A version of this article was originally published on June 29, 2016.
There was a time not so long ago, in a pre-Trump, pre-Brexit world, when a mythically thin line between stupid and clever existed. Not to pine for the past, but it was a distinct sweet spot; they just don’t make good, dumb, Homer Simpson-core bands like they used to, you probably thought to yourself as Woodstock ’99 burned to the ground.
Aerosmith deserve to go down as the best American hard-rock band to ever exist, but it’s not to be. Maybe they’re so bizarrely unfashionable because they’re not as self-mythologizing as serial operettas like Van Halen or Guns N’ Roses. But they also fall outside of the nostalgia cycle that’s validated even Journey because they never epitomized kitsch either. Namely, they were the right thing at the right juncture several times over, winking at clichés, or, at least, de-centering them — all-out abstaining from stuff isn’t really the Toxic Twins’ thing.
Aerosmith made more good records than any of the above-named bands, and at their best they made it look so easy that it landed them in this taken-for-granted mess in the first place. They also weathered drug abuse, enjoyed/exploited groupies, and had some brief personnel toss-ups in the ’80s, but that’s where the Behind the Music tropes end for the missing link between Led Zeppelin and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Soul is the difference. Joey Kramer’s backbeat was informed by the Meters’ smothered New Orleans funk, and Steven Tyler, a drummer himself, rapped lascivious nonsense like “Walk This Way” because he discovered that words could be percussion around the same time that Kurtis Blow did. Tom Hamilton’s bass buoyed “Sweet Emotion” even more crucially than its psychedelic talk box and layered harmonies. (It also murders McCartney on his own s**t, best experienced in this scene where Steven Tyler strangles a Bee Gee.)
They were as smart about embracing hip-hop and MTV as they were genuinely respectful of the bluesmen and black R&B that defined their groove-laden hard rock. For whatever reason, their actual notable covers in this regard were of fellow white musicians: The Yardbirds (“Train Kept a-Rollin’”), the Beatles at their most Chuck Berry (“I’m Down”), and the Shangri-Las’ “(Remember) Walking in the Sand,” in the best girl-group cover you’ve ever heard by boys. Unfortunately, 2004’s awesomely named Honkin’ on Bobo attempted to do a bunch of actual bluesmen dirty but came up clean as a whistle. Where’s the swamp-ass, where’s the love?
Even more than their uncanny boogie abilities though, Aerosmith’s own songwriting is where they honored their innuendo-smitten antecedents and earned a life sentence in Horny Jail. Despite all their over-the-top video personality (and album covers prone to featuring two flatbed trucks f**king), it’s this band’s miraculous restraint that made the competition look like, well, Rush. You had to listen to the lyrics a bit, for one thing: No obvious theme emerges between them when you scan “Dream On,” “Sweet Emotion,” and “Janie’s Got a Gun.” They never leaned on good-time nostalgia for their bread like Bob Seger or their more sexually hostile peers KISS. (It was only on 2012’s “Love XXX” that they pretended they could rock’n’roll all night; they’ll die putting the “sex” in sexagenarian.)
But you’d also be hard-pressed to find a legitimately angry or vengeful Aerosmith song; laments like “Ain’t That a Bitch” played up the vaudevillian theater of being down on one’s luck, while the fury of “Eat the Rich” belched loudly in the faces of their millionaire peers who complained along the ride. Literally; the song ends with an eructation that rivals Barney Gumble’s, and that’s, like, their third-most political tune.
“Livin’ on the Edge” didn’t embarrass itself generalizing racism (or foregrounding it as the first single of a mega-platinum smash whose target audience could be described as “Wayne’s World fans”). It shouldn’t surprise anyone, though, that their most socially conscious tune was the Grammy-rewarded “Janie’s Got a Gun,” a simple-enough tale of someone else’s anger and vengeance, whose crucial viewpoint is that of onlooker Tyler’s empathy. He crucially noted that nobody believed her, in the convincing wail of a man who has daughters of his own, even if one of them eventually played a lust object in his videos.
