Sound — 9
Aerosmith plows through a haze of illicit substances and road burn with unbridled creativity, determination, and label/management prodding, and cranks out what is not only their finest album, but one of the finest hard rock albums of the 1970's. Every now and then, a great band that has put out several great albums will hit one out of the park. Rather than having 2-3 or 4-5 great songs on an album, they'll have a collection of songs that have an energy to them, where listening to all the tracks reveals some kind of synergy, where you find yourself listening to the entire album. For Aerosmith, this was Rocks. Born in a haze of narcotics, alcohol, and road burn, the beginnings of Rocks found Aerosmith finally confident in their studio abilities. Following the hesitancy of the eponymous debut (featuring Dream On) and Get Your Wings and having cast off the dreaded 'red light butterflies' with Toys in the Attic, the band was pushed to creative heights with the help of producer Jack Douglas who was keen at capturing and bottling the studio madness at just the right time. Chemistry (pun intended) between band members was exceptional, in no small part from the realization that the struggles of the early years were rewarded with sales success and a growing fan base that never failed to turn out en masse as the Aeromachine criss-crossed the country. Toys in the Attic had pulled the band up on a pedestal, now it was time to set up permanent shop. Born in an era blissfully free of genre cross-marketing and AOR in full swing, Aerosmith stuck to their strengths and harnessed their creative forces to came up with a collection of gutter-blues-hard rock gems. Outside writers and children's TV show appearances were mercifully a couple of rehabs away, and the band shared, cooperated, and progressed to make their most self-assured album yet. 01.Back In The Saddle (Tyler-Perry): the ominous drum beats signal at least one horse looking for a rider and an apocalypse, and when Perry hits the first crunching note on 6 string bass and Tyler cuts loose with a toe-curling shriek of 'baaaack', you immediately forget what bands Aerosmith should be compared to, instead, you think of what bands will compare to Aerosmith. A whip cracking, falsetto drenched middle section builds up to a roaring final chord, drenched in reverb. 02.Last Child (Tyler-Whitford): second guitarist Brad Whitford contributes a great, stuttering guitar lick that finds the band flirting with a Zep-stomp/funk feel while Tyler does a great pouty vocal that one really can't understand, but, because the words sounds like 'other' words, everyone can feel like they can understand what's going on. The self-pitying last line of 'just a punk in the streets' gives way to a fading police siren, and the crunching unpleasant reality that is the mood created by... 03.Rats In The Cellar - (Tyler-Perry): an ominous title and a blast furnace riff pick up the scared kid from Last Child and toss him into a swirling mosh pit of big city underbelly inhumanity. Tyler's chatter box lyric delivery and the snakey guitar lines of Perry and Whitford, combined with a driving rhythm section, create a frenzied, almost claustrophobic atmosphere. A final crescendo and drum roll brings the song to an arena-setting ending; the almost inaudible final hi-hat closing as the final chord fades out lets you know this was pure studio mayhem. 04.Combination (Perry): Perry's first solo composition and vocal showcases his unique chordal riffing style. A mid-tempo rocker that laments his lifestyle trappings (we all should have such problems), it has a unique ending section that builds up from a repetitive 4 measure motif that increases in intensity. Layered guitars, overlapping riffs, and a fantastic Joey Kramer crazed-Indian war drum pattern continue to build as guitars howl in punkish feedback. Just like living on fumes eventually comes crashing to end, so does the song: a final drum roll and a squeal from an amplifer(?) seemingly put out of its misery. 05.Sick As A Dog (Tyler-Hamilton): Band faithful like to see all their band members involved in contributing material, and following his well-received Sweet Emotion and Uncle Salty from Toys in the Attic, fans were happy to see Tom Hamilton's credit on this chordal, tempo-shifting number. In a great snapshot of the times (band camaraderie and studio technology) Hamilton plays rhythm guitar throughout, Perry plays bass up to the mid-section break (just drums and rhythm guitar) when he hands the bass to Tyler to finish the song. The song fades out with what sounds like a baby crying and a children's toy piano plunking some off-kilter notes. 06.Nobody's Fault (Tyler-Whitford): Brad Whitford continues his 'heavy' tradition as Nobody's Fault follows his Round and Round (from Toys in the Attic) with this early Sabbath-era sounding sludge rocker. A hard-core fan favorite, Nobody's Fault is Aerosmith's rare venture into heavy metal. Not really based on a riff, per se, it's saved from being a total Sabbath rip-off courtesy of Kramer's busy hi-hat work (take note of the absolutely thunderous bass drum sound on this track). Tyler screams about a situation so bad, he must be dreaming, but comes to the realization that he/we are victims of our own collective foolishness. 07.Get The Lead Out (Tyler-Perry): a rollicking extended guitar lick and a revisit to a a Last Child-like groove shows the band blowing off some steam with a classic Tyler vocal where he seems to be either a drill Sergeant lashing his bandmates or the audience into shape. Kramer's drumming really drives this number, the fade out sequence containing one of the band's finest - albeit short - grooves ever; the ride cymbal and bass drum playing over a drone with some nice textural sounds from Perry and Whitford. 09.Lick And A Promise (Tyler/Perry): a crescendo'ing drum piece matches an escalating Perry chordal riff and the band is off on an uptempo blues rauncher. A cliche'd title and a Tyler vocal performance complete with shrieks and what sounds like an audience in certain places seems to indicate a POV commentary about the 'typical' rock star lifestyle. As in with Get The Lead Out, the band outros on a great groove over a simple guitar lick, almost sounding Harrisonish. 10.Home Tonight - (Tyler): as with Dream On and You See Me Crying, the band turns to a Tyler-penned ballad to slow things down. The highlight is some Perry slide guitar, sounding alternately honking on the intro and wonderfully tangled on the solo. The overall band feel on this song compared to their later sugary hits (Angel, Don't Want To Miss A Thing), is profound. The latter songs having an overly precise, almost sterile feel, while Home Tonight genuinely sounds like a band of maniacs trying to slow things following a 9-track street riot.
