No More No More.
Most of the time, even when people agree with me on this point, they're talking about 70s hard rock classics like "Walk This Way" and "Back In The Saddle". "Those songs rule", they say, and they're not wrong. But my own enduring affection for Aerosmith does not come from songs like these. No, in fact, if the AOR chestnuts we've all been hearing as background music for the past two decades plus were really the best drug-era Aerosmith had to offer, I wouldn't cling to my vinyl, wouldn't drag it out month after month and year after year. The songs that lead me to drag these records out are songs that I discovered myself after having bought these albums to hear different songs entirely, songs that blew me away, led me to think (even as a preteen middle-schooler), "Wait, why wasn't THIS the single?" These are songs that are better than "Dream On" ever thought about being, songs that hit me even harder than "Sweet Emotion" does. And the reason they do this, the thing that elevates them to a status that forces the recontextualization of songs like all of the ones I've mentioned previously as B rather than A material, is that they all contain the kinds of heartstring-tugging minor-chord melodies that are generally considered the province of, well... emo.
Take "No More No More", from "Toys In The Attic", the song that prompted me to pull out said album at 2:30 in the moring, which led to me writing this entry in the first place. It begins with acoustic and electric guitars playing arpeggiated chords that wouldn't be out of place in the intro to a Teenage Fanclub song, then moves into a first verse driven by restrained, cleanly strummed electric guitar riffs and a simple, solid piano rhythm line. "Blood stains the ivories of my daddy's baby grand," sings Steven Tyler. "Ain't seen the daylight since I started this band." Behind him, lower in the mix, Joe Perry sings the song's title in a refrain that runs throughout the verse. But all of this is just prelude to the stunning chorus, in which the drums drop out, and the arpeggiated chords from the intro return. "Baby, I'm a dreamer, but I found my horse and carriage," Tyler sings, presumably using this metaphor to show that in music, he's found the thing he was put on earth to do. I sure can relate to that.
The emotional climax of the song comes in the third verse, as Tyler and the band move upward through several keys, moving each line a step higher. They draw the verse out in this fashion, until eventually Tyler is belting it out at the top of his voice: "Same old story, never get a second chance, in the dance to the top of the heap!" He draws out the last word as, again, the drums drop out, and the arpeggios come back in. This time, this transition hits even harder than it did the first two times, as the buildup has been so dramatic. It's an emotional, affecting moment, even though the song is obviously about struggling to be famous and "make it" in the rock biz, something that way too many bands wrote about in the 70s. This time it works, and it works because of the undeniable genius of the musical backing to the relatively cliche lyrics.
But this isn't the only Aerosmith song that has a surprising emotional affect. Another one that I have to bring up is one that's not considered a big hit, but is always regarded among fans as one of Aerosmith's finest moments (Note: judging by cover versions, "No More No More" also has this regard among fans): "Sick As A Dog", from their fourth album, "Rocks". This is one of very few Aerosmith songs with music written by bassist Tom Hamilton, and if it's any indication, they should not only have allowed but actively encouraged him to write a lot more. It's hard to analyze what makes this track as amazing as it is in the same way I did with "No More No More", as the hooks are a bit less obvious. There's not as much heartstring-tugging emo riffage (generally the songs that have these sorts of riffs going on are written by Joe Perry), but the clean, melodic verses are catchy as hell, and the way they transition into the dramatically different but equally awesome choruses is pure genius, as is the half-speed intro that is brought back as a bridge towards the end of the song. This isn't a hard-rocking jam--it's much easier to imagine a song like this influencing bands like Buffalo Tom than Cinderella, though I can hear elements that later appeared in both bands' styles in this song. But hard-rocking or not, it's awesome.
There are a few other amazing and unjustly overlooked Aerosmith nuggets that deserve a mention here: "Lick And A Promise", also from "Rocks", with its sadly beautiful "na-na-na-na-na" chorus (which seems like it shouldn't work, but SO does); "Seasons Of Wither", a dark, moody, acoustic ballad from "Get Your Wings" that successfully employs a chorus based around the line "Oooh, woe is me"; album-ending ballads "Home Tonight" (from "Rocks") and "Mia" (from the flawed but still worthwhile "Night In The Ruts"), and even "Jaded", which appeared on their 2001 album, "Just Push Play", and is absolutely the only post-"Pump" Aerosmith song for which I do not have active contempt. But it's "Sick As A Dog" and "No More No More" that bring me back to their respective albums most often. And believe me, once I get there, I enjoy "Walk This Way" and "Back In The Saddle" every bit as much as I did when I was 12 and had just bought those albums. As good as those songs are, though, I'll always see them as a sideshow rather than the main attraction.
Aerosmith - No More No More
Aerosmith - Sick As A Dog