How Aerosmith Upped the Ante With ‘Rocks’: Exclusive Book Excerpt

Aerosmith built a 50-year career in part on their reputation for being tireless road warriors. But band manager David Krebs hinted in a 1976 interview with Rolling Stone that touring would be scaled back following Aerosmith’s trek in support of Rocks. “They’re already big, and they just don’t need to kill themselves anymore.”

The ’70s were an eventful and exhausting time for the group. As their popularity increased, so did the drugs and debauchery. Looking back, it’s astounding how prolific Aerosmith were, releasing six albums while touring relentlessly between 1973 and 1979.

Aerosmith On Tour: 1973-1985, a new book by Julian Gill, offers the first comprehensive look at this impressive touring history, colorizing the period with key details from insiders, show reviews (sourced from newspapers and eyewitness accounts) and a wide variety of additional ephemera from the era.

In an exclusive excerpt from the book, we travel back more than 45 years to meet up with Aerosmith just before they introduce Rocks to the world.

Listen to Aerosmith Perform ‘Back in the Saddle’

Touring in support of the Toys in the Attic album concluded in San Diego on Dec. 17, 1975. Aerosmith had enjoyed a strong year of popularity growth, and the album and tour had pushed the band’s cumulative catalog sales to over 3 million units. Additionally, each of those three studio albums had been certified gold by the RIAA throughout the year. (Platinum awards didn’t exist at the time, with that certification level being created in 1976 with the first awarded in late February — though Toys had certainly exceeded 1,000,000 units during the year.)

The band had continued to pay their dues, grinding through a punishing tour schedule without the benefit of radio hits and resultant airplay, press gimmicks, or major national television appearances. It was an all-encompassing grind, with the band making their bones on the stage. More importantly, in contrast to their progenitors the New York Dolls, Aerosmith had diligently avoided becoming over-hyped during their commercial infancy – not that CBS had any inkling about how to really market them, anyway.

The band was on the fast track, skyrocketing from breakout regional phenom to national stardom. With the band off the road, explosive success may have felt a long time coming, but the pressure was certainly on to deliver another successful new album that would catapult them to the next level of rock stardom and further reinforce the gains made with Toys in the Attic. The cannon was primed to deliver a blast, but first, the band had to deliver. …

In January 1976, former-producer Adrian Barber filed a lawsuit against Columbia, the band members individually, Leber-Krebs, and Frank Connelly for $1.2 million. He alleged that the parties named had breached his original 1972 contract to produce the debut album on the grounds that it “gave him the option to produce further Aerosmith albums if the original achieved the success level it did reach. He attempted to exercise the option without success” (Variety, 1/28/1976). Specifically, Barber alleged “that in the contract for the first Aerosmith album, it was stated that if sales of the album reached the 150,000-unit mark, or if a single reached the Top 50, he would have an option to produce a second Aerosmith LP, for which he would receive royalties of 4% of wholesale album price of each album sold” (Cashbox, 1/24/1976).

The album had not initially been a commercial success and Barber had become upset about being supplanted by Ray Colcord and Jack Douglas for Get Your Wings, but he had clearly become aware of the band’s success. However, the eventual success of his former clients may have been an irresistible target to attempt to leverage the fine print of a contract signed three years previously. That the case went away with nary a further mention in the press indicates that any issue was quickly dispatched.

Following an all-too-short holiday break, the band reconvened at the Wherehouse for pre-production with Jack Douglas. Jack recalled the genesis of the project: “The only thing we were talking about a few months before Rocks was that it was going to be a real hard-rock album. And we might go back to the format of the first album, which was to rock out on every tune. And again, keep it real raw. And make it as live sounding as we possibly could” (Record World, 12/25/1976).

Life on the road made writing and rehearsing new ideas challenging, but a handful of musical ideas had taken root prior to the initial rehearsals. Part of Douglas’ role was to help marshal the band’s raw ideas into songs, giving them form and refinement. The Wherehouse was the band’s clubhouse, a refuge where they could just hang out and rehearse, but it was only a result of how the music took form that the band ended up recording the album there. Jack, ever aware of the importance of the creative environment influencing the foundation of a song, saw no reason to move the band into a formal studio — at least until it was time to record overdubs and vocals.

Listen to Aerosmith Perform ‘Last Child’

While quite a bit of effort had gone into miking the room, he was also very aware of the creative process: “The keys the songs were written in were all dependent on the environment we were in. After a couple of weeks of rehearsal, the room started to sound really good. The very thought of moving it out of that room seemed like it would destroy everything about where we were. … That record, when I put it on, sounds like truth” (Best Classic Bands, 1/31/2018).

