Aerosmith Tell the Story Behind Their Hard-Rock Masterpiece ‘Toys in the Attic’
The funky, filthy classic that brought us "Walk This Way," "Sweet Emotion" and uh, "Big Ten Inch" turns 40
Boston hard-rock thrill-seekers Aerosmith have not only been massively popular for the better part of 40-plus years now, but also lay claim to some massive links in the chain of rock’n’roll history. They ruled MTV, sure, but they also laid down one of the blueprints for hip-hop in “Walk This Way,” later to be remodeled by Run-D.M.C. thanks to Steven Tyler’s proto-rap delivery and Joey Kramer’s unforgettable backbeat. They invented the power ballad altogether with 1973’s “Dream On,” which they’d go on to perfect further with “Angel,” “Janie’s Got a Gun,” and “Cryin’,” reclaiming the territory a decade later from other glam-inspired “hair metal” bands who owe the original article quite a bit.
And they made classic albums, including 1989’s all-killer-no-filler Pump, and the unassailable mid-’70s one-two of Toys in the Attic and Rocks, which combined the Stones’ tight-grooving strut with the New York Dolls’ outlandish, pre-punk appetite for shameless indulgence. Both enjoy critical adulation to this day, but the former also spawned major hit singles in the aforementioned “Walk This Way” and the psychedelic blissout “Sweet Emotion.” It also gave Cheap Trick a run for their money with the power-pop nugget “No More No More,” and did the same for Elton John with closing ballad “You See Me Crying.” Smack dab in the middle was “Big Ten Inch Record,” a swinging, dirty blues by Bull Moose Jackson that these riff-fisting sleazeballs made their own.
Toys in the Attic just turned 40, and while the five-piece aren’t retired yet (they’re about to go on tour, and Tyler recently announced that his solo debut and first-ever country effort will arrive later this year), all of the band members save for Tyler spoke to SPIN over the phone about what it was like crafting their first blockbuster album and some of their most enduring tunes.
Tom Hamilton, bassist: We wanted to do something that we felt could hold up. Toys in the Attic was the first record where we felt like, this record is truly amazing. It’s the album where the band first felt like stars and learned how to make a record, how to use the studio. The relationship between the band and Jack as a producer…back in those days you couldn’t go to university and learn how to be a band and write rock songs and stuff. So anything we did was just from whatever knowledge we could scrape together from the bands that we loved as teenagers: Zeppelin, the Stones, the Beatles, the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane.
Brad Whitford, rhythm guitarist: One of our best albums ever without a doubt. I’m just really proud of that record and what we did. The whole thing was just a cool experience from the pre-production to the tracking and mixing. Only young guys are making records like that now. But that was done to 16-track, with hands-on mixing. That’s the way I like to do stuff still. Basically recording the band live, who are playing well together. That’s the only way you should ever do it. I don’t like the convenience of Pro Tools, it’s too convenient. I think it makes people lazy.
Joey Kramer, drummer: That was one of the many albums that we did with Jack Douglas, and he makes everything fun. He’s always willing to try anybody’s ideas and follow through, see if it’s gonna work or not. When you have fun doing something, it stops being work really.
Joe Perry, lead guitarist / singer: We were having fun in the studio, coming up with different songs that got us off. We changed things up a little bit to keep us from getting bored, at least that’s how we felt then. We couldn’t really be pigeonholed as playing a certain kind of rock’n’roll.
Kramer: We always listened to Deep Purple and Jeff Beck and Led Zeppelin…to be classified in the same category as them today is super-flattering. I’ve never considered us a band on that kind of level, but evidently we are. I still listen to them.
Whitford: We were getting into a little bit of a groove that we hadn’t experienced before. Jack Douglas was pretty instrumental in that and came up with our own formula for putting the stuff together, and it felt like we were hitting a good, positive stride. The juices were flowing and stuff was happening the way you wanted it to – on the fly. Put it up and if it works, great, and if it doesn’t, just move on.
Perry: We put some amplifiers down where the dumpsters were on the street, and there’s some parts where you can actually hear the traffic, on the song “Toys in the Attic.” We left it on there.
Whitford: Jack was good for positive reinforcement. He was like a coach: ‘That’s good, go with that. Work it, work it!’ It was fun.
Kramer: I think you’ll find the same thing if you listen to [2004’s] Honkin’ on Bobo, another album we did with Jack. They were all really old songs. I’m what they call a street player – I never had taken lessons or had any formal education – and for me, what my playing is about is feel. And playing a James Brown song or old rhythm and blues, that’s where my roots are, that’s part of it all.
Perry: I think that funk thing, it just added that little bit more guts to the music. People mention it about some of the songs that we do, and I don’t really hear it, but when I listen to it I can see it from that point of view. R&B definitely had a big influence on us, and you could see from our club set, which had a bunch of James Brown songs. People wanted to get up and dance, and those seemed to be the songs that got people moving, especially if they’d never heard them before.
