They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
Made when Boston’s best had something to prove, and long before Pro Tools and song doctors turned the band into laughingstocks (to me, that is), Toys in the Attic (1975) and Rocks (1976) are—pound for pound, riff for riff—the crowning jewels in Aerosmith’s catalog. The albums also represent the apex of American hard rock.
Beneath the surface similarities to other hard bands of the time—the New York Dolls, the Rolling Stones, even Led Zeppelin—prime-era Aerosmith played more creatively with funk than its peers. The band could be self-consciously silly, with salacious lyrics that affably went nowhere. The band also wore its influences on its sleeve—proudly, as though it reveled in being a poor man’s Zep. The sinuous fretwork of Joe Perry and Brad Whitford was about crunch, was about odd chord changes. It was heaviness and grit with speed, structure, and compression. All these elements, during this brief heyday, helped Aerosmith outstrip the competition.
During this same period, Zep by comparison came off like an overly arty but really good dance band that disdained heaviness for heaviness’s sake. Mid-period Stones by comparison lacked Aerosmith’s aerodynamic thrust, even though the lyrics were sometimes equally hard to parse (which was part of the fun). Comparatively speaking, the Dolls had the street ‘tude in spades, but one that reflected a more private, obscurantist world view—one that, next to Aerosmith’s accomplished bar-band hustle, sounded less like a recipe for world domination and more a statement of character and principle. These contrasts matter, in so far as Aerosmith defined (even mastered) an aesthetic that had almost nothing to do with originality or irony. Instead, the approach centered almost entirely on the idea of being long-haired gods of rock who appropriated at will—but gods only because they were musically tougher, nimbler, sexier, and funnier than their American counterparts—most of whom remain in steady rotation on classic rock radio.
So, the tiny differences count: The dexterous guitar interplay that never seems sludgy or noodled with notes; that hews to a tight kind of song-craft. The occasional daubs and splashes of funk and rap, well before rap-rock was even a thing. The vocals that range from dude to dudette, sometimes within the same track. Jack Douglas’s production, which manages to sound both clean and dirty at once. The raunchy wordplay. The rock star lyrics that glamorize road life, and the ones that don’t—an intriguing mix the band employs on both records.
On Toys in the Attic and Rocks, Aerosmith made being a cocksure, hard rock band sound like fun, like something a hard rock fan would want to copy and emulate. Something that fan could never top.