That Time Aerosmith Hit Their Stride on ‘Rocks’
Aerosmith's appetite for self-destruction would send the band spiraling into implosion before the end of the '70s. But as they entered the studio to record their fourth studio album, the band was firing on all cylinders.
Still flush with momentum from their previous release, 1975's Toys in the Attic, Aerosmith were so in demand that they opened 1976 with a hit from their first album. "Dream On," initially a minor success when it was first issued in 1973, hit the Top 10 three years later — just weeks before the band was due to deliver its next LP.
The new album, recorded with producer Jack Douglas using a mobile studio backed into the band's massive Warehouse rehearsal space, was titled Rocks — a name proposed by guitarist Joe Perry because, as he explained in his memoir Rocks: My Life in and out of Aerosmith, "Diamonds are called rocks, and nothing is harder than a diamond. I wanted the hardest-rocking record imaginable."
After years of touring and recording, the band finally had the means to truly capture the sounds they wanted to get on tape — a culmination of the potential Douglas spotted in them after being tipped off by fellow producer Bob Ezrin years before.
"Bob said, 'They're two years away from being anything, they're too raw, they're just too much work for me, I can't do it.' But I like to get in on the ground floor with a group, and I'm an old Yardbirds fan," Douglas told Circus. "I saw them play a little high school dance in Framingham, Mass.; I think the Modern Lovers were on the bill too. It was full of sweaty kids going crazy."
By the time the group convened to record Rocks in early 1976, sweaty kids were going crazy for Aerosmith all over the country. With Toys in the Attic, they'd set a high bar for themselves, and for the first time, they faced the pressure of following up a major hit record. But as Perry recalled in his memoir, the sessions didn't reflect that tension; instead, the group was fully focused on nailing down Rocks — and still open to experimenting, as they did when he, bassist Tom Hamilton, and singer Steven Tyler did a live instrument swap while tracking the song "Sick as a Dog."
"Tom wrote the riff on guitar," explained Perry. "We recorded him on guitar, me on bass and everyone else in their usual places. Then, with the tape still rolling, at the breakdown I gave the bass to Steven and picked up my guitar to play the solo. Looking like the Keystone Cops, we did this three or four times before we figured out who was going to run where and through which door. It took a while, but we ended up with a great live take."
That loose spirit permeated the aggressively confident nine-song track listing that made up Rocks, starting with the opening track (and eventual Top 40 single) "Back in the Saddle" and continuing through the pensive album-closing ballad "Home Tonight." All too soon, Aerosmith would find themselves teetering on the edge of career collapse and personal ruin, but with Rocks, they fired a salvo that delivered everything fans had come to expect and more.
"That's probably my favorite Aerosmith record," guitarist Brad Whitford told UCR. "I liked it because it was basically live and very little production or overdubs on it. It was just Aerosmith kind of in the raw, and that’s the way I always wanted Aerosmith to do it, but of course we got involved in some pretty serious production and stuff like that, which I wasn’t a big fan of. You know, some of it’s cool. But Aerosmith, just on its own, is such a powerhouse. I always thought that’s how it should be. That’s how I thought it should be done, just like Rocks."
"Its one driving purpose was to re-identify us as America’s ultimate garage band, with blistering guitars, blistering vocals, balls-to-the-wall smash-your-eardrums production," wrote Perry. "The cover showed five diamonds, one for each of us. We saw the record as a jewel, the culmination of all our angst and anger and excitement and joy as go-for-broke rock and rollers. Rocks was the ultimate soundtrack to the party we were throwing for our fans at every one of our live shows."
"We were a different band in those days. We were still full of it and it was a real creative period with just lots of great ideas. Unfortunately, it’s really hard for us to get back to that point nowadays," laughed Whitford. "But you know, when we do it live, it’s still there. That band plays so well together and it’s such a powerful sound."
Released on May 3, 1976, Rocks peaked at No. 3, selling a million copies by mid-summer and spinning off four singles, including the Top 40 "Last Child" and "Back in the Saddle" — which sandwiched another boomerang catalog hit in the form of the Toys in the Attic track "Walk This Way," which reached No. 10 in November.
Meanwhile, Aerosmith were on the road again, playing their first major headlining tour with an 86-date trek that took them around the world until early 1977 — by which point it was almost time to come up with another album. Looking back, it was perhaps inevitable that the wheels would eventually start to wobble after years of moving at this pace, but at their peak, Aerosmith seemed unstoppable.
"You get bad nights, sure, but in general it's been just incredible. The kids get off just as much as we do. Fuck the money, fuck the press, the band is just interested in going on and rocking out, and we have such a good time up there it just bleeds right into the audience," Tyler told Melody Maker.
"That's why it has stuck together and nobody has quit — 'cause we dig it. Everybody smiles onstage, and there's no ego stuff. It's a team, which so many groups aren't anymore."