"Everybody peaks in their own time," says Aerosmith guitaris Joe Perry. "With Aerosmith, I think that we were just fumbling along in the '70s, making all the mistakes just the right way, you know? And now we're building on it, and I think that we still have a lot left to say. I don't think that we've written our best songs, I don't think that we've played our best shows."
Given Aerosmith's track record -- nine platinum albums, 13 Top-40 singles and a history that stretches back to 1970 -- Perry's statement might seem a tad modest. After all, most rock bands would happily retire on a reputation like Aerosmith's.
Aerosmith, though, isn't about to rest on its laurels. Tuesday, the band will release "Get a Grip," its 11th album (not counting concert recordings and greatest-hits collections); a world tour will follow in early June. Moreover, the band's future is set, thanks to an already-inked $30 million deal with Sony Music that takes effect two albums from now. (The band is currently signed to Geffen.)
But Perry couldn't care less about all that. For now, all he can think about is how much fun it's going to be to hit the road behind this album.
"I can't wait to play these songs live," he says, over the phone from his hometown of Boston. "It's like, when I sit around and think about all the [stuff] we've got to do -- more videos, stuff that doesn't have to do with playing -- I just know that in a month and a half, the only thing that I'll have to be worried about is playing 'Crying' on stage.
"It's going to be great, you know?"
It hasn't always been, however. In fact, there was a time about a decade ago when even die-hard Aerosmith fans wondered if the band would ever make it back in the saddle again.
In 1983, Aerosmith was a shambles. Despite having been one of the most influential and successful rock acts of the late '70s (only KISS loomed larger on the metal circuit), hard drugs and heavy touring had taken their toll.
Perry bailed out in 1979, and fellow guitarist Brad Whitford followed a year later, although their solo careers ended up just as stalled as the band itself. A reunion tour hit the road in '84, but was plagued by onstage fights and other problems. For a while, it seemed as if Aerosmith would never pull itself together.
But by 1986, the quintet -- cleaned up, straightened up and smartened up -- was on the comeback trail. And they've never looked back.
"You know, we got our muse taken away from us, and we found it again," says singer Steven Tyler. "And all that goes with that is what keeps it alive."
"You've got to love it, too," adds Perry. "If you get into it for the wrong reasons -- if you're just in it for the 'T and A' and the money -- eventually, you're going to get that. And then you're going to say, 'What am I in this for?'
"That's one of the things that we learned when we were at our low point in the early '80s. So now, we're in this to have a band, and to have the best band we can. It's not about, 'Well, I can do it without that guy.' That's not what it's about, man."
What it is about, say Tyler and Perry, is the Aerosmith groove. Unlike other hard rock outfits, which either bludgeon the beat or sink into simplistic boogie rhythms, there has always been something fairly funky about Aerosmith's sound. It isn't just that the group used to include James Brown tunes in its repertoire (check the version of "Mother Popcorn" on the 1978 album "Live Bootleg"); from such early hits as "Walk This Way" and "Same Old Song and Dance" to more recent material like "Love in an Elevator" and the current "Livin' on the Edge," Aerosmith's best work has always emphasized the band's ability to groove.
"I think the easiest thing for us to do is get a groove that cooks," says
Perry. "But the real trick is getting it so it sounds like it's the first time you heard it -- just put that one little twist on it so it sounds fresh and you want to hear it over and over again. That's the hard part."
"But we do write the songs, we don't just throw them together," adds Tyler. "There's some thought's going into it for each part and piece, so it's kind of tailored to do what you're hearing. I mean, we've got the groove, and then I have to come up with lyrics that kind of tie in with the groove. Like 'Eat the Rich,' for instance. I had a real hard time coming up with lyrics that matched the groovaciousness of that song. I waited and I waited -- it took me about a year."
Tyler and Perry admit that they didn't follow their usual writing routine while working on "Get a Grip." But they deny reports that Geffen had rejected an early version of the album, asking that the band come up with more hit-oriented material.
"Actually, we had plenty of singles," says Perry. "We had 'Eat the Rich' and 'Amazing' and 'Crazy' and 'Get a Grip' and 'Fever.' We had the skeleton of a great record, you know what I mean? We hadn't mixed it or anything like that, but we had rough overdubs on it, and Steven had done some rough vocals. But it was like the -- I don't know. We just wished we had more time to write.
"There was one day we had a meeting up there at A&M; Studios, and I think what happened is word leaked out that the label was there, and everybody blew it out of proportion."
"We just decided that if we pulled the plug on the sessions at that moment, we'd get out of there without having to pay for an extra month's worth of time," adds Tyler. "We got on a roll, and we just decided to keep writing.
"Because as you know, this is not the last album Aerosmith has to do," he says, laughing.
Not only did that second burst of songwriting generate "Livin' on the Edge" and "Gotta Love It," it also changed the way Tyler and Perry worked together.
"We wrote most of the lyrics as we were writing the music," says Perry. "That was something we usually don't do. It's always been that Steven and I write these musical things, with all the [chord] changes. Then he has to sit there and beat himself to death trying to fit the lyrics in.
"That works sometimes, but this time we really tried to write the lyrics to fit, and wrap the music around it. Steven always had this thing about making the words be like a rhythm instrument, as well as have them mean something. That's something that is really rare in music."
