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An Overly In-Depth Analysis of Aerosmith’s 50-Year Career Based on Steven Tyler Screaming ‘YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOW’

What the big-mouthed rock god’s scat gibberish can teach us about showmanship, sex, America and life itself

Aerosmith formed in 1970 and are still going. They’re celebrating their 50th anniversary this year. That’s insane. That said, if you really think about it, no band has been going for 50 years: They’ve been four or five different bands in that time — mostly the same five dudes in terms of names and instruments, but very different people in terms of drug intake, musical ability and cultural status. The horny young upstarts of the 1970s aren’t the same as the horny old millionaires of now. 

Iconic bands tend to have a signature kind of moment, one you can impersonate in a second. Everyone can do Elvis’ “Uh huh-huh,” or the Beatles’ “Yeah, yeah yeah” or James Brown’s “Yow!” — these moments don’t necessarily come up in every song, but they seem like that artist at their most concentrated.

Aerosmith’s is, clearly, Steven Tyler screaming “YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOW.” But how common is it really? And what can the search for it teach us about showmanship, America and life itself?

Early Aerosmith: A YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-free Zone

Aerosmith’s 1973 debut album features both the shittest cover art conceivable and a completely different-sounding Tyler, doing much more of a Rolling Stones-a-like blues-rock thing. The reason for this was nervousness — despite being an established live band, being in a professional studio freaked the band out. In his autobiography Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?, Tyler recalls, “The band was very uptight. We were so nervous that when the red recording light came on we froze. We were scared shitless. I changed my voice into the Muppet, Kermit the Frog, to sound more like a blues singer.” 

The kind of places where you might expect to find a YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOW instead feature longer, more sustained notes, like at the end of the chorus of “Dream On” (as famously sampled by Eminem in 2003’s “Sing for the Moment”).

The swaggering, none-more-confident delivery that would become one of Tyler’s trademarks is present on the second album, 1974’s Get Your Wings. Here he starts adding the flourishes — making “eyes” into “aaaaaaaaaaay-zuh” — as well as presenting himself as Extremely Horny. Of the eight tracks on the standard version, six might as well be titled “Why I Like to Do It With Girls.” Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry earned the nickname “the Toxic Twins” around this point, due to their prodigious drug habits.

Third album Toys in the Attic (1975) continues the Horny on Main theme. “Around the time of Toys in the Attic he was just a young lad sticking his dick in anything he could find,” says Kerrang! writer Nick Ruskell. “He’s like that now at 80 or however old he is — imagine what he was like in his 20s with a nose full of cocaine.”

But while there is scatting, there is no YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOW. The original version of “Walk This Way” is much more staccato than their later collaboration with Run-DMC. This one goes “dun du-du-dun, du du du dun-dun,” while the later one is the vastly more showboaty, confident, “deedle-ee deeedle-eedle-ee-dee,” the vocals just bigger in every way. “You See Me Crying” is the most complex song on the record, something that didn’t help it stick in Tyler’s drug-addled mind — some years later, he heard the song on the radio and was impressed by it, suggesting to the rest of the band that they record a cover. Joe Perry told him, “That’s us, fuckhead.” 

(The album also contains the incredibly juvenile “Big Ten Inch Record,” where Tyler sounds like he’s singing about his dick, but is actually singing about a record, although, no, it’s his dick really: “Last night I tried to tease her / I gave my love a little pinch / She said now stop that jivin’ / Now whip out your big 10-inch / Record.”)

By the time they made Rocks in 1976, they were doing SO MANY DRUGS. Like, imagine loads of drugs: That’s not as many drugs as they were doing. However, they had — unsustainably — found a spot where massive drug intake lined up perfectly with big fuckin’ tunes, accompanied by full-on shrieking. Kurt Cobain, Slash and James Hetfield all cite this album as being instrumental in getting them into music, but there’s not a YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOW to be heard.

