Aerosmith is often branded as America’s greatest rock & roll band, and while that may be disputed by many, there’s no question that if any band embodies sex, drugs and rock & roll, it’s Aerosmith. They took the sexual innuendos and depravities of their blues roots and updated them for the 1970s. Look no further than their signature hit “Walk This Way” to find sufficient evidence:

Backstroke lover always hidin’ ‘neath the covers / Till I talked to your daddy, he say / He said ‘you ain’t seen nothin’ till you’re down on a muffin / Then you’re sure to be a-changin’ your ways’ / I met a cheerleader, was a real young bleeder / Oh, the times I could reminisce / ‘Cause the best things of lovin’ with her sister and her cousin / Only started with a little kiss / Like this!

Even today in the 21st century those lyrics make me raise my eyebrows. It’s fascinating to me that every generation’s music is usually called “the devil’s music” or something like that by their parents, who are clueless to its appeal. For my generation, it’s rap music. My parents don’t understand the first thing about it, so they automatically assume that people like it because it’s trashy. It’s the same with violent video games. They haven’t ever played video games, so when they see me playing games like Grand Theft Auto, they assume its appeal is just its ability to let players carry out sordid behaviors. They never consider for a second that Eminem and Grand Theft Auto have artistic merit, which they would know if they read the glowing reviews critics have awarded both parties over the years.

aerosmith - i don't want to miss a thing (single cover)It seems ridiculous now, but Elvis and the Beatles were seen as a similar threat by parents who thought they were irreversibly corrupting America’s youth. Surely the reaction when Aerosmith came on the scene in the ’70s must have been something similar. I wasn’t around back then, of course — I’m not even old enough to remember their comeback in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when they reinvented themselves as a commercial powerhouse using a much different sound that I’ve never really liked. (Again, the ’80s. Not my thing.) My first memories of Aerosmith, actually, are of “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” from Michael Bay’s 1998 blockbuster movie Armageddon. It’s been probably twelve years since I’ve seen that movie, and I’ve forgotten just about all of it, but I remember that song was everywhere. And what an awful, overproduced, train wreck of a song it is.

aerosmith - done with mirrors (album cover)I remember I was at my friend’s house on New Year’s Eve and my friend’s dad was shocked to see Aerosmith performing. He muttered something like, “Those guys rocked around in my day. What are they doing this for?” Recently, of course, Steven Tyler was a judge on American Idol, completing his slow, painful pop transformation. It’s a shame, in my view, since Aerosmith were really quite something in the mid-’70s, as Toys in the Attic proves. Unfortunately, while their music may have benefited in the short term from embracing sex, drugs and rock & roll, they self-destructed at the end of the decade and were dormant, more or less, until the mid-’80s when they were snatched up by Geffen Records and released their “comeback” album Done with Mirrors (1985), which never sold a million copies.

aerosmith - pump (album cover)In 1986, Run-D.M.C. covered “Walk This Way” on their masterpiece Raising Hell, causing Aerosmith to be repackaged and branded for a new generation. When the band released Permanent Vacation (1987), Pump (1989) and Get a Grip (1993), each would improbably go on to sell five millionseven million and seven million copies, respectively, in the United States alone. Times had changed quite a bit by then. Now there was MTV and a slew of new commercial channels and digital technological advances. Aerosmith would embrace these new trends wholeheartedly, and I don’t blame them for doing that. If it had been ten years since your last good record — an eternity in show business, I might add — you might be pretty damn willing to let someone else take the reins, too. Plus, it was the ’80s. The bluesy rock & roll Aerosmith played in the ’70s was long gone.

Still, I wish the band could have placed more value on their artistic integrity. It’s very clear when you examine their career that they have always tried to stay current. I’m sure they thought they were making the best music they could, but their ’80s and ’90s work really pales in comparison to the best of their ’70s material. The difference is that in the ’70s they were what was current and new, and while their success in their later years is admirable in its own right, it’s not surprising that they have sounded increasingly washed up as they have tried to cling to fame while time has passed them by. “Sweet Emotion,” I should point out, is a classic rock radio staple; it used to come in at #1 on my classic rock station’s Memorial Day Weekend 500 Greatest Classic Rock Songs countdown every year, until (I assume) enough people complained that “Stairway to Heaven” should be #1 instead.

aerosmith - greatest hits (album cover)Last time I checked in on their countdown a few years ago, “Sweet Emotion” was still #2. I’ve never quite understood why they’ve put it that high, but it’s a song I’ve always enjoyed, particularly the intro and outro that are omitted from the Greatest Hits (1980) version of it I first came across. It’s very ’70s Aerosmith, and in fact, just about everything on Toys in the Attic is, with the exception of the album closer “You See Me Crying,” which is backed with an orchestra that gives it an overblown sound. (The orchestra doesn’t keep it from being a good song, it just sounds out of place.) In the years to come such practices would become pretty normal for Aerosmith, much to my chagrin. But if you’re looking to listen to vintage Aerosmith — or if you’re wondering whether such a thing ever existed in the first place, for that matter — Toys in the Attic is a fine entry point.