Steven Tyler wrote ‘Dream On’ when he was 17
It may sound crazy in retrospect, but Aerosmith were not always the power-ballad machine that they became in the late 80s and 90s. They didn’t always need Alicia Silverstone or Diane Warren to gain attention. It was the guitar riffs, the unpolished performances and the sheer energy they displayed that made them stand out back in the 70s. And in those glory days, the band firmly adopted a “no ballads” stance, just like Queen had their own “no synthesizers” one – is it a coincidence that both groups lost their edge when they broke their respective rule? I think not. In his wonderfully messy autobiography, Steven Tyler recalls toxic twin Joe Perry voicing that stance right as Aerosmith were recording their first album: “He felt we were a hard rock band, and here we were staking our reputation on a slow ballad. And to Joe, rock ‘n’ roll was all about energy and flesh.”
What was the ballad in question? Dream On, perhaps the band’s most well-known song to this day. It’s not like Tyler disagreed with Perry’s definition of a rock ‘n’ roll band, but the reason he kept sticking up for the song was his personal connection with it. Dream On is solely credited to Steven Tyler and he’d been working on it years prior to joining Aerosmith: “Dream On came of me playing the piano when I was about 17 or 18, and I didn’t know anything about writing a song. It was just this little sonnet that I started playing one day. I never thought that it would end up being a real song.” And the seeds were planted way longer before even that, with a 3-year old Tyler hiding under the piano as his father was playing Chopin, Bach and Beethoven away.
The reason why Dream On took so long to finish is the same reason why the band was reluctant to include it in the first place – being a ballad, more sophistication is required. Buildups, climaxes and atmospheric synths all enhance the song. Tyler composed it on the piano initially, but only finished it when he acquired a brand new RMI (Rocky Mount Instruments) keyboard. This way he was able to add all the touches he had in mind. How he got the instrument though is another funny story: when unloading their equipment right outside the apartment the whole band lived in, Tyler spotted an abandoned suitcase near a telephone pole. Upon opening it he found a lot of dirty laundry, an ounce of pot and to his surprise, $1800. He took the money and the weed in the blink of an eye and it seems that both ended up enhancing the band’s creativity. Later on, two gunned men came to their apartment and requested their suitcase back. Luckily enough, Aerosmith’s security guy was no soft guy himself (“Toothless, bald, 350 pounds of fucking flaming angry Italian quivering flash” according to Tyler) and immediately cleared the trouble by threatening to call the police. The thugs put their guns down and ran as fast as they could when they saw him.
Dream On was not a success right from the start. Its modest #59 placing in the Billboard charts was bettered only two years later when, re-released on the back of other hits such as Sweet Emotion and Walk This Way, it went right to #6. From then on, Aerosmith would include one ballad on all of their subsequent 70s albums, and just like Dream On, none of them sounds forced. Seasons of Wither, You See Me Crying, Home Tonight and Mia are all personal favorites of mine, and they all share the feeling that the band really had something to say with them, they were not getting tender just for the sake of it. They were not following any formula either, as all are different from one another. In the end, Dream On is responsible for both good and bad; for both giving the band a well-deserved first hit and a decade later dictating their artistic directions. And to these ears, it remains their best ballad still.
Categories: Stories Behind Classic Songs