Source Material: Aerosmith, Rocks
by Justin Farrar | September 20, 2011
In the process of putting together this source material, I attempted to track down as much music writing on Aerosmith and on Rocks especially as time permitted. I focused my query on the 1970s: Robert Christgau reviews, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Lester Bangs, Creem, etc. A lot of what I read was positive. In another lifetime, decades before Aerosmith embarrassed themselves with a Super Bowl jig accompanied by a brood of 21st-century pop tarts, they were genuinely liked by rock's cognoscenti.
What I read can also be boiled down to a basic premise: Aerosmith are sleaze-ball bar-rockers from Boston who will slay you with their raw take on Rolling Stones boogie. That nails the band's m.o. through the decades, yet the nerdy rock 'n' roll clinician in me has always heard more in their sound. Let's begin with ground-zero influences. Steven Tyler's juicy lips don't lie: he grew up worshiping Mick Jagger. But his piercing shriek also contains hints of Robert Plant and Janis Joplin, whom I've always believed is the template for heavy metal frontmen of the 1970s. (Considering the voluminous machismo packed inside the pants of such swaggering beasts, I find it a delicious piece of irony that said beasts copped so many vital moves from a woman.)
Musically speaking, there's no arguing Aerosmith are a souped-up Rolling Stones in many respects. However, this lineage doesn't account for their heaviness and density. Aerosmith's music is much thicker than that of their idols. To help explain this quality, we need to look at the band's love of British blues rock: definitely Free, but in particular Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac. Because the original incarnation of The Mac fell apart in 1971, their stature at the time as one of the most exciting bands in the world has more or less been lost to history. But make no mistake: just about every head alive was in awe of their triple-guitar attack and how it created a forward propulsion rooted in muscular and slithering relentlessness. On a handful of tunes among them "Rattlesnake Shake," "Oh Well," "The Green Manalishi (With the Two Pronged Crown)" and "Only You" the band added mightily to the development of both 1970s hard rock and heavy metal. Aerosmith most certainly paid attention.
As for Rocks itself, this is where I split with the commonly perceived rawness in Aerosmith's music. For me the record is an exemplary product of synthesis and production. By 1976 the band had transformed themselves from sleazy bar-rockers into something significantly more mechanical and sculpted: a crystal-studded locomotive whizzing down tracks made of crackling electricity. Interestingly enough, this is what made Rocks so prescient. It's the glossy, light-refracting sound of the 1980s arriving four years ahead of schedule. A lot went into this achievement. Thanks to producer Jack Douglas, the layering of the guitars prickly and gnarled, but shimmering, too is bloody brilliant. To these ears, Douglas and the band picked up a few ideas from Lynyrd Skynyrd and their original producer, Al Kooper, who together crafted one of the best guitar sounds of the decade with 1974's Second Helping.
Then there's the funk. It's plastered all over Rocks: "Get the Lead Out," "Back in the Saddle" and most famously "Last Child." Guitarist Brad Whitford has said The Meters informed that last tune. But I also smell a pungent whiff of Funkadelic, namely their unique balance of agile syncopation and brute strength. Precision is another factor here. The way Whitford and lead guitarist Joe Perry groove together is sweaty and grinding, but also sharply defined. I like to think of it as an interpretation of the "Deep Purple Effect," that uncanny mix of hard boogie and classical-influenced exactitude.
Finally, there are the psychedelic power-pop vibes permeating Rocks. These are difficult to pinpoint, yet they definitely exist. Repeated spins reveal quite a lot of echo-laden shadow-play woven into nearly every song, but especially in "Nobody's Fault" and "Combination." The weariness in both seem to reflect Aerosmith's love of The Beatles' more sonically forceful offerings: The White Album, Revolver and Abbey Road. "Combination" is actually my all-time fave from Aerosmith. The laser-guided harmonies come cloaked in a predawn urban dream; the dopamine has been sucked dry, leaving nothing but deranged and all-too-paranoid poetics:
I found the secret, the key to the vault
We walked in darkness, kept hittin' the walls
I took the time, to feel for the door
I found the secret, the key to it all
At the same time, The Fabs also exerted a strong influence on Rocks' most pop-tastic moments: the celebratory hand claps closing out "Sick as a Dog," Steven Tyler's squealing "Na na na na ..." in "Lick and a Promise" and of course the candy-flavored "Home Tonight, " a piano ballad so effective Aerosmith would regurgitate it a million times over the next 30 years and so would every hair metal band from Hanoi Rocks to Enuff Z'nuff.