The Phoning-It-In Years: The Occasional YOWWW

Around the time of 1977’s Draw the Line, the wheels started falling off. Perry describes the band during this era as “drug addicts dabbling in music, rather than musicians dabbling in drugs,” and says they had “stopped giving a fuck.” Plenty of Tyler’s vocal tics — gasps, grunts and so on — are present, but not the YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOW. 

1979’s Night in the Ruts was by all accounts a lot of fun to make, with Tyler later enthusing, “Heroin. Shooting coke. Eating opium. I love that album.” He’s really going for it vocally, and it remains his favorite album, but the band was falling apart, with Perry leaving in disgust after Tyler turned up to a vocal session smoking crack. 

1982’s Rock in a Hard Place — during which rhythm guitarist Bradley Whitford (not to be confused with the other Bradley Whitford) also left — is a bit of a throwback to bluesy-sounding rock ’n’ roll. There are a few YOWWWWs, like in the title track, that feel like the genesis of later YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOWs. 

Done with Mirrors, which saw Perry and Whitford re-join the band in 1985, was meant to be a big comeback record but instead looked like it could be the end for the band. They were described by MTV president Doug Herzog as being “a bit of a joke” after it, their style of rock just not fitting in with the mid-1980s musical landscape. It’s far from a favorite album of the band, although one Perry sees as a necessary step in their evolution. There are a lot of layered vocals, not something conducive to a lot of YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOW-ing.

Clean and Horny: The Biggest Band in the World

Run-DMC’s collaborative cover of “Walk This Way” brought Aerosmith back to fame, weirdly reinventing them — rather than being seen as old and tired, they were now seen as veterans, a band that had been there, done that and knew exactly what they were doing. All five of them went to rehab, planning to become the biggest band in the world. Tyler was determined to make it clear that, while he might have had to give up one of his hobbies, he was never going to quit being very, very horny.

Permanent Vacation [1987] was the album they did after the Toxic Twins got clean and got their shit together,” says Ruskell. “A song like ‘Rag Doll’ shows that, even clean as a whistle, guy’s still a motherfucker.” That is one of many songs in Aerosmith’s repertoire about, let’s say, participating in the physical act of love with a partner who has performed this act a great many times. 

The also-problematic classic “Dude (Looks Like a Lady),” inspired by Tyler seeing Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil from behind and mistaking him for a woman, is well on the road to YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOW — the line “Lord, imagine my surprise!” is yelped to the point of near-incomprehensibility, and it’s a testament to the song around it, probably, that you know exactly what he’s saying.

1989’s Pump is wall-to-wall horniness, something Tyler attributes to wanting to make up for time he wasted doing drugs instead of having sex. Not to poop on his pity party or anything, but he still spent a lot of that time — more than most! — having sex. He once told Kerrang!: “When you’ve made love to four women at the same time, it really does not suck.” “Love in an Elevator” features the repeated line “In the air, in the air, honey one one one one one one one” in a borderline-gibberish way, while “Monkey on My Back” and “The Other Side” feature plenty of screaming. It’s coming. Iiiiiit’s coming…

Peak YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOW Years

At the beginning of the video for “Livin’ on the Edge,” Tyler is nude, half-painted black with a zipper down him to look like he’s unzipped his body, his penis and testicles concealed in one hand. He is 45 years old. Most people would look very, very stupid. He… doesn’t? Somehow?

There are a lot of conflicts at play with a figure like Steven Tyler. He’s at once hyper-masculine and a guy who spends a lot of his time doing bum-bum dances in a neon leotard. He’s a rock star who doesn’t give a fuck, and yet nobody accidentally acquires eyeliner, 90-odd bracelets and exquisitely-tailored piratical greatcoats — looking that effortlessly cool takes a lot of work. He’s clearly a very good-looking dude, but holy shit that’s a big-ass mouth. When he properly goes for it screaming, it’s like when you see a snake preparing to eat an egg, or that bit in The Mask where he eats the bomb

Tyler is now 72, and while he sometimes looks a bit like he was drawn by the 1990s comic book artist Rob Liefeld, he still looks pretty great. If your mom announced she was leaving your dad for him, you’d be very conflicted — sad for your dad but fairly confident your mom was in for a hell of a time. 

