A recently unearthed early session tape kicks off a potentially fruitful archive series for the Boston rock legends
When Aerosmith released their self-titled debut in 1973, they had the sound of a band already well established.
It would take them a couple more releases to hit their creative peak, but they had the key pieces in place and the self-assurance required of budding rock stars. Aerosmith‘s “Dream On” might not have been a major hit immediately, but it would prove to be one of rock’s classic ballads before too long. Before that first album, though, came several years of work, both through regional gigging and the steady refinement of their blues-rock roots. With the full release of 1971: The Road Starts Hear, we get a look at the band realizing who it is before all the pieces have quite clicked, making for a fascinating document.
The performances come from a 1971 rehearsal, possibly at a soundcheck, by road manager/van driver/sound guy Mark Lehman, who used Joe Perry’s tape machine. The recording sounds remarkably clean, an unexpectedly professional capturing of a relaxed and unknown band. The seven songs here are mostly early versions of material that would end up on the debut, but they’re much closer to major-label release ready than should be anticipated. Aerosmith plays both like a bunch of kids stumbling along and like a band ready for their big break.
“Dream On” provides the obviously highlight, and not only because it’s the disc’s best song. The song in 1971 was essentially fully composed. The basic structure, chords, and approach are all in place. The band plays a little sloppily in this performance and vocalist Steven Tyler hasn’t yet figured out how to properly let it rip. This version has two especially noticeable differences. First, it’s a little rushed. Aerosmith might have written a classic but it hasn’t yet figured out to trust the pacing. It doesn’t fit in with the bluesy sound of the rest of their music, but its distinctness would help set Aerosmith apart from their peers in just a few years.
AUDIO: Aerosmith “Dream On (1971)”
Second, the ending offers a true surprise. Rehearsals don’t necessarily end with fadeouts – as the later studio version would – but the twist comes when the band shifts into the music that would later turn into “You See Me Crying.” At some point between 1971 and 1973, the band fully realized “Dream On,” but over the next couple years, they’d also turn a discarded outro into its own number.
Much of the rest of the release relies more on fun than intrigue. The disc opens with some guitar noodling and laughter, a group at ease and ready for a good time. The goof morphs into “Somebody,” and, background chatter aside, the song could be ready for the studio right then. The album version, of course, benefits from some production work, but the energy on this version makes it as exciting as ever. “Walkin’ the Dog” adds a licentious aspect to the proceedings, getting into a groove but maybe not quite reaching the heaviness it would get later (even though the flute emphasis provides a nice twist). “Movin’ Out” and “Mama Kin” both come as clear predecessors to the later studio versions. In these 1971 takes, Aerosmith plays with energy and conviction; if the tracks don’t quite match up to the first album, it’s more a matter of focus and revision rather than a need for deep growth or substantial overhaul.
AUDIO: Aerosmith “Reefer Headed Woman”
A couple songs here would take a different place in the band’s history. “Reefer Headed Woman” lets them coast in the blues, as much of a placeholder now as it would be for 1979’s Night in the Ruts. Perry brings a little heavier rock forward for that version, but it’s routine blues with harmonica here. Perpetual outtake “Major Barbara” would end up on Classics Live! and the Pandora’s Box anthology, but aside from offering a more lysergic side to the band’s sound, it doesn’t contribute much. The band doesn’t quite know what to do with it in rehearsal, and keeping it has an outtake probably made for a good choice. Part of the group finding their way wasn’t just figuring out how to hone their sound, but how to edit themselves.
1971: The Road Starts Hear doesn’t offer a startling insight into Aerosmith’s evolution, but it should at least surprise a little with the revelation of a band so near to its debut form even before being truly discovered. Fans can dedicate time to these tracks to tease out nuances and look for subtle developments (a string of versions of “Dream On” could make for its own study). Scholarly rewards, though, are only sort of the point, because the set works perfectly fine simply as a collection of enjoyable music. Aerosmith might have been rehearsing for the small-time, but they frequently come off as if they were already playing the biggest stages.