The Real Story Behind Aerosmith’s ‘Rocks’

Aerosmith’s Rocks turned 40 this year, but neither guitarists Joe Perry nor Brad Whitford think that the record shows one bit of age. “You put it on and you can still feel the excitement we had when we made it,” says Perry. “Everything was clicking for us. We had been working hard and were rising through the ranks, and we were really feeling it. I think that shows in those tracks.”

“It doesn’t feel like 40 years since we put it out,” says Whitford. “I think you could put ‘Rocks’ on right now next to just about any current record, and you wouldn’t know there was four decades between them. It’s an honest record. I think that came through then, and it still comes through now.”

‘Rocks’ marked a chart high-water mark for Aerosmith in the ’70s, hitting number three on the Billboard Top 200 and establishing the Boston-based band as the premier American hard rock attraction of the era. Perry and Whitford sat down with Music Aficionado to reflect on the hectic pace that surrounded the making of the iconic disc and its enduring legacy.

For most fans, ‘Rocks’ is generally regarded as Aerosmith’s masterpiece. Any thoughts on why so many people feel it’s your best work?
Brad Whitford: To tell you the truth, it’s my favorite record, too. I put it right at the top. It’s definitive Aerosmith. The songs are great and I love how they’re recorded. It’s a very cohesive record—you can listen to it from top to bottom. It’s got a very raw sound. We recorded it on 16-track, so this was long before computers.

Joe Perry: I have to agree with Brad on the rawness, but it’s something else, too. We learned how to be a recording band with that album. We wrote music on the fly in the studio, under the pressure of having to write songs on the spot. We didn’t have all this time to put songs together and fine-tune them. Everything was very much in the moment, and I think the songs reflect where we were at that time.

Whether it’s our best album ever, I don’t know. I think all of our records are the best we can do at the time. We never phoned it in. It was certainly one of the most successful albums of that era and a real high point for us. Is it better than others? I think they’re all right up there.

Aerosmith had become a fan favorite from Toys in the Attic and then ‘Rocks,’ but critics weren’t all on board yet. Did that bug you guys at all?
Perry: I guess the critics didn’t get us then. It’s kind of like Trump and the media: There’s 15,000 people in the arena and another 5,000 that can’t get in, but the press gives him five minutes and says, “He’s got a foul mouth.” Where’s the meat, you know? We were used to bad press back then. I remember those early reviews. We’d play to 15,000 people, and then we’d read a review and be like, “Was he even there?” You see that on the internet now: One person says something negative and it goes around. It doesn’t mean anything.

Whitford: We were being called “the American Rolling Stones” in those days. They were trying to do everything they could to not give us credit for what we were doing.

What kind of discussions did you have with producer Jack Douglas about the kind of record ‘Rocks’ should be?
Perry: I don’t remember, really. It was more about getting the songs together and making them work. We wanted songs that could translate to the audience. All the songs had that dynamic to them. You can picture yourself on stage playing them. You think to yourself, “OK, if somebody likes Heartbreaker or Honky Tonk Women, they’ll probably like this. I like to think that the audience has the same tastes as me.

Brad, you said in your book that the band was living the high life at this time. Were things getting a little out of control?
Whitford: We were doing what everybody else was doing in the ’70s. It was a hectic, frantic kind of lifestyle. We were still young guys, so we didn’t think anything could hurt us.

Perry: Things weren’t out of control at that point. I think we were doing things in moderation. I was in a good space personally, in a good place with Steven. The seeds of it were there, I guess. The band liked to party. We always liked that lifestyle, and we still do. We didn’t realize that there was going to be payback big-time if we didn’t reel it in, and we didn’t. You learn.

How come you guys had to write the record in the studio?. Did the label schedule a release and you had to scurry to meet the date?
Perry: Yeah, that was the case, so there was pressure—some guys felt it more than others. We were headlining a lot of places, but we were still proving ourselves. I kind of wish we could’ve done two albums a year. We could’ve if we weren’t so busy touring. We knew we had to do a record, and we had to get it done. We had written some stuff on the fly with ‘Toys in the Attic,’ so we knew we could do it. It was just more so with ‘Rocks.’

Whitford: There was a sense of urgency to everything we were doing. We were always on a schedule, and we were usually behind. The road and the studio were non-stop for us. We didn’t really write on the road, so when we went in to do ‘Rocks,’ we had a lot of ideas. We started pre-production, which really meant that we went into a rehearsal studio and started hammering things out.

Did you have A&R guys poking their heads in?
Perry: No, we were pretty much left alone. Sometimes Jack would say, “By the way, the record company’s coming down tomorrow.” That was pretty much it.

