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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 1976 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 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.’

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 Tyler and 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 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. Yet 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. 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; bassist) 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 lifetime 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: Livin’ on the Edge with Steven Tyler and Aerosmith. ‘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. 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.

By this point both Tyler and Perry had seen relationships with their respective others come to an end. Tyler and 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. 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 career. 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 the label. 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. 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.

With 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.’

Despite the album being dubbed as a major comeback for Aerosmith and their first record with the original line-up since the late 1970s the band were determined to put as little pressure as possible on themselves as they prepared to commence work on what could very well be their last release. ‘Rehearsals were held at a country club out in Millis, Massachusetts. Walking in that first day wasn’t easy, I’d recently played with Brad and Joey, who had helped fulfil my last Project obligations but it had been years since I’d made music with Tom and Steven,’ Perry would later recall in his book Rocks: My Life in and Out of Aerosmith. ‘Tentatively we started playing without any set agenda. We fell back into our pattern of hitting this riff and that riff. The initial song we fooled with was Movin’ Out, the first Steven-Joe composition from our earliest Commonwealth days. Steven smiled when he heard those first notes.’

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.

While the five members were excited to be performing together once again the recording sessions for their eighth studio album would prove to be something of a challenging and an experience none of the members would relish. ‘It just didn’t feel to me like we were at the top of our game. You know what I mean? As good as we could be, considering other things we had done,’ Perry would later confess to the Hollywood Reporter when looking back on Done with Mirrors almost thirty years later. ‘We were still struggling with controlled substances and I think that played a part in that and not really focusing on the songs. We were also still figuring out how to deal with each other after being apart for five years. And Ted Templeman, our producer, just wasn’t the right producer for that time to help steer us, because I don’t think some of the songs are as good as they could have been.’

What could have been their saving grace was 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. But the producer’s initial experience with Aerosmith would prove to be something of a disaster. ‘Rick was another long-bearded, hard rock-loving genius who loved our records from the seventies and wanted to help bring us back,’ explained Perry. ‘We had met him at a Boston studio where I walked in with Xanax in one pocket and blow in another. I didn’t play worth a shit that day and the Rubin connection, at least then, didn’t work. That’s when I knew the old ways weren’t working. I knew we had to change but I still couldn’t picture what that would look like.’

When Done with Mirrors first surfaced in November 1985 it 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. Yet while the band may have blown their initial meeting with Rubin the young producer was determined to collaborate with the rock ‘n’ roll veterans and decided to pitch the most unlikely of collaborations.

Run-D.M.C. 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 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.

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 seller since Toys in the Attic twelve years earlier, achieving Platinum status five times over.

‘We did a lot of house cleaning during Done with Mirrors but we hadn’t swept our brains out yet. We were trying to use the same songwriting process we used in the mid-seventies,’ Whitford told Guitar World in 1990. ‘By the time Permanent Vacation came we were in such a different head space. Suddenly we were much healthier and the music was flowing like it did in the early seventies.’ 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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