, on the outstanding ‘Train Kept A Rollin’. Aerosmith have made no secret during their career of how their love of blues has inspired them, frequently covering old standards both live and on record, culminating in a full album of covers, 2004’s Honkin’ On Bobo. This though, is the original and the best, the quintessential Aerosmith supercharged blues. The stop-start riff that threads its way throughout the song is brutally effective, and as relentless as the titular train. As the verses threaten to careen off the tracks, with the choruses just about holding things together, the beautifully played wailing leads pile on top of each other, constructing an overpowering juggernaut that finally screeches to a halt after nearly 6 minutes of magnificent noise. In fact, the leads are almost too beautifully-played, betraying a sophistication of melodic composition that the talented, but raw, Joe Perry had not yet acquired. As Jack Douglas has subsequently revealed, the solos were actually played by legendary session players Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner. Household names they’re not, but if you’ve ever listened to the work of Lou Reed, Kiss, or Alice Cooper, the chances are you’re more familiar with their playing than you might imagine. Indeed Wagner actually wrote one of Alice Cooper’s most enduring classics, ‘Only Women Bleed’, and with this kind of pedigree, it’s unsurprising that Douglas utilised their services when the song called for a little more experience than Perry or Brad Whitford could offer. It is to the pair’s credit that during the intense touring that followed, they not only played the solos note for note, but also developed as musicians to the point that Douglas never again felt the need to employ the services of his session buddies on an Aerosmith album.
If we ignore the rather lacklustre closer ‘Pandora’s Box’, which is bog-standard boogie, the album reaches a climax on the ageless ‘Seasons Of Wither’. If ‘Train Kept A Rollin’ is the elemental fire at the core of the Aerosmith sound, ‘Seasons Of Wither’ is the emotional heart of the record, and plays much the same role as ‘Dream On’ does on their debut. Less of an obvious ballad than that song, it’s a mid-tempo rocker that displays a surer grasp of dynamics than the rest of the album, and shimmers with an unusually understated power for a band used to writing everything in bold, underlined capitals. The verses combine guitar arpeggios with warm washes of open chords, and subtle vocal harmonies embellishing a winsome vocal melody draw the listener in. The chorus is the band’s best yet, Tyler’s soaring, almost wounded voice declaring that borrowed time takes “the wind right out of your sail” contrasting with huge slabs of guitar, to produce a moment of widescreen, cinematic majesty, the bittersweet and staggering might of which is as impactful today as it must have been on it’s release in 1974.
Get Your Wings is rightly not generally considered to be the pinnacle of Aerosmith’s career. Depending on your viewpoint, that would come on either the next two albums, or during the late 1980s, Run DMC-assisted renaissance. It does, however, make a good argument to be considered one of the best of the rest, and there is something marvellously heartening about the youthful energy and wide-eyed naivety displayed throughout this record. This energy is well-captured by Douglas’ sympathetic and uncluttered production, although (Train Kept A Rollin’ excepted), some of the intensity is sacrificed for clarity. It would’ve been fascinating to hear this album produced with the kind of feral ferocity of, for example, The Stooges’ Raw Power. It’s a minor complaint though – in terms of the songs themselves, there’s a huge amount to like about Get Your Wings, and if it’s not quite my go-to Aerosmith album, it’s certainly one that I continue to hold in huge affection, and one that should be revisited regularly.