So, I asked Steven Tyler and Joe Perry: is it true that you once…
“Yes!” yelped Tyler, an overexcited puppy in violet shades. “All of it!”
What about the time…
“Totally,” said Perry, gunslinger drawl, head-to-toe leather.
And… “More than once,” Tyler said with a grin, pushing back his long tresses to overexpose his pouting-skull features. “And in many more places.”
“We’re not like that any more,” said Perry, barely moving his lips. “We do different shit now.”
“Right, well, that’s that cleared that up, then,” I should have said but didn’t.
It was a sunny Sunday morning in London, late summer 1989, and I was interviewing ‘the boys’ from Aerosmith about the release of their new album, titled simply Pump.
Steven and Joe had just come from the gym where they had pounded through their usual two-hour morning workout. Now they were sharing pots of strong black coffee.
“That’s our high now,” explained Tyler, pouring his third cup. “Beat the shit out of yourself on the rowing machine then drink this. Like a speedball,” he said, and smacked his considerable lips, “but without the come-down.”
“Or the divorces,” said Perry, deadpan.
I had tried getting them to talk about the ‘bad old days’ of the 70s: the days of travelling in separate limos; of downer capsules sewn into scarves, and cellophane bags of heroin the size of bin liners, and cocaine road queens; of long sleepless nights that turned into years then lifetimes, then – bang! Unhappy endings. But they weren’t having it. They’d been asked it all before. A zillion times. Change the record. So I did.
Aerosmith came from an era when the two bands they had always been most closely compared to were the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, combining the swaggering outlaw status of the former with the overlord musical assault of the latter, back when rock still rolled, drugs were mind-expanding and chicks got in the back door for free.
Now, in the late 80s, Aerosmith’s closest competitors were Mötley Crüe and Poison, Bon Jovi and Guns N’ Roses. A time when ‘heads’ had been replaced by headbangers, deep-cut album tracks overtaken by low-com-denom videos, shit for sugar, class for ass.
The question was: how comfortable were Aerosmith – the band who made their (bad) reputation for not even knowing that rules existed – now being positioned in the middle of all that safe-as-mother’s-milk shit?
“You mean heavy metal?” hissed Tyler, holding out a hand to regard his daintily polished fingernails. “I don’t even recognise what we do in the bands you just mentioned. Maybe Guns N’ Roses has a little of the real thing going for them. But to me it was always Led Zeppelin who invented that whole thing. We came along a little bit after that but we had all the same musical roots, going back to The Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck… the Stones and The Beatles.
“But we weren’t trying to be out-and-out heavy. We just wanted to rock loud. But also have some great songs in there too, whether they were great ballads to kick back on like Dream On, or some funky-assed dance stuff like Sweet Emotion or Walk This Way. And we achieved that, I think.”
So with all this good stuff going on, why had they never been commercially successful outside of the United States?
“Oh, that’s easy,” said Perry, chewing gum while drinking his coffee. “Because we never toured any place else.”
And why was that?
He looked at me like I’d just shit the bed. “Drugs, man! The drugs! We couldn’t risk going through airports.”
So it is true what they say?
“We just told you,” said Tyler. “All of it!”
“Totally,” said Perry.
The fact is, none of the usual questions rock bands got asked in those easy-to-fool days applied to Aerosmith any more. Tyler was 41, Perry 39 when Pump was released. They and the rest of the band – bassist Tom Hamilton (38), rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford (37) and drummer Joey Kramer (39) – were old enough to know better than to question the newfound master-of-the-universe status of MTV or the music industry’s greed-head preference for low-quality-sound, high-dollar profit-margin CDs.
Plus, Aerosmith had had it all their own way for more than a decade – writing their own down-and-dirty songs until they all started to sound the same (only not as good), living their own down-and-dirty dreams until they turned into nightmares. Not stopping until long after the wheels had fallen off the meat wagon.
Following a harrowing collective rehab in 1986 enforced by then-manager Tim Collins, and a laying-down-the-law meeting with their label Geffen Records, where it was made clear that they did what they were told or else, Aerosmith had reluctantly accepted ‘help’ in the studio for their next album, Permanent Vacation, a desperate last-ditch attempt to resuscitate a career that most considered already dead.
That help had come, principally, in the form of producer Bruce Fairbairn, hot as a pistol after the squillion-dollar success that year of Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet, and Desmond Child, writer of reliably generic rock hits for Kiss, Joan Jett and, most recently and successfully, in 1986, Bon Jovi (You Give Love A Bad Name, Livin’ On A Prayer).
Child had excelled himself on Permanent Vacation, ‘helping’ Aerosmith come up with Dude (Looks Like A Lady) and Angel, their biggest hit singles in their own right since the 70s. Jim Vallance, fresh from co-writing nine US Top 20 singles in three years with Bryan Adams, was also brought in to co-write four songs, including the album’s other big hit, Rag Doll.
