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.
A once prolific band, Aerosmith released their only album of the 2010s as 2012 was coming to a conclusion. The band had not been especially productive in preceding decade either, with only a single album of fully original material hitting the racks, together with this album’s predecessor, 2004’s Honkin’ On Bobo. The latter was ostensibly a covers album, although it did contain a single new composition, the mediocre ‘The Grind’. Before that came the band’s worst album, the mostly terrible Just Push Play, on which the band tried and failed to update their sound for the 21st century. The strained circumstances surrounding the writing and recording of this album did not bode well, speaking of a band who had possibly even lost interest in writing and releasing new music altogether. In an era of declining record sales, hastened by both the illegal downloading and file-sharing booms of the early 2000s, and then the nascent streaming industry that has now come to dominate music consumption, it is certainly the case that Aerosmith had no imperative to push themselves through the rigmarole of the recording process, only to put out an album that would most likely be derided as significantly inferior to their classic 1970s output, purely to create an excuse to tour the world playing the greatest hits set that they had been hawking for the best part of 20 years already. Still, after years of internecine conflict and solo activity, during which the future of the band itself was in doubt, one imagines that perhaps Aerosmith felt that they did have something to prove after all, and so we were gifted Music From Another Dimension!
The awkward exclamation of the title is a fairly good guide to the musical content of what is currently Aerosmith’s final album. Including the rather clichéd artwork, the package is supposed to evoke a B-Movie aesthetic, but the conceit only really holds as far as the brief, and faintly embarrassing, snatches of dialogue which bookend the album, portentously announcing that the listener is now to surrender their control to some kind of extra-dimensional force. It is understandable that towards the tail-end of the band’s career, they are seeking a new angle, looking to break out of a particular way of doing things, but the issue specifically with the direction that Aerosmith are taking here is simply that they do not have the compositional capability to match the musical content to the artistic concept. There are, of course, numerous bands that have adopted the language or sonic signifiers of space rock or metal, embracing the endless possibilities offered by the evocation of the infinite. However, the likes of Hawkwind, Cave In and Pink Floyd were fundamentally more ambitious and eclectic than Aerosmith’s more earthbound sound, forever rooted in the traditional structures and harmonic ideas of rock ‘n’ roll and blues, and the idea of Aerosmith being able to cast aside the shackles of 40 years of operating within a relatively narrow set of parameters to embrace the free-wheeling experimentation required to live up to the billing of this album’s title is inconceivable, and so it proves. Of course, an alternative possibility might have been to adopt the kind of camp, rockabilly sound deployed so effectively by The Cramps to create their schlocky style, but the sort of authentic grit and grime required to embody the sort of low-rent perversity needed to make that believable at this stage of the band’s career is unsurprisingly beyond them.
Also beyond them, more disappointingly, is the ability to construct a coherent album, and Music From Another Dimension! is a bafflingly schizophrenic album, which frequently sounds like a compilation of disparate bands. Musical schizophrenia is often something to be encouraged, and indeed for many bands, the diversity of their sound is the very reason for their success. However, there are a number of bands, Motorhead, AC/DC and of course, Aerosmith, who have built a career from staying in their lane and maximising small variances in a core sound, developing gradually, if at all, over a prolonged period of time. Here though, Aerosmith offer simply offer a collection of songs with little in common, that does little more than expose the clear divisions between the members of a careworn band. Even more perplexing, a small handful of the tracks included on this album are among the best that the band have produced since Pump, and to hear these co-existing with some of the worst tracks the band have ever put their name to underlines just how much of a mess this album is.
To deal with the better tracks first, it is no surprise that Aerosmith sound most convincing when operating in ‘rudimentary rock’ mode. After the sluggish and lifeless opener ‘Luv XXX’, which repeats some of the production mistakes that so marred Just Push Play, even despite the presence of Jack Douglas in the producer’s chair, the rolling boogie of ‘Oh Yeah’ is a total bolt from the blue. Up-tempo, deftly augmented with subtle horns, not unlike The Rolling Stones’ ‘Bitch’, ‘Oh Yeah’ attains an effortless cool that Aerosmith have rarely exuded since they cleaned up their act in the mid-80s. It’s not the blockbuster hit it might have been, had they managed to affix their once customary huge melodic chorus to the more than competent verses, but the uncomplicated delight of hearing them sound so spontaneous and off-the-cuff creates a nostalgic glow that atones for some of the more tedious moments of the album. ‘Out Go The Lights’ is even better – the band building up a huge head of steam via a thunderous, strutting slice of funk-rock. The production sounds suddenly clear, the guitars are gigantic, and the drums swagger like prime ZZ Top or Clutch, the chiming cowbell always a signal for the kind of full-throttle good-time rock ‘n’ roll that one feared was a distant memory for Aerosmith. Tyler’s staccato vocal delivery perfectly utilises the acres of vacant space left by the instrumental arrangement to pull everything together into a latter-day classic only let down by an interminable outro that threatens to undo all of the good work with nearly 4 minutes of unnecessary and unproductive jamming.
