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Aerosmith always seemed destined to self-destruct. Back in the early 1980s, it looked as if their star had burnt brightly for just a short time, before the usual pitfalls of the entertainment industry had sucked them dry. In just a few years they had recorded several Platinum-selling albums of considerable acclaim, while also gaining heavy rotation on radio stations across America with their hit singles Sweet Emotion and Walk This Way. But success had come at a price, as drug abuse and bruised egos caused internal conflicts among the ranks, particularly between frontman Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry.
This would culminate in an incident backstage at the World Series of Rock at Cleveland Stadium in the summer of 1979, when the latter took his leave from the group. His departure could not have come at a worse time, as work was still to be completed on what was to become their sixth studio album, Night in the Ruts. Released in November, the record failed to achieve the same kind of impact as its predecessors, prompting many news outlets to speculate that this could mark the end of Aerosmith.
‘I didn’t feel great about leaving Aerosmith before the album was finished,’ confessed Perry in the band’s official biography Walk This Way. ‘At the time, I thought Ruts would be the last real Aerosmith album, and I told people I wasn’t happy with the way it sounded because I hadn’t been there for the mix.’ Many fans and critics felt the same way, with Night in the Ruts dismissed as a diluted and somewhat unfocused mess, lacking the bite or attitude of their earlier offerings.
Heroin had become a major factor in the struggle, with Tyler often unable to perform to his usual standard, while also suffering from writer’s block. With his long-time collaborator out of the picture, Tyler had been recommended a young guitarist by the name of Jimmy Crespo to help complete work on the album. With the likelihood of a truce with Perry seeming impossible, Aerosmith prepared to hit the road in support of their latest record, with Crespo once again filling in for Perry. But audiences seemed less than thrilled at the line-up change and would often chant the former guitarist’s name in between songs.
Perry, meanwhile, had formed his own group, dubbed the Joe Perry Project, and immediately began work on his first album outside of Aerosmith, Let the Music Do the Talking, which made its debut a few months after Night in the Ruts. But his old group looked set to unravel, as Tyler’s well-documented drug addiction had begun to affect his performance onstage. With their last offering hinting that Aerosmith could not cope without Perry, it was crucial that their next record be something spectacular.
But even as the band were preparing to commence work on their make-or-break album, Tyler was involved in an accident on his trail bike that would result in the singer being hospitalised for the next two months. With Aerosmith close to the abyss and the future seeming doomed for the remaining members, guitarist Brad Whitford also decided it was time for him to step down and form his own group. Whitford St Holmes was the brainchild of Whitford and Derek St. Holmes, best known for his work with Ted Nugent, but the duo would soon split after the lukewarm reception to their self-titled debut.
‘During the years that Joe and I were broken up I realised that I wasn’t half the musician I thought I was without him,’ admitted Tyler in his memoir Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? Crespo was an adequate musician and brought his own style into the studio but it was clear that the winning chemistry that had seen Aerosmith through almost a decade was now lacking something. ‘I replaced Joe with Jimmy Crespo because he looked just like Joe, and played really good, too. Nice long hair, skinny fucking guy, I thought, hey, bingo! What do I need fucking Joe Perry for? But then, think again?’
The majority of material that the band took into the studio had been written by Tyler with the help of Crespo, although other contributions would come from Rick Dufay, who had stepped in to replace Whitford, guitarist Richard Supa and Jack Douglas, who had overseen the production on the majority of Aerosmith‘s previous albums, only to be replaced during the recording of Night in the Ruts. The sessions for the new album took place at the Power Station in New York, a studio built by producer Tony Bongiovi, who would also assist in the production. In later years Bongiovi would become more famous through his family connections with Jon Bon Jovi, having produced Bon Jovi‘s eponymous debut album in 1984.‘For two years, the album we were working on, Rock in a Hard Place, was always two months away. It was hard times. We sold our houses and moved to a condo and everyone else cut back too,’ admitted drummer Joey Kramer. With Tyler recovering from his injuries and Whitford having left the band midway through the sessions, the chance of Aerosmith completing the album seemed bleak. ‘We ended up erasing the stuff that Brad did, and me, Tom (Hamilton, guitarist) and Jimmy Crespo did all the tracks,’ he continued. ‘I actually got to express myself a little, which hadn’t happened before. I was writing songs, doing production work. Hey, it was almost like it was my own band. I did what I had to do to get the record out.’
