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. Aerosmith's record label released 1978's Live! Bootleg concert album in order to buy the band some time to get their shit together, but work on a new studio album slowly ground to a halt as coke-addled vocalist and lyricist Steven Tyler battled with writer's block, angering the rest of the band.
Midway through the sessions for the next album, Aerosmith had blown through their entire recording budget, with only five songs to show for it -- "No Surprize," "Chiquita," "Cheese Cake," "Bone to Bone" and "Three Mile Smile."
Tired of the endless delays, Columbia Records sent Aerosmith back out on tour to earn enough money to finish the album, which only increased frictions between Tyler and guitarist Joe 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 was changed to Night in the Ruts - was eventually completed with the help of fill-in players Richie Supa and Jimmy Crespo, and it hit stores in November 1979, nearly six months after its intended release date. Considering the nightmarish circumstances of its creation, it's a miracle that Night in the Ruts turned out as well as it did.
Night in the Ruts kicks off with the barn burning "No Surprize," which tells the story of how the band landed their record deal during a visit to New York ("Old Clive Davis said I'm surely gonna make us a star....just the way you are") and the delightfully sleazy "Chiquita" (complete with a horn section!), the album then 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 always had a knack for taking old-time blues and making it rock like a mutha, and this track is a fine example, 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 played on five of Ruts' nine tracks before he split, which may explain the larger-than-usual number of cover songs. Without his long time foil Perry 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 the band until 1984.
When you listen to Night in the Ruts today, you can practically hear the tensions 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