I’ve regularly invoked Aerosmith’s 1979 opus Night in the Ruts as my personal embodiment of the middle ground of American popular music — and perhaps all of American popular culture.
And yet, I’ve never written about it.
A hit-and-miss album by a muddled band and a work of no particular artistic pretension, Night neither delights nor frustrates. It’s just kinda there, like a Big Mac, or a bathmat, or a Phillips-head screwdriver, or a trip through the drive-through teller lane.
It exists not to be savored, interpreted and experienced, but more to be possessed and intermittently utilized. It fills the air with studio-processed notes the way an aerosol can fills the air with disinfectant. (Perhaps the name Joey Kramer really meant to suggest to his fledgling band was Aerosol.)
To its right on the Great Cultural Continuum are great albums by great bands, and great novels by so-so writers who had one good book in them, and so-so paintings by great artists. To its left are the wrongheaded, the misguided, the objectionable, the deeply core-flawed, and all that began in mediocrity and could not rise.
Here are its nine songs, ranked from worst to best.
9. “No Surprize.” Blocked for ideas, strung out on drugs, Steven Tyler felt the creative spark flash with an idea: Write about the history of your band! Oh, be sure to mention Clive Davis. But leave out the teenage girl you “adopted” and brought home to live with you, and all the nights playing the gym at Natick High, and how difficult you find it to get out of bed before 3 in the afternoon nowadays.
And lo, the world got this — the potted history of Aerosmith, set to a thoroughly unremarkable trudge-rock soundtrack. Tyler’s lyric appears to include more references to drugs, substances and needles than it does to music, which at the time of writing was probably accurate.
And the ending … yes, the ending. It’s never great when rock stars start setting their business gripes to music. It’s especially ungreat when Tyler does it here, whipping out a set of rhymes that confounds all logic:
If ASCAP and BMI / could ever make a mountain fly / if Japanese can boil teas / then where the f–k’s my royalties?
8. “Cheese Cake.” Joe Perry was no more sober than his colleague Tyler in 1979. However, his cliche game on slide guitar was still strong. And you get to hear ’em all here, while Tyler sets aside his gripes with music publishers to sing instead about a nymphomaniac. (Dude runs the full gamut of human emotion.)
Depending on your tolerance for hard rock, the groove here is either a deep lusty pocket or an underpowered, feet-in-molasses trudge (there’s that word again; I’ll endeavour not to wear it out.)
7. “Reefer Head Woman.” Four minutes of unremarkable midtempo blooze, complete with harmonica. Originally cut by harmonica player Jazz Gillum, “Reefer Head Woman” was Aerosmith’s second cover taken from Dr. Demento, and one trip to that well too many.
This isn’t perceptibly worse than any other heavy white band’s blues, and I’d be willing to buy into it if I thought the band’s roots actually went back to Jazz Gillum. But I think these guys really only go back as far as the flash of Jeff Beck and the Yardbirds; the scratch and honk of old R&B records is not in their bloodstream to any significant degree, and they have no place pretending.
(New critical theory: Is Aerosmith just Count Five on steroids?)
6. “Think About It.” Based on my analysis of No. 7, you would think a Yardbirds cover would earn my thorough approval.
This one would if it had any fire or vinegar in it. It starts out snotty, but after the first chorus or so it starts to drag, and the lengthy guitar solo in the middle doesn’t build much of a head of steam.
There’s no rave-up in it, no push to a climax — and what were the Yardbirds but the band that defined the rave-up? I mean, this is not offensive, but I expect more from a Yardbirds cover — even one on the Most Average Album of All Time — than “not offensive.”
(This lack of oomph is especially disappointing when compared to Rocks’ “Rats in the Cellar” and “Combination,” Aero originals whose high-energy closing jams planted the Yardbirds’ flag in the soil of bicentennial America.)
If the guitar melody in the beginning sounds familiar, that’s maybe because Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick swiped it (don’t look so surprised) and played it at the very tail-end of one of the songs on Dream Police — another 1979 record that walks the broad center line of Perfectly Average Street.