Kramer: Anybody can play a lot of notes, but it’s the ones that mean something that go as far as they do. So who needs all the other ones?
Hamilton: The idea was to learn how to “cook,” and the expression means to play really tight. Back then, if you went to see a band, you would judge a band by if they were tight, and if they were tight, then that’s what you would respect. We played James Brown songs when we first started, and we knew if we were doing our job right if you could really dance to what we were playing.
Whitford: It’s very organic. [Joe] would write these ideas in his home studio, then we’d play it and suddenly another part would spill out of it and another would spill out of that. He would just come up with these amazing, amazing riffs. We would just play it because it was fun, and then it would turn into a song.
Perry: I was actually inspired to have a few songs that we wrote, that were inspired by that funk/R&B thing. We were covering other people’s stuff, and we were like ‘Fuck it, these notes are no different than those. I’ll put them together my way.’ And it became “Walk This Way.”
Kramer: It was pretty obvious to me when Joe played the riff, what needed to be played. I had to come up with something really off the wall.
Whitford: “Walk This Way” was this really cool riff and we got this whole thing together but had no idea what we were gonna do on top of it, vocal-wise, melody-wise. And then we watched Young Frankenstein.
Perry: They were showing Young Frankenstein around the corner and Marty Feldman did this Marx Brothers thing.
Hamilton: There was a part where the main character arrives at the train station in Transylvania and he’s met by this classic evil assistant, who takes his suitcase for him and hobbles down the steps and says ‘Walk this way,’ and to humor him he follows him down the steps the same way. So we told Steven, you’ve got to call the song “Walk This Way.” Steven was like, “You can’t tell me what to call the song, I haven’t even written the lyrics yet!’ But we told him he had to do it. So he did.
Perry: Steven had a lot of the lyrics, but he still was looking for just the right thing. He took off for a couple hours and came back and it was finished.
Whitford: [Steven] was still coming into his own; he was still finding some things that he could do that were different and unique.
Kramer: That was pretty much a band participation album. I remember everyone being there pretty much all the time. We just kept sending him back in the room and saying go write the lyrics. [Laughs.] Steven likes to be present for everything, and things can’t be done on this end until they’re done on that end.
Perry: David Johansen [of the New York Dolls] said it was one of the raunchiest songs he ever heard on the radio. And coming from David Doll, pretty high compliment.
Whitford: When the phone call [to do the Run-D.M.C. version in 1986] came in, we were like ‘That sounds cool.’ And we had total faith in Rick [Rubin], you know? Rick was excited about it, and it was just different enough; I like how they didn’t do it exactly like we did it. But what a milestone for those guys and for us. Somebody was smiling down on us when that happened. The video was enormous, and it’s still cool to see that video today. It’s a little more timeless than some of the other videos. We were into a lot of [rap]. I was listening to N.W.A. way back when. Especially [Straight Outta Compton], it was really pushing the boundaries. I’ll always be a rocker, but that’s what I’ve always tried to accomplish; it was just so edgy.
Kramer: I think as far as rap songs and beats, that song’s right up there with the most covered ones. James Brown’s one of my heroes, so that could explain it as well. Clyde Stubblefield is the one who’s responsible… it’s like a trickle down effect. It’s not advertised so to speak, but every drummer in the world has been influenced by him whether they know it or not.
Whitford: I had a friend who was in L.A. and listening to Dr. Demento at the time and he sent us cassettes [of the show], and that’s how we heard “Big Ten Inch Record.”
Perry: That is a classic blues lyric. Some of the raunchiest music I’ve ever heard is some of the old blues stuff that doesn’t get played. I mean, “Squeeze my lemon,” come on. It’s part of the whole blues thing. When we heard that tune, we had to cover it.
Hamilton: Jack knew this guy from Canada, a boogie-woogie piano player named Scott Cushnie, he was blind. Jack had him come down to the studio to play some piano on the record. I remember thinking, “Why are we doing this song? It’s just some stupid old blues song.” But it’s a crowd-pleasing song, even now we play that song and people love it. It’s a blast to play, too.
Kramer: Not only was it something we had never tackled before, that genre, but it was a fun song to begin with, and we put our little spin on it. Scott Cushnie was in a band called the Hawks, who eventually became the Band, Bob Dylan’s band. He was older than all of us, but he had a lot of experience, and one of the things I really remember getting off on was him playing honky-tonk piano on our track. That was probably the funnest song to record.