‘Legendary Child’ follows, and strangely opens by reprising the vocal melody from ‘Out Go The Lights’, shifted to the guitars. This is presumably intended to give the album the feel of an uninterrupted and improvisational live show, but in keeping with the half-arsed nature of the overarching concept of Music From Another Dimension!, this is the only such instance of creating a segue between songs on the record, and therefore adds little. When the song proper commences, the instantaneous reaction is to be swept up by the unstoppable syncopated groove, of the kind that Aerosmith have rarely executed so convincingly since the better songs on Get A Grip. Slowly, however, comes the realisation that the groove sounds rather familiar, and eventually the listener is able to identify Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Wanton Song’ as the source material, just one of a number of similarly monstrous tracks on their magisterial Physical Graffiti. Of course, Led Zeppelin themselves were well-versed in the lifting of riffs and melodies from folk and blues, although they were also adept at transforming that kernel of inspiration into something greater. The shadow cast over the otherwise splendid ‘Legendary Child’, is that almost all of the thrill and excitement of the track is derived from the component that is stolen, apparently uncredited, from another band. It’s possible that the similarity is coincidental, but it’s also hard to imagine that no one involved in the recording process noticed, and clearly the band decided to carry on regardless, and it leaves something of a bad taste in the mouth that lingers to the conclusion of the album.
It takes some time to get to this conclusion. Since the advent of the CD, Aerosmith have rarely missed the opportunity to use all of the available running time (although thankfully we’ve been spared the double-album), and Music From Another Dimension! is no exception. Had the album contained the handful of excellent songs already described, together with a couple of the middling efforts – ‘Street Jesus’ with its enjoyable Wildhearts / Jason & The Scorchers hybrid, combining twanging riffs and ringing open chords in a heads-down race to the finish, plus the ramshackle, grizzled blues of ‘Freedom Fighter’ would do just fine – before cutting off at 40 minutes after the obligatory pedestrian ballad, the album could easily have been considered an adequate offering, if not quite deserving of the ‘return to form’ description. The remaining 9 or 10 songs of unremittingly dreary material, which generally finds the band in ‘country ballad’ mode drags the album down below the waves, however, and the humane thing to do would be to attach weights to it, say farewell, and gun the motor towards the shore.
The dreadful nature of much of the worst parts of the album would almost be amusing, were there not so much of it to trudge through. ‘What Could Have Been Love’ is a painfully forgettable ballad, which is indistinguishable from the kind of fare that could crop up at random on any FM country & western station in America. Not only that, but where previously Tyler’s vocal character and multi-octave pyrotechnics might have pulled the band unscathed through their more monotonous tracks, the years have finally caught up with him and he sounds strained in the higher register, as he also does on the lazy pop-rock of ‘Beautiful’. Shortly after ‘What Could Have Been Love’ comes yet another attempt at perfecting the country ballad, this time with country star Carrie Underwood on board. It’s not really what this particular listener wants from the band, but in comparison to much of the rest of the tracks on the album, it at least boasts a strong vocal hook, and a solid performance from Underwood. However, it is ultimately too far from the band’s core sound to fit even within the expanded repertoire that they have slowly evolved into over time, and should probably not have been released under the Aerosmith banner.