All that extra assistance, along with a progressively successful year-long ‘world’ tour – which pointedly did not include Britain or Europe – drove Permanent Vacation to the edge of the US Top 10, becoming the first Aerosmith album in a decade to sell more than a million copies.
Clean start established. New direction approved. Now for the big one.
“No, we didn’t feel any extra pressure making this one,” Tyler insisted when I asked on the eve of the release of Pump. “We’ve never felt pressure making albums,” he said with a straight face. “The only pressure this time around was to be less like what the record company said we should be and more like ourselves. Like, really let rip this time.”
In fact the making of Pump was – initially, at least – very much in the mould of a self-consciously durable follow-up to Permanent Vacation, down to the same producer, Fairbairn, and ‘co-writers’ – Child and Vallance again, responsible for two tracks each. But while the latter pair did help the band scrub up well with two more hit songs – What It Takes and The Other Side respectively – this time around it was the band as individuals who came up with the real goods, in the shape of Tyler and Perry’s Love In An Elevator – a more emblematic Aerosmith rocker it is nigh on impossible to make a case for – and Tyler and Hamilton’s moody, evocative Janie’s Got A Gun.
The former was classic Aerosmith: broad of humour, bulging of guitars, screeching vocals, bossy drums, and well, cheeky and danceable – a quality that was in short supply in the formulaic hair metal of the times. Even the barbershop-quartet vocals at the end spoke of a band reaching beyond the narrow confines of their supposed contemporaries.
The latter, though, was something else again. Originally titled Danny’s Got A Gun, after a real-life friend of Tyler’s, it was preceded on the finished album by a 10-second interlude called Water Song, the work of Canadian experimental multi-instrumentalist Randy Raine-Reusch, featuring him playing, variously, a glass harmonica, wind gong and Native American bull-roarers, setting up a haunting atmosphere from which softly sprung Tyler’s low-tone keyboard and ghostly vocals and Hamilton’s creepy, sponge-fingered bass.
“I had the title to that and the kind of soulful vibe a long time before I could figure out exactly what the song was gonna be about,” Tyler said. In the end it was almost a year later, he said, before he was able to complete the lyrics, partly inspired by an article he had read in Time magazine about a girl who killed her sexually abusive father, and partly by his determination to say something out loud on the then deeply buried subject of incest and child sex abuse – something he had been made painfully aware of while taking part in group therapy sessions during his time in rehab.
“So many kids had been abused by their parents, [and] I got really angry with the fact nobody was paying homage to the children that are sexually abused by mum and dad… That song and Dream On have gotten the most response [letters and comments] of any songs we’ve ever done.”
Until Janie’s Got A Gun, Aerosmith had never tackled serious issues, but Tyler, in particular, was determined to make up for what he felt were sellout, radio-lite songs like Angel. As Joe Perry admitted: “It was a huge hit for us and a lot of people like it, but I know Steven has a hard time singing it.”
Tyler also had his knickers in a twist over having to share his songwriting royalties with Holly Knight for her contribution to Rag Doll – which amounted her simply to suggesting a change from the song’s original title of Rag Time to Rag Doll. “She gets half my fuckin’ royalties just for that?” he had seethed to Geffen label chief John Kalodner.
Coming up with something as strong as Janie’s Got A Gun would go some way to helping redress that balance for the singer.
“Steven came in and played Janie’s Got A Gun one day at rehearsal, and we all just stood there,” Tom Hamilton later recalled. “It was like a visit from the gods. There was something really amazing happening in that room.”
The lyrics had originally included the line ‘He raped a little bitty baby’, but Tyler was eventually persuaded to amend it to ‘He jacked a little bitty baby’, so that the song – which he considered the most important he had ever written – could be played in a wider context on radio and TV.
Inevitably in that pre-internet age, the song still stirred up a certain amount of ‘concern’ among the record company, and ‘controversy’ in the more left-wing areas of the staid media, drawing accusations of encouraging vigilante justice. Nevertheless, the video went into heavy rotation on MTV and the song reached No.4 on the US singles chart – albeit in slightly altered form, the line ‘and put a bullet in his brain’ redone as ‘and left him in the pouring rain’.
But when the band played the song live on subsequent tours, Tyler would re-insert both original lines – about the bitty baby being raped and the bullet in the father’s brain. Take that, corporate America! Now, about those royalties…
Faffing about the specifics of the lyrics didn’t change the fact that Janie’s Got A Gun, and by extension the whole Pump album, successfully recalibrated the image of Aerosmith in America. While they could still pull the trigger on flash-gun gutter-rock like Young Lust and F.I.N.E. (aka Fucked Up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional), they proved on tracks like Monkey On My Back that they still could play like a band telepathically linked, Perry’s rattlesnake-shake slide guitar wrapping itself around Tyler’s hoarse vocal revelations, a preacher in his pulpit. This wasn’t just a band that knew how to rock it hard and heavy, this was a real gap-toothed monster that really knew how to swing.
