This was the first single Aerosmith released. Their manager had them share a house and concentrate on writing songs for their first album. Steven Tyler had been working on the song on and off for about six years, writing it in bits and pieces. He was able to complete it with the help of the rest of the band.
A breakthrough came when Tyler bought an RMI keyboard with money he found in a suitcase outside of where the band was staying. The "suitcase incident" became part of Aerosmith lore, as Tyler didn't tell his bandmates that he took the money, and when gangsters came looking for it, he continued to play dumb.
Tyler's father was a classically trained musician, and when Steven was three years old, he would lie underneath the piano and listen to his dad play. In his book, Does The Noise In My Head Bother You?, Tyler writes, "That's where I got that 'Dream On' chordage."
Regarding the meaning of this song, Tyler explained: "It's about the hunger to be somebody: Dream until your dreams come true." He added, "This song sums up the s--t you put up with when you're in a new band. Most of the critics panned our first album, and said we were ripping off the Stones. That's a good barometer of my anger at the press, which I still have. '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."
This was the song that saved Aerosmith from being dropped by their label. Aerosmith was the band's first album, and it sold poorly, mainly because their record company didn't promote it - Columbia records was focused on Bruce Springsteen's first album (released just a week earlier) at the time. Aerosmith was in danger of being dropped, but their management convinced Columbia to release "Dream On" as a single, and it showed promise, reaching #59 in the US. This single version was a different, more radio-friendly edit than the album version of the song, and it did well in the Boston area, especially on the powerhouse AM station WRKO. Columbia kept the band, and they became one of their biggest acts.
Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry didn't like this song. He explained to Classic Rock
magazine in 2002: "Back in those days you made your mark playing live. And to me rock 'n' roll's all about energy and putting on a show. Those were the things that attracted me to rock 'n' roll, but 'Dream On' was a ballad. I didn't really appreciate the musicality of it until later, but I did know it was a great song, so we put it in our set. We also knew that if you played straight rock 'n' roll you didn't get played on the radio and, if you wanted a top forty hit, the ballad was the way to go. I don't know if we really played it much live, in those days if you only had half an hour to make your mark, you didn't play slow songs. So it wasn't until after it became a single that we really started playing it." (This interview is available at Rock's Backpages
Tyler played the piano on this song. It provided an interlude at concerts where he could sit behind a piano instead of running around on stage.
This song was not an immediate hit, but it took to the charts three years later after the band hit it big. In December, 1975, after their single "You See Me Crying" didn't chart, Aerosmith's manager David Krebs convinced Columbia Records to re-release "Dream On," and it went to #6. The album was reissued in 1987 and 1993, after their albums Permanent Vacation and Get A Grip exposed them to a new audience who had not heard their early work.
In Bruce Pollock's interview with Steven Tyler
, he talked about bringing the song to the band and what happened when it became more than just a piano piece. Said Tyler: "Never in a million years did I think I'd take it to guitar. When I transposed it to guitar Joe played the right fingers and Brad played the left hand on guitar. Sitting there working it out on guitar and piano I got a little melodramatic. The song was so good it brought a tear to my eye."
Tyler's ex-wife, actress Cyrinda Foxe, wrote a book in 1996 called Dream On where she trashed Tyler for paying little child support and other misdeeds. Tyler was not pleased with Foxe when the book came out, but they became friends once again when Cyrinda learned she had brain cancer. Tyler paid her medical bills until her death in 2002.
Eminem used this as the basis for his 2002 song "Sing For The Moment." Tyler's vocals were sampled and Perry played guitar on Eminem's track.
The band used a Mellotron, which was a combination keyboard/sampling unit, to record this song. Steven Tyler recounts in the book Walk This Way: "I put the string section on 'Dream On' sitting at this Mellotron while a friend of mine kept laying out lines of crystal THC that I was snorting whle I was playing."
Ronnie James Dio sang this on the album Aerosmith Tribute: Not The Same Old Song & Dance (released September 7, 1999). Yngwie Johann Malmsteen played the guitar part - It's what you'd expect, a million notes per minute. (thanks, Dino - Bandung, Indonesia)
Buick used this song in TV commercials in 2005 to advertise their Lacrosse model. (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
Michael Angelo Batio did an instrumental cover version of this song on his 2005 solo album, Hands Without Shadows. (thanks, Joe - Raleigh, NC)
A cover by the Glee cast peaked at #26 on the Hot 100 in 2010. Their version features actor/singer Neil Patrick Harris who played the role of Bryan Ryan in the Dream On episode of the show.
Steven Tyler says that this was the only song on the band's first album where he used his "real" voice. He was insecure about how his voice sounded on tape, so for the other songs, he tried to sing a bit lower and sound more like black artists like James Brown.
This plays over the closing credits of the 2004 movie Miracle, about the 1980 US Olympic Hockey team. In the credits, they explain what has happened to each member of the team since they won the gold medal.
Aerosmith first performed this song at the Shaboo Inn in Willimantic, Connecticut in November, 1971. They were paid $175 and a bottle of gin for the show, and as Steven Tyler recounts, he and Joe Perry stayed at the Inn that night. They picked up a couple of girls after the show and all slept in the same bed, resulting in a nasty case of crabs for Steven and Joe.
In 2015, this was featured in a commercial for Adobe Photoshop celebrating the 25th anniversary of the image editing software. Images from the films Avatar, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Gone Girl and How to Train Your Dragon 2 were incorporated into the spot.