Aerosmith: Hard Rock's Down and Dirty Heroes

The latest band in heavy metal rock has a flair for getting loud and lewd, with an audience to match

August 26, 1976
steven tyler aerosmith 220
Steven Tyler of Aerosmith on the cover of 'Rolling Stone.'
Annie Leibovitz

 It was almost like one of Cecil B. DeMille's great crowd scenes or footage from some rock festival film like Woodstock or Monterey Pop. They came staggering across the parking lot in the still, brackish Michigan dusk and advanced on Pontiac Stadium – one of those monstrous modern sports arenas – like a boozy army of hard hats whose intention it was to dismantle the place. They looked like hell. Nobody dresses up for concerts anymore.

They gobbled reds and chug-a-lugged beer. Some fell on their faces and tumbled down the hill. The oldest among them could not have been much more than 18 years old, but there wasn't an illusion left in the crowd. You had to get close enough to see the reds of their eyes to realize that this was a generation whose rock & roll rituals had been raised up out of the ashes of Altamont rather than the bright muck of Woodstock.

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Aerosmith

Steven Tyler, the lead singer of Aerosmith, looks like Carly Simon's kid sister and carries himself the way the pope probably would if he were 24 years old and had grown up in Yonkers. Onstage, he becomes the most Beardsleyesque character on either side of the Atlantic today. He has a voice that makes Alice Cooper sound like Vic Damone.

Tyler has a fetish for scarves. They trail from his nubile form like unraveled mummy wrappings and from the microphone stand that he flails like a staff as he prowls about the stage, bawling and spitting like an irritable enfant terrible. The total effect is a caricature of a caricature, but Aerosmith's legions eat it up and regard Tyler's fashions the ultimate in déclassé dishabille. And while the costumery is clearly his own, he owes the best part of his image to Mick Jagger.

"I can remember a few years ago when I was just another kid from Yonkers going to Madison Square Garden to see the Stones and looking down and saying, 'Wow, man, is that tiny little figure ... all the way down there ... really Mick ... Jagger?"' Tyler says this with an ingenuousness which remains in the cheap seats. Yet Aerosmith's fame is already such that countless other kids must gaze down from those same bleachers of the faithful, dreaming, of Steven Tyler ...

In order to see this top new heavy-metal group in their natural element, I had been told I'd have to travel out into the industrial areas surrounding the fabled Motor City, where rock & roll animals, whose fathers labor on assembly lines, have been known to eat opening acts for an appetizer. Aerosmith began to gather their constituency in tank towns like Pontiac while playing second bill to bigger bands. But now that they've sold more than 4 million records, they're headlining in all the large halls from coast to coast.

David Krebs, one of their managers, readily admits that he built Aerosmith's word-of-mouth reputation by seeing to it that they invariably opened for headliners suffering from tired blood – bands that would be sitting ducks for the sucker punch of Aerosmith's youthful energy. "The first time I let this band out of the box I got burned," says the swarthy, perennially smirking Krebs. "I let my booking agent talk me into having them open for the Mahavishnu Orchestra – which, on a scale from zero to a hundred, turned out to be a definite minus. But we learned to play our market so that Aerosmith opened for acts that were slightly on the downslide – bands whose audience we could cop. Even if we didn't blow them off the stage every time, we could at least count on some to buy an Aerosmith album."

Aerosmith was relatively unknown beyond a small cult following in Boston when Clive Davis signed them to a contract with Columbia Records in 1972 after attending their second gig at New York's notorious watering hole, Max's Kansas City. Their first LP, Aerosmith, released the following year, wasn't any great chartbuster (although nine months later the single, "Dream On," became a hit in Boston and among the Max's crowd, and a national hit almost three years after that). Get Your Wings, their second album, didn't do much better. By 1974, as a result of a year of solid touring, the group achieved broad success. Without the aid of even their record company, the third Aerosmith album, Toys in the Attic, took off for the platinum plateau, dragging the other two along as well. By the end of 1975, the group had sold nearly 3 million albums; the release of Rocks this spring pushed their total sales close to 5 million. The Aerosmith catalog now sells between 75,000 and 100,000 units per week; Toys in the Attic is over 1.5 million, Rocks and Aerosmith are closing in.

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Rocks

Aerosmith has become the powerhouse act Krebs and his partner, Steve Leber, had attempted to create a couple years earlier with another cult band, the New York Dolls. The Dolls were also a second-generation caricature of the Rolling Stones, whose lead singer, David Johansen, was as smitten with Jagger as Tyler. But the Dolls never managed to reach beyond their audience of New York glitter tots. Krebs, who had had high hopes for the Dolls, claims his mistake was allowing them to be overhyped – Krebs second-guesses another reason why Aerosmith succeeded where the Dolls had failed:

"The Dolls made the mistake of getting too heavy into the unisex trip, while Aerosmith had the good sense to go in the direction of the Rolling Stones of the Seventies, which is more difficult to pin down."

Considering that David Krebs built this band in the arena rather than through press hype or radio airplay, it's possible he's having second thoughts tonight. From the press box, he looks like a young Count Dracula gazing down on an army of potential heretics and a billboard-size electronic scoreboard flashing Foghat Loves Pontiac in grateful response to the thunder pounding up from below. But, vowing to be more selective in choosing Aerosmith's opening acts (lest his Trojan horse strategy of using second billing backfire the next time some off-the-wall contenders like Foghat have a good night), for the moment at least, Krebs need not fret. The ovation for Foghat seems nothing more than the tribute afforded a good club fight compared to the thunder that's beginning to build before the crowd even suspects the headliners are onstage.

Meanwhile, behind the big black curtain, guitarist Joe Perry, toking a last-minute cigarette, plugs in his guitar like a greasemonkey getting ready to tune a hot carburetor and Steve Tyler limbers up like an acrobat in black pajamas. It's pandemonium out there – you'd think Muhammad Ali (who may now be our last yardstick of superstardom) had started his long stately walk from the dressing room to the ring. . . .

When Aerosmith's set finally begins with "Mama Kin," a hard rocker from their first album, it's almost immediately apparent that the predictably criminal acoustics of the oversized hall hardly matter. The faithful, at least, seem wholly satisfied with watching the tiny firefly figure of Steven he's-even-cuter-when-he's-mad Tyler point an accusing finger and damn the dumb technology of the adult world, screaming, "Wot's wrong with the fuckin' P.A.?"

Tyler throws a very impressive temper tantrum in an accent that vacillates between Yonkers and Liverpool. Perhaps it reminds them of Jagger – the debt to Stones-style rock is especially apparent during "Train Kept a Rollin'," a tune picked up from the Yardbirds, the very band that replaced the Stones at the Crawdaddy Club back in '63.

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Steven Tyler

It's brain-damage music, all right. Yet the stoned audience reacts with a passion that surpasses the reverence shown the lordly Stones. . . . For, if Jagger is an icon one step removed from Elvis and just two jumps from Jesus, Steve Tyler is infinitely more accessible, performing an anthem called "Lord of the Thighs" – a title whose allusion to William Golding's chilling parable about children who revert to heathenism suddenly seems perceptive, gazing out at the hungry faces of Aerosmith's children straining up at the stage. In terms of rock rabble-rousing, it's a moment worthy of early Alice Cooper.

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