And on tracks like the raw-to-bleeding ballad What It Takes and the soul-deep The Other Side, we were so far beyond what used to be called power ballads that we were actually tiptoeing into the kind of sophisticated pop styles The Beatles had hallmarked in the 60s, when Aerosmith were growing up, transcendental transistor radio glued to their still easily-affected ears.
There were still moments where the band were clearly going through the motions – neither Don’t Get Mad, Get Even nor My Girl begged to be heard more than once – but for the most part Pump lived up to its name ecstatically.
As a result, no longer would Aerosmith be bracketed with Mötley Crüe, Poison and Bon Jovi; no longer would they be seen as 70s hangovers. Now they were the big daddies of late-80s rock. Even Guns N’ Roses would bend the knee in public, with Slash never tiring of repeating the story of how he lost his virginity while listening to Aerosmith, the band last seen belting out their own pug-faced version of Mama Kin while on tour opening for Aerosmith.
By the time Janie’s Got A Gun won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal in 1990, Pump was on its way to selling more than 10 million copies worldwide. It became the band’s biggest album ever, even taking Aerosmith into the UK charts for the first time in their career – prompting – ta-da! – their first European and UK shows since the 70s.
I recall catching them during their four-night run in London – two shows at Hammersmith Odeon, two at Wembley Arena, in November 1989 – and being astonished by how much better, how much slicker and sicker they were even than when I had caught them nine months previously, on the climax of their US tour, when Guns N’ Roses were pushing them to go one better each night. When I had watched Tyler and Perry standing with lit faces at the side of the stage watching Slash do his solo. It had seemed like a passing-of-the-baton moment.
Seeing Aerosmith demolish the famous old Hammy O, it was clear that they were now operating on a much higher level of rock-consciousness than ever before. Amazing though it was to experience them blazing blue-flames through next-gen ’Smith gear like Dude, Elevator, Janie, F.I.N.E., what really made the lid flap open was that they reached into their back pockets and threw down absolutely steaming versions of old-gold ’Smith X-raters like Rats In The Cellar, Draw The Line, Sweet Emotion and Walk This Way. I mean, come on, man! They didn’t oughta do it, but they did.
At a reception after the show, I chatted briefly to Joe Perry, blathering on excitedly about how Pump was their best album ever, how well the songs from it fitted in with the best of their back catalogue, how wonderful life on Earth was, especially now I’d had those 10 pints. Something like that, anyway.
“It’s been good for us,” he agreed, still chewing gum and refusing to smile, the grey in his hair now styled into a dandy’s hot streak. “It proves you can’t pigeonhole us. I hate it when I go into a record store and see our albums in the heavy metal sections. I’m like, what’s up with that?”
He swivelled his eyes. “But I also hate it when people say we only release ballads so we can have hits. I mean, why bother making singles if they’re not gonna get played? People say: ‘But you’re an artist, you shouldn’t care about that shit.’ I say: ‘I am an artist – but I’m also an entertainer. I didn’t get into this to sit on a stool in a bar playing to five people. I like the success.’”
Just then, as if to prove the point, Steven Tyler bounced over, a man for whom the word ‘success’ clearly meant even more to.
As he pointed out, “I don’t need money anyway. People just give me things. It’s true. I never carry cash any more. I just point at things in the store and the people there just give them to me.”
He looked at me, as though peering through a microscope. “You know why we called the album Pump?”
Uh, because you are, uh, pumped?
“Because we are pumped!”
He threw back his head and laughed, a wolf howling for its moonlit supper.
“What greater success can there be but that?
During a follow-up phone call some months later, by which time Pump was firmly on its way to giving Aerosmith a global profile at last, I asked Tyler if perhaps this level of success had actually come too late for them to really enjoy?
Croaky laugh. “No, man! If we had had this level of success in the seventies we would not be here now. We would never have survived it.
“Right now it feels more like it did when we first started. Pump has done well for us, really shoved us down people’s throats for the first time all over the world. But we still have to go out and prove ourselves every night.”
And when the show is over, how did they come down – minus the old standbys of booze and dope?
“We play! That’s all we do now, just play music – for ourselves, for other people. It doesn’t matter if people see us a certain way. In my mind I was always a rock star. And Pump is just the beginning of where we go next. We’re in the nineties now, all the rules are changing.”
In a couple of weeks’ time the band would be playing at Donington, as we called the Monsters Of Rock festival back then. Jimmy Page had told me he was intending to go to the show specifically to see Aerosmith.
How did that make Steven feel?
Another long, throaty, wolf-laugh. “Well, how I think of it is like this. Jimmy Page is going to come to our show and see us do Train Kept-A-Rollin, a tune we first saw him do in The Yardbirds, which then turned us on to forming Aerosmith. So how I will feel about that on the night is… well… pumped! What more can I say?”
I pumped Tyler goodbye and put the pump down. Then went and wrote the pumping story. Feeling pumped. Or feeling F.I.N.E. I can’t remember which.