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Backstage Boogie – Aerosmith and the Making of Toys in the Attic

‘We wanted to do something that we felt could hold up. Toys in the Attic was the first record where we felt like, this record is truly amazing,’ declared Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton in a 1998 interview with Spin when asked to reflect on the group’s third album. ‘It’s the album where the band first felt like stars and learned how to make a record, how to use the studio. The relationship between the band and Jack as a producer…back in those days you couldn’t go to university and learn how to be a band and write rock songs and stuff. So anything we did was just from whatever knowledge we could scrape together from the bands that we loved as teenagers: Zeppelin, the Stones, the Beatles, the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane.’ Released just a few weeks after Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare and the latest KISS offering Dressed to Kill, Toys in the Attic marked a significant progression from the band’s sophomore album and would ultimately prove to be their breakthrough, but when the five-piece first embarked on this next chapter of their journey they were near-broke unknowns, desperate for a taste of success.

The tale had begun a decade earlier when fifteen year old Steven Tallarico jammed with friends from his high school in a garage band called the Yonkers, Tallarico initially starting out on drums. But while he would sit at the back of the stage during their shows he occasionally enjoyed a taste of the limelight when joining another act, the Dantes, on vocals. By the end of the decade American had discovered rock and psychedelia through the sounds of Led Zeppelin, the Doors and Frank Zappa and while the country watched the horror of the war in Vietnam unfold on their television screens, love and music was being celebrated at a festival in a small town in New York. Beatlemania was over and now America were discovering hard rock, a distorted and sleazy evolution of blues and rock ‘n’ roll. By the dawn of the 1970s Tallarico, now known as Steven Tyler, had formed Aerosmith and within three years they had signed to a major label and released their debut album.

While it would fail to make much of a commercial impact, they soon earned a reputation as a strong live act and returned to the studio to record their follow-up, Get Your Wings. After being rejected by producer Bob Ezrin, who had produced Alice Cooper’s latest offering Billion Dollar Babies, they were advised to approach his engineer, a man called Jack Douglas. The chemistry between producer and band was immediate and the album proved more polished and focused than its predecessor, but if Aerosmith were to survive then they needed a hit. ‘Basically the first two records that we did were records made up of songs that we had been playing in clubs up to that point,’ explained guitarist Joe Perry to Ultimate Guitar. ‘But Toys was the first record where we had to write everything pretty, much from scratch. And also, we had to do it after having been on the road for a while. And, though we were still playing a lot of gigs, we took a couple months off to make this record. So this was our first real studio record.’

By Christmas 1974 Aerosmith had completed an extensive tour in support of Get Your Wings with three dates in their hometown of Boston, Massachusetts and now feeling more experienced and focused they were eager to lock themselves away in a studio and commence recording. Prior to the sessions, they worked with Douglas developing their new material at Angus Studios in the town of Ashland, thirty miles outside of Boston. Numerous riffs and melodies had been developed while on the road but there was little in the way of completed songs and so after a week of experimenting and bouncing ideas off one another they relocated to New York, once again making themselves at home in the Record Plant on West 44th Street, where they had previously cut their last album. Despite the freezing cold temperatures and exhaustion from months of touring the overall mood was one of positivity. The legendary studio had already seen such artists as Jimi Hendrix grace its halls and the numerous memorabilia left behind helped to make Aerosmith feel like they were finally starting to reap the benefits of all their hard work.

‘One of our best albums ever without a doubt,’ stated guitarist Brad Whitford to Spin on how the energy and drive of the band, coupled with their productive relationship with Douglas, would create their first true classic. ‘I’m just really proud of that record and what we did. The whole thing was just a cool experience from the pre-production to the tracking and mixing. Only young guys are making records like that now. But that was done to 16-track, with hands-on mixing. That’s the way I like to do stuff still. Basically recording the band live, who are playing well together. That’s the only way you should ever do it. I don’t like the convenience of Pro Tools, it’s too convenient. I think it makes people lazy.’ Yet while Toys in the Attic was far more polished than their previous efforts, it still boasted a gritty, no-nonsense feel that was somewhat reminiscent of both the Rolling Stones and the New York Dolls, with Tyler’s lyrics giving the songs a mischievous flavour.

Tom Hamilton and Steven Tyler

Tom Hamilton and Steven Tyler

From the opening ferocity of the title track to the hypnotic bass riff of Sweet Emotion, Toys in the Attic marked a significant evolution for Aerosmith, no longer a band that showed great potential but now finally fulfilling that promise, taking all the lessons they had learned on the road regarding working together and playing off each other’s strengths to finally develop a sound that would make them unique among their contemporaries. ‘Aerosmith was a different band when they started the third album,’ claimed Douglas in the group’s autobiography Walk This Way. ‘They’d been playing Get Your Wings on the road for a year and had become better players – different. It showed in the riffs that Joe and Brad brought back from the road for the next album. Toys in the Attic was a much more sophisticated record than the other stuff they’d done. Steven’s lyrics always came last, after we had the instrumental tracks. Steven had a good work ethic that he’d gotten from his dad, but the other guys didn’t take him seriously because they knew he’d be the first guy out of there. When we worked on vocals I always had Steven live with me. Steven would work on the lyrics and we’d feed off each other. I’d try to compete with him and see who could come up with the best line.’

