The members of Aerosmith grew up worshipping the Rolling Stones, and the Boston quintet had its own Mick-and-Keith-style feuding creative partners — with Steven Tyler serving as the libidinous, hyper-magnetic frontman, while Joe Perry played the wizardly, taciturn guitarist. Over a career that’s spanned five decades, Aerosmith has been as famous for salacious hard-rock hits like “Love in an Elevator” as for band tensions and tales of 1970s rock-star excess.
“In the beginning, [Aerosmith] was just about smoking a lot of weed and trying to wake someone up [with our music], and a lot of fighting amongst the boys’ club,” Tyler told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “But they’ve taught me a lot. And staying together for 40 years has been one of the biggest joys of all. Because how many bands have fallen by the wayside?”
He’s right, and with the band’s future in doubt, now would be a good time to remember the deep album cuts and curious digressions Aerosmith has left alongside its massive smashes. Since Tyler dropped his first solo record, the countrified We’re All Somebody From Somewhere, let’s toast the great Aerosmith songs that never made it to rock radio or the band’s many compilation records.
“Make It” (1973)
The first song off Aerosmith’s self-titled debut was inspired by Tyler’s dreams of rock ‘n’ roll stardom — imagining addressing a crowd of screaming fans in some big auditorium: “Good evening, people, welcome to the show,” he sings. “Got something here I want you all to know.” “Make It” displays very little of the flash and sleaze that would become Aerosmith’s later trademarks, but this was before Tyler evolved into a flamboyant, larger-than-life frontman. His vocal has a hungry urgency indicative of a scrappy 24-year-old ready for a fight.
One of Aerosmith’s strengths in its heyday was the band’s consistency: Tyler and the boys specialized in bluesy rock married to hedonistic lyrics. Which is why this Get Your Wings track is such a delightful time-capsule oddity. Dabbling in sci-fi, “Spaced” paints a scenario in which, apparently, the singer is the last man alive. (“Tryin’ to keep from goin’ insane / And my soul I cannot feel / ’cause they made me so unreal,” he moans nonsensically at one point.) This is about as close as Aerosmith ever got to prog-rock, but the no-nonsense crunch of Joe Perry and Brad Whitford’s guitars help keep the proceedings from getting too ponderous or goofy.
“No More No More” (1975)
A punchy, Exile on Main Street-style rocker, “No More No More” rides a rollicking piano and grungy guitars to explore the downsides of being a superstar act, which Aerosmith very much was at the time. “Blood stains the ivories on my daddy’s baby grand,” Tyler proclaims at the top. “Ain’t seen the daylight since we started this band.” It’s a weary humble-brag of a track, Tyler letting us know what a drag it is to get laid so often while on tour: “You love ’em then you leave ’em with your sold out-reviews,” he laments and, in a brilliant bit of garbled stream-of-consciousness, adds, “Sweet-talkin’ barroom ladies disease / Slippin’ with her lips slidin’ down your knees.”
“Sick as a Dog” (1976)
Aerosmith may have pledged allegiance to the Stones and Led Zeppelin, but other influences found their way into the music, too. “Sick as a Dog” developed from a melodic bit crafted by bassist Tom Hamilton, who’s a huge Byrds fan, giving the Rocks Side Two opener a lightness that’s juxtaposed by Tyler’s dark concerns about a lover who seems to be unraveling. At this point in the band’s career, the quintet seemed incapable of delivering music that didn’t drip with sexy rock ’n’ roll swagger. That hot streak would end later in the decade.
“Get the Lead Out” (1976)
“Do you like good boogie?” Tyler asks at the start of “Get the Lead Out” (which is a damn fine boogie in its own right). Like the missing link between Led Zep’s brontosaurus stomp and Van Halen’s showy guitar pyrotechnics, this Rocks come-on gives the frontman plenty of opportunities to talk up some pretty young thing who’s caught his eye. Tyler’s pickup lines are hardly original — “Hey, good lookin’, what ya got there cookin’?” — but he sells them through pure horndog bravado, strutting around like the cock of the walk that he is. This is unabashed stripper-rock at its finest.
“Bright Light Fright” (1977)
Although the album cover found the band immortalized in a drawing by legendary illustrator Al Hirschfeld, Draw the Line marked the beginning of Aerosmith’s fall, the group undone by the typical rock-star clichés of drugs and ego. That tension might best be captured in “Bright Light Fright,” where Perry takes lead vocals. He doesn’t have Tyler’s charisma, but his frantic spewing of lines like “It’s the dawn of the day / And I’m crashed and I’m smashed / As it is, I’m feelin’ like my chips are cashed” chronicles the band’s live-fast-die-young lifestyle. Rude horns and desperate drums add to the general sense of spiritual upheaval and emotional tumult that reportedly were ever-present during Draw the Line’s making.
Aerosmith had crafted great ballads from the start — think of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” — and as the 1970s were coming to a close, Tyler turned his attention to his newborn daughter. Buttressed by stark piano, Night in the Ruts’ “Mia” is an edgy lullaby in which the singer sounds like he’s trying to convince himself as much as his little girl that there’s no reason to cry. “Come too soon that sunny day / You give your heart away,” he declares near the end, and you can practically hear the storm clouds approaching. At a time when Aerosmith was going through plenty of uncertainty — Perry split from the group during the album’s making — “Mia” is far from comforting.
“Shame on You” (1985)
Done With Mirrors began Aerosmith’s return to respectability, a move that would be cemented the following year when Run–D.M.C. collaborated with the band on a remake of their mid-‘70s hit “Walk This Way.” Tyler and the guys sound positively feisty on “Shame on You,” where the singer free-associates about everything from Miami Vice to his own fear of irrelevance. (“Somebody tryin’ to take my soul / Nobody gotta hear my rock ’n’ roll.”) In between, the band flaunts a taut funk groove, Tyler so juiced up he even shouts out his guitarist at one point, yelling, “Joe Perry, oh Mr. Style.”
“Hoodoo/Voodoo Medicine Man” (1989)
If the end of the 1970s marked a period of creative exhaustion for Aerosmith, the close of the next decade indicated that the band’s renaissance was in full swing. Pump contained oodles of unstoppable hits and celebrated deep album cuts, but the two-part “Hoodoo/Voodoo Medicine Man” remains the disc’s buried gem. It’s one of the group’s most experimental moments, opening with a spoken-word bit backed by African-style chants before launching into the muggy, funky “Voodoo Medicine Man,” in which Tyler sounds disillusioned by the world’s ills. Joey Kramer’s drums pound relentlessly as the frontman decries environmental pollution and government corruption. “Wonder should I go or should I stay,” he sings, “‘cause what we got ain’t workin’ anyway.” Tyler’s political commentary has never been particularly trenchant, but the song’s claustrophobic production and studio sound effects help to articulate his world-weariness.
“Avant Garden” (2001)
Aerosmith has only recorded two albums of new material in the 21st century, and the better of the pair is Just Push Play, which featured the big adult-contemporary hit “Jaded.” But if these hard-rock survivors have become a little more easy-listening in recent years, they deliver the goods in that mode. “Avant Garden” closes Just Push Play on a reflective, melodic note, imagining a world in which Tyler and his beloved can get away from the clatter of modern life. Vaguely psychedelic and paying homage to the Beatles’ love-is-all-you-need spirit, the track feels tailor-made to be played over the end credits of a romantic comedy. The Aerosmith of the early ‘70s may have gagged at such a description — the modern Aerosmith make the transition look effortless.