1987 Week: How ‘Permanent Vacation’ kickstarted Aerosmith’s second golden age

This week on Vanyaland we are celebrating all things 1987 with a look back at moments, trends, and icons in the worlds of music and film. Follow along #V87.

All images courtesy of the David Bieber Archives; used with permission.

When rambling off the laundry list of now-revered musical acts that started in Boston, a group of one-time Comm Ave residents called Aerosmith almost always top the list. What we don’t talk about, however, is how somewhere between the late-’70s and mid-’80s, their music was below par for nearly a decade — crazy right? The things they don’t teach you that in school — and it was their 1987 album Permanent Vacation that reversed the other, lesser-known Boston curse.

Before “Dude (Looks Like A Lady)” was a song title that would be used to ceaselessly mock Steven Tyler on celebrity gossip sites, the album’s second single was one of the biggest songs from the band since 19-fucking-80. That’s seven whole years — almost an eternity in music industry time, and even longer in the fast times of ’80s pop culture.

Back in the 1970s, the formative days of classic rock, Aerosmith schlepped out hits with a bunch of other American music pioneers, like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ted Nugent, Edgar & Johnny Winter, and the Allman Brothers Band. But what launched Aerosmith beyond those groups and onto a more legendary tier — we’re talking Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty level here — is that they were able to essentially start over musically in the late ’80s, beginning with three smash hits on Permanent Vacation that would help define the second half of the decade’s MTV generation: the aforementioned “Dude (Looks Like A Lady),” the hyper-sexualized “Rag Doll,” and of-the-time power ballad “Angel.”

But they almost missed that mark entirely.

After an adrenaline rush over their exponential success in the 1970s, Aerosmith started to taper off fast following the success of their “Come Together” cover for the (horrendous) Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie and the release of their 1977 album Draw The Line. Muddled with the remarkable reception of their prior two albums, Toys In the Attic and Rocks, the flurry of attention and stardom presented the same ol’ drugged-up, uber-ego issues that most bands face at their career’s peak. Unsurprisingly, when it came time to make another album — 1979’s Night in the Ruts — the band was already starting to fragment.

The record, which bore exactly one hit (a cover of “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” in 1980), presented Joe Perry with one leg out the door as he officially peaced out before recording his parts for half the songs on the album. Rock in a Hard Place, their 1982 effort, was the first and only Aerosmith record to feature neither of the band’s original guitarists, as both Perry and Brad Whitford had split from the group to start their own projects. Needless to say, Jimmy Crespo and Rick Dufay filled in (Crespo on the album and both on stage) to little avail. The album garnered poor reviews, and in 2017, remains peculiar at best and forgettable at worst. After a relatively short stint apart, both Perry and Whitford returned permanently for 1985’s Done With Mirrors (a nod to their newfound sobriety) that yielded two minor hits. In comparison to their early years, 1979 to 1985 kicked up a lot of musical tumbleweeds.

As the 1970s had unfolded, the band’s work had become progressively more grainy and more strung-out; a pattern we especially see as their music developed from 1975 to 1977, culminating in gritty songs like “The Hand That Feeds” and “Sight For Sore Eyes.” That development wasn’t a bad thing, and a lot of classic rock fans actually prefer that era of Aerosmith — it just wasn’t where the rest of the genre was headed at the time.

Rock had become more colorful and flamboyant, elastic and glammed up with synths and emotionally cutting guitar solos. Up until 1987, none of Aerosmith’s music reflected these shifts, and even Done With Mirrors largely sounded like an attempt to mimic their “old school” music from the ’70s (something that, ironically, most people have been begging them to do in the 2000s).

After almost 10 years of discombobulated musical production together, it was Permanent Vacation that properly rebranded the group for mass consumption in the late-’80s and ’90s, leading up to the explosion of “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing” mania. With Permanent Vacation, the band not only caught back up to their old pace, but completely outdid themselves with the release of third single “Angel”, which peaked at number 3 on the Billboard charts — their second highest charting song to this day.

The searing, kinda-sappy power balled set the band up for a similar trend of guitar-driven wailers in the ’90s that further used MTV as a visual lighting rod (see: “Crazy,” “Cryin’,” “Amazing,” “Hole in my Soul”). The rest of the album was a total revamp of what hard rock had come to be in the 1980s, plus an exaggerated sense of ridiculousness and hypersexuality that Tyler brought to the table. The entire record unraveled the tension that had been gradually building in their previous albums, yielding songs that met the new definition of what exactly was “fun” those days.

“Dude Looks Like A Lady” is a perfect example here, exaggerating the classic chasin’ tail theme with a booming horn section, jaunty pace, and overall absurd premise. “Rag Doll” repeats the same pattern, but with even more sex appeal and grandiose orchestration.

“Tryna tell me I’m an old dream/New version of the old scene,” Tyler sings in the second verse, his own hat tip to the turnover in the rock world since Aerosmith arrived in the early 1970s.

The singles peaked at number 14 and 17, respectively.

This sonic reset for Aerosmith had rewound them for a second golden age. The momentum from Permanent Vacation helped them bulldoze into the 1990s with hits from Pump (released 1989), Get A Grip, and Nine Lives. Along with the aforementioned power ballads, “Love in an Elevator,” “Janie’s Got a Gun,” “Livin’ on the Edge” and “Pink” boosted Aerosmith to legendary status, something most people wouldn’t have anticipated in their mid-’80s doldrums. By the end of the millennium, no regular radio listener could forget about the group, if for no reason than “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing” received an asinine amount of airplay due to Armageddon’s popularity.

From that #1 hit, the band went on to play the Super Bowl, get their own damn roller coaster in Disney World, and be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, yadda yadda. Everyone remembers the fun stuff. It’s just important to remember your idol’s (second) roots sometimes.

Featured Aerosmith photo via WBCN’s 1987 calendar, courtesy of the David Bieber archives. Follow Victoria Wasylak on Twitter @VickiWasylak.