CATALOG CRAWL: AEROSMITH, Part 2 (1976-1978)

By 1976, Aerosmith was fully in the glory of their golden era period. Looking back, it’s kind of astonishing that a band who delved so deeply into drugs and all the other rock-world debauchery managed to keep it together long enough to remain favorites on record and the concert stage.

This section of the Catalog Crawl for Aerosmith focuses on three albums released between 1976 and 1978. The first is a masterpiece, considered by many fans to be their definitive long-player, and the other two deliver a kind of “runaway train” excitement of a band that threatens to slip off the rails at any moment yet manages to deliver a powerful performance as its engine overheats…

ROCKS (1976): This is the peak of Aerosmith’s achievements during their ’70s era. Like Toys In The Attic, it utilizes that late-Beatles template of tackling a variety of styles yet making it cohere via band performance and applies it to hard rock (it even end with a lullaby-styled goodbye to the listener a la “Goodnight” in “Home Tonight.”). That said, it takes that approach to wilder, gutsier extremes and does so with greater confidence. The hits here are the band-as-outlaws self-mythology of “Back In The Saddle,” with its endlessly undulating curlicue of a riff, and swaggering funk-rocker “Last Child.” However, the really rewarding stuff lies in album tracks like lusty rock star fantasy “Lick And A Promise” as well as tightly-wound riff-o-rama “Combination” and the acoustically-textured, mournfully elegant “Sick As A Dog,” both ominous reflections of the drug-heavy lifestyle that was consuming the band.  That lifestyle would ultimately be their undoing but they couldn’t take a wrong step here: even a simple boogie like “Get The Lead Out” is majestic and commanding.

DRAW THE LINE (1977): What does a band do after waxing an instant masterpiece? The boys from Boston holed up in a former monastery with recording equipment and tons of drugs to create this hazy, frazzled but still well-crafted hard rock outing. The prior two albums’ precise sonic craft has been replaced by a murk reflecting Aerosmith’s drug-dazzled state: note the psychedelic reverse-echo on the guitars in “Critical Mass” and the distorted-into-the-red guitar and bass tones fueling the title track. The album has the unnerving thrill of watching a highwire act on a windy day: the lurching funk of “Get It Up” threatens to careen into the ditch and “The Hand That Feeds” is frantic speed-rock on the verge of spontaneous combustion, right down to Tyler’s frenetic wailing. However, everything rights itself at the last second and keep on chooglin’ to the finish-line boogie “Milk Cow Blues.” Even better, there are surprises like the regal, folk-tinged reflection of “Kings And Queens” and “Bright Light Fright,” a Perry-sung raver that captures the Joe Perry Project sound three years early.

LIVE! BOOTLEG (1978): this was a response to the slick live-doubles that had become a record biz cash crop in the late ’70s, embracing bootleg-style rawness in both recording quality and packaging. Recordings were mostly drawn from 1977 and 1978 live dates awash in chemical overkill: you can feel it in searing versions of “Back In The Saddle” and “Walk This Way” that teeter on the edge of chaos. However, the group doesn’t let their extracurricular activities outpace their talent so you also get a slinky take on “Come Together” that outstrips its quite-good studio counterpart, a run-through of the as-yet-unrecorded midtempo charmer “Chip Away At The Stone” and a pulse-pounding “Train Kept-A Rollin'” that lives up to its title and throws in a surprise quote from “Strangers In The Night” (a tribute to Hendrix, believe it or not). However, the big surprises here are two tracks from a 1973 live radio session that yields a joyous take on “I Ain’t Got You” and a credible, taut version of the James Brown classic “Mother Popcorn,” complete with sax.

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