I've been an obsessed hard rock/heavy metal fan and collector since the early 1980s. If it's got a good guitar riff and attitude, I'm in.
Aerosmith - "Night in the Ruts"
Columbia Records, 1979
9 tracks, run time: 35:41
As the 1970s came to a close, Aerosmith was coming apart at the seams. The Boston hard rockers had been one of the biggest success stories of the decade, but as their fame increased, so did their love for narcotics. Guitarist Joe Perry famously described the band as "drug addicts dabbling in music" around the time of 1977's Draw the Line, and things only got worse from there. As relationships between the band members deteriorated, 1978's Live! Bootleg was released to buy them some time to get their shit together. However, work on a new studio album ground to a halt as drug addled vocalist Steven Tyler suffered from writer's block.
Midway through the album sessions, Aerosmith had already blown through their entire budget for the recording, with barely anything to show for it. Tired of the delays, Columbia Records sent Aerosmith back out on tour to earn enough money to finish the album, which only increased frictions between Tyler and Perry. After a backstage argument one night in Cleveland, Perry announced he was quitting and headed home to Boston, leaving Aerosmith with a half finished album and no lead guitarist.
The album - which was originally going to be titled Off Your Rocker but changed to Night in the Ruts - was eventually completed with the help of fill-in guitarists Richie Supa and Jimmy Crespo, and hit stores in November 1979, nearly six months after its original release date.
Considering the nightmarish circumstances of its creation, it's something of a miracle that Night in the Ruts sounds as good as it does. Kicking off with the slamming "No Surprize," which tells the story of how the band landed a record deal in New York ("Old Clive Davis said he surely gonna make us a star....just the way you are") and the delightfully sleazy "Chiquita" (complete with a horn section!), the album takes a left turn with an unexpectedly cool cover of the Shangri-Las' 1964 oldie "Remember (Walking in the Sand)."
"Cheese Cake" is a prime slice of lascivious sleaze rock, which of course Aerosmith practically owns the patent on. The head scratching "Three Mile Smile," on the other hand, is complete gibberish, full of mysterious lyrics like "Take a look at my old billy goat... he took a dose of radiation dope" and "Lucy chromosome, Lucy superdome." Cocaine is a helluva drug, ain't it kids?
"Reefer Head Woman" is another cover, this time of an old blues song by Jazz Gillum. I'm not familiar with the original but Aerosmith have a knack for taking old-timey blues and making it rock, and this track is no exception, with lots of slow burning guitar and Tyler ripping it up on the harmonica. The middling hard rocker "Bone to Bone (Coney Island White Fish Boy)" has a fair bit of rump-shaking funk to it, and "Think About It" returns to cover-tune territory. This oldie by the Yardbirds was apparently a set list staple for Aerosmith in their early days. It's not terrible, but it never really catches fire either.
An Aerosmith album wouldn't be truly complete without a heart-rending ballad and Night in the Ruts is no exception. The closing track "Mia" is a soulful piano-heavy epic that Tyler wrote for his then-infant daughter, and it can sit proudly next to his previous tear-jerker epics like "Dream On," "You See Me Crying," and "Home Tonight."
Joe Perry only appears on five of the nine songs on Ruts ("No Surprize," "Chiquita," "Cheese Cake," "Bone to Bone" and "Three Mile Smile"), which may explain the larger-than-usual number of cover songs. Without his long time foil to bounce ideas off of and a record label breathing down his back to complete the album, Tyler had to finish Ruts by any means necessary.
Critics weren't kind to Night in the Ruts, but thanks to Aerosmith's loyal fan base, the album managed to hit #14 on the Billboard album charts -- only a few notches below Draw the Line's peak position of #11.
Jimmy Crespo became the official replacement for Joe Perry. He appeared in the two music videos from Ruts ("Chiquita" and "No Surprize") and continued to record and tour with Aerosmith until 1984.
When you listen to Night in the Ruts today, you can almost hear the tension and the chemicals eating away at the band. Most fans are likely to pick Toys in the Attic or Rocks when they're in a vintage Aerosmith mood, but Night in the Ruts is well worth investigating, as it captures a pivotal, do-or-die moment in the band's long history. It would be a few more years and albums before the Bad Boys of Boston truly found their way out of purgatory, but that's another story for another time.
© 2021 Keith Abt