Revenge of the Black Sheep, Pt II: AeroHead

Motorhead and melody were never the best of friends. But destiny would bring them together, in May of 1982…

After ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke left Motorhead only 2 shows in to the band’s 1982 North American tour, Lemmy and Phil needed another guitarist fast. Legend has it that Steve Kudlow (a.k.a. Lips) of Anvil was asked, but declined. If I were close to the band, I would have recommended Ace Frehley, who was still a de facto member of Kiss but hadn’t recorded anything with them since 1981. But I’m not, so I didn’t. I still think that woulda been awesome, but anyway… Enter former Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian ‘Robbo’ Robertson. An inspired choice, but the boys were desperate and probably didn’t have many options. Robertson was one half of one of the most acclaimed twin guitar teams in all of rock, AND he had a colorful nickname. Just nine days after Clarke’s departure, the Motorhead machine was rolling again.
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Problems with Robertson became apparent during the completion of the Iron Fist tour, mostly related to his appearance, but also manifesting itself in his unwillingness to learn set list staples like ‘Overkill’, ‘Bomber’, ‘Stay Clean’, etc. Nonetheless, after completing the ‘Iron Fist’ dates and returning to the UK, Lem Phil and Robbo entered the studio together as the New and Improved Motorhead. To many, the addition of Robbo to The Loudest Band in the World looked great on paper; how would it translate onto vinyl? How would Robertson’s skill, musicality and flair jibe with the vicious who-needs-guitars-anyway Kilmister/Taylor rhythm section? Would it work at all? On June 4th, 1983, those questions were answered with the release of Motorhead’s seventh studio album.
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How you interpret APD depends on your point of view on Motorhead in general. If you’re the type of Motor-fan who likes to be beaten about the face and neck with your Motor-music, then you were probably startled by the new additions to the standard Motorhead sound: Subtlety, Dynamics, and *gulp* Melody. The LP’s comic strip insert features a panel depicting Phil asking Lemmy, “He’s a bit musical, isn’t he?” That word balloon sums up APD’s strengths and/or weaknesses, depending which side of the fence you’re on. As far as the new boy’s contributions, ‘Overkill’ is the word that comes to mind. Robertson plays like the legend he is throughout, but the quantity of his guitar playing on APD at least matches, if not surpasses, the quality. And the very first sign that we’re not motorcycling through Kansas anymore comes courtesy of Robbo: the guitar synthesizer featured on album opener ‘Back at the Funny Farm’. Motorhead using synthesizers was akin to a vegetarian ordering a Double Quarter Pounder (w/cheese). The gently picked guitar intros to ‘Dancing on your Grave’ and the album’s title track probably didn’t sit well with many Motorheadbangers, and the boogie-woogie piano on ‘Rockit’ probably raised a few eyebrows as well.

Many were concerned by the album’s first single, the melodic ‘I Got Mine’, which could accurately be described as a ballad (at least lyrically); remove the gnarly vocals and this tune could belong to any number of early 80’s hard rock bands. And couplets like “Come on lover/Go Back to start/I got your picture in my heart” were a far cry from “I’m in your life/I might be in your wife” of “You know you make me vomit/And I ain’t far from it” from a few years earlier. . ‘I Got Mine’ serves as a perfect example of the clash of stylistic approaches on ‘Another Perfect Day’: delicate chorused guitar riff meets savage drums and brutal mid-bass gouging; beauty meets the beast, head on… does it work? Ya, it does, though the song is a bit over-long. But for those who may have been scared away by the record’s first single, the second one, ‘Shine,’ was much more convincing, with it’s double-speed ZZ Top groove, killer guitaring and I’m so badass lyric.
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For some, all of this was too much to take. Fans and critics alike were shouting ‘sell out!’, and throwing the C word around: ‘Commercial’. Yes, it was true; the new Motorhead album was more accessible than anything before it, but any record that starts with ‘Back at the Funny Farm’ and ends with ‘Die You Bastard!’ could hardly be called a sell-out. Frankly, after the lifeless dud known as ‘Iron Fist’, Motorhead needed something… and love it or hate it, Robertson brought something new to the party. But for many, APD was a step too far from the mean and dirty (sloppy?), amphetamine-fueled (fast!) days of yore. I for one welcomed the expansion of Motorhead’s sound, and rate this record in their top 10, although I will admit to being worried at the time by what might come next… But those worries proved unwarranted, as Robbo was ‘fired’ by Lemmy after touring for ‘Another Perfect Day’ was completed. Black Sheep status assured. This is the Motorhead album for people who don’t like Motorhead; a handy way to separate the casual listener from the diehard lifer. But more importantly, ‘APD’ should be recognized as the first indication of how flexible Motorhead’s music, often derided as one dimensional, really is. If you wrote off ‘Another Perfect Day’ as ‘too melodic’ or a ‘sell out’, go back and give it another try. And it it’s your favorite Motorhead album, grow a set and check out ‘Ace of Spades’ or ‘Bastards’.

