On Valentine’s Day 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 seventies 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 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 recent encounters, this time there seemed to be an air of peace between the five long-time friends and this moment 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 eighties 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.
‘We weren’t musicians dabbling in drugs. We were druggies dabbling in music,’ recalled Tyler in 1988 when looking on the train-wreck the band had become a few years earlier. ‘I was the most obnoxious creep you could imagine. People would always tell me what a jerk I was when I was high. I grew up with the John Wayne mentality. If you were a two-fisted drinker you were cool. I wanted to be cool. As a kid in the Bronx where I grew up, I was this goofy, white, big-lipped, jerky-looking kid. I wanted to be cool so I eventually turned into a flaming alcoholic. I was cool, but I paid the price.’ In a later interview with the Winnipeg Free Press he added, ‘I had tried to shove toothpaste in the cracks of the tile to stop the worms from coming through. They call it toxic psychosis, when you start to hallucinate. It was easily the most pitiful point of my life.’
But his old group looked set to unravel as Tyler’s well-documented drug addiction had begun to affect his onstage performance. 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 end 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 and Whitford soon found himself unemployed.
‘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 by Gary Lyons.
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 eighties, 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.’
He’d been in a mental institution
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 Records 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.
By this point Perry was at a crossroads. There were discussions regarding joining Alice Cooper, who had also struggled to overcome his demons and was now attempting to reinvent himself for the new era, but at the back of his mind Perry knew that despite everything that had happened, Aerosmith was where his heart truly lay. ‘In my head, the arguments raged on,’ he explained in his memoir. ‘All bands have their problems. But in going back with Aerosmith, at least I’d know what the problems are. At least I’d know the nature of the beast. Isn’t that an advantage? Yes and no….Maybe after five years away I have a clearer idea of how to avoid those old conflicts. In the old Aerosmith I was with a woman who did all she could to create drama. This time around, I’m with a woman who seeks nothing but harmony. She sees the situation for what it is: a chance to rebuild on an artistic foundation that is already a proven winner. Steven can sing his ass off. Joey, Brad and Tom can play their asses off. Together, no matter how crazy we got, we kicked serious ass!’
In the two short years since the release of Rock in a Hard Place, the classic rock sound of the seventies 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.’
This 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. Collins had already overseen Perry’s career with the Joe Perry Project but now that Aerosmith had reunited, he saw it was a golden opportunity. The acclaim they 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.’
But even their long-awaited reunion with Perry had failed to be the catalyst that would return Aerosmith from the brink. ‘In early 1984 the band got back together at Tom’s house,’ recalled Tyler. ‘For the first three years we were back together, everybody was so fucked-up! Eventually it reached critical mass and at that point Tim Collins recalled what the promoter had said to him when he first got the band: ‘It’s never going to work. These guys are alcoholics and drug addicts. Your only hope is AA!’ It was time to get Aerosmith clean and sober. Not everybody in the band, of course. Since I was the designated fuckup I was the first one to get sent away. I wound up at East House, a rehab facility at McClean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, in February 1985. I put it in a song called My First Your Face…’East House pinball wizard, full tilt bozo plague, second floor Trekkie making warp speed out of the door.”
Although they had begun their slow return to sobriety, Aerosmith faced other issues that threatened to derail their resurrection. ‘There were a lot of legal problems we had to overcome before we could begin recording again,’ revealed Tyler in 1985 when discussing the issues that had resulting from them parting ways with their former label. ‘We left CBS, the label we had been on from the beginning and signed with Geffen. We couldn’t even talk about the change until our lawyers told us it was okay. It seemed like everyone in the world knew we had signed with Geffen but we had to keep denying it. The worst part of all the legal shit was that we lost momentum. There was a lot of attention focused on the band when we announced we were getting back together but, by waiting as long as we did, we weren’t able to take full advantage of that.’
Despite their eagerness to return to the studio, the band would become reluctant to welcome an outside influence into their tried-and-tested creative circle. ‘Aerosmith had never worked with an A&R person; someone who worked with the producer, brought in outside songwriters, picked the songs, supervised the mixes if they weren’t good,’ explained Kalodner. ‘They didn’t want to start now. Tim Collins asked me to get them a producer and I got Ted Templeman, one of the biggest producers in the world. He was just coming off Van Halen‘s 1984 and was burning hot, this guy. What happened was they kept me at arm’s length, Tim didn’t yet understand the process and we let Templeman make a lot of decisions and record and mix the album.’
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 just 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.
