by Brian Howe
For a lot of bands, getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a double-edged sword. Though it’s a pinnacle achievement, it also means you’re probably on the decline, if not finished. But for Aerosmith, the world’s best-selling American hard rock band, the honor came after their 13th studio album, 2001’s Just Push Play, had just gone platinum, making them the only band to date to enter the Hall with a new single (“Jaded”) burning up the charts. Rather than a laudable conclusion, it was just the beginning of the next chapter in a rock epic that stretches across five decades and counting.
If a band outlasting Hall of Fame induction is impressive, one riding out the transformations in the music industry since the 1970s is downright miraculous. The “Bad Boys from Boston” weathered rocky personal times, multiple commercial slumps, and a mercurial popular culture to defend their title as one of the world’s iconic rock bands, having sold more than 150 million albums globally, with more gold and multiplatinum albums than anyone else in America. They did it by consistently delivering the old-fashioned, irreverent hard rock their fans want while staying adaptable to changing commercial trends.
With Aerosmith, some things never change. Now in his 60s, lanky frontman Steven Tyler still delivers his louche tomcat yowl, one of rock’s most distinctive instruments, through a huge rubbery mouth and into a microphone dripping with long scarves. Guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford still play brash, explosive licks over the boogieing rhythm section of Tom Hamilton and Joey Kramer. And each album, with exceptions such as 2004’s blues study Honkin’ on Bobo, delivers the strutting groove-rock and soaring power ballads that have earned the band their legion of fans, often known as “the Blue Army” after the proudly-worn colors of their denim jackets as well as their figurative collars.
But in other ways, Aerosmith is a malleable concept, and therein lies the secret of their prolonged success. They’ve frequently exhibited great foresight about the next big thing, like when they entered prescient and fertile collaborations with rappers and video game designers long before these were safe bets for rock musicians. They quickly embraced and helped define the MTV era from the group up, and continue to calibrate their musical template to the fluctuations of the culture today.
The story began in Boston in 1970 when Chain Reaction and Jam Band shared a bill. Chain Reaction, based in New Hampshire, featured Steven Tyler on drums and backing vocals. Jam Band, based in Boston, featured guitarist Joe Perry, bassist Tom Hamilton and drummer Joey Kramer, who had dropped out of the Berklee College of Music to join the band. Digging Jam Band’s sound and craving the spotlight for himself, Tyler joined them to form Aerosmith on the condition that he would be the lead singer. It was a fateful mandate: Playing a hard-rocking concoction of heavy metal, blues and glam, the new band quickly built a following on the strength of Tyler’s outsized charisma.
They hired Tyler’s longtime friend Ray Tabano as a rhythm guitarist, but he was shortly replaced by another Berklee casualty, Brad Whitford, to cement Aerosmith’s long-running lineup. Their ascent to stardom began when their management invited Columbia Records president Clive Davis to their show at Max’s Kansas City in New York. Tyler, never one for excessive modesty, documented the experience in the song “No Surprize” from 1979’s Night in the Ruts: “1971, we all heard the starter’s gun / New York is such a pity but at Max’s Kansas City we won / We all shot the shit at the bar / With Johnny O’Toole and his scar / And then old Clive Davis said he’s surely gonna make us a star.”
After joining the Columbia stable in 1972, Aerosmith issued their self-titled debut at the beginning of 1973. It only reached no. 166 on the charts—though it would achieve double-platinum status during the band’s mainstream success in the following decade—but it introduced the grandiose and irresistible power ballad “Dream On,” which would become a signature song. A long tour and a multi-platinum sophomore album, Get Your Wings, followed, but it was 1975’s Toys in the Attic that really catapulted Aerosmith to household-name status. It featured the band’s definitive single “Walk This Way” as well as its first Top 40 hit, “Sweet Emotion,” a grooving ballad that paved the way for a re-released “Dream On” to become the band’s highest-charting ‘70s single.
Established as hard rock heavyweights, headlining national festivals and stadiums, Aerosmith rounded out the 1970s with Rocks, Draw the Line, and Night in the Ruts, each of which sold fewer copies than the last (though even Night eventually went platinum). The popular culture of rock music was changing, with punk well underway and New Wave on the horizon, and the same hard-living ways that fuelled the band’s songs were beginning to have a deleterious effect on its music. The songwriting duo of Tyler and Perry had become known as the “Toxic Twins” for both their notorious drug use and their fitful personal dynamic, an epithet that stuck with them through later decades of sobriety.