Nearly a decade after the release of Music From Another Dimension!, it appears increasingly unlikely that we will enjoy the dubious benefit of another Aerosmith album. While Joe Perry has kept fairly busy, releasing material both on his own, and with his ‘all-star’ band Hollywood Vampires, the musical bent of these ventures is very much the blues / rock ‘n’ roll that Perry has leaned towards throughout a career in which he has sometimes been critical of the band’s less hard rocking material. With Tyler releasing a solo country album during the same period, this only serves to reinforce the apparent disparity between what one imagines Perry wants to be playing, and Tyler’s more varied musical vision. As such, and bearing in mind the reduced importance of the album as a cultural artefact, it is entirely possible that this will be the final musical statement of Aerosmith, excluding the continuing stream of live albums, reissues, compilations and box sets that will surely never end. If it is their epitaph, it will be a disappointing one. It may not duplicate some of the worst elements of Just Push Play; it’s mostly not embarrassingly unbecoming of their history, but it is mostly too slick, too one-paced, and just too uninteresting to merit repeated listening. One can only hope therefore, that Tyler, Perry et al can indeed get it together for one final time before they hang up their gear for the last time, if only to ensure that they have an opportunity to go out with a bang, and not the anaemic whimper of this album.
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.
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.
Aerosmith’s twelfth album, Nine Lives, saw them back on original label Columbia, presumably keen to get in on some of the sweet multi-platinum action that they had missed out on since understandably failing to foresee the band’s incredible resurgence in popularity. It is appropriately titled – as well as surviving years of substance abuse, Aerosmith had managed to navigate their way through the vicissitudes of musical fashions to retain their position as one of the true giants of rock ‘n’ roll. The huge global success of Nine Lives also helps to bust one of the enduring myths of rock in the 1990s, that which holds that the advent of grunge ‘killed off’ 80s hard rock. Not unlike the similarly reductive suggestion that punk sounded the death knell for progressive rock, the idea that the 80s giants were redundant the moment ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ hit radio is simply not borne out by the facts. Grunge and alternative rock more generally may have shifted the zeitgeist and reset the boundaries in terms of what was and wasn’t relevant with respect to popular culture, but while Nirvana, Soundgarden and Jane’s Addiction were earning the critical plaudits to go with the sales, Aerosmith, Guns ‘N’ Roses and Bon Jovi released some of their most popular albums, and continued to be a huge draw on the live circuit. Indeed, it is an amusing coincidence that Nevermind and Get A Grip were released by the same record label, and they probably have a little more in common than many fans would like to admit. I would concede that at the turn of the decade, the likes of Cinderella, Warrant and Poison certainly did fade from view, but this was surely more of a verdict on the staying power of their own low quality musical output than because they were rendered unfashionable by a legion of Seattle-based opiate enthusiasts.
It probably helped that Aerosmith were adept at, not exactly moving with the times per se, but definitely flirting in their general direction. The band were content to adopt the slick, glossy production values favoured by many of their peers during the 1980s, and also successfully diversified their sound, allowing them to find a more broad-based popular appeal. As the tide turned between the release of Get A Grip and its successor, while avoiding walking into the Motley Crue-sized trap marked ‘Ill-Advised Grunge Album’, the band clearly adopt a much noisier and scuzzier sound this time round, as opposed to the pristine sheen of its predecessor. While this production is at times unsuited to the band, and at other times plainly irritating, the songs themselves are mostly very good. In fact, following the patchy and uneven set that had comprised Get A Grip, the release of such a strong and consistent group of songs is an impressive achievement.
As Aerosmith albums invariably do, Nine Lives starts at full tilt with the excellent title track. There’s no discernible riff, but the agreeable rumble of the guitars combine with a sneaky melodicism, and occasional bursts of serrated chords, to construct an understated throwback to their early days, when spontaneity and energy trumped studious songcraft. It’s a courageous move to choose this as the opener, when the obvious choice would have been the more ostentatiously catchy first single ‘Falling In Love (Is Hard On The Knees)’, which immediately follows. This track is much more standard modern Aerosmith fare, but is structurally unconventional, going straight into the huge and uncharacteristically minor key chorus, before dropping into an economic verse underpinned by some spidery rhythm guitar work, perhaps consciously aping the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic so beloved by the alternative rock that had seeped into the Aerosmith sound. Both melodically and lyrically, Tyler hits all the right notes on this track, adopting an amusingly self-deprecating form of wordplay that is a rather becoming, given the band’s advancing years. Indeed, it features one of his most riotous lines in “Don’t give me no lip / I’ve got enough of my own”.
