Ninety Dollar Babies Get Their Wings

Ever ponder the giant leap from the weed-fueled garage band jam of Aerosmith’s 1973 debut and the polished, mature hard rock statement that is the ’74 follow-up, ‘Get Your Wings’? What happened? Was it the change in producers? ‘Aerosmith’ wasn’t so much produced as merely recorded, but on GYW, Jack Douglas polished the band’s sound and performances to the perfect mid-70s hard rock sheen. He brought in lots of help; the famed Brecker Brothers formed the core of a horn section for the GYW sessions, and songwriter/keyboardist Ray Colcord (who, as Columbia Records A&R, signed Aerosmith in 1972) added keys. But Aerosmith played Guitar music with a capitol G, and apparently Douglas found the Boston band’s two axemen somewhat lacking…

The executive producer on ‘Get Your Wings’ was Bob Ezrin. Ezrin was on a hot streak, having produced Alice Cooper’s first four albums for Warner Brothers, with the fourth, ‘Billion Dollar Babies’, having topped the Billboard charts at Numero Uno in 1973. In a few short years, Ezrin had transformed Alice Cooper the band, a psychedelic anti-music nightmare, into hard rock champions, with several hit singles and a Number 1 album. Anyone who has heard AC’s two pre-Ezrin albums for Straight Records knows exactly the caliber of miracle Ezrin performed with this bunch of wierdos. So then how was Ezrin able to take what was arguably the world’s worst band and morph them into chart-topping pop stars?

The common denominators to the amazing transformations of both Alice Cooper and Aerosmith were session guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner. Yes, AC had already had a hit in 1970 with ‘I’m Eighteen’, but by ’73, alcoholism had rendered guitarist Glen Buxton pretty much useless, and Ezrin needed to bring in session musicians to bolster the playing on BDB. It was a tactic Ezrin had used before; Rick Derringer played lead guitar on ‘Under My Wheels’ from ‘Killer’, and Wagner had played the outstanding solo on ‘My Stars’ from the ‘School’s Out’ album. Ezrin had a vision for Alice Cooper’s music, and Wagner and guitarist Steve Hunter were called in to work on ‘Billion Dollar Babies’. They were each paid $90 per song.

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A hundred-or-so gigs had no doubt honed Aerosmith’s chops between first and second albums, and the writing had progressed nicely as well, but in the studio, Jack Douglas still found them wanting. Douglas was an engineer on ‘BDB’, and had worked with Hunter & Wagner before hooking up with ‘Smith, so when the sessions ran into guitar trouble, both men got the call. As far as the specific reason that session players were utilized for GYW, Douglas himself has never addressed the issue, nor have the members of Aerosmith, who neither confirm nor deny what has been an ‘open secret’ for decades. Wagner has said that he was called in because “Obviously for some reason he (Joe Perry) wasn’t there to do it and I never really questioned it.” Whatever the reason, the end result is the guitars on GTW are played with a command and authority that’s utterly absent on the band’s first album.

So: Who are these guys, anyway? Both natives of the Detroit area, H&W cut their teeth in bands on the club circuit; Hunter with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, and Wagner with his own band, The Frost. Wagner then formed Ursa Major, who at one point included Billy Joel on keyboards, and cut one album for RCA (Note: I highly recommend this album!). After the guitarist worked on ‘School’s Out’ in ’72, Ezrin produced Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’, and Wagner was invited put together a band for the European ‘Berlin’ tour. Wagner recruited Colcord and Steve Hunter for the touring band, which appeared on Lou Reed’s ‘Rock n Roll Animal’ live album. Both guitarists are given full credit for their contributions. Which brings us back to ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ in ’73 and ‘Get Your Wings’ in ’74.

Neither guitarist was credited on BDB or GYW, but the truth about who played what on these two records has gradually established itself over the years. I’m sorry to report that it’s now an acknowledged fact that Steve Hunter played the solos on the first half of Aerosmith’s version of ‘Train Kept a’Rollin’… And Dick Wagner played the solos on the second (‘live’) half. So yes, boys and girls, it’s true: that ain’t Perry or Whitford you’ve been air guitaring to for 40 years. Perry and Whitford would obviously quickly evolved into great guitarists in their own right, but the soloing on this song formed the basis of their reputations as players when I was a kid… Wagner also played the solo in ‘Same Old Song and Dance’. This is as yet unconfirmed, but take a close listen to ‘Spaced’, specifically those lightning-fast neo-classical ascending/descending flourishes near the end; methinks that’s either H or W as well.

