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Done with Mirrors – How Aerosmith Returned to the Saddle

On 14 February 1984, Aerosmith took to the stage at the Orpheum Theatre in their hometown of Boston to perform a set of sixteen songs, opening with their 1977 classic Back in the Saddle and concluding with a cover of Tiny Bradshaw’s Train Kept A-Rollin’. Despite an enthusiastic reception from their audience, the truth was that the band had not enjoyed a hit in several years, they had fallen out of favour with rock critics and the lineup that had survived through the 1970s had split during the recording of two disappointing albums, Night in the Ruts and Rock in a Hard Place. Along with drug use and groupies, both of which Aerosmith had become notorious for, there had been a lot of hostility between bandmates, with frontman Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry coming to blows on a regular basis.

But to Tyler’s surprise, when the show at the Orpheum Theatre came to an end and he walked off stage he was confronted by Perry and his other former guitarist, Brad Whitford. Yet unlike many of their last encounters, this time there seemed to be an air of peace between the five long-time friends and this surprise encounter would be the first step towards a comeback that many feared would never take place. No one more so than Tyler and Perry, who had parted ways almost five years earlier following a period of animosity. ‘It didn’t matter to Joe that he and I were a team. He didn’t care that we’d been together for almost ten years! All he cared about was getting high and being with her,’ claimed Tyler in his recent autobiography Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?, in which he looked back on the troubled relationships surrounding the band. ‘I was that angry with him, so I went, ‘Fuck you! You’re fired. I’m gonna find a new guitar player.’ And I did. Jimmy Crespo. At least he wasn’t Joe Perry…the cocksucker.’

Perry soon signed a contract with Columbia Records, the same label who handled Aerosmith and, having brought together a group of musicians, formed the Joe Perry Project. Their debut release, Let the Music Do the Talking, was recorded with acclaimed producer Jack Douglas, who had been responsible for much of Aerosmith‘s output. The band recorded two further studio albums – I’ve Got the Rock ‘n’ Rolls Again and Once a Rocker, Always a Rocker – but both failed to break into the mainstream and despite Whitford joining him onstage, Perry eventually lost interest. During this time Aerosmith had failed to Rock in a Hard Place, the first album of their career to not achieve Platinum status, while Columbia had opted to release a career-spanning Greatest Hits, combining hits from their first six albums, as well as a cover of the Beatles classic Come Together for the soundtrack to the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie.

Both Tyler and Perry had seen relationships with their respective others come to an end. Tyler and Cyrinda Foxe had married in 1978 but in just a few short years the romance was lost and Tyler had fallen for another young beauty, Teresa Barrick. ‘I was badly advised on my divorce settlement. I was told that the band was destitude and that there probably would never be any more money than there was now and that I was better off taking whatever I could get,’ claimed Foxe in her own memoirs Dream On: Livin’ on the Edge with Steven Tyler and Aerosmith. But what Foxe and her lawyers did not know, however, was that Aerosmith were on the brink of a phenomenal comeback.

What the band were surprised by was the lack of enthusiasm that Columbia showed towards the revived Aerosmith, while further issues came from a Legal dispute with their management, Leber-Krebs, whose production division Contemporary Communications Corporation was the liaison between the group and their label. In the two short years since the release of Rock in a Hard Place, the classic rock sound of the 1970s had been replaced by a new generation of metal acts who were heavily inspired by Aerosmith, such as Ratt and Mötley Crüe. Now in their mid-thirties and regularly in and out of rehab, Tyler and his bandmates knew that they had a lot to prove if they were to be relevant once again and as they had first cemented their reputation in clubs and venues it made sense to head back out on the road. Initially performing low-key shows under such pseudonyms as Ray Coe and the Seat Covers, the positive feedback that they were receiving convinced them that they still had an audience and, in June 1984, embarked on the appropriately-titled Back in the Saddle tour. According to a 1985 issue of Billboard Aerosmith would set a new record during this tour as they had ‘no current product and no label.’