Since the release of Night in the Ruts in November 1979 Aerosmith‘s fortunes had not been a total failure, as the multi-Platinum sales of their Greatest Hits compilation the following year proved the band still had a loyal following. But this also served as a reminder to the public of their decline from the genius heights of Toys in the Attic and Rocks which, by the dawn of the 1980s, seemed a long time ago. It had been a few years since the band had enjoyed a hit single, as their cover of Remember (Walking in the Sand), the only track released from Night in the Ruts, had failed to chart in the US.
But even as Tyler struggled with writing new material, his lifestyle had not only threatened his health but also his family. ‘Steven was the type of man who dismissed positive stuff. Everything could have been great, but he was so tortured,’ claimed his former wife Cyrinda Foxe in her book Dream On. ‘And by 1982, it wasn’t worth taking a chance on being around Steven Tyler when the show was over. He was just too crazy.’ Their daughter Mia, who was born three days before Christmas 1978, remembered the first few years of her life being dominated by this rock ‘n’ roll excess. ‘I saw everything going on in the house,’ she admitted in her own book. ‘One time I watched cops and paramedics deal with a well-known rocker from another group who OD’d.’
It seemed that for some time Tyler was the only member of the band who was not fully committed to recording the album. Growing frustrated with his nonchalant attitude, Kramer and Hamilton came close to following Perry and Whitford, but they had already suffered too much and come too far and so reluctantly they decided to preserver. It would prove a difficult time for Crespo too, who not only had the pressure of stepping into the shoes of Perry but also keeping the band together, as Aerosmith became engulfed in a cocktail of drug abuse and hostility.
‘It was tough times. It was difficult, but we got through it. For years, I didn’t even listen to that record because it brought back too many bad memories. Everything ended on a sour note,’ Crespo confessed to RockMusicStar.com in 2010. ‘It took two years to make that record. Steven Tyler was having issues, problems during that period. He was in and out of drug mayhem. He was getting in accidents. Who knows if that was just his way of getting out of doing things or whatever it was. But we couldn’t get him locked down and he wouldn’t let anyone in the band write any lyrics. It had to be all him during that time.’
There was also tension with Rick Dufay, the guitarist Douglas had suggested as a replacement for Whitford. ‘Rick would try anything. He’d been in a mental institution, broke out of his cell, jumped out of a third floor window and survived,’ said Tyler. ‘I’d get in fights with him. He’d knock me down and my elbow would smash on the cement floor of the studio.’ Hamilton concurred, ‘He was dedicated to living the absurdity of the rock ‘n’ roll life – just taking the piss out of everything.’
Perhaps due to the influence of the drugs or the lack of faith the label had in the band, Rock in a Hard Place would provide Aerosmith with their last chance to fully experiment with their sound before signing to Geffen Records a few years later. Incorporating vocoders, saxophones and a ‘who cares’ attitude throughout, the final result may have been uneven, unfocused and something of a disappointment, but at least Aerosmith had been allowed to fail on their own terms.
Released in the summer of 1982, Rock in a Hard Place was greeted with indifference and even hostility by the press, with reviews often focusing on the album’s lack of commercial appeal and the absence of Perry. ‘Rock in a Hard Place: What an apropos title,’ said Douglas on the struggles he had gone through with the band to complete the album. ‘It’s not a real Aerosmith record because it’s just me, Steven and Tom,’ admitted Kramer in an interview with Hit Hard. ‘Brad played rhythm on Lightning Strikes; otherwise, it’s Jimmy doing all the guitar work.’Few would have believed that Aerosmith would survive as a band long after the release of Rock in a Hard Place. Two members had left, while the frontman was too wrapped up in his own personal problems, but in the three years after its release the most unlikely of events took place. Both Perry and Whitford returned to the band, and following their split with Columbia Records, Aerosmith found a new home at Geffen. While their supposed comeback Done with Mirrors would perform even worse commercially than its predecessor, Aerosmith climbed to the top of the charts in 1987 with the multi-Platinum-selling Permanent Vacation.
Gone was the drug addiction and in its place was a focused and fresh Aerosmith, armed with an arsenal of radio friendly tunes. They had never been in finer shape. ‘I think we’ve done it like no-one else, man,’ Perry told Riff Raff in 1990. ‘Yeah, we did have our trouble and stuff but we came through all that. And now we’re the original line-up again. We didn’t do it like anyone else has though. There was no blaze of publicity glory saying, ‘Aerosmith are back,’ you know. We made it with our music.’