Happy 30th Anniversary to Aerosmith’s tenth studio album Pump, originally released September 12, 1989.
Sometime in the closing moments of the 1980s, I took the bus to a long-forgotten music store that, for whatever reason, felt hipper than The Wiz to my 13-year-old aesthetic. Flush with the confidence of a recent bar mitzvah, I knew I wanted cassettes by two artists: Guns N' Roses and Aerosmith. I didn't have any specifics beyond that. I just knew I enjoyed the Guns N' Roses I heard on 1480 AM, New York's (long gone and dearly missed) metal radio station and I knew from interviews that Guns N' Roses loved Aerosmith.
I went to the new release wall, where Appetite for Destruction still had a home, even though it had been out for a while. And I saw Pump, with its cover featuring a truck rear-mounting a bigger truck. I didn’t understand the sexual imagery (and still don’t), but by that time, I had heard and liked "Love in an Elevator," so I grabbed the album, not bothering to dig further back into Aerosmith's catalog. I spent the next five years listening to both albums going to and from junior high and then high school.
That is the legacy of Pump: its status as one of the great hard rock albums of the 1980s and 1990s. Sure Guns N' Roses were influenced by Aerosmith. They opened for Aerosmith on the Permanent Vacation (1987) tour and shared a record label (Geffen). But Aerosmith was also paying attention to Guns N' Roses, and to the music industry as a whole. They knew long-term survival required a musical edge and they brought it to Pump. The sound works because Aerosmith was, in essence, influencing itself.
The quality of Pump is surprising. It's fairly far along into their career. Not many bands get a second wind like Pump. And even if you count the band's rebirth with the return of guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford in 1984, Pump is still deep into their catalog. It wasn't a comeback album. It was more of a “we’re still-together” one.
Aerosmith went off the rails in 1979, when lead guitarist Perry left the band. Whitford left a couple of years later, sending Aerosmith adrift. Both returned to the band in the mid-80s for some live albums and a studio outing, Done with Mirrors (1985). Everyone got sober and the band made Permanent Vacation, which was considered their big comeback. The album was a hit and led to Pump, one of their best-selling albums.
Much is also made about how Aerosmith's rebirth involved them working with outside songwriters. And Pump has some great songs. But it's not the only thing that makes it such an amazing album. The record’s energy is just as important. Lead singer Steven Tyler's voice is positively and wonderfully ragged. Tyler is a frustrating front-man. He's a more-than-capable rock singer, but between his scarves, skin-tight outfits, and pathological Mick Jagger complex, he can easily degenerate into satire. However, on Pump he's as focused as a laser, singing with desperation, like he's trying to win over a hostile crowd in a tiny bar. The band seems to take its cue from Tyler, keeping its collective head down and plowing through the songs like a star-enhanced Mario collecting coins in "Super Mario Brothers."
The album kicks off with "Young Lust" (I had a joke ready about how old Tyler was when he sang the lyric, but he was actually younger than I am right now, so never mind). The track, co-written by Tyler and Perry with external songwriter Jim Vallance, is driven by a manic Joey Kramer drum beat and Tyler's vocals, which are melodic screams. There are slide guitar and harmonica touches, but this blues track is relentlessly aggressive, like a brakeless car careening down a steep hill. It signals immediately that this isn't the same Aerosmith remembered from eight-track tapes.
Which is where Pump gets interesting. Because I had no real knowledge of Aerosmith prior to Pump. Sure, I knew the radio hits, but other than that, they were a blank canvas. Pump was a contemporary-at-the-time effort from a classic rock band. The sound certainly helped, but the other key ingredient in rooting Pump in the present was its videos. Aerosmith were a forward-looking band that understood the importance of MTV and videos, mostly after their "Walk This Way" video with Run-DMC went what we would now call viral.
"Janie's Got a Gun" was Pump's big video. It was a weird, atypical Aerosmith song that was all bass, strings, and bombastic chorus, and which didn't have much of a guitar riff. However, the video, directed by eventual filmmaker David Fincher, a cryptic police procedural heavily punctuated with the band performing from an underground bunker, lit up MTV. Concurrently, the "Wayne's World" Saturday Night Live sketch was obsessed with the band, with Pump's "Love in an Elevator" showing up in sketches and Aerosmith eventually appearing in a skit.
Ah yes. "Love in an Elevator." An instant classic that, unlike "Janie," sounds like pure Aerosmith, from the unstoppable guitar to the salacious lyrics. The band added some horns, an unusual move for them, which just slightly classed up the tune, but not enough to ruin it. The song is as catchy as anything Aerosmith has ever done and Tyler's voice is in rare form, his rasp sucking just about all of the oxygen out of the recording. That track is a great rock-and-roll front-man fulfilling his ultimate destiny.
As with any and every Aerosmith album, Pump also featured ballads. "What It Takes" fascinates me because it sounds like there’s an accordion—prominently, no less—yet there's no mention of it in the album credits. Tyler himself is credited with keyboards. Does that include accordion? Why isn't it mentioned? Or is it not accordion? But then, what is it? It's one of the great mysteries that will probably one day be extensively explored in a multi-part podcast.
However, until that day comes, we can just enjoy Pump as-is, mystery squeeze box and all.
There's no larger meaning to the album. It doesn't have a particular significance to the band beyond its strong sales. It's just a great rock album from a band that adjusted its course at just the right moment. In the days before Spotify and YouTube, buying a new album was a true act of faith. You probably knew the singles, but everything else was, like the "What It Takes" accordion, a mystery. Pump and Aerosmith rewarded my faith, and I've tried to pay it back as best I can, mostly through repeated viewings of Armageddon.