As was common with artists during the 1960s and ’70s drugs were easily accessible and in constant use throughout the sessions, with their particular tastes being marijuana and cocaine. One common rock ‘n’ roll myth is that musicians create some of their best work under the influence before addiction takes over and destroys that spark. ‘I don’t want to sound pro-drugs or anything but there is something about being high that makes you look at things differently,’ Hamilton confessed to Classic Rock in 2015. ‘But that period for some people can be relatively short, where the weed is helping you get into a different state of mind. But the cocaine was different.’ In their memoirs Perry took a similar stance. ‘I don’t feel great about saying it was drugs, but the plain truth is we were beginning to make money and could afford better dope. On our first two records, we were low on the food chain of drugs. Then we started to get hold of high-velocity un-stepped-on Peruvian cocaine and the whole thing kind of took off. Some of us were quiet, insecure kids from the suburbs who got a-hold of this ego enhancer and just went with it in extremis.’

It would be during a brief break from the studio that Aerosmith would find inspiration for what would become one of the most famous songs in their repertoire when they would visit a local cinema to watch Young Frankenstein, the latest spoof from comedy genius Mel Brooks. A send-up of the 1931 Universal adaptation of Mary Shelley’s seminal tale, one scene featured Marty Feldman as hunchbacked Igor leading Gene Wilder’s eponymous doctor from the train station and instructing him to ‘walk this way,’ handing him a walking stick so he can adopt the same staggered movements. ‘So we told Steven, you’ve got to call the song Walk This Way. Steven was like, ‘You can’t tell me what to call the song, I haven’t even written the lyrics yet!’ But we told him he had to do it. So he did.’ Tyler recalled the inspiration for the song to Classic Rock, ‘I’d actually finished the song the night before our session and kept it in a bag that had all the other lyrics I’d written for the LP. Arriving that day at the studio at four pm, I got out of the cab and realised I’d left the bag in the car! Gone. Two hours later I went upstairs. I sat down on the steps with my pen and wrote the words to Walk This Way on the wall. As I rewrote each line, the words all came back to me. Never saw the bag again.’

Arguably the high point of the album, however, was the song written and recorded at the very end of the session. Having played with a bass riff since high school, Hamilton had initially played his melody to Hamilton but due to a less-impressive structure the singer was dismissive, but on the last day of recording Douglas asked if there were any unused ideas that they would toy with. Nervously Hamilton spoke up. With Tyler writing the bitter lyrics about Perry’s then-wife Elyssa, whom he resented for working her way between them, the song quickly came together based around the bassist’s initial groove. ‘He already had that introduction bass riff,’ confirmed Perry. ‘And then there was that other part, the riff interlude thing between the verses which he also had too. The band filled in all the other spots. I still don’t know where the title comes from or what that means, but it just sounded good.’ Hamilton adds, ‘I actually brought that to the band and didn’t get anyone’s attention with it… SoI stepped up and got everyone to start learning those parts, and Steven went and wrote that awesome vocal part.’

Upon its initial release in April 1975 Toys in the Attic failed to make much of an impression. Sweet Emotion was the first single lifted from the album but it would barely scrape its way into the Top 40. Despite the critical acclaim it would receive over the next few years, Rolling Stone’s Gordon Fletcher seemed somewhat underwhelmed, ‘Like Toys in the Attic, their two previous LPs have had several stellar moments which were weakened by other instances of directionless meandering and downright weak material. That these albums stood the test of time is testimony to the band’s raw abilities and some outstanding production on the part of Jack Douglas – Toys in the Attic, I’m afraid, can’t claim the latter.’ Ironically it would not be Sweet Emotion or Walk This Way that would bring attention to the album but the re-release of their 1973 track Dream On, which would generate enough attention that their latest offering soon find its audience. Then, without warning, Toys in the Attic climbed up the charts and soon became a best-seller, transforming Aerosmith into a phenomenon that would continue until drugs finally took their toll on the band.

Aerosmith

Aerosmith

Toys in the Attic would mark a turning point in the career of Aerosmith and one that would lead to their masterpiece Rocks the following year. Its sudden success would take the band by surprise but it was an achievement they had worked long and hard for. ‘Toys in the Attic was released in April 1975, got niggling reviews and started selling literally millions of copies for the rest of the year,’ said Perry. ‘It pulled Aerosmith and Get Your Wings along and soon we got gold albums for them too.’ Hamilton also acknowledges its important. ‘We were pretty wet behind the ears on the first two albums, but Toys is where we got deep. When I listen to it, it reminds me of what it was like to be with the band and Jack in New York in the Record Plant and having that great comradeship as you set out on the adventure of making a big album.’ For drummer Joey Kramer, the experience of recording Toys in the Attic seems like a lifetime ago, ‘I’m pretty happy with what it is. I’m just in disbelief it’s been forty years since we did that record. I remember it like it was yesterday. I don’t even really relate to it, to tell you the truth. I don’t relate to anything from thirty or forty years ago, it’s just such a long time.’

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