When Aerosmith sold its soul to Sony and flew me to Toronto to watch



By Steve Newton

TORONTO—For the past quarter-century or so, Aerosmith has been doing things in a big way, as befits a band with combined worldwide sales of more than 70 million LPs, tapes, and CDs. When the time came to promote its 12th studio release, Nine Lives (scheduled for release on March 18), the band’s distributor, Sony Music, flew journalists in from across Canada to interview band members at a downtown Toronto concert venue called the Warehouse.

In a cavernous club decked out in brightly coloured drapes and gaudy Middle Eastern bric-a-brac, a leather-jacketed Joe Perry sauntered over to field questions about the latest step in the band’s 27-year evolution. What I wanted to know, first off, was why—after three highly successful albums—the band had strayed from its recent pattern of recording in Vancouver with local producer Bruce Fairbairn. Considering that those three albums alone account for a tidy chunk of Aerosmith’s massive sales, why mess with a good thing?

“Well, we became really close with Bruce,” said Perry, “and we were thinkin’ it would be fun to go back there, but I really wanted to make a record in New York. I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time. We did a lot of good records there in the ’70s, and there’s an energy in New York—I mean, we’re an East Coast band.

“But I like Vancouver a lot,” he added. “I spent close to nine months there over the past few years. And the last time we played up there I went up early to just kinda make the rounds, ya know, walk up and down Robson Street a coupla times, and hike around Stanley Park.”

One of the reasons Aerosmith passed on recording in our town this time around was because Fairbairn’s plate was already full with a commitment to produce the latest Cranberries CD. Looking for somebody else who might add a Midas touch, Aerosmith tried out Alanis Morissette producer Glen Ballard, who hit the jackpot with Jagged Little Pill, which has sold 14 million copies in the U.S. alone (about as many copies as Aerosmith’s Get a Grip sold worldwide). Although Ballard wound up cowriting three songs for Nine Lives, as a producer he didn’t fit in with what Aerosmith had in mind, so the band ended up going with newcomer Kevin Shirley at the controls.

“Every producer has a different style,” said Perry, adding that every producer defines their responsibilities differently. “We made a lot of good records with Bruce, but I really wanted a change, which is why we went with Glen Ballard. But even there it went a whole nother direction than what we originally wanted, which was basically a less produced sound—more hum and feedback from the guitar, more string noise, all that stuff that translates into hearing what you would really hear if you were sittin’ in the room with me when I played my guitar. A lotta that stuff ended up gettin’ mixed out just by virtue of the way that he [Ballard] recorded.”

Aerosmith ended up scrapping several months’ worth of music it had recorded in Florida with Ballard at the helm, which must have been bad news for Sony; the company was no doubt ecstatic about the commercial potential of having Alanis Morissette’s producer teaming with hit-happy Aerosmith. Much has been made of Aerosmith’s reunion with Sony’s Columbia Records label—it’s home for all those classic ’70s albums—but can any particular record company really make a difference in how well a band’s career unfolds?

“Oh, I think so,” said Perry, “especially when you’re talking about a giant like Sony. I mean, you make a decision in New York City and they’re talking about it in Singapore the next day. At Geffen [the band’s former label], every time we’d go into a press tour we’d have to meet new people, because every record was distributed by somebody else. A record label is basically the people that work for it, so when somebody distributes their own record, you can’t beat that.

“There is a danger of getting swallowed up by such a big company,” he admitted of Sony, “but for us it’s the right place at the right time. And especially when you’ve got somebody like David Geffen sayin’ ‘I think you guys are over, your music is over.’ That’s why we didn’t go back with him; he just didn’t believe in us. Over at Sony, they’re going, ‘We believe in you so much that we’re gonna give you this.’ They’re basically out that much money, so they gotta sell that thing.”

According to Perry, Aerosmith managed to scrape about a cool $30 million over to its side of the table when Sony signed the band, but he claims that the windfall wasn’t quite the same as winning the Irish sweepstakes. “It’s not like you get a cheque for $30 million,” he said. “We took the advance that we got and put it in the bank, ’cause if somethin’ goes wrong three years later with the deal, I don’t want to have to go and sell my cars because I want to tell Sony to screw. I didn’t want them breathin’ down my neck, so we’ve always held the money in escrow.”

As much as renewed devotion to its original label, financial motivation obviously had a lot to do with Aerosmith’s recent career move. And from the sound of Nine Lives, the band hasn’t strayed much from the radio-friendly approach that proved so popular among the multitudes who laid down cash for Get a Grip.

“I think we’ve got some commercially accessible songs on it,” Perry said, “but I think good songs sell. And as far as the rock ’n’ roll goes, we went in full steam. It’s Aerosmith. We’ve been around and we’re not the flavour of the month, you know what I mean? It’s always exciting to see trends come through, but then there’s all the followers that get one good song and that’s it. The good bands stick with it, and we’ve always been around.

“I can’t think of anybody else that we were playin’ with [in the ’70s] that’s still around,” he said. “I mean, I would like to run into [Cheap Trick guitarist] Rick Nielsen a little more often, but the only time I hear from him is when it’s about old guitars or something. It was really exciting to see Kiss come back, ’cause they were out there poundin’ the boards with us, but I can’t believe that they’re not gonna put out a record. Not that cutting-edge music was what they were known for, but still… At least we’re trying to come out with new stuff.”

On hearing Aerosmith’s “new stuff”, such as the first single, “Falling in Love (Is Hard on the Knees)”, it’s clear that the band’s penchant for mainstream power ballads—which caused Adam Sandler to pull off a Steven Tyler parody on Saturday Night Live that consisted solely of his screaming “amazing…crazy…cryin’ ” ad nauseam—is still intact. Hard-core fans of raucous early albums such as Get Your Wings and Draw the Line may cry sellout; others might argue that the band has simply mellowed with age.

The fact that I’ll always prefer Aerosmith’s ’70s albums to its ’90s ones didn’t stop me from handing Perry the tour program I bought back in ’76 when his band played the Seattle Kingdome on the Rocks tour—with Jeff Beck warming up! As he amiably scribbled his signature on the dog-eared souvenir—hastily adding the wings from Aerosmith’s familiar logo—I wondered aloud if he’s having as much fun now as he was back then.

“I really think I’m havin’ more fun now,” he said. “Back then it just seemed like a wild ride, and no one was ever in control of anything. We’ve got a better handle on what we’re doing and where we’re going, and at least the choices we’re making now are based on reality.

“I mean, every mistake you can make, we made,” he added. “It’s like, we screwed the band down into the ground in 1979, totally fucked it up good. We did shitty shows, and just totally took our recording career for granted, and let it all fall apart, and for whatever reason we managed to survive. And, fortunately, none of us died along the way.”

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