30 Years Ago: The Aerosmith Reunion Begins
The early ’80s were a rough time for Aerosmith, with Joe Perry leaving the group in 1979 and Brad Whitford following two years later — and only one new album, the uneven ‘Rock in a Hard Place,’ released between 1980 and ’85. But on Feb. 14, 1984, the seeds for the band’s comeback were planted backstage at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre.
At the time, the members of Aerosmith — which then included singer Steven Tyler, bassist Tom Hamilton, drummer Joey Kramer, and guitarists Jimmy Crespo and Rick Dufay — were nearing the end of their long tour for ‘Rock in a Hard Place,’ and things weren’t going well for the band. ‘Rock’ hadn’t sold as well as expected, and negotiations with the label for an advance to fund a follow-up were proving difficult. Add all that to the overall exhaustion and addiction that had plagued the group for years, and the Feb. 14 hometown show promised a much-needed stop in friendly territory.
It also served as a major turning point in Aerosmith history, because when Tyler walked backstage after the concert, he found Perry and Whitford, and their surprising encounter acted as a first step toward the reunion fans feared might never happen. Tyler and Perry in particular had a lot of healing to do, as Tyler viewed Perry’s departure during the sessions for 1979’s ‘Night in the Ruts’ as a deep betrayal of their creative bond.
“I had written the basic tracks for [‘Night in the Ruts’], the music, and they were done and cut with as much lead as I could put in without the others in April, and I had written the three originals,” Perry explained during a 1980 interview with Sounds. “It was just taking Aerosmith so long to get that album out, and I was so fed up with that because in the meantime all during the summer we played these gigs and couldn’t play any of the new material because it wasn’t ready. Instead we had to go back and do the same old songs.”
After planned tour dates came and went with the record still incomplete, Perry started losing patience. “While all this had been going on I had been working with these other guys on this solo album on the side, and there was resentment there,” he explained. “They’d say, ‘Why don’t you go down and help Steve with that’, and I’d say, ‘I already did my part, I already wrote the tunes, it’s down on the f—ing tape, you know, what more do you want from me?’ So it came down to I called up Tom Hamilton and said, ‘It’s off, I just don’t think I’m going to be able to go on the road with you this time, I’m going to stick with my own solo thing and I can’t put up with it anymore.’ That was the last official word I said to the group.”
Asked how the rest of the group reacted, Perry shrugged. “I don’t know. I never got a phone call from any of them. I got a telegram from Steven congratulating me on my new vinyl, quote. That’s it…I’m proud of what I did with Aerosmith and it’s a drag because it could have gone on to be f—ing great. Maybe they will. But my point of view is I have no regrets about Aerosmith but I also have no desire to see them.”
Perry’s departure signaled the start of a creative slide for the group, and sessions for ‘Rock in a Hard Place’ dragged on for years; although Whitford left in 1981, his contributions can still be heard on the final album, which was completed with the assistance of Crespo (who joined following Perry’s departure) and Dufay. Still, even as Tyler and Perry continued to periodically trade barbs in the rock press, Aerosmith tried to put a positive spin on the lineup changes.
“With new people we’ll be able to progress on a different level and direction,” Hamilton told Creem following the release of ‘Rock in a Hard Place.’ “It’ll still be in the Aerosmith direction, but we’ve got a new framework of development so we can experiment with a lot of things we never could before. More polishing, finesse, and technique, but still nice and raw.”
But the fans weren’t buying it, and neither were executives at Columbia Records. Looking back on the period following ‘Hard Place’ later, Crespo admitted the band never got very far with a planned follow-up, explaining, “Columbia wouldn’t advance us any money for the album, they wanted to hear the recordings before they would give us any money. This kind of made it into a stalemate situation, and all the while Steven wasn’t in the best health. There were a few ideas floating around, though.”
Once relations started to thaw with the group’s former members, however, those ideas gave way to a bigger one: getting back together with Perry and Whitford. Although Crespo and Dufay had helped keep things going during the band’s darkest period, they weren’t part of what fans thought of as the real Aerosmith, and within a couple months of the Orpheum gig, they were out.
“It was a major disappointment,” Crespo admitted. “To be honest, I didn’t expect to be in Aerosmith as long as I was without making a lot more albums. I expected in that time we would have made at least two or three albums, and I would have liked to have made four or five in that period, but things just weren’t that productive with all the problems.”
The reunited Aerosmith proved a lot more productive in the short term, signing a deal with Geffen Records under the direction of legendary A&R man John Kalodner, who quickly ushered them into the studio for a comeback record. Setting up shop with producer Ted Templeman, the group set about recording ‘Done with Mirrors,’ released Nov. 9, 1985. But while the old chemistry was back, the material wasn’t quite there yet, and it didn’t help that they rushed through recording in a matter of weeks — with Templeman often recording what the band assumed were rehearsal takes in an effort to preserve a loose, live feel. As Perry later put it, “We went into the studio and winged it.”
Although it broke the Top 40 and spun off a couple of rock radio hits, ‘Mirrors’ was still regarded as something of a disappointment. “That album didn’t feel like it gelled to me,” Perry later said of of the album. “It felt good at the time, but somehow it missed the stride. We had to go through that to find our spaces again. I felt that we were competing with the modern rockers, so we missed it. We’re definitely not that kind of band.”
What ultimately got the band back on track was something they should have done years before: cleaning up and getting sober. Although they claimed to be on the wagon for ‘Mirrors’ (Perry told Rolling Stone that he “had my blood changed and got cleaned out”), Whitford later admitted that “the band members were still involved in certain things that they shouldn’t have been.”
In the summer of 1986, they finally went to rehab, making the costly decision to cancel tour dates in the process — but even though they were in treatment and off the road, they still managed to jump-start their pop comeback, thanks to Perry and Tyler’s decision to participate in Run-D.M.C.‘s cover of the old Aerosmith hit ‘Walk This Way.’ The new recording broke the pop Top Five, setting the stage for 1987’s ‘Permanent Vacation.’ Released in August of that year, ‘Vacation’ enjoyed Platinum sales certification before the end of the year.
Although ‘Permanent Vacation’ opened a chapter in the band’s career that would ultimately prove disappointing to some fans, with songs increasingly coming from outside writers and production continually edging in a poppier, more radio-friendly direction, the fact it was recorded at all represented a pure triumph for the members of Aerosmith — who not only seemed unlikely to heal their personal rifts at the start of the decade, but were in danger of hospitalization, imprisonment, or worse.
“We’re not into drooling on the floor anymore,” Perry told Creem in 1987. “The bottom line is sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll; no drugs leaves more time for the other two. And that’s no bulls— – you feel better. All morning, when you suffer from a hangover and try to figure out what you did the night before; you don’t have to put up with that. You get up, you’re ready to get started again. It’s great.”