In 1976, when I was ten, I was busy trying to get my hands on any Bicentennial crap I could because, when I grew up, it would be important and valuable! (And I didn’t complain a few years later when my mom threw out my 1976 Cincinnati Reds cards. Never mind how much that Pete Rose card would fetch today.) And while I was wrapping my head around the idea that America was now 200 years old, this song came drifting out of Boston and onto Cleveland’s WMMS. It was in a minor key and had this guitar work that sounded almost like a harpsichord. The singer almost sounded like the guy who sang “Stairway to Heaven.” By the time school started up again in September (Remember when school started up in September and ended right after Memorial Day? If not, you’re probably under 40.), I and my classmates were screeching the the song’s final chorus:
“Dream on! Dream on! Dream on! Dream until your dream come true!“
Ah, yes, my friends, Aerosmith had arrived. And “Dream On” had knocked “Smoke on the Water” off its perch in our collective consciousness (only to be replaced by “More Than a Feeling” by Boston, then “Do You Feel Like I Do” by Peter Frampton, who’d own it until we reached junior high and began mimicking Pink Floyd’s “We don’t need no education…” This is the soundtrack of the children of the seventies.)
We heard “Dream On” and wanted more. So suddenly, an earlier minor hit began making rounds again. It had this really cool bass line at the beginning that just hypnotized you. The band sang “Sweeeeeeeeeeeet Emoooooooooootiooooon” twice, then the jam began. I tells ya, kids, it was magic on our pre-adolescent minds. Looking back, these five partiers out of Boston knew how to put a song together. Neither “Dream On” nor “Sweet Emotion” was like any hard rock we’d heard up to that point. And mind you, this was the age of Led Zeppelin and a decade where you could still pull down seven figures writing and playing progressive rock. (Now, you might make a living at it, as long as you do session work when you’re not trying to sound like Yes in their classic phase.)
Then came “Walk This Way,” a song that got me in trouble with my parents every so often because it’s so damn catchy, but the lyrics are so… Well, let’s just say mom didn’t want her little boy dating girls like that. (Later in life, I actively looked for them.) But then they starred in the ill-advised Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band doing a cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together.” Yeah, it rocked, but why the hell would they do such a turkey of a movie? It wrecked their career, as well as Peter Frampton’s, and damn near wrecked the Bee Gees.
That was 1978. Aerosmith started getting national attention in 1973, so it was a good five-year run. So long and thanks for all the groupies. Right?
The guitar players, Brad Whitford and Joe Perry quit. But lead singer Steven Tyler, drummer Joey Kramer, and bassist Tom Hamilton carried on. They went through a Spinal Tap guitar player period (because they never lost a drummer. Get it? Huh? OK, that one died on the pad.) How successful were they?
They achieved a coveted spot on the old PM Magazine syndicated show that basically told the nation (well, those not watching Hollywood Squares or reruns of the original Star Trek in PM‘s usual time slot) that they had not broken up. I couldn’t tell you what they released in that time frame. I never heard a note out of them. Wikipedia lists albums for that time, but they were usually shoved in the back with other classics by their contemporaries like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Love Beach and whatever Orleans was calling themselves that month.
So high school was Aerosmith-free, and we were good with it. There were more important things on our minds anyway: Like British synth pop and hair metal. I mean come on! Motley Crue, right?
Then Perry and Whitford returned in 1984, and the band released Done With Mirrors. It stayed in record stores, but I, on a classic rock jag, found it. Listening to it, I found it hard to convince coworkers that Aerosmith even existed. When they were convinced, they had given up on the band completely. Why?
When you tune into MTV and see the band you grew up on singing with a rap group, the world has come to an end. Mind you, in the mid-1980′s, many of us used to say “What the hell is rap?” (Now we say “What the hell happened to rap?” Good times!) But Aerosmith wasn’t going after us adults. No, that swingin’ music all the crazy kids were listening to in 1985 was the embryonic hip hop, and RunDMC were Aerosmith fans.
Wait a minute. Hair metal’s getting big, and Aerosmith is the original hair metal band. What if we did the cover of “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith? It’s so crazy it just might work!
And it did. The rap version of “Walk This Way” funded Permanent Vacation, featuring that 80′s classic, “Dude Looks Like a Lady” (ensuring Robin Williams would have a song to turn the trailer for Mrs. Doubtfire into a music video years later.) It also produced “Rag Doll.”
What saved the band was the members getting cleaned up. They ended up in a studio in the late eighties with Motley Crue after Nikki Sixx had his overdose which, literally, sobered up that band. Joe Perry later said that if Aerosmith and the Crue had booked the same studio only five years earlier, half of each band would not have survived the ensuing party.
They carried on with Pump and the rather disturbing “Janie’s Got a Gun,” a violent tale of an abused child who’s had enough. It also spawned “Love in an Elevator,” singularly responsible for a spike in stopped elevators and public indecency arrests in shopping malls and office buildings in the early 1990′s.
There have been other hits since then. “Livin’ on the Edge” (now the theme to Ice Road Truckers) and “Cryin’” are examples of Aerosmith’s ability to create a hit without using a cookie cutter to structure the song. That’s probably the secret to their longevity. They moved toward power ballads in the 1990′s, but most of their hit singles show a willingness to do something besides write “Sweet Emotion” parts 2, 3, 4, 5…