Those Simpsons and Wayne’s World flashpoints were no accident for a band who recognizes that their people are “all here because they’re not all there”; the reason Aerosmith galvanized that nexus in the early ‘90s is because these old men nailed the childhood innocence of dirty joke-making while also maintaining distance from out-and-out creepiness (yeah, Tyler’s actress daughter stripped in the “Crazy” clip; she’s also given an age-appropriate foil and the band scenes are separate). And those faintly woke moments kept them honest; no boys-will-be-boys excuses for these gentlemen, who changed the Hindu-baiting cover of 1997’s Nine Lives as soon as they became aware of the problem.
Sure, that album still contains the dicey “Taste of India,” whose chief offense is a terrible “cat man do” pun that doesn’t seem to know Katmandu is in Nepal. And the huge hit “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” scans more as a transphobe’s weapon today than a good-natured diss to their hair-metal rivals in 1987 (or the Mrs. Doubtfire montage music of dreams). But those are rare misses for Aerosmith’s world-class skirting abilities, which include the verb “love” used often in place of “f**k,” and a song called “Pink,” that got both harmonica and barely encrypted pudenda onto rock radio.
Give them points for consistency: On the vagina thesaurus “Pandora’s Box,” from 23 years earlier, Tyler made the most lascivious demand to “crack a smile” in all of rock. (Lest you think there’s a possibility that this interpretation’s merely open, there is also the couplet, “Smelling like a flora / Open up your door-a for me”). But it also contains the 1974 equivalent of Danny Brown’s devilishly self-aware “No apologies for all the misogyny”: “I get high, can’t explain the sensation / To get it on I got to watch what I say / Or I’ll catch hell from the women’s liberation.”
Tyler’s double entendres and filth-dipped similes are legion: “I hear you’re so tight your lovin’ squeaks,” quoth “F.I.N.E.”; “It’s like gettin’ head from a guillotine,” mic-droppeth “Shut Up and Dance.” Sometimes it was as simple as clicking “It was love at first bite,” into place on a tune called “Adam’s Apple,” or “Living it up when I’m going down” on the deathless “Love in an Elevator.” And even Bull Moose Jackson, the original bluesman behind 1975’s “Big Ten Inch Record” didn’t quite have (ahem) the balls to drop it on the world’s chin with such impact. Tyler’s wit classed this stuff up by default, and it even extended to the art direction of hits collections repackaged ad nauseum, which were given better covers than most band’s real LPs.
But shameless cleverness was also the key to the unobstructed music, which employed whatever it took to sound great: accordion, horns, cannibalized Holland-Dozier-Holland, and — on their magnum opus “Cryin’” — more key changes than judiciously edited pop songs normally allow, much less in the service of improving a composition. Every one was a hook, pulled tight enough to squeak.
Then they met Diane Warren. Aerosmith had utilized song doctors since their late-’80s comeback, but it was only with the pretty bad (but asteroid-sized) “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” that they really lost themselves and never fully recovered: 2001’s “Jaded” is the sole great Aerosmith song since (and the less said about 2012’s depressing Music From Another Dimension! the better). But even as they became a self-evident punchline among the next generation of axe-wielders, and belatedly fell into more VH-esque squabbling, their decades-spanning great material has stood the test of time.
They’ve also found unlikely heirs in modern country, a world that — certainly more than present-day rock — resembles the blue-collar, barroom jams they know best. Tyler’s got his own Nashville-leaning solo debut coming down the pike on July 15, called We’re All Somebody From Somewhere, and it’s exciting to imagine him conquering that market too — the single’s a step up from Dimension at least. But his band’s legacy of funky wit and thirsty riffage is already in stone, it’s just up to the kids to recognize it. Or as Tyler would put it: We’ve got the right key baby, but the wrong keyhole.