Essentially, the band were recording the album at home and there was little difference in feel between jamming, rehearsing, or recording — except when tape was rolling and capturing the magic. … An important part of that process would be through the jams where [Steven] Tyler listened intently, seeking to identify a melody, lyrical phrase, or simply awaiting inspiration. When a backing track emerged from a process of revision and rearrangement, the onus would then fall to Tyler for the all-important lyrics to be added. More often than not, this final stage was a painful, frustrating, and time-consuming part of the process of creation.

Over a period of six weeks, in the throes of Boston’s winter, the basic tracks for six songs were worked out, refined, and ultimately captured to tape utilizing the Record Plant’s remote truck. … Those foundations were a rock-hard step forward from the previous album. Moreover, creating the material and capturing it in the same environment gave it a unique flavor with character, punchiness, and the inherent rawness they had been looking for. Regardless, the hardest part was yet to come: There were still lyrics to be written, vocals to be recorded, and the lead guitar overdubs to be captured.

Lyrics would prove to be the usual challenge: “Aerosmith does much of the instrumental arranging before the vocal melody is even written. And when Steven’s writing is coming along slowly, as it did for Rocks, the sessions drag on for weeks past the delivery date, pushing back the album’s release and frustrating the band’s management as the opening dates of a spring tour loom nearer and nearer” (Circus, 6/17/1976).

Even as they concentrated on the creation of new material, CBS had reissued “Dream On” at the end of 1975. (It’s unknown whether the pending litigation with Barber had any bearing on this release – or whether it was simply a matter of keeping the band visible at a time where they would be out of the public view — while giving a neglected gem another shot.) According to Tom [Hamilton], “There had to be some kind of demand. … Disc jockeys were calling up the record company saying, ‘if you don’t give us the record, we’re going to play it anyway.’ They were getting requests” (Phonograph Record, April 1976).

It was well received: “This re-release from Aerosmith’s first album is a melodic exception to the band’s normal heavy metal, wreak-havoc format. The hard surface is there but Tyler’s plaintive vocals and some economical muscular riffing make ‘Dream On’ a thinker as well as a mover” (Cashbox, 12/27/1975). The song was reissued again, in November 1976 with “Sweet Emotion” as the B-side (Columbia 13-33327) as part of the “Hall of Fame” series. In tandem with the recording, as early as January, David Forest, Fun Production’s promoter, planned to have Aerosmith headline at Anaheim Stadium — suggesting activities were scheduled very far in advance.

It was an ambitious plan: Stadium shows were usually reserved for established superstars with broad market appeal ([Led] Zeppelin, [Rolling] Stones). Forest wasn’t deterred, believing the rock market was growing so big that the newly established could also make the jump into stadiums. With any show being a gamble for a promoter, he trusted that most singular characteristic of a successful promoter: gut instinct, though with great risk came the opportunity for a massive payoff.

Listen to Aerosmith Perform ‘Dream On’

On Jan. 10, 1976, “Dream On” returned to the Billboard Hot 100 (at #81), and started a long steady climb, reaching #6 on April 10. (The single peaked at the same position on Cashbox on March 27.) Were that not distraction enough, with there being no way for the band to capitalize or promote the single at the same time as writing and recording their new album, it would have provided a continued background drone of motivation (and pressure). There were probably several factors that played into the explosive success Aerosmith enjoyed in the second half of 1975. A strong year of touring was buttressed by the breakout of the band on the charts.

Toys in the Attic had been a slow burn on the album charts from the day of its release, building steadily until it reached its zenith on Sept. 13, 1975 at #11. An impressive initial 82-week chart run was followed by a brief two-week break, before returning for another 46 weeks through October 1977 — essentially encompassing the band’s golden era. The success of the album also drove sales of the back catalog. Sophomore effort, Get Your Wings, returned to the Billboard Top 200 on Sept. 20, 1975, remaining active until Nov. 15.

It peaked at #74, a position that eclipsed its original chart run in 1974. It charted for the fourth time from January 31 through August 1976, lingering (rather than languishing) in the bottom half of the Top 200. The debut also returned to the charts, September through November 1975, and again in January 1976 — at a time when the band were off the road. That album ultimately climbed to #21 and stayed on the charts until September 1976. The success of the reissue of the “Dream On” single initially helped continue drive the sales of all three albums. That was a continuation of the strategy CBS had undertaken to capitalize on whole catalogues, rather than just focus on an act’s current product.

