1. Dream on
Steven Tallarico wrote Dream on during stolen moments on a hotel Steinway piano, four years before Aerosmith came to be, and longer still before he assumed the stage name Steven Tyler. Initially the band had to pay their dues not just with the public, but with their record company CBS; competition was strong from contemporaries the New York Dolls, who were critically adored and deemed much cooler by almost everyone, and from within their own label – there was a young songwriter called Bruce Springsteen who seemed to release an album every time they did and took up most of CBS’s promotional resources. Aerosmith’s first album, with deep southern-influenced barroom boogie standards such as Mama Kin, gave little hint of the unit-shifting, power-balladeering behemoth the Boston quintet would become in the 1990s. One song stuck out, however, and still stands out as maybe their finest moment. The left hand and right hand on the piano – taken up by bassist Tom Hamilton and guitarist Joe Perry respectively – weave a hauntingly baroque and instantly recognisable musical tapestry, even if you’ve never heard the song before. You could say it’s their Stairway to Heaven, but it’s better than that. “Every time I look in the mirror,” sings a 24-year-old Tyler, “All these lines on my face getting clearer …” He’s oddly morose for one so young, but the crux of the song is about dreaming until your dreams come true. Tyler also chucks in the strangely prescient line: “You’ve got to lose to know how to win.” That they would do abundantly later down the line.
2. Draw the Line
By the time Aerosmith came to record the album Draw the Line in 1977, they had entered what they later called their Wonder Years, on account of the fact they wondered where all those years went. The album was recorded at a studio called The Centangle, and by then the band had made so much money they were accompanied by two bodyguards, a fleet of cars and motorcycles and around 20 guns. “We got good dope, because now we could afford it,” said Joe Perry, though the paranoia and disunity their usage caused can be heard on the tracks from the album, except for this title track, which is a cohesive monster of a song. The band managed to infuse the sessions with the energy of rivals the New York Dolls (who had split by this point) and the Sex Pistols, whom they loved. Indeed, the screamy middle-eight of Draw the Line is the most punk thing they ever did. The album took six months to record, cost half a million dollars – and bombed, relatively speaking. “You know the White Album?” said Tyler later, “Draw the Line is our blackout album”. The period included car accidents, fights, breakdowns, exhaustion, and Tyler and Perry picked up their “Toxic Twins” sobriquet around this time, too.
By 1979, Joe Perry had had enough of life in Aerosmith, and decided to quit in order to pursue a solo project. One of the few songs he recorded for the sixth Aerosmith album, Night in the Ruts, before his exit was Chiquita, an adrenalised screamer of an album track, complete with a peripatetic main groove and a wall of out-of-tune baritone and alto sax. It’s certainly a lesser known Aerosmith track, but it deserves a moment in the sun for its energy. The ramshackle nature of the production only adds to its charm: it’s a stomping, romping, hair-raising four-and-half-minute maelstrom of Spinal Tap excess, a buried treasure on another album of highs and lows. “Heroin, shooting coke, eating opium,” said Tyler of Night in the Ruts, “I love that album. It’s like a fucking solar eclipse.”
4. Bolivian Ragamuffin
Rock in a Hard Place (1982) is the only album not to feature Joe Perry, and as you might surmise from the title of this track on it – Bolivian Ragamuffin – Aerosmith hadn’t quite jettisoned the drugs yet. Lyrically it’s as nonsensical as an Anthony Kiedis ode to Edward Lear, but musically it rocks out in a surprisingly sophisticated manner, first putting the pedal to the metal in the form an emphatic ride cymbal, and then taking the foot off the gas a little for a funky groove that’s pure proto-Love in an Elevator. While it never takes as many twists and turns as that song, it does pulverise in a way that must have made the erstwhile Perry green with envy. Aerosmith’s collective drug habit was getting out of hand by this point, and becoming prohibitively expensive, too. “I snorted my airplane, I snorted my Porsche, I snorted my house, it all went bye-bye,” Tyler said later.
5. Walk This Way (with Run DMC)
It was something of an inevitability that Perry would return to the fold once his Joe Perry Project petered out. The band kissed and made up for 1985’s Done With Mirrors, and then came a fateful call from producer Rick Rubin. He asked the band if they’d perform on a rap record. Once the producer had explained to the band’s manager Tim Collins what rap was, Aerosmith found themselves in Queens, NYC, recording what would come to be regarded as the first crossover between rock and hip-hop, a key moment in the history of recorded sound. Aerosmith had been one of Rubin’s favourite bands growing up, and it turned out Run from Run DMC had also rapped over the beat of their earlier hit as an 11-year-old, thinking the band were called Toys in the Attic (the name of the album the original version of Walk This Way comes from). The intro drumbeat has become one of the most iconic in rock, and that’s even before Perry’s guitar line enters the fray. Rubin admitted he got a kick out of listening to and then instructing Perry, one of his heroes, to play it better, bringing a virtuoso performance out of the guitarist.
