“Walk This Way”: The Story Behind Aerosmith’s Landmark Classic, On Its 41st Anniversary
Hard to believe, but today (Aug. 28) marks the 41st anniversary of one of classic rock’s landmark moments: the release of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” Written by Joe Perry and Steven Tyler in the winter of 1974 and ‘75, the song was initially issued as the second single from the band’s breakthrough album, Toys in the Attic. Amazingly, however, the song failed to chart until it was reissued more than a year later, after Aerosmith had released their 1976 follow-up album, Rocks. Climbing to Number 10 on the Billboard pop chart, the song has since become a timeless rock and roll anthem.
“In December of ’74, we flew to Honolulu to open for the Guess Who,” recalled Perry, speaking with the Wall Street Journal in 2014. “During the sound check, I was fooling around with riffs and thinking about [New Orleans funk band] the Meters. I asked [drummer] Joey [Kramer] to lay down something flat with a groove on the drums. The guitar riff to what would become ‘Walk This Way’ just came off my hands…. By the end of the sound check, I had the basics of a song.”
Recognizing Perry was onto something special, Tyler (who was originally a drummer) eventually seated himself behind the skins and “rattled off the beat … felt the song.” Scatting nonsense verbiage, Tyler began to gain a sense of the track’s vibe, although considerable time would pass before he came up with actual lyrics and a vocal melody. Several weeks later, midway through the sessions for Toys in the Attic, the band found themselves short of material. Remembering the riff and the skeletal arrangement Perry had come up with in Honolulu, the group turned to Tyler for lyrics and a song title.
“Steven, Joey, Tom [Hamilton], Brad [Whitford] and [producer] Jack [Douglas] went down to Times Square to see Mel Brooks’ ‘Young Frankenstein,’ which was in theaters then,” Perry recalled. “When the guys returned, they were throwing lines back and forth … laughing about Marty Feldman greeting Gene Wilder at the door of the castle and telling him to follow him. ‘Walk this way,’ he says, limping, giving his stick to Wilder so he can walk that way, too. While all this was going on, Jack stopped and said, ‘Hey, “Walk This Way” might be a great title for the song.’ We agreed, but we still needed lyrics.”
Tyler picks up the story: “That night at the hotel, I wrote lyrics for the song and stuck them in my cloth shoulder bag. But when I arrived at the studio the next day, I didn’t have it. I had left it in the cab.”
Mortified, but undeterred, Tyler popped a cassette of the music into a portable tape player and disappeared into a stairwell. Fortified by Perry’s funky groove, he began scatting and writing lyrics on the stairwell wall. Two or three hours later, he scrambled back to the studio, grabbed a legal pad, and ran back to the stairwell to scribble down the words. “It was really verbal diarrhea,” Tyler later said, recalling the rush of rap inflections and double entendre. “That was me dancing with my muse … just throwing my hands in the air and screaming, ‘Hallelujah!’”
His lyrics were so great,” Perry noted, speaking with the WSJ. “Being a drummer, he likes to use words as a percussion element. The words have to tell a story, but for Steven they also have to have a bouncy feel for flow. Then he searches for words that have a double entendre, which comes out of the blues tradition.”
A quick rundown of the music and vocal went smoothly, but Perry and Tyler sparred a bit over which would be recorded first—the lead guitar solos, or Tyler’s final vocal. In the end, they opted to record the vocal first, so that Perry could weave his solos around Tyler’s voice. Each had their own ideas about the sonic characteristics the song should have as well.
“I wanted my guitar to sound like an electric razor,” recalled Perry. “I used a late ’50s Stratocaster Tobacco Sunburst with a stand-alone Ampeg V4 amp on top with a Marshall 4-by-12 speaker cabinet on the bottom. I also used a Gibson Maestro Fuzz-Tone to give the notes a little distortion. At some point, Steven suggested the double-kick drum, which gave us our trademark sound.”
“At first, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to put the song’s title,” said Tyler. “I decided to put it where Joe hits the guitar. It was a natural chorus. I also added a little screech to my voice on the chorus. I wanted to match the sound of Joe’s basic guitar track, sort of like a call-and-response thing.”
Over the years, of course, “Walk This Way” has attained monumental status, taking on a life of its own. In 1986, with considerable input from Tyler and Perry, Run-D.M.C. recorded an iconic cover version that made blatant the song’s rap-centric vibe. Indeed, the song’s legacy extends into all facets of classic rock. Rolling Stone ranked it at Number 34 on the magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All-Time.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame enshrined it on their list of “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.”
“[That riff] was in line with the type of music we liked, and that’s why it kind of stuck around,” says Perry. “It kept shouting, ‘Sing over me!’ I had no idea how it was going to go, and I don’t think Steven did either. It’s funny, [New York Dolls frontman] David Johansen once told me, ‘That’s the nastiest song I’ve ever heard on the radio.’ Steven just kind of let it fly.”