Until that point, the band had not had any wildly successful commercial singles, even if they had started to develop a niche on radio airplay. There would be little doubt in looking back to 1973 that “Dream On” had not been given a chance or support by the label, so regardless of its success a perceived wrong had been righted. To celebrate the gold certification of the first three studio albums during 1975, Columbia issued a special promotional box, Pure Gold from Rock and Roll’s Golden Boys (Columbia A3S-187) in March 1976. The albums were housed in a gold box and presented as a thank you for the support of radio, record accounts, and press. What the emergent success of the back catalog did was set the stage for the band to capitalize with an emphatic exclamation, if they were able to do so. It was the perfect commercial set up, one that couldn’t be engineered, and was a gift that very few bands are given. Fewer still are able to capitalize on the opportunity provided.

With the basic tracks captured, one band member had personal matters to attend to: On Feb. 22, Brad Whitford married Lori Suzanne Philips in the garden of her parents’ North Miami home, with other members of the band in attendance. However, Brad’s nuptial break was all too quickly over, with the band reconvening in New York City to take up the next phase of creation in Studio A at the Record Plant. As work continued, the lyrics became the focus. Jack recalled, “Steven moves in with me when we’re working on an album. In the morning, I wake him up with a cassette and a cup of coffee — ‘here you go’ — most of the melody lines have all been worked out and he’s singing phonetically. I’ll suggest a thing to him here and there, give him a kick this way and he starts to come around. He’s really the main drive of the band” (Record World, 12/25/1976).

Things seemed to be going according to plan and the initial run of tour dates for mid-April were announced in March. The first Aerosmith album to not feature a cover recording (and only one of the band’s 1971–79 incarnation), Rocks saw the members not named Tyler or Joe Perry continuing to get in on the songwriting process. While four of the album’s songs were attributed to Tyler/Perry — “Back in the Saddle,” “Rats in the Cellar,” “Get the Lead Out,” and “Lick and a Promise” — Brad also contributed to two songs with Steven. Steven was adamant that the funky “Last Child” was going to be a disco hit, and its style gave him the scope to guide Joey Kramer in a different direction for the percussion. (The song had started out with Steven behind the kit infusing a more jazzy beat.)

Sparked by a Whitford riff titled “Soul Saver,” the whole band was full of ideas, even if they were not yet fully formed and required transformation and development. Given Tyler’s enthusiasm, the song was a stylistic departure from the band’s usual sound. It is hardly surprising that it was released as the album’s first single, backed with “Combination” (Columbia 3-10359), toward the end of May. Respectably, it reached #21 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Listen to Aerosmith Perform ‘Home Tonight’

Jack Douglas was impressed by Tom Hamilton’s continued development as a songwriter. Witness Hamilton’s contribution, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” which was transformed into “Sick as a Dog.” Tom recalled, “Jack is a very open person. He always has time for what people come up with. ‘Sick’ started on guitar and I wasn’t sure about it but playing it for Jack, I realized it had a lot of potential. We recorded it last, and I’m glad because everybody was hot then” (Circus, 6/17/1976).

Jack, too, was equally complimentary towards Tom: “Tom is coming along in his writing. He’s got a lot of tunes, and even though there’s only one on this album, there could have been more” (Circus, 6/17/1976). With Tom on guitar, the instrument he’d used to write the song, for the recording Joe performed most of the bass, until leaving the control room to play a solo, handing Steven the bass to play the ending section. The lead-off track, “Back in the Saddle” (which had also been a prospective album title), also served as the album’s final single (Columbia 3-10516) when released in late-March 1977.

It was backed with the second of the Tyler/Whitford contributions, the apocalyptic “Nobody’s Fault.” Unfortunately, the single languished on the charts, only reaching #38. It wasn’t a complete disaster, particularly considering the band’s singles track record, and it did successfully bridge the period where management had hoped the band would complete its next studio album. (That they didn’t finish Draw the Line on time is moot.) Musically, Joe had been inspired by Peter Green and Jack Bruce’s use of a six-string bass, which he’d used to write the song. He particularly enjoyed the thick sound the instrument gave the song, which he described as “lead bass.” The writing of the song was straight-forward, according to Joe, “I was very high on heroin. … That riff just floated right through me” (Guitar World, April 1997).

“Rats in the Cellar” started out as “Tit for Tat,” and the title seemed a natural response to the previous album’s title. Steven has recounted how lyrics in this song were influenced by the murder of their drug connection while recording at the Record Plant. … The swaggering “Get the Lead Out” dripped with the sleaze the band was living at the time, while “Lick and a Promise” represented the mission the band had every time they walked on to the stage.