Lyrics — 9
Tyler penned all the lyrics and, as is to be expected, they're rife with innuendo, but also display a train of thought which - perhaps unconsciously - reveals a resigned mindset to living life in the rock and roll trenches, personal struggles dictated by the never-ending temptations, battles, and routine of tour, record, tour, record, and perhaps a subconscious desire to step away from it all. Back In The Saddle - A reference to back in the studio, back on the road? Back to the drudgery of coming up with lyrics, riffs? Last Child - The country boy from New Hampshire finding himself in the city, dealing with all of it's attendant evils, wanting to be taken 'home sweet home'. Rats In The Cellar - He's not going home anytime soon, he finds himself tossed into the pit, falling into temptation, losing his grip on reality and sanity, unable to escape. Combination - The temporary aftermath and the struggle to break free of the hold, but does he really want to break free? Sick As A Dog - He's broken the grip, but now he's paying the price. Nobody's Fault - He thought he was free from this struggle, but now with his new-found vision (no longer dreaming) he sees a world teetering on the knife edge of sanity. The giant mess is recognized and acknowledged, but is it too late to do anything about it? Do we have to revert to a child-like mentality to escape? Get The Lead Out - It's time to do something about it, or is it time to just 'hear the juke box swingin', a la watching Rome burning, and just 'dance with me'? Lick And A Promise - Is it better just to find yourself in this made-up sub-world and immerse yourself in superficiality, only concerning yourself with 'rockin' like you wouldn't believe'? Home Tonight - A plea or a wish, to step away from the madness, with the hollow - and undeliverable - promise that he'll be 'home tonight' knowing that he never will be. Tyler was at the top of his game for Rocks. Already a gifted singer, he had continued to hone his skills and further develop his individuality once his radio mark was made from Dream On, Walk This Way, and Sweet Emotion. From the shrieks of Back in the Saddle, the belting out of Nobody's Fault, to the emotive yearn of Home Tonight, Rocks was a hard rock vocal triumph. Perry does deserve a kudo for his vocal performance on Combination, if only for the fact that he stood up to take a lead vocal in the face of Tyler's overpowering vocal presence. Perry displays an adequate rock growl, with limited range, delivering his vocal lines with some conviction.
Overall Impression — 9
Rocks marks Aerosmith's finest moment as a performing unit; the songs all band-composed and performed, the crisp recording captures roaring Marshalls, pounding drums, and Tyler's screaming vocals all in what might be one of the finest hard rock studio albums ever by an American band. Unfortunately, the combination of circumstances that created the magic of Rocks actually would be behind the fracturing that followed. The shocking qualatative decline of original material, personal demons, infighting, and Perry's and Whitford's exits in 1979 and 1981 respectively all seemed to be nails in the Aerocoffin. However, with the backing of a label and strict personal oversight, the original 5 did regroup years later. Clean and sober, and with their vices in control, they achieved a level of success and recognition unimagined, even for a band of their stature; truly one of the all-time great rock and roll comebacks. Simply for the fact that they managed to extricate themselves from their individual and combined swamps of self-destruction and dances with the devil, they will never again tap into the forces that made Aerosmith the incomparable album it is. Rock and roll that teeters on the edges of sound judgement and the maniacal tend to be the most insightful and the best, and it is from such that albums such as Rocks are born.