‘Hole In My Soul’ continues the golden run at the start of this record, a pleasingly authentic ballad, which recalls the earthier sound of Get Your Wings-era Aerosmith. Not for the first time, the band plagiarise their own classic, ‘Dream On’, transposing a version of the piano line from that track into the guitars here, and welding the whole thing to yet another gargantuan chorus. The way in which Tyler works himself to fever pitch in a deliberate move to tug the heartstrings is undeniably overwrought and utterly cheesy, but the melody so adroitly weaves its way through exactly the path that the listener wants it to take, that this can be easily forgiven. Quite apart from that, ‘Hole In My Soul’ creates enough space in the verses to showcase some elastic bass playing from Tom Hamilton which adds another dimension to an already stellar song. The rhythm section are very much the unsung heroes of Aerosmith. Hamilton and Kramer provide a never-less-than-reliable foundation for the more flamboyant talents of the Toxic Twins, but frequently offer a subtle inventiveness that never overwhelms the guitars or vocals, but often function as either an interesting counterpoint or complementary support that perfectly match the requirements of the song.
Remarkably, for a band that have a long history of releasing patchy albums, there are relatively few missteps to be found on Nine Lives. Across 14 tracks, there is of course some filler, most of which can be found in its customary position in the middle of the album, as the excitement of the initial rush of adrenaline wears off. Even these songs are mostly palatable though – ‘The Farm’ intrigues with its Britpop chords and bounce, ‘Attitude Adjustment’ deploys a Stone Temple Pilots-style churning riff to demonstrate that Aerosmith are capable of successfully co-opting new sounds into their framework without it appearing too gauche, and even the mostly predictable and pedestrian ‘Kiss Your Past Good-Bye’ is not a total failure, with a stately guitar lick dominating a majestic outro. Even the most questionable song to be found on the album is imbued with a certain amount of naive charm that ensures that what could be embarrassing is instead oddly endearing. ‘Taste Of India’ is ultimately a well-meaning but flawed song, before we even get to the reductive cultural insensitivity of using a whole nation as a shorthand for the exotic. Rock bands have of course been doing this ever since The Beatles first sought to expand their own minds in the 1960s, and Led Zeppelin’s seminal ‘Kashmir’ has ensured that any rock band that seeks to evoke free-wheeling mysticism and open-mindedness will continue to utilise the Eastern-sounding scales that immediately transport us to a vision of an India that may or may not have ever existed. Aerosmith’s own version is somewhat half-hearted: the sitars and lush-sounding Bollywood strings track the main riff during the verse, as Tyler floats around microtonal melodies intoning laughable lyrics about “vindaloo” (honestly!) and the “tantric priestess”, but perhaps losing a little confidence in their opulent vision, the really rather enjoyable chorus ditches the pseudo-Indian elements altogether for a more straightforward sound, and the awkward compromise of the whole thing renders the track a hot and spicy mess. Even this is better than the horrific pop-country ballad that closes the original version of the album, ‘Fallen Angels’, where the tritest of lyrical content dooms a song that should really have been strangled at birth.
Lyrically, Nine Lives absolutely exhibits the best and worst of Aerosmith. The aforementioned ‘Falling In Love (Is Hard On The Knees) is amusing, and ‘Full Circle’, another highlight of the album, excels in a different way. There’s something extremely touching about an ageing band acknowledging the passage of time, and the naked vulnerability of this track (“Time, don’t let it slip away / Raise your drinking glass / Here’s to yesterday”) sounds authentic and affecting coming from a band who know that their fiercest and best days are likely behind them, but are committed to the only life they really know, the road and the stage. Such is the rich melodicism of the track, that they manage to negotiate the potentially disastrous cod-Irish folk of the musical accompaniment with aplomb and flair, something that it would be hard to imagine Aerosmith pulling off 20 years previous. At the other end of the spectrum is ‘Pink’. Musically, there’s not too much to dislike, and the hook contains enough musical sorcery to ensure that even the most concerted effort will not shift it from the listener’s memory. The lyrical content, however, is dreadful. To say that “Pink, as the sheets that we lay on / Pink, it’s my favourite crayon / Pink, when I turn out the light / Pink, it’s like red but not quite” is the worst kind of 6th Form poetry does a disservice to schoolchildren the world over who are quite capable of producing more interesting and nuanced work than Aerosmith manage here. The only saving grace is that there is a certain comfort in knowing that the bottom of the barrel has been reached, and the only possible direction for here is upwards.