Geffen had placed a considerable amount of faith in the prospect of resurrecting Aerosmith and returning them to the creative and commercial heights of Rocks and so executives at the label would ostensibly act as chaperones for each member, particularly Tyler and Perry, who by this point had become known as the Toxic Twins. ‘That fall, we put Steven into rehab at McClean Hospital again,’ recalled Collins. ‘This is when, out of desperation, I started doing urine tests on Steven and Joe to know if they were sober. Steven cheated…he stored drug-free urine in condoms, which he taped to his thigh to use if I pulled a random drug test on him. Standing outside the stall while Steven urinated, I didn’t catch on until one of the lab reports came in and said the urine was a week old.’
By this point Aerosmith were more than aware of the negative image they had perpetuated in recent years due to their self-destructive lifestyles and inconsistent music. ‘Before, you couldn’t count on us showing up and then you couldn’t count on us to not tear the studio down,’ Perry admitted to the Elyria Chronicle Telegram. ‘A lot of that stuff doesn’t get out to the general public, but in the business you didn’t know if Aerosmith‘s just going to come in and nod out or pour Jack Daniels down the faders. Even though Steven fell down on the stage most or I would have the worst hangovers and the worst dope habit or whatever, what we found out was that everybody in the band had a problem. We had to come to that conclusion because Steven and I tried to clean up a bunch of times. What it took was everybody saying, ‘We’re all messed up and we need to get it on course.’ It’s like a family.’
While Tyler would finally divorce Foxe in 1987, during the recording of Done with Mirrors his ex-wife was still a significant part of his life. ‘Tim tried to enlist my support in this Aerosmith renaissance. He had Joe call me, knowing I would never hang up on Joe Perry,’ claimed Foxe in her memoir. ‘I blamed everything on drugs. They promised me that Steven would get clean. I thought we’d have a cozy year of therapy and then we would be a family again. ‘This Tim Collins seems like a really nice guy,’ I thought. Boy, was it ever a load of shit. By late 1985, I knew the reunion wasn’t going to happen. I got letters from the managers telling me I had better plan carefully for my future, whatever that meant…Tim was telling me that Steven so was far gone that he’d give him talcum powder and he would snort it up and think he was getting high. And there was a violent scene in Tim’s office when Steven wanted money to go to the Cape and they knew it was for drugs.’
Tyler had reluctantly entered rehab in an attempt to prove to both himself and his bandmates that he could place the music before his own decadent lifestyle, but when he finally returned he felt forced to give the rest of Aerosmith an ultimatum. ‘I came back from rehab and I said, ‘You know what, you guys? Therapists at the rehab said I’m gonna use if I’m around you, so you guys, if you don’t get sober, I’m leaving and I’m gonna start another band and use the name!’ I’d gone away to rehab, but none of the rest of the band did at that time,’ noted Tyler in his autobiography. ‘Brad never went. Joey never went. Tom never went. Joe carried on as usual. Tim Collins was afraid to come down too hard on Joe. And besides, he’d been in bed with Joe from day one, because Joe and his girlfriends know how to makey-makey with the manager-manager. Tim Collins, because he’d become tight with Joe while Joe was broken up from Aerosmith, let him stay at his apartment and Joe proceeded to empty his entire bar. Eventually, Joe did go into rehab at Bournwood Hospital in Brookline, Massachusetts, after his son Tony was born in October of 1986.’
After half a decade of drug abuse and poor record sales Aerosmith knew that they had alienated both their friends and fans and so if they were to return to their former glory they would have to work harder than ever before. ‘The band was ready to call it quits but we gave it one last chance. Our programme of recovery was the way out,’ Whitford explained to the Daily Herald. ‘We were very fortunate because we made it; I’m afraid to think about some of the people that were around us that might not have made it. It was a scary time. There were different degrees of drug abuse among band members. Personally, I was kind of waiting for someone to tell me there was a way out. I was the type of guy who would drink a beer or two before a concert. But in the course of ten or fifteen years of being in Aerosmith I was drinking a lot of beer and it became a matter of necessity than of choice.’
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 seventies, 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.’