On “Combination,” Joe Perry would sing his first lead vocal on an Aerosmith album, albeit as a semi-duet with Steven. The song also provided his only solo writing contribution. Like other songs, it was loosely based on the life the band members were living, mainly the growing dalliance with drugs. More specifically, it was written in frustration at Steven’s snail-pace lyric writing.

Steven’s “Home Tonight” goodnight lullaby closed the album. It was a natural successor to “Dream On” and the critically ignored “You See Me Crying.” In late August, the song was released as the album’s much-hyped second single (Columbia 3-10407). Backed with “Pandora’s Box” (the back catalog seldom being neglected), it floundered at an unimpressive #71 on the Billboard Hot 100 during a dismal four-week run.

Rocks may have been a platinum album without the benefit of a Top 10 single (Billboard Ad, 9/3/1976), but “Home Tonight” did not end up being that single, regardless of the hype used to promote its release: “Hard rockers and big-sellers Aerosmith have come up with a song that has a couple of unusual shifts in it. The soft, almost ballad-like vocal holds a lot of appeal, and the harsher rock ‘n’ roll bridge seems to fit just right. The vocal is reminiscent of some of [Paul] McCartney’s hard blues numbers. The record should chart strong off of FM progressive play” (Cashbox, 9/11/1976). In late November, in a blatant attempt to repeat the late 1975 single reissue success, “Walk this Way” was reissued with a new B-side, “Uncle Salty” (Columbia 3-10449). The exercise soon bore fruit with the single charting for 17 weeks reaching a high of #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 on Jan. 29, 1977. It did even better on Cashbox, hitting #7.

Listen to Aerosmith Perform ‘Sick as a Dog’

By April, Jack was already involved with pre-production for Starz’s debut while also being recruited to help finish up Moxy’s second album. Following last-minute “finishing touches” to Rocks, the first two weeks of the tour needed to be rescheduled. Of course, there may have been the small matter of letting “Dream On” run its course on the charts before launching the band’s new material. Whatever was happening in the background, the Rocks project was drawing to a close. If management was frustrated by the pace, so was Steven, daunted by the frantic finish to the four-month long sessions: “I had no idea what I was singing about on the last four songs we did” (Boston Phoenix, 7/27/1976).

He and Joe were hopping on charter flights between New York City and Boston, where rehearsals were concurrently taking place for the tour. Steven wasn’t completely happy with how things ended: “This last album I couldn’t even stay for the final mixes. We had already cancelled two weeks of dates because of some final mastering. I insist on being there. I know what went down. Since having so much to do with the songs, I wanted at least to be able to mix the songs a little bit. I want to know where the edits are going. It shouldn’t all be left up to your producer, although we have the finest producers in the world” (Sounds, 10/16/1976).

Any minor gripes wouldn’t matter. What resulted from the months of grind was a powerful mix of catchy riffs and clever tongue-in-cheek lyrics. It was a raw slab of sleazy rock ‘n’ roll, Americanized Yardbirds-inspired blues infused with punkish ferocity. Joe was pleased: “Well, it’s better, with everyone we’re getting better, the songs are getting more unified and the whole band’s coming up with worthwhile ideas. I’m looking forward to the next one because I know it’ll be better again. We’re managing to get into a groove in the studio now and we’re trying to keep it that way” (Sounds, 10/16/1976).

It was Joe’s idea to name the album Rocks, an apt description for what he felt was the hardest rock they’d made. He’d also suggested the title the year before for the album that became Toys in the Attic, though this time it stuck. Aerosmith Five was also considered, but likely would have caused more confusion for those not considering that it described the number of band members rather than albums to that point. As had been the case with their previous album, the band returned to Pacific Eye and Ear for creation of the package.

A Scott Enyart photograph of five diamonds formed the basis for the strikingly simple cover illustration. One side of the inner dust-sleeve featured a cartoon-like rendering for the band, done by their old friend Teresa Stokes. The first version of the painting was purportedly lost in a fire and Steven requested she paint it again. It was initially intended to serve as the band’s stage backdrop for the tour, but Steven decided that he “hated” it and it wasn’t used. The illustration was cropped for use on the dust sleeve. A collage of photos was featured on the other.

While copyright documentation suggests the album was scheduled to be released a week earlier, Rocks was formally issued on May 14, but was initially not supported by a new single with “Dream On” continuing to linger on the charts. That double-edged sword, with the continued success of the “Dream On” single, may have impacted the marketing of the album, prompting the label to choose to delay the release and tour. The album entered the Billboard album chart at #25 on May 29. In the United States, Rocks was certified gold by the RIAA on May 21, 1976, and platinum on July 9, 1976. Two-times platinum certification followed on Oct. 19, 1984, three-times on Dec. 21, 1988; and (most recently) four-times on Feb. 26, 2001. Gold was awarded by the CRIA (Canada – 50,000 units) on Sept. 1, 1976, and platinum on Nov. 1, 1976.