The reissued version of Nine Lives that is the subject of this review closes the album with the monster single ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’, which was written by Diane Warren as part of the Armageddon soundtrack. It’s easy to criticise this kind of middle of the road ballad, which was intended by the composer to be sung by Celine Dion or Mariah Carey, but despite the fact that it resolutely refuses to rock, Tyler’s theatrical and sky-scraping performance carries an unforgettable melody as well as any multi-octave diva could, and the song deserves the popular acclaim that it found, even if it has since been rather over-played. It’s a curious conclusion to a slightly curious album. Nine Lives could live without the cluttered production that leaves the guitars sounding synthetic and processed, and continually threads unnecessary electronic sounds and effects into tracks, all of which add nothing other than a layer of white noise. The panning of all of the guitars into one speaker during the chorus of the otherwise raging ‘Crash’ is the most egregious of a number of strange decisions that undermine the strengths of a band who are at the best when they sound live and spontaneous. These decisions are also totally pointless – Nine Lives is a splendid and consistent album that stands tall on the strength of its mostly superb songs, and is more than good enough to ensure that this cat was far from ready to be put to sleep forever.
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’s enduring status as true rock royalty might deceive the listener into assuming that their remarkable 1980s renaissance was in some way inevitable. However, the more lowly status of some of their 1970s contemporaries shows that the band’s recovery, both commercial and critical, was far from assured. The likes of Ted Nugent, Foghat and Styx all sold millions of albums throughout that decade, and while they may not reside in total obscurity by the end of the 1980s, they languish some way beyond the mainstream rock horizon at a time when Aerosmith are embraced not only by their old audience, but also by a generation of new fans, for whom they represent a connection to the almost mythical golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, when it was a brand new cultural phenomenon, as opposed to the mostly retro genre that it is today. Some uncharacteristically smart decisions, and a decent chunk of good luck saw Aerosmith riding the crest of a wave following the enormously successful Permanent Vacation, and sensibly, the band disregarded the title of the album that had brought them back from the brink, and opted to strike while the iron was hot, heading back into the studio a year after it was released to record its follow-up, Pump. It is only natural to question the ability of the band to produce another set of strong material in such a short space of time, but in fact Aerosmith surpass the already extremely solid Permanent Vacation with an album that offers an almost perfect blend of the band’s harder-edged earlier sound with the precision song-writing suss of its predecessor.
The band’s stated intention was to dial back some of the more overbearing production touches that made their previous album such a product of its time, and to “strip off a little of the fat” that weighed down the overlong Permanent Vacation, and this is something that they unquestionably succeed in doing, despite the presence of a number of short instrumental interludes that connect the individual songs together. We’re some way off The Wall here; Aerosmith are not aiming for a concept album, but these interludes do manage to add a certain amount of unifying ambience, and are brief enough to avoid detracting from the songs themselves. Where Permanent Vacation gradually and impressively ratcheted up the anticipation of what was to come across a long, drawn out intro, ‘Young Lust’ dives straight into the action with a perfunctory, but spirited, chord sequence providing the backdrop for a rip-roaring vocal performance by Tyler, who sounds vibrant, and full of manic energy. One can feel the urgent need to make up for lost time spilling from him, as he relates his umpteenth tale of sexual conquest. If a gentleman never tells, Tyler is as boorish as they come, but perhaps we should also remember that it pays to write what you know.
The vigour and vitality of the excellent ‘Young Lust’ is not a flash in the pan, and the band maintain the high quality throughout an album that demonstrates a level of consistency that they only rarely matched previously, and certainly haven’t since. There is little in the way of filler here, and that which there is never plumbs the kind of risible depths that they have sunk to from time to time at their worst. Both ‘F.I.N.E.’ and the superb ‘Love In An Elevator’ are splendid examples of modern-day Aerosmith at their most agreeably sleazy. The former is built around a delightfully filthy bass-heavy sound, which recalls the kind of tone that made the likes of ‘Back In The Saddle’ and ‘Same Old Song And Dance’ so compelling, but with a more cunning vocal melody that the band now have the confidence to place front and centre of a bright, but not overly slick mix. The kind of simple, but memorable, chorus that 1980s Aerosmith specialise in is just about infectious enough to surmount the disappointment that the listener feels when discovering that the titular acronym stands for ‘Fucked Up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional’, One imagines that this is the kind of tediously ‘tongue in cheek’ answer the unreconstructed Tyler would give in interviews, when asked a question about the kind of women he associates with, ignoring the fact that if they do indeed display any of these character traits, it is more than likely because they’ve spent years being gaslit by sexist men. ‘Love In An Elevator’ is even better – a gigantic, priapic groove working perfectly with singalong verses and a chorus containing deceptively clever counterpoint vocal harmonies, which add an additional layer of interest that more traditional stacked harmonies following standard intervals would not. These harmonies are fully revealed by the a cappella outro, which functions in the same way as the deconstruction of the arrangement for the previous album’s ‘Dude (Looks Like A Lady)’, intriguingly showing the band’s workings that help them achieve full marks on this particular exam. Unlike ‘F.I.N.E.’, this track also strikes the right lyrical balance, with the standard juvenile puns and ribald wordplay raising some genuine smiles – “I kinda hope we get stuck / Nobody gets out alive / I’ll teach you how to fax in the mailroom honey / And have you home by five”. Rock ‘n’ roll should be amusing and outrageous – like many of their peers though, Aerosmith are a much more likeable band when they steer clear of overt misogyny.