Tyler and Perry also tried to work a little social consciousness into their songs. Not a lot of it, mind you; "Get a Grip" isn't exactly hard rock's answer to the New Republic.
But as Perry puts it, "We've got to write something else other than 'T and A,' you know? I get tired of hearing it. Not too tired, but once in a while you want to put something else in there."
Even then, Aerosmith tries not to get too heavy-handed about its lyric content -- particularly when it comes time to make the video. Although the band has shot videos for the two most
message-oriented songs on "Get a Grip," Tyler and Perry say the band has no interest in beating its viewers over the head with literal interpretations of the lyrics.
"You've got to be careful about what kind of a visual you put to the actual spoken word. How close to the real meaning do you want to get?" says Tyler. "Like 'Eat The Rich' is not about Jeffrey Dahmer, or whatever his name is.
"You've got two choices -- you can either be literal, or you can come up with some humorous side. And that's a little bit more fun. You've already written the story, and now you've got five or six different interpretations. Quite often, some of these different interpretations are really funny."
"With 'Livin' on the Edge,' the easy thing would have been, like, show a bunch of pollution," agrees Perry. "And it would have been boring as hell. What we wanted to do was convey some 'edge' stuff, what would be edgy? Standing on a train track with the train bearing down. That's edgy. Every time I watch it, that does something to my stomach."
THE MUSICAL UPS AND DOWNS
Over the last two decades, Aerosmith has pumped out an enormous amount of music -- 11 studio albums, three live albums, two greatest-hits collections, and a boxed set. Here's how they stack up:
* 1/2 "Aerosmith" (Columbia, 1973). Sure, the writing is unpolished and derivative, with the slow-building "Dream On" as the album's only standout song. But the playing is gutsy and spirited, taking the Rolling Stones' approach to blues rock one step closer to hard rock.
** "Get Your Wings" (Columbia, 1974). Better songs and a surer sense of groove underscore how much the band had grown since its debut. Highlights include "Same Old Song and Dance" and a swaggering, boogie-fied "Train Kept a Rollin'."
*** 1/2 "Toys in the Attic" (Columbia, 1975). Here's where the band truly hits its stride. Not only is the playing tighter and funkier than ever, but the song list includes some of the band's best-known classics, including "Walk This Way" (later remade by Run-D.M.C.) and "Sweet Emotion."
*** "Rocks" (Columbia, 1976). Like "Toys in the Attic," only harder. Between the brute force of "Rats in the Cellar" and the stone funk of "Last Child," it seems as if Aerosmith could do no wrong.
** "Draw the Line" (Columbia, 1977). Oops. This is where the strain of too much touring and too many drugs begins to become obvious. A couple of memorable rockers, including the title tune, but a major disappointment after "Rocks."
** "Live! Bootleg" (Columbia, 1978). A stop-gap release designed to shore up fan loyalty, this collection of vintage concert recordings is worth hearing if only for the band's take on James Brown's "Mother Popcorn."
* 1/2 "Night in the Ruts" (Columbia, 1979). With Joe Perry gone, the band's groove quotient drops noticeably, but tracks like "Bone to Bone" keep this from being a total waste of time.
*** 1/2 "Greatest Hits" (Columbia, 1980). For a band that never considered itself a singles act, these guys sure had their share of hits. All essential songs, from "Dream On" to their cover of "Come Together."
1/2 * "Rock in a Hard Place" (Columbia, 1982). Rock bottom would be more like it. Aerosmith in name only.
** "Done with Mirrors" (Geffen, 1985). Not quite a return to form, but a credible comeback nonetheless. No hits to speak of, but solid performances all around.
** "Aerosmith Classics Live" (Columbia, 1986). Hoping to cash in on the Aerosmith revival, Columbia rummages through the vaults to find unreleased live material. Listenable, but inessential.
* 1/2 "Aerosmith Classics Live II" (Columbia, 1987). There's a lot of stuff in that vault . . .
*** "Permanent Vacation" (Geffen, 1987). This is where Aerosmith went from comeback to domination. Whether it's a matter of pop-savvy singles like "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)" and "Angel," ++ or rhythmically irresistible rockers like "Rag Doll" and "Hangman Jury," Aerosmith proves itself on all fronts.
** "Gems" (Columbia, 1988). Not the greatest hits, just an incredible simulation.
*** 1/2 "Pump" (Geffen, 1989). Just as solid as "Permanent Vacation," but with better hooks, thanks to "Love in an Elevator" and the anti-incest "Janie's Got a Gun." Proof that a band's second wind really can be stronger than its first.
** 1/2 "Pandora's Box" (Columbia, 1991). As big-time superstars, it makes sense that Aerosmith would get the full boxed-set treatment. But with so many live mediocrities, it's worth wondering whether this collection really counts as a compliment. Great for fanatics, but average fans should stick with "Greatest Hits."
**** "Get a Grip" (Geffen, 1993). With deeper grooves than any album since "Toys in the Attic," the best songs here show off the band's rhythmic strengths without compromising its pop appeal. a result, the best songs -- "Livin' on the Edge," "Eat the Rich," "Gotta Love It" and "Cryin' " -- are as vigorous as they are infectious. Absolute perfection.