As the ‘80s ended, it seemed as if these hard rock champions were washed up for good. A motorcycle accident put Tyler out of commission for months, and he was liable to collapse onstage anyway. Perry and Whitford quit to be temporarily replaced by Jimmy Crespo and Rick Dufay. Between 1980 and 1984, this version of the group eked out just one mediocre album, Rock in a Hard Place, which went gold on the strength of the brand alone. During this slump, no one could have predicted that in 1984, the original Aerosmith would reinvent themselves not as hard rock dinosaurs, but as staples of the image-obsessed MTV generation.
Perry and Whitford returned to the fold and Aerosmith signed a new contract with Geffen Records. With the band still recuperating from—and in truth, indulging in—their druggy habits, a 1984 “Back in the Saddle Tour” and a respectable but unspectacular album (Done with Mirrors) the following year didn’t exactly catapult them back to primetime. That happened in 1986, when they smartly embraced a cover of their song “Walk This Way” by the up-and-coming hip-hop group Run-D.M.C. (Aerosmith fandom pops up in the most unexpected places—in his journal, Kurt Cobain included Rocks among Nirvana’s top 50 influences, even though grunge aspired to be everything stadium rock was not.)
Aerosmith not only appeared on Run-D.M.C’s hit cover, they performed in an image-reviving video that gave them some very contemporary cred with the MTV Generation at a time when rap’s mainstream ascendance was just beginning. And if this move told young pop fans that it was okay to like Aerosmith, it also told older rockers that it was okay to like rap. Suddenly, these dated hard rockers were ahead of the curve, and not for the last time.
Meanwhile, they were in drug treatment programs, and their first sober album, 1987’s Permanent Vacation, proved their comeback with Run D.M.C. wasn’t a fluke. All three of its singles—“Dude (Looks Like a Lady,” “Rag Doll,” and “Angel”—were Billboard chart smashes, and they toured with their white-hot label mates Guns N’ Roses, who brought a scummy L.A. vibe to the mold Aerosmith poured. 1989’s Pump, still regarded as a highlight of the band’s long discography, sold even better, brilliantly utilizing the platform of MTV with the controversial video for “Janie’s Got a Gun,” directed by David Fincher.
More than just sobriety, the use of outside songwriters and a new producer, Bruce Fairbairn, elevated Aerosmith’s records of the late-1980s from the pack. Though firmly in the hard rock mold, pop touches helped ease Aerosmith into a new, more eclectic and image-polished era. As the ‘90s began, Aerosmith were a pop culture touchstone. They did Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons and MTV Unplugged, so that even when grunge started pushing aside the Sunset Strip glamour of the late ‘80s, they had their first album to debut at no. 1 with the power-ballad-heavy Get a Grip in 1993, whose videos were filled with winsome young actresses such as Alicia Silverstone and Tyler’s daughter, Liv.
Continuing to push out their brand, Aerosmith licensed themselves to an arcade game, Revolution X, in 1994. Just as they knew to latch on to Run D.M.C. when rap’s mainstream potential was still in question, they guessed the rising power of video games—though no one could have predicted our contemporary culture, where so many bands license music to games or even release it through interactive platforms such as Rock Band. (Indeed, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith would be released in 2008.)
As Aerosmith returned to Columbia, they entered another slump in the latter half of the ‘90s, eking out the slowly performing album Nine Lives, which still managed to produce the indelible pop crossover “Pink.” It was during an epic, disaster-laden “Nine Lives Tour” that Aerosmith recorded the Dianne Warren-penned love song “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” for the soundtrack of 1998 disaster movie Armageddon, which became the band’s first no. 1 single and an instant a prom staple. Thirty years after they began, Aerosmith became relevant to yet another generation, as was proven when they were joined on “Walk This Way” by young pop stars such as ‘N Sync, Nelly and Britney Spears at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2001.
Which brings us back to around the time of Aerosmith’s Hall of Fame induction circa Just Push Play. After 2004’s Honkin’ on Bobo, it seemed like they might really, finally, be done. Rumors that Tyler was out of the band—with Joe Perry courting Lenny Kravitz to replace him, or just focusing on his own project—seemed confirmed when Tyler joined American Idol as a judge, which might have been a shark-jumping moment for some old-school fans even if the Armageddon single was not.
But Tyler rejoined the band for the “Cocked, Locked, and Ready to Rock Tour,” and the band finally released a new album, Music from Another Dimension!, in 2012. Its fourth single, “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You,” featured Carrie Underwood. Yes, America’s definitive hard rockers collaborated with a young pop-country star. That’s exactly how Aerosmith has stayed on top for so long—by doing whatever it takes to bring their reliable stomp to new fans. Don’t count them out yet.