We were cleaning up our act
Much like with Jack Douglas a decade earlier, Aerosmith had once again found themselves under the wing of a producer who they both respected and felt confident would bring the best out of them. ‘I had loved the way Ted got those Van Halen records to sound and was hoping he would light a fire under us,’ Perry told Louder three decades later. ‘Technically and dynamically, he set the stage for us and recorded the band real well. It sounded good to me at the time, like a very solid record. But I feel that we were holding back. If he had got us as a baby band we would have cut loose a little more. From my point of view, we took the time we needed and the record felt like it was done. It wasn’t like someone was standing over us with a clock either. We were cleaning up our act personally and the basic songs were good, but what I think was missing from that album was some of the edgier stuff we were getting into around, say, Night in the Ruts. That was because of the way the band was at the time. We had just got back together and were afraid to step on each other’s toes.’
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 we finally flew to California we had seventeen songs. Getting it down to nine was the hardest part,’ declared Tyler. ‘Ted used to tape over the record recording light so we wouldn’t know it was on. We’d be playing along and say, ‘Okay, let’s put this one down.’ Ted would pop his head over the board – he’d been hiding under the board drinking carrot juice – and say, ‘We’ve already recorded it.”
But despite the excitement of the classic line-up finally back together in the studio for the first time in over half a decade it was clear that the inspiration that had driven them to their initial success was now sadly lacking and nowhere was this more apparent than in the new material that they were composing. ‘I know where some of that stuff was coming from,’ Perry explained to Classic Rock. ‘It was about the hole we were digging ourselves out of back then. Near the end of the band’s time apart, things had got pretty bad. I don’t know what demons Steven was fighting on a day-to-day basis, but we definitely both had our ups and downs. Part of the reason I wanted to get back with the guys was that I had been through so much.’ In his memoir Rocks: My Life in and Out of Aerosmith Perry would later add, ‘I don’t consider it among our greatest. That may be due to the fact that we were still engaged in mighty battles with our habits – and losing. Steven and I had not returned to a good songwriting groove.’
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 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.’
‘We were getting tired of people asking us how did what we did…how we made the music, how we stayed together, all the things like that,’ claimed Tyler to Hit Parader. ‘We just started telling them it was all done with mirrors, that it was all magic. So, when it came time to explain how we got the album together, the easiest thing for us to say was, ‘Hey, it was all done with mirrors.’ I’ve finally begun to realise how special Aerosmith really is and the whole band has put every drop of creative energy it has into this album. We’ve reached a different level with this group and that’s very satisfying for me. We’re not trying to prove anything anymore. We know how good we are and so do the people. Our goal is to live up our own expectations and we’ve done that.’
Those within the band’s close circle, particularly the executives at Geffen, were aware that Done with Mirrors had become something of a failure, lacking the commercial appeal of Heart‘s recently released comeback, further driving nails into the Aerosmith coffin. ‘When I realised the only good song was Let the Music Do the Talking – an old Joe Perry song – I knew we were in trouble,’ admitted Kalodner. ‘Then Ted Templeman, Jeff Ayeroff and the band came up with the ‘done with mirrors’ concept: everything on the album was printed backwards so you couldn’t read it without a mirror. Done with Mirrors came out, heavily promoted by Geffen and only sold 400,000 records, way below expectations. Aerosmith went on tour and were medicore. It was a tough period for me: Asia went down with alcohol problems, Sammy Hagar joined Van Halen and Aerosmith bombed. Everything was wrong!’
It could be argued that the failure of Done with Mirrors was less the quality of the material and more that the album was perhaps out of time, recalling the hard blues rock that they had revelled in a decade earlier. But by the mid-eighties the musical landscape had changed and a new type of rock ‘n’ roll had dominated the charts. ‘The hard rock music Aerosmith was known for still was prominent but the younger bands were carrying the torch,’ explained biographer Jeff Burlingame. ‘Hair metal bands, so named due to their members’ fondness for using a lot of hairspray to make their hair big, ruled the niche Aerosmith used to fill. Bands such as Mötley Crüe, Ratt, Poison and many others, most of which had been influenced by Aerosmith in one way or another, were dominating the charts. With their tight pants, stage make-up and sexual lyrics, those bands now were out-Aerosmithing Aerosmith.’
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.
Hip hop had first emerged in New York during the late seventies through urban neighbourhoods, taking elements of disco and the growing DJing culture to create a new style of music that, within a few short years, had taken the country by storm. Initially developed through the works of Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, by the mid-eighties hip hop had begun to infiltrate MTV which, since its inception, had been a rock-oriented station. It was through Rubin and Def Jam that this predominantly African-American genre would first enter the mainstream. LL Cool J had enjoyed minor success with his single I Can’t Live Without My Radio in the autumn of 1985, while Orange ‘Juice’ Jones would soon gain international acclaim with his breakthrough hit The Rain, resulting in hip hop proving itself a worthy rival to the hard rock scene of the eighties.
