Aerosmith, say the oh-so-blustery liner notes accompanying Pandora's Box, a new three-CD retrospective of the group's hard-rock heyday on Columbia Records, were not only the most popular band of the 1970s, but the best and most influential as well. Now, that's poppycock: Measured by their performance on the pop charts, Chicago were the most popular American group of the '70s, followed by the Eagles and a lot of others; the New York Dolls and the Ramones were more influential. ''Best'' is a subjective judgment, but it's hard to argue that Aerosmith was a better band than Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers.
I submit that Aerosmith, Columbia Records, and annotator David Wild have really got to be kidding with this all-too-serious, all-too-fancy-shmancy collection. Because of the band's remarkable commercial resurgence, an Aerosmith box has to be considered one of the more important sets of the year. But a boxed set may be the wrong way to memorialize Aerosmith, because their whole Zen was that they weren't a great band. They were a bunch of proud Boston lowlifes with little in the way of brains but a lot of what can only be described as heart. They had the requisite ambitions and just enough talent to get popular, sell a bunch of records, and get their faces on the cover of Rolling Stone. And they were dumb enough to throw it all away on everything from whiskey to heroin.
Aerosmith have, of course, magnificently revivified themselves. But this latter-day success has distorted the picture of the band's beginnings. When Steven Tyler, a big stack of Beantown attitude attached to a pair of lips, was hot as on the rap braggadocio of ''Walk This Way'' or the immortal, wailing ''Dream On'' he was very, very hot. But he wasn't hot consistently. Sidekick Joe Perry had a muscular sense of rhythm and was capable of machine-gun blasts of scattershot guitar picking, but he was no Keith Richards, and the band's rhythm section wasn't a threat to any arena's foundations, either.
Yes, Aerosmith transcended these limitations and created very loud and very clear proletarian rock that still sounds credible today. But Pandora's Box is overkill. Fifty-two tracks? Aerosmith issued only around 60 songs on the seven studio albums they recorded for Columbia, and even they confess that the last three, druggy records are lousy. Unreleased material? The band and Columbia were scraping the bottom of the barrel by the end of the '70s; they found one jewel resting in the vaults, but no more.
Still, the set isn't without its delights. There's a bruising live version of ''Big Ten-Inch Record,'' the bawdy classic the band recorded on its third album. And there's the single unpolished gem from the archives, the goofy, relaxed, exuberant ''Riff & Roll,'' plus, of course, very nice-sounding digital versions of all the band's true treasures, from ''Dream On'' and ''Walk This Way'' to their divine bulldozer version of the Yardbirds' ''Train Kept a Rollin'.'' Young Steven Tyler and his buddies would have liked the idea of someday deserving such a massive retrospective. Someone around them might have told them to dismiss the idea, but of course they wouldn't have listened. What do you expect from a bunch of bums? Graded generously for spirit: B