‘Love In An Elevator’ was an obvious first single, and the rest of the singles from the album were similarly well-chosen, representing as they do the best of a solid clutch of songs, primarily on the strength of choruses that elevate them above the perfectly competent album tracks. ‘The Other Side’ is superior Stones-esque boogie, with an insistent Motown-plagiarising vocal melody. This description isn’t lightly suggesting that it is reminiscent of a much-loved sound; the melody was literally plagiarised from the Four Tops ‘Standing In The Shadows Of Love’, to the extent that an out of court settlement resulted in the band giving the Motown in-house hitmaking team of Holland-Dozier-Holland a songwriting credit. Irrespective of the melodic provenance, however, it is supremely well-matched to the bluesy bluster of the guitars, and only the unnecessary and synthetic horns and keyboards detract from a strong track that could have been even better, had the production team had the courage to strip things back a little. ‘Janie’s Got A Gun’ is the standout song and centrepiece of the album. For a band that traditionally has two settings, uptempo blues-rock and piano-based ballad, the earthy, soulful blues of this track is a startlingly different texture for the band to explore, and even more surprising is the fact that the experiment is totally successful. Matching the solemnity of the music, the lyrics offer an unusually serious narrative covering the story of the abused Janie, who takes lethal revenge on her abuser. It is striking that Tyler’s lyrics do not judge, but instead offer an explanation of events and allow the listener to form their own opinion on the morality of Janie’s summary justice, and it is an impressive feat for the band to utilise ambiguity in this way, in the context of a back catalogue that is often anything but. The stirring subject matter is wrapped in the comforting clothing of a strong and unforgettable hook, some dextrous harmonies, and a soaring bridge section that is cinematic in its widescreen ascending melody. And on an album stuffed to breaking with splendid, versatile lead playing, the steel guitar solo played by Joe Perry on this track is a blazing masterpiece of aggressive tone and staccato licks.
The final single, ‘What It Takes’, closes the album in what will be familiar style for the seasoned ‘Smith fan: yet another ballad. Thankfully, taking its cues from the superlative exemplar of the form, ‘Angel’, which so decorated Permanent Vacation, style is very much the operative word here. It is not as exquisite as its forerunner, but when the longingly winsome chorus flies, it ascends with the power and beauty of a flock of doves, carried heavenwards on the spiralling currents, unimpeachably sweet and pure. Elsewhere on Pump, some heavy-handed and intrusive production touches sully songwriting that simply doesn’t need superfluous bells and whistles, but here the gentle accordion melody that adorns the chorus is a perfectly judged addition to a resoundingly successful song, and another example of the increased level of self-confidence with which Tyler is able to project himself through the band’s softer moments.
Pump is the perfect successor to Permanent Vacation. Doubling down on the measured and heavily melodic song-writing, but eschewing some of the more staid elements of the somewhat stultifying production of that record for a more organic and lively sound, Aerosmith do everything that they did right on that record, but more so, and without the pastiche and gimmickry that afflicts an otherwise enjoyable album. It is by far the most consistent and cohesive piece of work that they have crafted since Rocks, and if the band had the courage to cut the three worst tracks (and it has to be emphasised that even the likes of ‘My Girl’ or ‘Monkey On My Back’ have their moments, and are at the very least competent), we could be discussing a classic to rival that album and Toys In The Attic. Classic it may not be, but Pump absolutely occupies the next tier down, and remains the strongest of the band’s ‘reunion’ albums and one of the best mainstream rock albums of that era of hard rock music. Pump exemplifies everything good that anthemic pop-rock has to offer, but with an authenticity at its heart, that ensures that it continues to transcend the scene that birthed it, and remains as listenable as ever, well into the 21st century.