Whitford: The label was excited. They wanted the record right now. That kind of thing happened all the time back then though.

Perry: The label was along for the ride. They saw what was happening and that we were building the audience. But I never got interference from record company people, and not to say that it’s always interference. I think what John Kalodner did with us in the next decade was really good.

Brad, both you and Tom Hamilton had more songwriting input than ever on ‘Rocks.’ Were there politics involved with getting your songs through, or were you two simply writing better material than before?
Whitford: There was always a bit of political craziness with the songwriting. It’s more about what floats to the top during the writing stages—the cream rises. In my case, I think that Last Child and Nobody’s Fault were just undeniably good songs, so there was no question that we’d do them.

Perry: I think there’s a couple of reasons behind the songwriting issue. Some stuff Steven and I worked on together, but sometimes he had ideas for things and maybe one of the other guys had some music for it.

How did you demo songs for ‘Rocks’?
Whitford: There wasn’t a set way that we did things. With “Last Child,” it all happened at end of the day. Steven and I were about to go home, and we were hanging out in the studio. I had this idea and he sat down at the drums, and there you had it. “Nobody’s Fault” was a couple of ideas that I had. Jack and I sat down and developed it. He was very instrumental with helping to get our ideas down in a cohesive matter. We called him the sixth member of the band.

Joe, you once told Alan di Perna in Guitar World that you wrote the riff to Back in the Saddle on a Fender Bass VI while high on heroin.

Perry: That was early on in my life, and I have to think that I would’ve come up with three more songs if I was in the headspace I’m in now. I’ve read interviews with other artists where they talk about alcohol and drugs opening doors for their creativity, and I kind of agree with them, but it does that for five minutes. In the end it closes doors. There’s things I remember really well, and it’s the stuff I don’t remember that is probably pretty fucked up. But I do remember I was lying flat on my back when I came up with that riff. It just happened. I started playing it and there it was.

Did you know the song had something special? Did you know it was a hit?
Perry: Honestly? No. I knew it was different because of the six-string bass. I really didn’t know much about those things at the time. I had seen Peter Green play one with Fleetwood Mac. There would be a breakdown in a song, and somebody would hand him a six-string bass to do a solo. I was interested in the instrument, so I gave it a try. I figured it would be fun to play live, so that’s where the riff came from. I had no idea where it would go, because it’s really about Steven going, “I’m back!”

Brad, you played lead guitar on “Back in the Saddle”…
Whitford: Mmm… some of it. Not all of it.

Perry: Brad plays the lead stuff live so I can pay the six-string bass. In the studio, I did the lead stuff.

Whitford: We divvied stuff up sometimes, but it all came down to who had a better idea. There was no rivalry or anything.

Perry: A lot of times it was more like, “Hey, I’m playing this part. Can you do that part?” We tried to think of how we’d do it live.

Joe, you share lead vocals with Steven on the song Combination. How did that come about?

Perry: I wanted to write a song that I could sing. Steven really liked it, and there was some discussion about him singing it himself. But I really wanted to sing those lyrics, so we shared it. I know he liked the riff and the tune, so it seemed like a natural place for him to chime in.

You wrote the song yourself. Steven once said that they’re your best lyrics.
Perry: Well, thanks. I don’t know… Hey, you’re just drawing on life and setting the words to music. Otherwise, it’s poetry.

There was an instrumental swap going on in the studio with Sick As a Dog. Tom plays guitar; Joe, you’re on bass, but then you handed it to Steve so you could play guitar. What happened there?

Perry: Yeah, that was pretty funny. Well, Tom wrote the opening guitar riff, so I figured, “In order to do this right and be able to play it live, Tom should play guitar and I should play bass.” We played it live in the studio the way we would do it live on stage. I love it. It’s like a Chinese fire drill. At the end, I hand Steven the bass, and I pick up a 335 and do the solo going out. Once we figured it out, we got it down in three or four takes.

The recording of your next album, Draw the Line, wasn’t an easy one. Even though you said there was excitement in the air for ‘Rocks,’ was there any indication of mounting tensions?
Perry: No, there was none of that for ‘Rocks.’ Like I said, we were too excited. It felt like all the hard work and the road work was paying off. We went from the stage and into the studio. I have nothing but gratitude for the fans for being there. We knew we were writing and recording good songs, and we’d be out there soon playing them live. Making ‘Rocks’ was one of the best times for us in our whole career.

Whitford: It’s interesting that it’s become an iconic record, because we had no idea what it would do at the time. You try not to get too caught up in things as your recording. Then suddenly it goes out and gets tested, and it catches people’s ears on the radio. The record clicked, but I think it’s because we were really clicking as a band. Records don’t lie.

By Joe Bosso for Music Aficionado