They channeled that gritty swagger into the band’s fourth LP, Rocks, a sleazy, bone-crunching riff-rock assault that was crystalized on its opening salvo, “Back in the Saddle.”
CBS Records had been eager to strike while the iron was hot after Toys in the Attic, so Aerosmith and producer Jack Douglas headed to their Waltham, Mass. headquarters at the Wherehouse in early 1976 to begin work on the follow-up. “Back in the Saddle” reflects that urgency. Harking back to Gene Autry’s 1939 song “Back in the Saddle Again,” the song “had us riding back out there on the rock ‘n’ roll range,” guitarist Joe Perry said in his 2014 memoir Rocks.
“When I wrote the music for the kickoff song on Rocks – ‘Back in the Saddle’ – I was in my bedroom, flat on my back, fucked up on heroin, playing my six-string bass,” Perry added. “The music flew out of me — all the parts, all the riffs. It came in one special-delivery package. I was still in the stage when the drugs were opening doors to my imagination. And I was lucky enough to have a connection that got me heroin as close to pure as I would ever see.”
To play up the song’s sleazy cowboy imagery, Steven Tyler stomped on a giant piece of plywood in his cowboy boots, to which he had gaffer-taped tambourines with the help of New York Dolls singer David Johansen. He clapped two coconuts together to mimic the sound of a galloping horse, and he faked the sound of a cracking whip by snapping an instrument cable between several microphones — but only after cutting himself by trying and failing to use a real bullwhip.
Listen to Aerosmith’s ‘Back in the Saddle’
“So we got a 30-foot cord and I whirled it in the middle of six Neumann mics in this 70-by-80 studio – WWWWWRRRRRRR — and that was the whip. We got a cap gun to make the cracking sound,” Tyler recalled in the band’s 1997 autobiography Walk This Way. He changed the story slightly in his 2011 memoir Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?, saying he whipped a guitar cable between two mics and had Douglas pan the sound from the left speaker to the right.
Add in Tyler’s trademark shrieks — which were just beginning to blossom — and Joey Kramer and Tom Hamilton‘s full-steam grooves, and the result was a bare-knuckle bruiser that also reflected the band’s unbridled enthusiasm and sonic ingenuity.
“‘Back in the Saddle’ I hoped would be nostalgic, harkening to the spirit of every spaghetti western I ever saw,” Tyler said in his memoir. “The band played like the gods they were. Jack mixed it with [Aerosmith engineer] Jay [Messina] in the way you hear it today.”
Aerosmith released “Back in the Saddle” as Rocks‘ third and final single on March 22, 1977. It peaked at No. 38 on the Billboard Hot 100, lower than Rocks’ lead single “Last Child” (No. 21) but strong enough to tide fans and management over as the band struggled to complete 1977’s Draw the Line.
The successor to Rocks marked the beginning of a drug-addled decline which reached its nadir in the early ’80s and saw the exits of Perry and Brad Whitford. They eventually rejoined in 1984, and Aerosmith began its slow climb back to the top of the hard-rock heap.
They’d narrowly escaped a bad end, setting the gears of Aerosmith’s reunion in motion with the perfectly titled Back in the Saddle Tour.
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