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Wagner plays uncredited guitar all over ‘Billion Dollar Babies’, but also co-wrote ‘I Love the Dead’, and was not credited. Hunter played uncredited on the title track, ‘Hello, Hurray’, ‘Raped and Freezin’, ‘Sick Things’, and ‘Generation Landslide’ (so basically, the entire record). Wagner would also play on AC’s next album, ‘Muscle of Love’, and when Alice went solo, Wagner would receive official credit for his work on all subsequent AC albums. Wagner would, in fact, become a valued member of the Cooper camp as a songwriter; the Cooper-Wagner songwriting team would write 7 out of 9 of Cooper’s Top 10 hit singles. Hopefully his pay rate went up a bit.

Wagner continued working with Alice as a songwriter and guitarist until 1983’s ‘DaDa’. He published an autobiography called ‘Not Only Women Bleed’, and if you’re interested in recording session minutiae and behind the scenes dirt, it’s essential. Sadly, we lost Dick Wagner in July of 2014 after several years of major health issues. Steve Hunter’s most notable session outside of the Reed/Cooper/Aerosmith triangle was for Peter Gabriel’s ‘Solsbury Hill’. Hunter is still playing and recording, and released an album called ‘The Manhattan Blues Project’ in 2011, which featured several famous guests… including Aerosmith’s Joe Perry!

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There are two places to go to hear the Hunter & Wagner duo playing together in their prime: Lou Reed’s ‘Rock n Roll Animal’ live album, and the 1975 Alice Cooper ‘Welcome to my Nightmare’ TV Special, which features an awesome guitar duel between the two, is out there on DVD. The ‘Nightmare’ special is interesting, because it highlights a key Reed/Cooper connection: The band assembled by Wagner and heard on Reed’s ‘RnR Animal’ album consisted of Hunter, Wagner, Ray Colcord, and Prakash John and Pentti Glan, and eventually became Alice Cooper’s backing band for the ‘Welcome to my Nightmare’ album, tour, and TV special.

So: There’s your answer to a trivia question no one will ever ask… Q: What do Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, and Aerosmith all have in common? A: Hunter & Wagner.

And Ray Colcord.

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But Don’t Give Yourself Away

Funny how some songs that had minimal impact upon release can show amazing staying power over the ensuing decades.

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Cheap Trick’s ‘Surrender’, the first single from their 1978 album ‘Heaven Tonight’, only made it to 62 on Billboard’s Hot 100, but 36 years later it’s a classic rock staple, and is now considered one of Cheap Trick’s ‘Greatest Hits’. The song made Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of all Time (whatever that means) and has been used in several movies and TV shows. And this perfectly constructed power pop gem deserves the accolades; it’s fun, it’s catchy, it rocks, and it delivers its message, like most of Cheap Trick’s work, with considerable wit. Sole composer Rick Nielsen wrote ‘Surrender’ about the divide between kids and their parents, but he sure took a strange way to get there. I mean… have you ever really listened to the lyrics to this song?

Before we take this tune apart, let’s look at its background. ‘Surrender’ was written in 1976, long before the Tricksters were signed. Rick Nielsen (who producer Jack Douglas once called ‘the most gifted songwriter I’ve ever worked with’) was a songwriting machine, and had amassed about 50 songs before the band was signed to Epic. ‘Surrender’ was one of them, and was actually recorded for their debut album but didn’t make the final cut. In those pre-label days, Cheap Trick’s dark side was far more prominent, with Nielsen cranking out songs about suicide (‘Auf Wiedersehen’ and ‘Oh, Candy’), serial killers (‘The Ballad of TV Violence’), child molesters (‘Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School’), and other general nastiness (‘She’s Tight’, ‘He’s a Whore’, ‘Heaven Tonight’, ‘Gonna Raise Hell’, etc). The genius of Nielsen and early Cheap Trick is the way this off-the-wall subject matter was built into impossibly hooky songs… ‘Surrender’ being a prime example.