But there are plenty of handsome men with good voices who don’t have what he has: ridiculous, enormous, stadium-filling presence. That’s that unlearnable thing that can make a listener feel like the multimillionaire with the ever-so-blessed life just gets them.  Tyler’s life hasn’t been like most people’s lives. For most people, doing amyl nitrate on a rollercoaster next to Jimi Hendrix would be the most notable thing they’d ever done, while for him it was just something that happened when he was 20.

“Having met the guy twice, I can tell you that he’s just meant to do this,” says Ruskell. “He’s someone who just loves the attention and has charisma exploding out of him. He’s one of these guys who’s got the gift of the gab, and he does this thing where he makes out like only you and he are in on a joke he’s just made about someone else in the room. He’s a genuine star. He’d get fired from a supermarket.”

So, what’s really going on with a YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOW? It’s doing more than the other yelps, mews, grunts and gasps that pepper Aerosmith’s work. A studio engineer would term such a moment a “vocal ad-lib,” and they have to be deployed carefully. They only really work when used on huge, anthemic tunes, the kind of songs that can fill any space provided to them, because they’re treating a new song as a standard.

They’re basically saying, “This song is so goddamned good that, even though this is the first time you’re hearing it, we can go off-course during the third chorus, and you already know the song well enough, what with it being an instant classic, that you’re not thrown off in any way.” Disregarding the melody of a song entirely is a luxury afforded only to superstars.

If you’re in the biggest rock band in the world, and are the most confident man on the face of the planet, motherfucking yes you’re going to go for it. The 1993 album Get A Grip has loads of YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOW-adjacent ad-libs, usually on about chorus three, two-thirds or so of the way through the song, sometimes preceding a solo or a key change. At the end of the third chorus of “Cryin’,” a repeated “Baby” becomes a kind of “WA KA KA KA KA KA KA KA KA KA,” while “Crazy” has a minute or so of “WA YA YA YA YA YA, AGAA, A YA YA YA YA,” or thereabouts.

It’s on “Amazing,” though, that Tyler delivers the most magnificent YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOW of his, or anyone’s career. If a monkey did a drum fill using a gun, this is what it would sound like. It’s incredible. Watching the music video, it’s deeply strange to think of Tyler having to mime along to it for repeated takes. An ad-lib is by its nature spontaneous, so recreating it endlessly in a steel hallway is just an odd thought.

The videos accompanying Get A Grip made a star out of Alicia Silverstone — who starred in the clips for “Cryin’,” “Amazing” and “Crazy” — as well as exposing Middle America to the then-leftfield concept of navel piercing. “Crazy” also stars Tyler’s daughter Liv, who had been raised thinking Todd Rundgren was her father. She began to suspect it might be the Aerosmith frontman when she noticed how much she looked like his daughter Mia, and eventually the two established a close relationship. And what says, “I’m glad I’ve reconnected with you, estranged 16-year-old daughter” like a music video role as a pole-dancing, skinny-dipping teenage temptress? 

Hang on. What the fuck was going on with that?

The 21st Century: Elder Statesmen of Rock

Being fucking colossal wasn’t without its troubles, and the next few years saw high tension within Aerosmith’s ranks, and the production of their followup album was fraught with fallings-out. 1997’s Nine Lives sold in the millions and won Grammys, largely due to the sheer massiveness of the band — it sounds, now, sort of like a band doing an impression of what they think an Aerosmith album should sound like. There are some perfect moments for a YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOW that they let go without.

