1979’s Night in the Ruts is, I dare say, nobody’s favorite Aerosmith record.
Recorded when the group was at the height of their druggy excess and yet were still riding high on reputation (their previous two albums, not-terrible Draw the Line and placeholding Live! Bootleg– didn’t yield the radio hits they had become accustomed to), they had all seemed to be coming apart at the seams by this point, especially Toxic Twins Steven Tyler and Joe Perry- Perry bailed while the group was touring during a break from recording and subsequently embarked on his short-lived solo career- and a lot of it was done with a handful of guitar-slinging replacements including Jimmy Crespo, who eventually took over for Perry in the 80s for a while. Tyler, for his part, was partying hard and living the rock and roll lifestyle and found himself experiencing severe writer’s block. The record company was antsy because of the low sales situation. It was not a happy campground for the Aerosmiths; they couldn’t even keep their longtime producer Jack Douglas on board- he had fallen out with them over personal matters, and the record company thought a change might help, so it was done with Gary Lyons behind the desk.
Despite all this, when I listen to it now, it sounds to me like a sloppy, half-assed, weird kinda masterpiece. And now, here’s where I elaborate.
The album gets off to a great start with “No Surprize”… why the “Z”? Who the hell knows? It’s ostensibly a summing up of the band’s career history to that point, boasting some slyly funny lines from Tyler (“Vaccinate your ass with a phonograph needle”) and for his part, Perry just plugs in and does relentless no-break Chuck Berry-esque chunka-chunka-chunka-chunka, only stopping for a three-and-six-note punctuation breaks before chunka-chunking again…allowing the rest of the band to surf along on a sea of Jagermeister. It has a stoned low-key urgency, and before you know it the momentum builds…by the time the song’s done you’re surprised to find your head bobbing. Well, I was anyway. Well done, fellas.
Next up, “Chiquita”, with its crosscut saw guitar and low key buzzy horns, and sink me if I don’t like it better than its predecessor. Basically Tyler singing about some senorita that’s caught his eye, I guess, it’s the arrangement more so than Steve’s ludicrous Mexican accent imitation that gets me off here…it’s got a rollercoaster rhythm that plays off those horns and guitars in fine fashion.
Here’s where things get dicey for a while.
“Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, while not the worst cover of a golden oldie by a hard rock group I’ve ever heard, has “blatant attempt at a hit single” written all over it. Despite this, it was not a hit, and barely troubled the charts. I like the swaggering “Remember!” breaks, which feature chicksingers and snapping fingers, and Tyler does sing himself into a lather throughout. No Perry on this one.
“Cheese Cake” is a Zep-style slide guitar blues workout (the guitar reminds me a lot of “In My Time of Dying” in places), which unfortunately plods along too much to keep it from really flying. It’s not terrible but one feels like it could have and should have been tighter somehow.
“Three Mile Smile” opens side two on the original vinyl release; it has that patented Aerosmith bluesy shuffle-rhythm in play but while it jitterbugs along it doesn’t take off either, like “Cheese Cake”. Likeable but slight. It seems to be concerned lyrically with the environment and radiation (hence the play on “Three Mile Island”), but the words are too vague and nonsensical to really make any kind of coherent point.
Things pick up with “Reefer Head Woman”, a hilarious blues from the 40’s given a 70s hard rock treatment… you just KNOW they smoked a pound of hash each just to record this.
“Bone to Bone (Coney Island Whitefish Boy)” is the “Big Ten Inch Record” of this LP; it was a favorite of the band’s, because they played it in their live set for years. While it doesn’t have the retro sound of that Toys in the Attic track, it is a lively would-be blues kinda thing that boogies along agreeably and also introduced the slang term “Coney Island whitefish” to the vocabulary of young Dave in Kentucky. Unsurprisingly, Joe Perry was still on board for this one.
“Think About It” comes across like a retread of better songs like “Toys in the Attic” and “Rats in the Cellar” (Itself a retread), but does at least keep the album moving along.
“Mia” aspires to the bathetic “Dream On” and achieves its modest goal. Written for his daughter, it was written with the best of intentions, I’m sure, but it has a glum tone and a mixed message that Tyler says reflected his feelings about the band at the time; an odd sort of lullabye for sure.
When this came out, I dutifully picked it up, and was mostly unimpressed though I do remember thinking “Chiquita” and “Reefer Head Woman” were pretty cool. Didn’t play it much after that. I was pleasantly surprised when I recently revisited this record; as 70s Aerosmith albums go it hasn’t aged all that badly.
Sometimes an album jumps up out of nowhere and bites me on the ass. Night in the Ruts doesn’t really bite that hard, but it sure sneaks up on you and nibbles..and that’s all right with me.