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1st verse:

Mother told me, yes she told me

I’d meet girls like you

She also told me ‘Stay away

You never know what you’ll catch’

Right away, in the first verse, there’s an allusion to STDs. Not exactly standard boy-meets-girl stuff. After the bouncy Who-like intro, this verse sets the tone for the rest of the song; Zander’s sly half-innocent/half-jaded teen delivering the not-so-nice lyric over a bubblegummy bed of rock n’ roll crunch.

‘Just the other day I heard of a soldier’s falling off

Some Indonesian junk that’s going ’round’ 

Here, Mommy shares a story about the horrific effects of Venereal Disease. According to mom, VD can cause your dick to fall off. Also note the first of many military allusions, which cleverly support the song’s chorus and title.

2nd verse:

Father says ‘Your mother’s right

She’s really up on things

Before we married mommy served

in tha WACs in the Philippines’

More military references… and the implication that Mommy knows a thing or two about Sexually Transmitted Disease.

Now I had heard the WACs recruited old maids for the war

But mommy isn’t one of those, I’ve known her all these years

This part of verse 2 originally read ‘Now I had heard the WACs were either old maids, dykes, or whores’; the song was even demo’d with this line for ‘Heaven Tonight’. Someone decided that this was maybe a bit too much for rock radio in 1978. Someone was right. This wasn’t the first time the suits asked CT to alter a song, and wouldn’t be the last; ‘The Ballad of TV Violence’ from the 1976 debut was originally titled ‘The Ballad of Richard Speck’, but the title was changed at the behest of Epic Records, and years later, another song, called ‘Don’t Hit Me With Love’ was vetoed by the label and left off of the ‘Next Position Please’ album altogether (although that album’s title track, which includes the word ‘tits’, made it through intact… go figure) .

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We’re not going to parse the first half of the third verse; although the key change is brilliant, I have no idea what the lyrics mean. There are actually a lot of nonsense lyrics in the Cheap Trick catalog; they’re there by design and are a part of the band’s off-kilter charm— and when you have a lead singer that would sound great singing the goddamn phonebook, you can fill space with anything and get away with it.

3rd verse, 2nd half:

When I woke up mom and dad

Were rollin’ on the couch

Rollin’ numbers, rock and rollin’

Got my KISS records out

So the kid busts his parents having sex on the couch, smoking pot, and listening to his KISS albums. This is the verse that illustrates the ultimate point of the song: maybe mom and dad are cooler than you think. It also nicely leads us back into the chorus and the song’s central premise:

Mommy’s alright, Daddy’s alright

They just seem a little weird

The last 2 lines of the chorus allude to the military references made earlier in the song, and wrap up the chorus nicely by suggesting that maybe the ‘battle’ between generations isn’t really necessary; maybe it’s okay to admit your parents are kinda cool, but that doesn’t mean you have to admit it to them

Surrender, Surrender

But don’t give yourself away

Is this not 4 minutes and 12 seconds of pure genius?

I’m sure the CT guys all got a kick out seeing the teeny-bopper side of their fan base singing along with lines about parents doing drugs and somebody’s dick falling off. I doubt Gene $immons had a problem with the KISS reference (‘free advertising!’), either. They even reference themselves by name individually at the end of the song. Dammit this song is just too much fun.

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Classic Cheap Trick was all about duality. Handsome guys on the front cover; goofy guys on the back. Hook-laden, catchy-as-hell tunes, subversive/sarcastic lyrics and vocal delivery; the Bay City Rollers meet Alice Cooper. ‘Trick walked a fine line between parody and tribute, simultaneously working on both sides of the fence; poking fun at power pop, bubblegum, and arena rock music while at the same time creating excellent power pop, bubblegum, and arena rock music. Their catalog is crammed with exceedingly well-written, artfully constructed and masterfully executed rock songs, all perpetrated by a band that demanded that you don’t take it all too seriously. And as producer Steve Albini said, ‘They rock like a truck full of bricks’.

A song like ‘Surrender’ is sort of like a trap; you’re initially taken in my the hooks and melodies, the catchy chorus, the friendly vibe. Then there’s the moment when you realize what the singer just sang… Anyway, does the name of this band make more sense now?

(Lyrics used without permission :p)