I consider Walk This Way proto-rap
Aerosmith hardly seemed like the type of artist that would appeal to the young DJs and rappers that had begun to populate the scene, but it was one song in particular that had resonated with fans of hip hop. ”I consider Walk This Way proto-rap,’ Rick told me,’ recalled Perry on how Rubin viewed their mid-seventies classic. ‘When I asked Rick what he meant by that, he explained, ‘It’s half-spoken, half-sung and has the swagger of rap. I’m telling you this because I’ve been producing the new Run-D.M.C. record. When I played them Walk This Way, they loved it. My idea was to have them rap over samples of the song with a drum machine, but now I’m thinking that it’d be better to cut a brand new cover, with Steven doing new vocals and you adding the guitar parts.’
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 on the Billboard Hot 100. Rubin, a fan of rock and particularly Aerosmith, decided to contact Collins to suggest bringing their clients together to rework the track. Run-D.M.C. were already a fan of the song, having used the music as a basis for several raps 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.’
While Aerosmith had often been hailed as blues rock during the seventies, among their early influences were an array of funk and soul artists that had been most apparent through the rhythm section of Hamilton and Kramer. Having drawn inspiration from Motown, this element of their sound would help them appeal to the young rising stars of hip hop during the eighties. How the unique sound of the original recording of Walk This Way came about is a matter of debate, as Tyler maintains that he had created the iconic drumbeat after hearing Perry playing the guitar riff during a soundcheck. This beat was then further developed by Kramer but when it came to writing the lyrics, Tyler found that he had hit a wall. It was only after a spontaneous viewing of Mel Brooks’ horror spoof Young Frankenstein that Walk This Way was born.
When the song was finally released as a single in 1975 it became a minor success, but even as it developed into a fan favourite through subsequent live performances, it would be on the streets of Brooklyn and Harlem that it made its mark on hip hop. ‘Those breakbeats, we would listen all day to music trying to find one beat that was good enough for us to rap on,’ Kurtis Blow told the Independent in 2016. ‘We loved Walk This Way because it was rock ‘n’ roll. There were DJs in the early seventies. When Flash came out, he took it to the next level. He understood that when you played the song, the greatest part was the break, when it came down to the drums. So he decided to play just the break.’
The revelation that an Aerosmith song had become a hip hop favourite would come as a surprise to both the band and label. ‘For ten years, they’d been cutting Walk This Way’s funky drum pattern from one turntable to another while teenage MCs worked out their rhymes. These guys had learned to rap to Walk This Way, which unknown to us had been a prime b-boy standard for years,’ stated Collins. ‘I called John Kalodner, who we relied on for advice on marketing decisions like this. He said, ‘I don’t know if I want them singing with those fucking rappers. Let me look into it.’ John called back an hour later. ‘I think this could be really cool. I think we should definitely do this.’ Steven and Joe were lukewarm at first but went along for eight grand for a day in the studio. They flew up from Philadelphia, where they played the Spectrum without incident the night before. We met the group’s manager, Russell Simmons and the rappers, who told us they thought the name of the group that did Walk This Way was Toys in the Attic.’
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 Simmons, Rubin’s partner at Def Jam, sat at the producer’s desk, Tyler and Perry spent one day updating a track 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 seventies Aerosmith track was something that the veteran rock stars were dubious of but the risk would 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 to date.
Their contribution to this new version of Walk This Way had only taken a few hours and by the time that they had heard from Rubin about appearing in the music video, they had all-but-forgotten about the experience. ‘I hated rock videos that were literal interpretations of songs,’ confessed Tyler to the Wall Street Journal. ‘But when I saw the Walk This Way script, I liked it. It called for a wall between us and Run-D.M.C. They’d be complaining about the noise we were making, playing Walk This Way and when they cranked up their speakers and began scratching our record and singing over it, we’d act surprised and want to see what was going on. It sounded like fun.’ Working with director Jon Small, whom Run-D.M.C. would go on to collaborate with on their signature tune It’s Tricky, Tyler and Perry literally broke through the wall and finally introduced themselves to the MTV generation.
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 Los Angeles to Vancouver, where they were introduced to acclaimed producer Bruce Fairbairn and his studio 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, Bryan Adams collaborator Jim Vallance and Holly Knight. The result were three hit singles – Dude (Looks Like a Lady), Angel and Rag Doll – and Permanent Vacation, their first Platinum-selling album in a decade.
‘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, 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.’