But their newfound sense of self-confidence and enthusiasm soon led to a contract with a new management company, Collins-Barrasso, with co-owner Tim Collins watching over the band as they attempted to battle their personal demons while kick-starting their careers. The acclaim that Aerosmith were receiving from the Back in the Saddle tour brought them to the attention of John Kalodner, whose work in A&R for Atlantic Records had helped to launch the career of Foreigner, eventually leading him to Geffen in 1980. Among his early successes on the label was Asia, but Aerosmith were already an established act that somehow needed rejuvenating and so he suggested signing them to Geffen. In an interview with Rock Scene two years after joining the label Perry joked, ‘We decided to sign with Geffen because we liked John Kalodner’s beard.’ Over the next decade, Geffen would become a major player in the rock scene, producing such groundbreaking albums as Appetite for Destruction by Guns N’ Roses and Nevermind by Nirvana but in 1984 they were still an up-and-coming company that had as much to prove as their latest client.

Aerosmith

Aerosmith

It is rumoured that when signing to Geffen Aerosmith were given an advance in the region of $7m but despite this good fortune there were still serious problems surrounding the band, with drug and alcohol consumption having threatened to derail the tour on numerous occasions. On 31 December 1984 Aerosmith returned to the Orpheum Theatre in Boston to perform a New Year’s Eve show that consisted of material pulled from their first four records, although they would also treat fans to renditions of Bone to Bone (Coney Island White Fish Boy), the sole number from Night in the Ruts and a cover of Red House by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Following the show the band set about gathering material for what would be their first album with the original line-up in six years.

Their relationship with Jack Douglas a little soured after the recording of the last two albums Aerosmith were instead paired with Ted Templeman, who had first cut his teeth with the Doobie Brothers and Van Morrison before gaining major acclaim through his work with Van Halen, commencing with their eponymous debut in 1978 through to their most recent effort, 1984. ‘Ted did an interview with MTV two years ago,’ Tyler told Billboard shortly after the album’s release, ‘and they asked him what band he would most like to produce in the world. He said Aerosmith.’ The recording sessions would take place at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California, with Templeman attempting to capture the kind of raw and unpolished feel that the band had shown on their earlier albums. While they felt more in tune with each other than they had in many years developing a new album proved to be somewhat problematic, with drug abuse mixed with writer’s block leaving the musicians feeling less-than-enthusiastic about their new songs. In an interview with Musician five years later Perry admitted, ‘We went into the studio and winged it.’

Of the songs written for what would eventually become Done with Mirrors, Aerosmith‘s eighth studio album and their first away from Columbia, one had already surfaced in a slightly different format a few years earlier. Perry had penned Let the Music Do the Talking shortly before leaving the group in 1979 but had instead used it as the title track of the first album by the Joe Perry Project, yet with some input from Tyler it was revamped and added to the Aeromsmith repertoire. The overall quality of the songs that would make their way into the sessions were reminiscent of Draw the Line, an album that many fans considered inferior to the classic era of Toys in the Attic and Rocks, but far more inspired than Night in the Ruts and Rock in a Hard Place. In some ways, they were attempting to take their sound back to the roots, where they started out as a garage band in Boston over a decade earlier.

In an attempt to capture a live and authentic sound, Templeman would ask the band to run through the songs as a rehearsal in order to give both the musicians and producer an idea of song structure, but he would secretly record their performances and use these takes as the foundation for the album. ‘It was his way of getting a live ambience into the sound, to get us jiving without pressure. We relaxed and let rip,’ Tyler would later explain. According to an interview with MTV shortly after the release of Done with Mirrors, the album was recorded in just four weeks, a schedule far quicker than the drawn-out process of cutting Rock in a Hard Place.

When Done with Mirrors first surfaced in November 1985 it sadly failed to provide Aerosmith with the comeback both the band and label had hoped for. This month also saw the release of offerings from such new blood as W.A.S.P. and Twisted Sister and so the recycled ideas of what many critics had dismissed as ‘has-beens’ did little to excite the industry. In their review of the album Rolling Stone stated, ‘Perry’s once fiery guitar leads are now rote and lazy and Steven Tyler’s arena shouts make Ace Frehley sound subtle. Aerosmith may be back in the saddle, but they picked the wrong horse.’ In a Billboard review of a show at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles around the time of the album’s release they also criticised the new material; ‘The band mixed its classic material with cuts from the new release and recent derivative pieces like My First Your Face were received as warmly as their earlier, more memorable Walk This Way and Sweet Emotion. Somewhere along the way, Aerosmith has lost the blues base that made its music worthwhile.’

