30 Years Ago: Aerosmith’s ‘Pump’ Proves Comeback Was Real
Aerosmith nearly fell apart in the late '70s and early '80s, with guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford both leaving the lineup prior to 1982's disappointing Rock in a Hard Place album. They rejoined in 1984, and after getting off to a slow start with 1985's relatively poor-selling Done With Mirrors LP, the band rejoined the multi-platinum ranks with 1987's Permanent Vacation. But they still weren't satisfied -- and they'd go on to prove it with their 10th album, Pump.
Released Sept. 12, 1989, Pump reunited Aerosmith with Permanent Vacation producer Bruce Fairbairn, and picked up almost literally where the previous album left off. In fact, Perry and vocalist Steven Tyler met up to start writing new songs in the fall of 1988, shortly after they finished the Vacation tour. "Two months after the tour ended, we wanted to get started again," recalled Perry in the Aerosmith biography Walk This Way. "We could feel something big was coming. On Nov. 1, Steven and I started writing. We just went to work."
For Tyler, making sure Pump improved upon Permanent Vacation was partly a matter of tapping into the way he and Perry felt back when they were coming up the rock circuit. "I sat at my [keyboard] and talked to Joe and the guys a lot about kids who bought our records: what they listened to, what they wanted, what the younger bands were doing," he later said. "Then it came to me that we didn't have to give a s---. All we had to do was look inside and let out the kid. 'Let out the kid.' It was a big theme for me when I was making that record."
Bassist Tom Hamilton offered another perspective in the documentary The Making of Pump, calling it a "full circle album" and adding, "The band had a progression of albums in the '70s, leading up to Rocks, where everyone got better, and our style got more and more boiled down to its essence. Then we started getting distracted -- we started getting corrupt, and all of a sudden our albums didn't progress. Each album wasn't better than the last one. Finally, the band broke up for three years. Then when we got back together, we didn't come out with the album that was the next logical step -- We were like a new band; we had to start the evolutionary process again."
"By the time Permanent Vacation came, we were in such a different head space," Whitford noted. "Suddenly we were much healthier and the music was flowing like it did in the early '70s. Pump was written in the same way the first album was. We did tons and tons of playing and wood-shedding -- just letting ideas flow."
"We got close with Permanent Vacation, but there was a lot of deadwood," mused Perry. "We put 13 songs on the record and a lot of them -- we never even played 'em live, and to me, that was a waste of time, music and plastic. We wanted to get closer to what Aerosmith is all about."
Watch the Video for 'Janie's Got a Gun'
They did it by getting further from everything else, congregating at a small studio in a small Massachusetts town so they could hunker down on their growing list of new songs free of distractions. Sessions started in December 1988 and went on for weeks, with Fairbairn periodically checking in to offer direction. "It was sort of isolated for us, which is a good way to work, really, when you really have to get a lot of busy work done," recalled Hamilton. "Everybody would slog in in the morning, kick the snow off their shoes, and every couple of weeks, Bruce would show up."
"He's a town planner, Bruce Fairbairn," added Tyler. "He's the one who says, 'No, move that bridge -- it's no good there. We should put a tunnel there, move the bridge, and then we can get from Point A to Point B.' So when I walk in with all my scatterbrain stuff, he puts it in its place."
Fairbairn's guidance helped shape what might have otherwise been an ungainly mass of material. Tyler recalled of the early sessions, "We just jammed and wailed," saying the band was in search of "just a little more of that sawtooth rough edge that Aerosmith was known for." Added Perry, "We had all this extra material, and it wasn't just a bunch of licks. On Vacation, we had a bunch of licks and then we had the songs we finished. This time we literally had an A list and a B list of songs and the B list had five or six tunes three-quarters done."
More material didn't necessarily mean they had an easier time of putting together a track listing, however. "He's very objective about the songs, so it's a lot easier for him to come in and cut and maim," Perry admitted of Fairbairn's approach. "By the end of the album, I usually hate him, because he's a taskmaster. But after a few months, I start looking forward to talking with him again." That can be hard to remember in the heat of the moment, however, and among Fairbairn, the band members and the commercially-oriented dictums passed down by Aerosmith's A&R man, the legendary John Kalodner, tensions ran high in the studio; before Pump was finished, they'd gone to war with one another over everything from which songs made the cut to what they should call the album.
"I am responsible for the title Pump -- it's my fault," laughed Whitford. "It truly is an epic, the whole tale of the title. I came up with the title shortly after our Permanent Vacation tour had ended. We were having a business meeting, and as usual I was daydreaming. I was looking around at all the titles of our previous albums which adorn our manager's office -- I was going, 'Oh, we've got to do another of these now.' That's where Pump originated was at that meeting, because I thought the Aerosmith logo looked the old Flying A gasoline sign, and I started going with the whole gas station theme and started working with that [...] Everybody thought it was great except the guys in my band."
Watch the Video for 'What It Takes'
Those sparks are somewhat evident in the Making of Pump video, in which drummer Joey Kramer jokes that Tyler "is the nervous twitch in my eye" and just about everyone fights with everyone else at some point. They forged a tremendous collection of songs; like no Aerosmith album before or since, Pump strikes a balance between the band's rock roots (Perry described writing the album's opening track, "Young Lust," by saying he was after "something that sounded like a dinosaur eating cars") and its increasingly Top 40-oriented approach to making records.
"For me, it wasn't about 'letting out the kid,'" said Perry. "'Young Lust' wasn't about kids, it's about us at 40, having the same feelings we used to have, still listening to rock 'n' roll. I still have that side of me that loves Deep Purple and the Sex Pistols ... I still get goosebumps when I hear 'Immigrant Song.'"
Perry's pursuit of goosebumps contributed to what ultimately went down as one of the bigger smash hits in a catalog that already had its share of them. Pump peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 and spawned a series of Top 40 singles that started with the No. 5 "Love in an Elevator" and grew to include "Janie's Got a Gun" (No. 4), "What It Takes" (No. 9) and "The Other Side" (No. 22). When it was all said and done, Aerosmith walked away with a Grammy for "Janie's Got a Gun" and another seven million in U.S. sales. Against all odds, the group had not only worked its way back from the brink, but they were bigger than ever.
"We used to have a lot of problems in this band because emotions would arise out of hangovers," joked Hamilton, alluding to the substance abuse issues that contributed to the splintering of Perry and Tyler's creative partnership a decade before. "You're just gonna get pain, you know?"
"We did Pump for ourselves, just to have fun," insisted Perry. "Basically, it was real selfish. It's great to make money -- I like that part -- but fortunately, that's not why we're in it. Otherwise, I'd get a f---ing ulcer for sure."