6. Dude (Looks Like a Lady)
Aerosmith had only sold 400,000 copies of Done With Mirrors before Walk This Way, but heavy rotation of the track on MTV gave them more exposure outside America than they’d ever received before. It was also make-or-break time, and after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, the band cleaned up around the same time they signed with Geffen. A new focus came with sobriety, and though struggling with writer’s block, Tyler and the rest of the band convinced A&R man John Kalodner to bring other songwriters into the fold. The new Aerosmith would forge a relationship with some of America’s most successful songwriters – as well as the commissioners of MTV, who clearly enjoyed their edgy, youth-orientated videos – making them a formidable, multimillion-selling force for the next 10 years. The first of the glut of hit singles taken from their bestseller Permanent Vacation was Dude (Looks Like a Lady), a self-explanatory, mildly politically incorrect earworm with a cheeky narrative that continued a gender-bending lineage going back to the Kinks’ Lola, taking in Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side along the way. The track, according to Nikki Sixx and co-writer Desmond Child, concerns a time Tyler met Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil at a bar, and assumed he was indeed a lady.
7. Janie’s Got a Gun
If Aerosmith had presented themselves as the proverbial class clown to their new audience in Europe thus far, then Janie’s Got a Gun proved they could take on a sensitive topic and handle it with aplomb. Janie started with a riff from Tom Hamilton, the band’s other guitarist, over which Tyler added a melody. It ended up being one of the most requested songs on MTV. “Steven hit up on a subject that most people were afraid to deal with and even unaware of – parental abuse and violence against children,” said drummer Joey Kramer in Walk This Way: The Autobiography of Aerosmith. “The song is about a girl getting raped and pillaged by her father,” said Tyler. “It’s about incest, something that happens to a lot of kids who don’t even find out about it until they find themselves trying to work through some major fucking neurosis. It’s a song about abuse in America.”
8. What It Takes
What It Takes started life as a country song, then received the full treatment from songwriter Desmond Child – one of the group’s key collaborators in the comeback years – and ended up a soft rock “masterpiece”, according to John Kalodner, who certainly had a point. Regarding power ballads, Tyler said: “Half of me loves ’em, the other half of me is whispering, ‘You fucking wimp. Don’t put any more of that shit out!’” Put that shit out they did, reaching No 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1989. Musically multi-layered and containing far more sections than your common-or-garden power ballad, the song even survives the cheesy habit of Tyler’s self-referential nods to other Aerosmith songs, (namely F-I-N-E, Heart’s Done Time and Love in an Elevator). It’s something of a grower, and after a few drinks you might just find yourself screaming along and wondering how Tyler manages to reach those preposterously vertiginous notes without even breaking a sweat.
9. Livin’ on the Edge
It’s not like Aerosmith became too self-righteous or anything, but after they got clean, they did once present tour support band Guns N’ Roses with T-shirts featuring all the rehabs they’d visited printed on the back. Livin’ on the Edge – taken from their multimillion-selling 1993 album Get a Grip – proved they could take on the topical and make it widescreen at the same time. Inspired by the Los Angeles riots, this six-minute stomper, with arabesque guitar lines and rousing timpani drums was an ambitious feat of engineering, a colossal freight-train of a song, unapologetic for its own magnitude. The video features, among other things, a train, Terminator 2 actor Edward Furlong, and a naked Tyler clutching his own genitals. “If you can judge a wise man by the colour of his skin,” sings Tyler, “then mister you’re a better man than I.”
Choosing a final power ballad to light a Zippo and swoon to was always going to be difficult, and while the Diane Warren-penned I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing is arguably their best-known track, it oversteps the line and gambols unapologetically into the stinkiest fromagerie in town. Crazy and Amazing are both big hitters from the Get a Grip album too, but maybe just shading it from the same album (it accrued a remarkable eight hit singles) is Cryin’, a song that almost broke MTV, it was played so often. Eat the Rich and Fever had almost killed the momentum of Get a Grip, at least until they put out Cryin’, written with song doctor Taylor Rhodes and introducing Alicia Silverstone in a memorable video. It’s remarkable to think that at the height of grunge, Aerosmith were flying in the face of fashion and securing ubiquity with emotional soft rockers like Cryin’. Having somehow cheated the reaper in their formative years, Aerosmith would sell more than 20m copies of Get a Grip, making them America’s mightiest rock band.