Nonetheless, they were huge, firmly established as rock legends. Even if they never wrote a good song again, they’d done enough to cement their status. But the 20th century had one last gargantuan song left for them: “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” the theme to Michael Bay’s Armageddon. It’s a great song, and a great vocal performance, but it requires Aerosmith to be, well, Aerosmith. If someone you’d never heard of did it with as many tics and embellishments as Tyler delivers on the song, you’d ask them to do it again, but it totally works, because you’re aware of the context — huge band, huge performance, huge song, huge movie. It’s easy to Mandela effect yourself into thinking there’s a YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOW in it at the point where it goes enormous, but there isn’t.

In 2001, they played the Super Bowl, were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and embraced rap-metal extremely poorly on Just Push Play — nobody has a perfect year. That’s also an album where several opportunities for fine YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOW moments instead have longer, almost mournful-sounding sustained notes instead. (One completely ideal moment for one has a robot voice instead, which is frankly fucking unacceptable.)

Did Tyler feel like it was unbecoming for a man in his 50s to do a YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOW? He’s never seemed to feel it was unbecoming for a man of his age to continue dressing like a randy sex-buccaneer, so perhaps not. There’s some introspection going on, particularly in “Jaded,” so there could be something there — wishing to be celebrated more for solid vocal talent than the hard-partying showboating of a YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOW. But, again, there’s really bad rap-metal on the album, which flatters nobody, so the jury’s out.

Aerosmith have been a big deal for a long-ass time. They show up in the 1978 film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band alongside the Bee Gees and Earth, Wind & Fire, but were also Waynestock headliners in Wayne’s World 2 15 years later. They were the first band to guest star on The Simpsons, in Season Three’s magnificent “Flaming Moe’s.” They were the first major band to release a song as a digital download, offering the track “Head First” (in .wav form) to CompuServe users in 1994. While some of the CGI used in their 1990s videos looks extremely dated, it was incredibly expensive, cutting-edge stuff at the time. Half a century of strutting about yelling how much you like doin’ it is a lot of strutting about and yelling. It’s 150 million records’ worth, in fact. Tyler has attributed the longevity of the band to spinach. But there’s obviously something else keeping them going. 

In the 21st century there have been short periods where none of the band members have been quite sure who is and isn’t still in it, and runs of bad luck where one member after another seems to fall off stages, break bones or get knocked unconscious. 2004’s covers album Honkin’ on Bobo and 2012’s Music From Another Dimension! — currently the last thing they’ve done — are both things that exist, that can be listened to if one so desires, that brought a few tours together, filled a few hundred stadiums and generated a few million bucks here and there. 

At one point, when an injury threatened to keep Tyler from touring for a year and a half, he sent a cease-and-desist letter to the rest of the band to stop them touring with another singer. Tyler’s job on American Idol was a source of huge contention until Perry watched an episode and realized he’d been on it once too. In 2009, when there were rumors Tyler would leave the band, he declared halfway through a New York show: “Joe Perry, you are a man of many colors. But I, motherfucker, am the rainbow!” In a cheerier move, in 2018 the band sent a cease-and-desist to Donald Trump to stop him playing their songs at rallies.

“Aerosmith’s long career is astounding, because they’re a band who stopped properly liking each other years ago,” says Ruskell. “There’s always loads of tension. And, of course, they almost totally fucked themselves up on drugs. But I suppose it’s a testament to the thrill of being in one of the best American bands ever that they stick together to play stadiums and make fat, fat money.”

YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-What Then?

Why, then, given its relative paucity in the band’s oeuvre — there’s basically an album and change when it comes to YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOWs — is that the noise we think of when we think Aerosmith?

Because it’s the sound of success. It’s the sound of confidence, the confidence that can only come with absolute, locked-in, Big Deal status. That’s the American dream. People would kill for that. What an incredible thing: Unfakeable, unshakeable, objective, verifiable, entirely warranted confidence — not bluster and bullshit and insecurity, but actual confidence, the knowledge that you fuckin’ rule. 

That’s the sound that feeling makes: YAKKA-KAKKA-KOW-YAKKA-KOW!!!

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