#176: Aerosmith, "Rocks" (1976)

176 Rocks.jpg

Ah yes, 1976. There’s not much that I don’t love about this year. It graced us with Blue Oyster Cult, Hall and Oates, Steve Miller Band, and Electric Light Orchestra. Rocky entered the ring for the first time as a mere unknown boxer, Travis Bickle was dubbed a hero, and every child in America pulled a Stretch Armstrong across the house. But in the same year, a 34-minute album that displayed a simple black cover with five diamonds on it emerged into our lives. How does this album the length of a Seinfeld episode (with commercials) stand out from the others?

It blew everyone’s minds with insane guitar riffs.

Rocks encompassed freedom. The band was allowed to play whatever the hell they felt. Most of their inspiration came while using various drugs, but this was their best time, before their health and career were in any kind of danger. Let’s face it, the lyrics on this album are not their strong suit (There’s got to be a more hardcore way of saying “Back in the Saddle”), but let’s remember that this was 1976, when Peter Frampton had a top hit in which he repeatedly asked, “Do you feel like I do? Do you feel like we do?” Poetic words weren’t exactly a top priority. But when you’re Aerosmith and you’re at peak fame with an empowering guitar that blends with Tyler’s harmonies, does it matter? It didn’t at the time, when several of the singles on this album went to the top. This was just the peak of their stardom, before there were any repercussions for doing whatever the hell they wanted. The same year Rocks came out, Steven Tyler appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, in which Ed McCormack hilariously claimed Tyler looked like Carly Simon’s kid sister. Looking at the cover now, making eye contact with Steven taunting me with his puckered lips, I think he looks like the hot, rock-star version of Ross Malinger (Google him, you’ll see what I’m talking about).

It’s funny. I don’t think Aerosmith is anyone’s favorite band. I’ve never heard anyone say “Favorite band of all time? EASY, it’s Aerosmith. I never take off my 1976 Rocks tour T-shirt, I even wear it under my suit. I don’t wanna miss a thing, am I right?” Perhaps it’s because they had a significant gap in their fame during their rehab stint in the 1980’s, while all of the younger bands who drew inspiration from Rocks took over the fame for awhile. When THAT cycle ended and all the Mötley Crües and Metallicas of the world had their own stay in rehab by the 1990s, Aerosmith came back just in time to give us a couple more chart-toppers. But by that point everyone was like, “Hey, that’s Liv Tyler’s dad! She’s really hot in Fellowship of the Ring.”

Even so, let’s not doubt how famous these guys are. They’re everywhere. One of my middle school teachers would constantly play the classic rock radio station during art class, and it felt like every five minutes or so “Rag Doll” would come on, sandwiched between other the radio classics “White Wedding” and “More than a Feeling”. I swear those three were like the holy trifecta of family-friendly radio throwbacks.

I grew up in the ‘90s just as Aerosmith was having their second wave of fame. We went through triumphs and flukes together. They signed on Alicia Silverstone to their music video, I managed to get my first boyfriend. While I was getting shiny, mouth-invading braces put on my teeth, they wrote “Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” for the mediocre movie Armageddon. My favorite thing about music videos from the ‘90s is they always had to incorporate movie clips into the music videos, and it inevitably always looked corny. For this video, it’s made to look like NASA’s top scientists are looking at Aerosmith performing instead of a world-ending rogue asteroid. Can you blame them? Steven Tyler looks like he’s fresh out of the shower in this video. I personally think it’s worth a watch, and over 99 million people agree with me.

When I started to feel teen angst, they graced me with “Jaded”, the only song worth listening to on Just Push Play. The desperation in Tyler’s voice when he screeches “My my baby blue” with the moody guitar that transported me into a vortex of emotion that I desperately needed in a post-‘90s grunge era.

To me, it felt like Aerosmith was a hot family friend who you refer to as Uncle, who used to be a rebellious bad boy but suddenly found himself picking out curtains at IKEA and adopting small dogs with his wife. That persona changed after I heard Rocks for the first time.

I first listened to Rocks in 2006. It was exactly what I needed to enter high school with. It was the first time in my life where the blood rushed to my face out of pleasure instead of anxiety, and I channeled those feelings of anxiety, angst, and confusion into a carefree, sick-of-everyone’s-shit kind of attitude. This album transports me back to those days, when my priorities shifted from what people thought of me, to which Led Zeppelin album was better, III or IV? (IV, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.)

Even now, just re-listening to “Get the Lead Out” has transformed my walk to the metro. The usual bored, lifeless face I carry on my morning commute now has the confident side smirk of a 15-year-old who just spray-painted a mustache on a billboard. It’s all thanks to Joe Perry shredding it on guitar while Steven Tyler sings “Won’t ya grab my shaker / Got to meet your maker.” In the midst of work stress and the drama that encompasses my twenties, this album whisks it all away and I am suddenly turned into a hair metal groupie fuming with hairspray while wearing an Aerosmith crop top and screaming, “I’ll grab your shaker, Steven!” toward the stage.

There’s no doubt that the guitar solos on this album, along with their rebellious lyrics, inspired all of the big ‘80s heavy metal bands, but this album has its own personality. “Rats in the Cellar” has the harmonies and fast-paced energy of the punk scene emerging at the time, but Tyler makes it his own by throwing in a harmonica solo. We don’t hear harmonicas enough anymore. In the song “Last Child,” they even got Paul Prestopino to join in with his banjo. That would probably be dubbed a rock ‘n’ roll sin in the 1980s, but this again proved that Aerosmith could do whatever the hell they wanted in 1976 and make it work.

“Nobody’s Fault” has the most serious tone of the album, and a very fitting song as we currently find ourselves in the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters. Their fear of earthquakes taken out in Tyler’s screech of “Sorry, you’re so sorry” and the very real lyrics

Man has known
And now he’s blown it
Upside down and hell’s the only sound
We did an awful job

And now they say it’s nobody’s fault

It’s pretty amazing, right? This entire album feels shorter than “Stairway to Heaven”, and has lyrics that the musicians themselves probably didn’t even remember writing. But the energy that this album formed in 1976 can still give a confidence boost to us 40 years later. It’s easy to feel like the world is out to get us, that we don’t stand a chance unless we’re always following the rules and counting down until the shift is over. I always appreciate albums like this when they give us at least the fantasy of the alternative: What if I say no? What if I talk back? What if I break the rules?

—Jenn Montooth