Some bands are like sports teams in that when they’re on top of the world, you feel like you’re a part of them. When they’re struggling, you defend and support them, sometimes near irrationality. When there are rifts within the organization you feel bad and hope for the best. When they outright suck, you don’t level your full cynicism at them; instead, offering a conciliatory, “We’ll get ’em next time.” For me, Aerosmith is very much like this.
I have said on many occasions that their last great album was Pump from 1989 and I stand by that statement. I know this is not an original stance to take either, as many have expressed that after that album, they invited too many cooks into the kitchen, homogenized their swagger down to a schtick, and suffered for grasping the brass ring of a wildly successful comeback because of the expectations they now created for themselves…expectations fostered by 1987’s Permanent Vacation.
This success was all too improbable in 1982 when longtime guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford were out and Aerosmith’s flamboyant lead singer Steven Tyler was El Presidente for Rock In A Hard Place . The songs themselves were not bad, per se, and not unlike Aerosmith as known, but a few things felt off. Mostly, that roguish, WTF kind of fun that held forth even on the band’s darkest, hardest efforts seemed recognizably absent. Tyler was out to prove something with the record, namely that he was the driving force behind the band, but the act of driving superseded the joy of being. Even in those greasy, nasty places, a good Aerosmith song has a joy about it.
The other major problem was that the fans recognized the band as a specific team with certain members, and this slick roster had the jerseys with the wrong numbers on them. Rock In A Hard Place was, for a time, the band’s last Columbia record. Cut to 1985. The band is reunited, the team is together and on a new label, Geffen, which seems to be fully invested in the business of making Aerosmith what it was before. Done With Mirrors is an improvement over its predecessor but still lacks that joy. They were getting closer though, and two things then occurred that would change their course for many years to come.
The legendary rap duo Run-DMC recognized that the attitude in the longtime classic “Walk This Way” was not unlike their own, and they had liberally dipped into the wells of rock and roll before, so they covered it. The masterstroke was not the choice to do it but the decision for Aerosmith to be a part of it. It was a team-up, not a sample. It was not homage, but a passing of the torch from one form of popular music to the next, but this team was not fully prepared to put their own fires out.
1987’s Permanent Vacation is, in many ways, an extremely calculated effort. Geffen A&R man John Kalodner-John Kalodner (as he was always credited) brought in writers Desmond Child and Jim Vallance to drop breadcrumb trails back to what was perceived to be the band’s true identity, or at least ensure a hit single somewhere. Most of the songs were shepherded by them in some form or another. Sometimes it didn’t work and the tracks would come off sounding like someone trying to sound like Aerosmith, not being them. The song “Magic Touch,” while being a decent track, has this sort of feeling. To beat that sports team metaphor into the dust, it felt like someone running someone else’s playbook.
With a bluesy, Cab Calloway-hootchie-kootchie rhythm and an assist from writer Holly Knight, “Rag Doll” was more successful in the overall goal, and “Hangman Jury” cemented their debts to their forebears. Yet it was the single “Dude (Looks Like A Lady)” that put them over the top. A near-mash-up of Boston hard rock and Memphis soul with vital horn punches, a passing glance at The Kinks’ “Lola” in subject matter, and the irrepressible feeling of more than just inter-group tolerance but fun pervaded the song. It was hooky, it was breezy, and it spoke to all the inclinations and proclivities of old.
Not to neglect their rock heroes, the band kicks out one of The Beatles’ most agitated rockers, “I’m Down” which, itself, felt like a tribute to Chuck Berry. That line of succession Tyler, Perry and company extended to Run-DMC was itself recognized in the choice.The continuity of rock and roll was hard to ignore, and so was the album. Where the first half of the decade found the group slowly drifting off into the minor leagues, the second found them as stars again, commanding top prices at packed arenas, being lionized in pop culture, singing the theme to “Wayne’s World” for cryin’ out loud. This was all, only a handful of years before it, utterly unthinkable.
Pump introduced the dark side in a more prevalent way, in tracks like the massive hit “Janie’s Got A Gun,” but that cohesive nature and that fun factor didn’t get lost as it had on the two albums before Permanent Vacation. One could not have existed without the other and, in a sense, the same can be said for the combative “marriage” between Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. Like McCartney and Lennon, or more aptly like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, they are stronger together than apart. Even when they want to hip-check each other off a stage, punch each other in the mouth, or leave each other for the relative comforts of a seat next to J.Lo and Randy Jackson, they do have a relationship musically that transcends their mutual antagonism.
Does that mean everything they’ve done since this comeback miracle is hunky dory? Of course not. It’s been hard to get excited about the Nine Lives, Just Push Play, Honking On Bobo years, but that old warmth for the home team persists. It is difficult to reject the warm fuzzies I have upon hearing that new Aerosmith material is expected in 2012. Will that mean a third major comeback? Unlikely. Things are just so very different these days; I don’t expect championships anymore. But if they can at least make it to the playoffs with their heads held high, guitars slung low, and silk scarves waving in the wind, it will be enough for me.