Hamilton: [For “Sweet Emotion”] I just remember having a little something to smoke, as I often did, and sitting down to do the equivalent of aerobics on my instrument, and after I’d do that for 10-15 minutes, that’s when I’d start grooving beyond that and get into a mode where ideas would pop out. That part I just happened to remember, I played with it the next day and the next day. I actually brought that to the band and didn’t get anyone’s attention with it. Then one day we were in the studio and we’d just finished all the basic tracks for Toys in the Attic, and we had an extra day – we’d gotten done a day early. And Jack said, “Anyone have any ideas? Anything lying around?” So I stepped up and got everyone to start learning those parts, and Steven went and wrote that awesome vocal part.
Perry: The only [talk box] I’d ever heard was the one Stevie Wonder had, but a lot of people heard one for the first time when I used it. I actually learned how to make it – the one I have I made myself. A friend of ours was basically a drum roadie for Led Zeppelin, and Jeff Beck and a bunch of other guys. And I asked Jeff’s guy how it works. So I made my own and started using it and it became part of the “Sweet Emotion” thing, and it’s still used today – even though it’s blown up more than once.
Kramer: It wasn’t really til Toys in the Attic came out that “Dream On” took off, our first hit single, even though it’s from the first record [1973’s Aerosmith]. Because of our excessive touring and not giving up, it wasn’t until Toys came out, that “Dream On” really caught on. And then of course, “Walk This Way” crept up after that. Things went our way after that.
Whitford: We were on the road, then in the studio, on the road, then in the studio, like so many bands of the era. We never recharged. We’d just keep going until the battery started to run dry a little bit. I think we worked too hard back then. It just takes a while to get over it; it’s a lot, you know? It’s a very demanding schedule, and all of us were so gung ho. Someone would ask, “Hey, want to do another six months?” and we’d be like “Yeeeeahhhh!” Nobody wanted to wimp out or whatever. Nobody had the common sense, which was in the “off” position. [Laughs.]
Perry: It was a lot more competitive then too, in a friendly way most of the time. We would try and cop each other’s stuff without being too obvious. There seemed to be a little competition between the English bands and the American bands live. With some bands, a lot of people would be like, “I hate them, they’re so fucking good.” We all listened to each other, did gigs together, learned from each other.
Whitford: [R.E.M.’s version of “Toys in the Attic”], that was a real surprise. We didn’t know about it until it was out there. That was so cool they decided to do that.
Perry: We’ll be on a classic rock radio playlist with the Faces and Zeppelin and even the Stones, but at that point we were a couple years younger than a lot of these bands, and so we were in a position of opening for a lot of them. When you’re coming up and scrambling to impress the audience, there’s definitely some rivalry that goes on. You couldn’t wait to hear the other bands’ new tunes. There’s a great picture of David Johansen helping Steven tape tambourines onto his cowboy boots somewhere, they created that crazy sound on “Back in the Saddle” [from Rocks].
Hamilton: There was always a fight about something, whether someone was playing the shit right. But the work itself outlived all that. It’s not something I look back on and feel bad about now, it’s just always the way it was.
Whitford: We got a little hooked on getting a real big rise from the crowd, and I just don’t think that’s necessary all the time. We’ve had experiences in later years where the guys are like, ‘We’ve got to do this song, people want to hear it.’ And we’ll do a song that wasn’t in the Top 100 or anything, just a good album rocker, and I know people are loving it out there. But they didn’t go crazy like they were hearing “Love in an Elevator.” And some of the band was like, ‘Oh, well, I didn’t think they really liked it.’ They did like it! It’s not “Walk This Way,” but it’s part of who we are.
Kramer: There are some deep cuts I’m sure everyone would love to hear us go in and play, but the problem is back then people bought an album for 3-4 songs at most, and now people don’t have to buy the whole album. But I’d love to do “Round and Round.” We do “No More No More,” which is one of my favorites, and we do “Walk This Way,” and what else is on that record? “Sweet Emotion” is on there. I’m pretty happy with what it is. I’m just in disbelief it’s been 40 years since we did that record. I remember it like it was yesterday.
Whitford: Sometimes I think we steered away from playing some important material for us, and that would piss me off a little bit. If you start trying to think like, “Are they gonna like this?” Is that what you did when you started? Is that what you did when you wrote “Dream On?” No, you did that from your gut. That’s what they want to hear, they want to hear what you think, not what you think they think. [Laughs.] I didn’t win, I’m still fighting that battle with those guys about how we should do stuff.
Kramer: I don’t even really relate to [Toys in the Attic], to tell you the truth. I don’t relate to anything from 30 or 40 years ago, it’s just such a long time.
Hamilton: It’s insane. It does not feel like that long ago. Nothing feels like that long ago.
Perry: Stuff from that long ago, it’s interesting, because the music still feels like something I could’ve wrote a couple of days ago. But the rest of it seems so distant. Who can relate to 40 years in a real way, you know what I mean? I don’t know where they came from. The earliest songs from before I was born, I can’t imagine a world without them. Music has a different way of keeping time, pun intended.