Joe Perry, sex, drugs, rock & roll…and funk

By Sergio Ariza

Talking about Joe Perry is controversial, there are those who think he’s over-rated, others don’t even think he’s the best guitarist in his band, and still others who say behind well-groomed appearance and attitude , there is  nothing. But when someone comes up with riffs like Walk This Way, Sweet Emotion, Back in the Saddle, and Draw the Line, all this controversy becomes absurd. Perhaps Perry isn’t one of the best soloists in the world, but for sure he’s one of the ‘funkiest’, someone able to combine Peter Green with the Meters or Jimmy Page with James Brown. Besides, when someone can say they were the reason behind three guys’ choice to play guitar, Kurt Cobain, Slash, and James Hetfield, nothing else matters. 

If technically, he leaves a lot to be desired, he makes up for it with attitude, some amazing riffs and an absolute love for the song he’s doing that makes him an accomplished composer. He is one of the major pieces of Aerosmith, and his almost telepathic connection to Brad Whitford, the other guitarist, and his love for British blues and the funk sounds of Leo Nocentelli, Catfish Collins and Ernie Isley have been one of the distinguishing marks of the band. For anyone who reminds him of  the humiliating appearance of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner on Get Your Wings he can bring down the house just by playing the riff on Walk This Way. Together with Steven Tyler they formed the American answer to Jagger and Richards; if they were the ‘Glimmer Twins’, they were the ‘Toxic Twins’, the toxic twins that poured their heart and soul into the holy trinity of sex, drugs, and rock & roll.But they didn’t leave funk aside either.

Born September 10, 1950 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Joe Perry got his first guitar at 10. Despite being left-handed, the guitar was for right-handers and  came with an instruction booklet Perry faithfully studied, so for the rest of his career he played the guitar as a right-hander. Like much of the youth at the time, he fell in love with rock through groups from the British invasion, mainly the Beatles and Stones, and later the Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac, and Led Zeppelin. In those days at high school he was already obsessed with music, as soon as he heard Hendrix’s latest record, or The Who, he plugged in his guitar and tried to copy the riffs.  



It was in Boston where he met someone who would change his life. Shortly after arriving he formed a band with bassman Tom Hamilton called The Jam Band, one night a fellow a couple of years older named Steven Tyler saw them play. This guy was a singer and drummer with much more experience than them in the music world, having been a part of 4 groups up to then. Tyler liked their energy and proposed to Perry and Hamilton to form a band, it was the start of the 70s, and the foundations of Aerosmith were in place. Tyler was determined  to be the lead singer and left the drums to his friend Joey Kramer, and a bit later Brad Whitford would come on board. The band started rehearsing and playing immediately while sharing a  small apartment. 

The road to the top, as AC/DC well know, was long and tough. It wasn’t until 1972 when after a performance at the legendary Max’s Kansas City in New York, that they managed to get a contract with Columbia Records. Even so, they were inexperienced at the recording of their first album. Tyler was basically the only songwriter and, despite his experience, he changed his way of singing for that album. Perry, on the other hand, had yet to reach the perfect level of guitar-playing. Nonetheless, the songs that have passed the test of time from that debut are work of the singer and eventually provide two of the band’s versions:  the explosive and dirty Mama Kin, focused on a simple and intense riff and the ballad Dream On which would, over time, become one of their most popular songs. For the recording of the album Perry, in spite of being identified with a Les Paul, mainly uses a Stratocaster and Whitford is the one that plays a Les Paul Goldtop with P90s.

The album, besides having one the most atrocious covers in the history of rock, wasn’t popular at all but allowed them to have a rockstar lifestyle, which also included a series of abuses of prohibited substances similar to Keith Richards or Ozzy Osbourne abuse. For their second album they found in Jack Douglas the perfect producer for their music. In this album there are some of their final elements. Tyler’s lyrics are all based on sex and double meanings (naming himself “the lord of the thighs”). And Perry and Whitford continued getting better. Perry contributing in one of the classics of Tyler/Perry, Same Old Song And Dance, but this is also the album where Douglas decides to bring in Hunter and Wagner to play the solos of their version of Train Kept A-Rollin. Hunter played his Les Paul Special for the solos in the first part and Wagner the ones in the section that simulates a live show. No member of the band was present for the recording, but nobody said anything about it. Quite possibly because they felt insecure, because at the time Hunter and Douglas were invincible...The record also included another of Tyler’s iconic ‘power ballads’, Seasons of Wither , which unlike  Dream On, was very pleasing to Perry, so he played his black Les Paul Custom for the occasion. The record improved their debut but neither the band nor Perry had reached their best form.