In the SoundScan era, the album sold 409,451 units between 1991 and February 2007. In the U.S., the album reached #3 on the Billboard Top 200 charts (6/26/1976) during a 53-week run, and the same on Cashbox (6/12/1976) during a 51-week run. The album was blocked from any chance at the top spot by [Peter Frampton’s] Frampton Comes Alive and Wings’ At the Speed of Sound. Internationally, the album reached #13 in Japan, #14 in Canada, and #46 in Sweden. So, the performance of the album was impressive without the benefit of a resident hit single.

Listen to Aerosmith Perform ‘Rats in the Cellar’

For the tour, a simple black backdrop emblazoned with large Aerosmith name in script was used. Other special effects were deliberately kept to a minimum having been overdone by many other acts. A single flash-pot was used as an attention grabber at the start of the show and the rest of the show was handled with lighting. Bob See’s See Factor Industry lighting company pitched the idea of the descending A-frame lighting grid that was used as the show’s culminating sequence. …

With original dates April 13 through 27 rescheduled, the Rocks tour properly commenced with a sold-out show in St. Louis on April 27. The set initially heavily favored Toys in the Attic material, but that would change throughout the tour with “Lick and a Promise,” “Rats in the Cellar,” “Sick as a Dog,” “Get the Lead Out,” and “Last Child” appearing. The band also performed five stadium shows throughout the initial 59-show leg — Detroit, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Anaheim — to a cumulative and impressive attendance of 329,952. However, the band soon tired of these massive shows.

According to David Krebs, “This is the last big tour. After this one there won’t be much touring. … They’re already big, and they just don’t need to kill themselves anymore. … So, next year, their touring schedule is going to be severely limited — so they can concentrate on putting out product” (Rolling Stone #220, 8/26/1976). Playing to the large crowds simply wasn’t fun for the band. For Steven, it was a matter of aesthetics: “All you could see was security guys. … I had trouble looking out and being able to see a kid. It’s so ugly when you have to sing to security guards. F—ing muscle heads, who wants to sing to them” (Melody Maker, 10/16/1976).

But there was also a more obvious issue with the stadium-sized shows: “The matters of sound and visibility are always a problem at outdoor shows, but they are particularly noticeable — and discouraging — when seeing a band for the first time. When the stadium shows were introduced, it was assumed that only the biggest of the veteran acts — the Stones, the Who, Zeppelin — would be able to draw enough people to fill the outdoor facilities. By the time these bands reached the stadium level, the reasoning went, their audiences would be so familiar with the groups’ music and stage moves that the fans could just use their imaginations to fill in any gaps caused by the huge setting. Newer acts in a fast-expanding rock market booking shows that results in a situation where many are seeing the bands for the first time and therefore getting less out of the experience” (Los Angeles Times, 9/14/1976). The band’s tour schedule was finessed to ensure that they would not perform more than two nights in a row, to protect Steven’s voice.

The Rocks tour saw the band’s first true international jaunts. While they had expected to tour Asia in the autumn, a European run was booked instead. … The tour started in England, with the band arriving in London on Oct. 9. Given the band’s negligible radio play overseas, they’d soon encounter a harsh awakening: Instead of their customary shows in 20,000-seat arenas, the band found themselves performing in antiquated halls with less than 4,000 seats (which weren’t sold out).

If they were tired of stadiums, the European tour was a stark reminder of the other side of the spectrum. The tour concluded in Paris on Nov. 1 and the band were quickly back on U.S. soil for their next leg of dates leading to the Christmas holiday break. It was during this leg of the tour that the wear and tear of the road started to show. Following their first hometown show on Nov. 15, Steven was diagnosed with laryngitis and shows Nov. 16-24 were postponed (one date was cancelled). Touring resumed on Nov. 29 without further incident. Aerosmith’s visit to Japan took place at the end of January into early February, with the band vacationing in Hawaii on their return.

Kramer told Circus‘ Gary Graifman, “We had two years of advance press over there and from the time we arrived, till the time we left, the response was incredible. Mobs at the airport, mobs at the hotel, mobs everywhere. It got a bit dangerous with people trying to grab our clothes, hair, anything they could get hold of” (Circus, 5/26/1977). The Japanese record label marked the occasion with the release of an album, Wild Platinum, which compiled 13 songs from the four studio albums.

This is an exclusive excerpt from Aerosmith On Tour: 1973-1985 by Julian Gill.

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