With the release of their third studio album Toys In The Attic in 1975, Aerosmith would finally achieve their commercial and artistic breakthrough. The album – produced by Jack Douglas - would go on to become their second most commercially successful studio album, second only to the group’s 1993 effort, Get A Grip. The first single from the album, "Sweet Emotion", would also garner the band their first top 40 hit. In turn, Aerosmith would go onto to become one of the biggest groups of the 1970s and beyond. By the time the band had begun recording the album, the non-stop touring had seen the band's sound evolve into a sleek, hard-driving hard rock sound, underpinned by a ballsy and bluesy raunch that was oozing with a Stones-esque swagger. Joe Matera recently caught up with Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry and the album’s engineer Jay Messina, to discuss the making of this bona fide classic album.
UG: Let’s start by first discussing the background to the songwriting process for Toys In The Attic?
Joe Perry: Basically the first two records that we did were records made up of songs that we had been playing in clubs up to that point. But ‘Toys…’ was the first record where we had to write everything pretty, much from scratch. And also, we had to do it after having been on the road for awhile. And, though we were still playing a lot of gigs, we took a couple months off to make this record. So this was our first real studio record. And we would write a lot of the material in the studio. So we’d rehearse them and then go into the studio in the morning with a couple of guitar riffs, and we’d build all these songs out of them.
I want to ask you about a couple tracks specifically. First up is Walk This Way, how did that song come about?
"This was our first real studio record."
Perry: That was one that I wrote… I had the riff already in the back of my mind so built up some of the other guitar parts from that. And I got the band to work with it and play it and we just put it together, with some kind of resemblance to a song, and went from there.
I remember going to see a movie called ‘Young Frankenstein’ and there was this one scene where one of the movie characters says, ‘walk this way’. And Jack [Douglas] began fooling around with that line and did this imitation of it from the movie. And so it became a great title for the song. Then Steven went ahead and wrote the eventual lyrics.
What inspired the writing of the music for the song?
Perry: I wanted to write something funky as I was a big fan of New Orleans funk… bands such as The Meters, Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown and all that funky music, I really liked. So I wanted to write one of our own. And those bands were what was the inspiration in writing that riff.
The next song I want to discuss is Sweet Emotion. It’s been noted that the song evolved from a bass riff that Tom [Hamilton] had?
Perry: Yes, he already had that introduction bass riff. And then there was that other part, the riff interlude thing between the verses which he also had too. The band filled in all the other spots. I still don’t know where the title comes from or what that means, but it just sounded good.
How did the band approach the recording sessions for this album?
Perry: We had an idea of what songs were working for us live at that point, and so we kind of had an idea of what direction we wanted the songs to go in. We knew we wanted to play some up-tempo songs, some shuffle songs and some blues rock. But though we knew what kind of songs we wanted, we didn’t really know how it was going to turn out. We had a different kind of pressure on us to make this record and how to make it. But Jack really helped us a lot in that department. He really became the sixth member of the band and taught us how to do it.
How long did this album take to make and what studios were used?
Jay Messina: It took approximately two months, from start to finish. Some of those days were 16 hours or more. It was recorded at Record Plant Studios, in New York City. We worked in Studio A and C.
Working with producer Jack Douglas, what did he bring to the recording process?
Messina: Jack was always very ‘hands on’ in the studio. It’s what made for a good team, between the two of us. He had enough confidence in me, to work with the band (in the studio) and let me do ‘my thing’ in the control room. He has a musical background, and was instrumental in working out arrangements with the band.
How did you approach the engineering of the album?
Messina: My basic concept and approach was to capture the energy of Aerosmith. This was done with a combination of room mikes, and pressing ‘record’ when the moment seemed right. Getting the ‘right’ moment on tape is far more important than any recording techniques I may have used.
Turning to the topic of gear, Joe, what did you use?
"My basic concept and approach was to capture the energy of Aerosmith."
Perry: At that point I didn’t really have much of a guitar collection. I had a Stratocaster and may have had a good Gibson Les Paul by then. I know for the first two records, I had a Les Paul Junior. And I used a Marshall and an Ampeg - which was the equivalent of a 50 watt Marshall, and belonged to that same kind of class - and that was basically it. Brad was pretty strict about using Marshalls at that point and I know he definitely used a Les Paul. We kind of liked the idea of having a Strat and a Les Paul working together to compliment each other, tone wise. When we finally made it to the Record Plant, we also used the studio’s early ‘50s Fender Tweed amp. I think everybody that ever played in the Plant’s Studio A, would use that amp.