Aerosmith now faced a dilemma; they were in serious danger of becoming obsolete and their much-hyped comeback had proved to be anti-climatic. It would take something truly special to erase the memory of Done with Mirrors and introduce the band to a generation who were being force-fed MTV on a daily basis. At this point, Aerosmith were not known for their music videos and the metal fans who bought magazines were largely unaware of who they were, despite new groups like Guns N’ Roses including their songs in their sets. But their saving grace would come from the most unlikely of places. Rick Rubin, barely into his twenties, had become a pioneer of hip-hop through his work with Def Jam, the label that handled the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J and Run-D.M.C. The latter had already achieved Platinum status with their second album, 1985′s King of Rock, but all of their singles to-date had failed to chart in the Billboard Hot 100.

Rubin, a fan of rock and particularly Aerosmith, decided to contact Collins to request bringing their clients together for a reworking of Aerosmith‘s 1975 hit Walk This Way. Run-D.M.C. were already a fan of the song, having used the music as a basis for some of their rapping earlier in their career. As Joseph ‘Run’ Simmons recalled in an interview with Spin prior to the single’s release, ‘It was our favourite thing. We didn’t even know the name of the group, really. All we knew was we liked the beat. There’s a breaking part in the record where the drums just play and a little guitar comes in. You just cut the start of it, scratch it from record to record, just keep cutting the break part.’

In March 1986, Tyler and Perry were invited to Rubin’s studio in New York to provide vocals and guitar to a new recording of Walk This Way. With Rubin and Russell Simmons, Rubin’s partner at Def Jam, sat at the producer’s desk, Tyler and Perry spent one day at a cost of approximately $8,000 assisting in updating their classic that had first been released a little over a decade earlier, when their producers were still in high school. Mixing rap and hip-hop with a 1970s Aerosmith track was something that the veteran rock stars were dubious of but the risk would surprisingly pay off, with the song reaching number four in the US charts. Not only was this the first Run-D.M.C. single to chart in the States but it also provided Aerosmith with the biggest hit of their career. Working with director Jon Small, whom Run-D.M.C. would go on to collaborate with again on the videos for It’s Tricky and Mary Mary, Aerosmith were finally introduced to the MTV audience as Tyler and Perry break through a wall and begin to jam with Run-D.M.C. on a rendition of Walk This Way. While the pairing of the two bands seemed a recipe for disaster, the collaboration gave one a career and helped to restart the other.

Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith

Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith

Rubin would be so impressed with the end result that he told Billboard, ‘You know, I wouldn’t mind producing their next album.’ As it would happen, however, Geffen had other ideas and Aerosmith were sent away from the temptations of drug use to Vancouver to work with acclaimed producer Bruce Fairbairn at Little Mountain Sound Studios, the same facility where he had recorded Bon Jovi‘s breakthrough Slippery When Wet the previous year. While Geffen had tried to pressure the band into working with professional songwriters for Done with Mirrors, its poor performance had forced them to rethink their decision. Thus, they soon found themselves writing alongside a host of successful songwriters, including Desmond Child (who had co-written Bon Jovi‘s Livin’ on a Prayer), Jim Vallance (Summer of ’69 by Bryan Adams) and Holly Knight (Never by Heart). The result were three hit singles – Dude (Looks Like a Lady), Angel and Rag Doll – while the album, Permanent Vacation, would be their highest selling album since Toys in the Attic twelve years earlier, achieving Platinum status five times over.

With Aerosmith finally back in the charts, on MTV and performing around the globe, they were once again one of the biggest rock bands in the world, enjoying continued success with such hits as Love in an Elevator, Livin’ on the Edge and I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing, the latter their first number one hit. But it almost didn’t happen as they came dangerously close to self-destruction, before finally dragging themselves back from the abyss. ‘We figured the only thing to do was to clean up,’ confessed Perry to filmmaker Penelope Spheeris in her 1988 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. ‘We were feeling sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.’

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