Less than three months after the release of ‘Another Perfect Day’, Aerosmith released their seventh studio album, aptly titled ‘Rock in a Hard Place’. It took Aerosmith three years to complete a follow-up to their previous album, the half-assed ‘Night in the Ruts’; Joe Perry left before that album was finished, and the chaotic, drug-addled circus the band had become was too busy killing itself to get its shit together and work on a record. Sessions for ‘Hard Place’ limped along for over a year, eventually leading to the departure of Brad Whitford, who, after all that studio time ($1.5 million dollars worth), had only recorded guitars for one song. It kinda sounded like the end for A-smith. But the Bad Boys From Boston pulled it off, and released the one-and-only Aerosmith album without Joe Perry and Brad Whitford’s involvement.
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‘Rock in a Hard Place’ fell on largely apathetic ears. Much had changed during Aerosmith’s three almost-permanent vacation (Hello, Van Halen!). The 70’s had turned into the 80’s, and Hard Rock fans were getting into Even Harder Rock. The conspicuous absence of the names “Perry” and ‘Whitford’ on the record ensured that even many old-school fans wrote the album off. The dwindling ranks of the Aero-faithful supported the album, which peaked at #32, making it Aerosmith’s lowest-charting record since their sophomore album ‘Get Your Wings’. The disastrous tour that followed, which was riddled with on-stage collapses, cancelled shows, and low ticket sales, did nothing to help the record’s profile (See: Deep Purple’s ‘Come Taste the Band’). I didn’t buy it, and I ignored it completely for 32 years; in fact, I’d never heard it start to finish until I started working on these ‘Black Sheep’ posts.

So: Three decades later, what do we have here? Simply stated, ‘Rock in a Hard Place’ is a better album than both ‘Night in the Ruts’ and ‘Done With Mirrors’. Yes. It’s also a better Aerosmith album than both. How can this be? How can an Aerosmith album without Whitford & Perry’s songwriting or playing be more Aerosmith-y than the album that preceded it and the one that followed it? Chemistry, my friends, chemistry… and I ain’t talkin’ about drugs. Most of the writing credits read ‘Tyler/Crespo’, and somehow the pair managed to conjure up more of the old A-smith magic than the Toxic Twins had been able to for several years. The rhythm section of Kramer and Hamilton anchors the record firmly in classic Aerosmith’s blues/rock/R&B wheelhouse, and Crespo plays with the same laid-back-but-red-hot vibe as Perry. And Tyler is Tyler, which is an impressive feat for someone so firmly in the clutches of a heroin addiction. Perry & Whitford eventually returned, and ‘Done with Mirrors’ showed encouraging signs of life, but this band would never again produce an album with the patented nasty-ass swagger of classic Aerosmith after ‘Rock in a Hard Place’.
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In his book, Joey Kramer unfairly dismisses RiaHP as “not a real Aerosmith record because it’s just me, Steven, and Tom — with a fill-in guitar player…. It’s Jimmy Crespo doing the guitar work.” I disagree with Mr. Kramer. ‘Rock in a Hard Place’ is a Real Aerosmith Album, no matter who’s on it. Or who’s not on it. It ain’t ‘Rocks’, or ‘Toys’, but it could rightfully be considered the last album of Aerosmith’s classic era. It could also be considered the first album of Aerosmith’s post-classic era. Or, in true Black Sheep style, it could belong to neither era. And like all Black Sheep records, it could use a little love. Revisit this album, pronto.

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One thought on “Revenge of the Black Sheep, Pt II: AeroHead

  1. Really great review, RIAHP is such a raw, swagger-laden Aerosmith album in a way that nothing since (maybe with the exception of Pump) emulated. Jimmy’s tone and nuance compliments Tyler – it’s reminiscent of Van Halen’s Fair Warning – when everything was falling apart, the grit, sweat and real rock vibe come out of the darkness to kick your ass.

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