And Jay, what sort of recording equipment did you use?
Messina: ‘Toys’ was recorded on an MCI 16 track tape machine. Studio A had a Spectra Sonics console, with military type specs. It had minimal frills, but it was super clean. If you boosted 12 db at 50cps, you heard and felt it. Most of the time, maximum seemed to be the right amount. Studio C had a Data Mix console that had its own particular sound. It wasn’t clean like Studio A, but it added a color of its own, that worked.
How did you go about capturing Joe’s and Brad Whitford’s guitar tones in the studio?
Messina: Once it sounded good in the studio, we usually used three mikes (a SM-57, Sennheiser 421 and a Sony C37). Between those three mikes, and some compression, if needed, and an occasional Eventide Flanger, we could get what we wanted.
Was there was much double tracking of guitars?
Messina: Doubling of guitars was the exception, not the rule. I really don’t remember doubling any guitars, but we may have. We mixed ‘Toys’ in 5.1 about five years ago and I don’t remember hearing any, or seeing any guitar doubles on the track sheets. We may have doubled a guitar and did a live bounce to another track.
Joe, did you experiment with any different tunings?
Perry: Back then, I was still writing a lot of songs with standard tunings, and I wasn’t playing quite as much slide guitar which required special tunings, so I was basically using the straight tuned guitar. I can pretty much play the entire album on no more than two guitars. It wasn’t until later on, that I started experimenting with different tunings, and pushing myself into a box, which required me to have a number of extra guitars like for example ‘Janie’s Got A Gun’ which had to be tuned half a step sharp. And because of that, I needed to have a guitar especially tuned for that.
Were there many overdubs done?
Messina: The overdub that I remember the most was the bass marimba on ‘Sweet Emotion’. We were just about finished with ‘Sweet Emotion’, but there was something missing from the bass sound in the intro and re-intro, after the first chorus. Jack knew I played vibes and asked about doubling the bass line. We decided that bass marimba would be the appropriate instrument. It took a few takes, but I did it, and it worked. It added a certain attack and punch to the bass, that’s subtle, and makes it unique.
Perry: On ‘Sweet Emotion’, to make that riff between the vocals really heavy, I think we overdubbed one or two guitars just to make it fatter. The other parts over the verses, there were just two guitars. And because the guitars were playing the same thing – Brad was playing a Strat on this - it really made it sound fat anyway. The solo, especially at the end, where it had that long stretched out feedback, I also used a Strat for that.
Were there extra tracks recorded at those sessions?
Perry: We rarely wrote more songs than we needed for the album. We would usually start with four or five riffs or songs and then go into the studio and start working on those ones. And then as we got into that creative phase, we’d finish those songs and eventually a few more songs would come along. Sometimes Steven would sit at the piano and would come up with a riff and by the end of day, we’d have a song. As soon as we had eight or nine songs, and which we felt were like a really good batch of songs, we’d stop writing and start recording.
Toys In The Attic went on to sell over eight million copies in the US alone…
"We had an idea of what songs were working for us live at that point, and so we kind of had an idea of what direction we wanted the songs to go in."
Perry: I’m surprised to know those numbers as we never really heard that much about how it was selling. Our main concern was about playing live and building up our markets. Like we would play in Ohio a whole lot until we built up enough of a following that we could sell every ticket that we wanted to. Then we would move head down south and play around Atlanta and we would take it session by session.
It was all about concentrating on playing live. So a lot of time we weren’t in touch with what was going on out there as we were too busy playing. The success was really encouraging though because there was talk about us about getting dropped from the label. They also decided to re-release ‘Dream On’ and it immediately became a big hit, that it help push Toys In The Attic further. So there was a combination of things going on at the time.
You played the album, in its entirety, live last summer. How was it received by the audiences?
Perry: A lot of people were excited about hearing the whole album back to back. Back in the day, people tended to put a record on from beginning to the end on the turntable and just leave it on. So you would get used to hearing each song. So that generation was really looking forward to hearing those songs in that order, even though we were probably playing 80% of those songs at one time or another, in the set. And, the younger fans, they would be hearing songs they’ve never heard before, so it was exciting all around.
Interview by Joe Matera
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