5. “Bone To Bone (Coney Island White Fish Boy).” A “Coney Island whitefish” is a spent condom — not an article to excite your typical lyricist, but thankfully, Steven Tyler is not your typical lyricist.
The music here sounds like the love child of two or three songs from Rocks, which ain’t entirely a negative. Indeed, when Tyler moves into his tortured-cat vocal register — which he does a lot on this record — it sounds like “Back In The Saddle, Part II.”
I think a rehash of past glories, done less snappily than they were the first time, is a pretty definitive thing to have on the Ultimate Average Album. And so I put “Bone to Bone” directly in the middle of my ratings of the songs on the Ultimate Average Album. Which maybe makes it the Ultimate Average Song of All Time.
Climb out of the mine shaft and take a bow, dudes!
4. “Remember (Walking In The Sand).” Yup, the Shangri-Las tune, and a third cover on a nine-song record.
And yet … and yet … perhaps because it’s so unexpected, or perhaps because it doesn’t stint on fingersnaps and backing vocals, or perhaps because Aerosmith are closet greasers, it works. It works not badly at all.
It worked well enough in 1980 to be a No. 29 hit in Canada and a No. 67 hit in the U.S., which sounds like the perfect credential for a Perfectly Average Album to flaunt. You’ve probably heard the song, but it’s not a staple.
I’d argue that the last verse of “Remember” may be the best-ever use of Tyler’s upper register. This is such a teenage drama-queen song that his overwrought swoop upwards suits it perfectly; you expect him to burst into tears.
(It almost — almost — doesn’t matter that he can’t actually hit the notes, and instead ends up spattering them with phlegm from the back of his throat.)
3. “Mia.” Every Aero album has to have at least one ballad, and this is Night‘s ballad. It’s named for Tyler’s young daughter Mia, though some have suggested the title is actually “M.I.A.” and refers to Perry, who quit the band partway through the album sessions. (Friend-of-the-band Richie Supa guests on guitar here.)
I rather liked this one, back in the day, enough to put it on Side One of the legendary B.A.L.L.S. mix tape. My writeup on that old blog post doesn’t do this one justice: It’s tuneful, well-arranged, oddly foreboding, and the most satisfying original composition on the record.
It’s also the last thing you hear on Night, which is a wise choice, as ending with a strong song makes the listener leave with a positive impression.
2. “Chiquita.” An absolutely barking riff here. Just wonderful.
I’m not being facetious: It is a smoking riff. And these guys were in the smoking-riff business. So business was good, at least for four minutes and twenty-four seconds.
Tyler could be singing in Mandarin for all I know (except for the dreadful non-rhyme of “sunshine” and “moonshine.”) It doesn’t matter. Just listen to the riff — and the way the horn section adds punch to it.
This is one of only two songs on Night hot enough to make Steven Tyler dance around in circles while the guitars play.
1. “Three Mile Smile.” And this is the other. More razor-edged riff games from the guitars; I particularly love the one at the very beginning.
This tune catches a little spark and raves up a bit at the end, driven by Perry’s distinctive, cutting soloing. However out-of-it he was, the dude brought the rave-up with him wherever he went. (Apparently he did not play on “Think About It,” which in retrospect seems like something of a misfire, like putting gumbo on the menu after your Creole chef quits.)
Tyler’s lyric is once again incoherent, jumbling together loaded guns and lighted fuses. On the bright side, he mentions goats (my favorite animals!), the New Orleans Superdome (one of my favorite perma-roofed sports arenas), and OPEC (a historically important fossil-fuel cabal). Plus, any song that begins “Take a walk in the warm New England sun” is bound to have a supporter in me.
The combination of stinging riffs and what-the-hell-did-he-just-sing? lyrics is a hallmark of the best Aerosmith. And it’s enough to earn “Three Mile Smile” the top ranking on Night in the Ruts.