With Toys in the Attic they hit the jackpot on the third try, as they say, after having used all  the stuff they had written from the first 2 albums from their beginnings, Aerosmith saw the need to compose new material and new influences appeared. Perry fell in love with a funk band from New Orleans, The Meters, after one of his idols, Jeff Beck, had recommended them. During a soundcheck he was toying around with a riff that reminded him of the band, and when Tyler heard this he got on the drums and started to work on it. The result was Walk This Way, the song that would turn them (2 times) into stars, but Toys in the Attic was chalk full of great numbers, starting with the title song, another furious Perry riff, and Sweet Emotion, where the guitarist makes use of a Talk Box. The band had reached the top and the public response made them one of the most important rock groups in the USA. If, up to now their lifestyle was on the wild side, this now was getting out of control. Onstage, Perry had a ‘roadie’ ready each time he went over to fix ‘technical’ problems, to serve him up some cocaine.    

The recording of Rocks was full excesses, but as Perry would later say, “whatever it was we were taking in those days, it still worked for us”. It’s their 2nd masterpiece, similar to but rawer and more direct than the earlier one, the tandem of Perry/Tyler was still tops, with the spectacular Back in the Saddle as a good example, but also throw in powerful Nobody’s Fault and Last Child. Perry uses a Les Paul Custom , two Strats, and a Telecaster besides all kinds of toxic substances. And true enough, the excesses started to take their toll, firstly onstage (with Tyler collapsing on various occasions) and later in the studio, with Draw the Line, which could be considered the beginning of their decadence, despite the title song being another undisputed classic, with Perry playing a Dan Armstrong Lucite for his spectacular slide work.



But things would never be the same, the ongoing scrapping between Tyler and Perry are followed by  squabbles between their wives, so just like in Spinal Tap, in 1979 the group splits up after a fight between Perry’s girl and the bass player’s. The guitarist leaves the group and the band goes into free fall. It wasn’t much better for Perry either, whose Project wouldn’t be a success commercially or artistically. After a life of extravagance, Perry sells one of his beloved ‘59 Les Paul to get by during  this solo adventure. After smoothing out the rough edges, Aerosmith got back to their original 1984 selves. Then behind a not-so-promising record, their return to fame came about in the weirdest of ways. In 1986 producer Rick Rubin had the idea of mixing two of his passions, hip hop and hard rock, he talks Run DMC into doing a version of Walk This Way, and gets the band’s OK because Perry’s son was a big rap fan. Perry and Tyler appear alongside Run DMC on his fiery version and if his origins had been in the funk of The Meters, he gets back to a purely black style, which fit like a glove. The song becomes a hit and Aerosmith improbable stars of MTV. Their following record, Permanent Vacation, was seen as a commercial resurrection, thanks to tunes like Dude, written by Desmond Child, a professional composer who had co-scripted for Kiss and Bon Jovi. The ‘Toxic Twins’ would make their relation to professional composers like Child and Jim Vallance something of a habit from then on. There were other changes like their bet on a healthier lifestyle, in spite of still betting on the bad-boy image, and a major presence of ‘power ballads’ in their repertoire, which made some their oldest fans accuse them of being sell-outs. Still, records like Pump and Get a Grip are quite acceptable . 





But we can’t finish without mentioning how he got his lost Les Paul back. In 1984, when Aerosmith got back together, guitarist Eric Johnson found out what they were looking for and offered to sell it to him for a few thousand dollars, but Perry had just got married, had a child, and his financial situation wasn’t pretty, so he let it go. Once Aerosmith got back in the saddle of success, Perry continued his quest but Johnson didn’t have it and had lost all trace of it.  One day his mate Brad Whitford came to a rehearsal and said, “I know where your guitar is”, a moment later he passed him a picture from a magazine where Slash appears posing with it. The funny thing is that Slash and his band Guns N Roses were fans of Perry and Aerosmith. Perry called him to ask whatever he wanted for it. Slash was reluctant at first but Perry kept insisting until he saw this was getting in the way of their friendship, so he said, “look, if the day day comes when you want to sell it, put me at the top of the list, that’s all I ask”.  It stayed that way until September 10, 2000, Perry’s 50th birthday, he takes the stage to play with Cheap Trick. In the middle of the show, somebody appears on stage with his Les Paul and a message: “Slash says happy birthday”. From that day on the Les Paul has gone on every tour with him. Perhaps it had passed through more skillful hands but certainly none so ‘funky’.  

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