Aerosmith – Permanent Vacation – The Reunion Years

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The Hawk has already posted quite a bit on here about the history of Aerosmith – mostly the wild ride of the Toxic Twins Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, and also via the equally toxic relationship between Tyler and a (very) young Julia Holcombe.

In the midst of all that, though, they did manage to churn out some occasionally good music, so let’s have a post focused on some of that, and look at the reunion years, when Joe Perry rejoined Aerosmith, having initially walked out after one of the many booze / drug fueled rows in the late 70s.

Hair Metal Time

We’re in the mid-1980s again – hair metal is in its full pomp, and Joe Perry (after 5 years with his solo vehicle, the Joe Perry Project), agrees to rejoin Aerosmith following a meeting with Steven Tyler. Brad Whitford returned as well – so it really was a full reunion of the line up that had brought success in the 70s and the one most fans would think of as ‘definitive’ Aerosmith.

In the same vein, a lot of people think of ‘Permanent Vacation’ as the reunion album, though technically that’s not correct. In fact, we had ‘Done With Mirrors’ coming as first cab off the rank in 1985. And why does that get ignored? Mainly because nobody liked it that much – neither the band, not the producer nor the fans.

Reunion Disappoints

Legendary Van Halen producer Ted Templeman was at the desk, but not in his normal studio. The record company had packed everyone off to Berkely, California in the hope that an unfamiliar location would make it harder for the Toxic Twins to score drugs. That proved wildly over-optimistic but did mean that Templeman had an unfamiliar setup, so didn’t really get the sound he wanted.

Drummer Joey Kramer felt as though it hadn’t been finished as everyone wanted and Joe Perry thought the whole thing ‘uninspired’. And fans must have gone with the negative vibe, because sales were also disappointing, and neither of the singles (‘Let Music Do the Talking’ and ‘Shela’) did much either.

Looking back, they’re fine, especially the first of those, a song which Joe Perry had brough over from his Joe Perry Project days. But hey, sometimes the magic just doesn’t happen.

These days, the most memorable thing about ‘Done With Mirrors’ seems to be that they allowed Templeman to play more with his idea to manage recording studio nerves by shutting off the red light which indicated that a recording was underway. He told the band they were just rehearsing songs, and then recorded them surreptitiously, giving a more raw and edgy sound.

Get It on The Radio

Be that as it may though, nobody was willing to risk another commercial flop – there were real worries for a time that the big reunion was going to be a flop. That couldn’t be allowed to happen, and so the time-honored American path was followed – coming up with MTV / radio friendly songs, maxed out on commercial potential.

The big guns were yanked out, with additional song writers brought in to collaborate – Desmond Child who among much else had worked on ‘Slippery When Wet’ with Bon Jovi and Jim Vallance of Bryan Adams fame, where his hits had included ‘Summer of 69’ and ‘Run to You’.

Other instruments were brought in to give a more big-band feel on some of the songs – organs, clarinets, sax, trumpet, you name it.

This was actually the first time Aerosmith had collaborated with songwriters not in the band to come up with album material. But it sure had the desired effect. Child gave them ‘Dude (Looks Like a Lady)’ and ‘Angel’. Vallance chipped in on ‘Rag Doll’ and ‘Magic Touch’.

Those were 4 of the songs which took pride of place on Permanent Vacation when it came out in 1987, and three of them turned into top 20 singles in the US. If anything, it was a complete turnaround from ‘Done With Mirrors’, which a lot of the critics liked (even if the fans didn’t). Here, critics were by and large a bit sniffy about something that sounded to them like a pop record more than rock n roll.

Job Done

But with the sales flying in, it was mission accomplished, and that’s presumably why ‘Permanent Vacation’ is what so many people reach for if you ask them for the ‘Aerosmith reunion album.’ And to be fair to the band, they did try and re-inject a bit of rock n roll grit alongside the rampant commercialism when they wrote album #10, ‘Pump’ which came next in 1989.

So, on the first side, you have the somewhat inane ‘Love in an Elevator’ (explanation unnecessary), and then a few minutes later, it’s ‘Janie’s Got a Gun’, about a young woman taking revenge on her abusive father. (Though even that has a nod to commercial reality, with Tyler taking out the work ‘Raped’ in favor of ‘Jacked’ to make it more likely to get airtime on commercial radio stations.)

Tyler explains his motivations writing that song thus:

‘I wrote the song in my basement, just f***ing around. “Oh, Janie’s got a gun.” I got goose pimples. I sat for months, waiting for the oracle door to open. Then I looked over at a Time magazine and saw this article on 48 hours, minute by minute, of handgun deaths in the United States. Then I got off on the child abuse angle. I’d heard this woman speaking about how many children are attacked by their mothers and fathers. It was fucking scary. I felt, man, I gotta sing about this.’

Steven Tyler

Oh, the irony.

Going With Their Gut

So ‘Pump’ lacks what you might call a theme threading it together, but arguably it doesn’t need one. By this time, Aerosmith were used to going with their gut creatively. After all, probably the one single thing that got their reunion era careers back on track was not the decision to bring in Desmond Child to write a couple of MTY smashes, but the more left field call to collaborate with Run DMC on a hip-hop remake of their 70s number ‘Walk this Way.’

It opened them up to a newer, younger audience, and a hearing from people who might not have looked at ‘Permanent Vacation’ no matter who had written the songs on it. This was right before they started work on ‘Permanent Vacation’, so the timing was heavenly.

They’re FINE!

By the time ‘Permanent Vacation’ and ‘Pump’ (combined sales in the 10s of millions) had come and gone, Aerosmith were pretty much a cross over band with guaranteed sales and therefore the freedom to do what they wanted. Even enter a new phrase into the English language lexicon.

That’s right kids, if you ever wondered how saying ‘I’m Fine’ got to mean (sometimes ) ‘I’m F***ed Up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional’, it’s because Aerosmith introduced us to the saying in a song of that name on ‘Pump’.

And it’s one of the examples of the band at their best from that era – not taking it too seriously, but still injecting a nice hard-edged rock n roll feel into the sound. So, for no better reason that that, let’s play out with it at the end of this very nice playlist dressed up as an Aerosmith blog post. Enjoy it.

Reunion era Aerosmith – commercial hair metal dross? Some of their best ever material? A combination of both? Let us know in the comments.

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