By the late ‘80s, Aerosmith had already lived the rock star lives that most bands dream about.
With copious amounts of sex and drugs — along with some hugely successful music — the group had achieved international fame. These wild times came with a price, as health issues led to long stints in rehab. But as the decade came to an end, the band found sobriety and a new sense of focus. Emblematic of their change was the group’s socially conscious 1989 hit “Janie’s Got a Gun.”
The track was the brainchild of singer Steven Tyler, who wrote the initial melody on keyboard, but couldn’t produce the right lyrics to go with it. “I sat for months, waiting for the oracle door to open,” the singer explained during a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone. “Then I looked over at a Time magazine and saw this article on 48 hours, minute by minute, of handgun deaths in the United States.”
The magazine led Tyler to his chorus, which originally had the line “Danny’s got a gun” before he changed the name, and gender, to Janie. As he reflected on the topic of gun violence, the rocker found the song’s deeper story. “I’d heard this woman speaking about how many children are attacked by their mothers and fathers,” Tyler explained. “It was fucking scary. I felt, man, I gotta sing about this.”
“Steven came in and played ‘Janie’s Got a Gun’ one day at rehearsal, and we all just stood there,” bassist Tom Hamilton recalled years later. “It was like a visit from the gods. There was something really amazing happening in that room.”
Hamilton crafted the tune’s recognizable bass line, with Joe Perry soon adding an emphatic guitar solo.
The song marked the band’s first foray into dark subject matter, a choice that came with risk. John Kalodner, head of Aerosmith’s label, warned that the lyrics could affect the song’s success.
“I heard the rough cut of ‘Janie’ just after they’d recorded it,” the music veteran recalled in the band’s autobiography, Walk This Way. “I knew it was a big hit, certainly one of Tyler’s best moments as a songwriter. It was a work of art, a masterpiece and so bizarre. He went berserk when I told him it wouldn’t get played on commercial radio with the word ‘rape’ in it. He didn’t want to take it out and there was a fight.”
The music exec got his wish. A line that originally said “He raped a little bitty baby” was changed to “He jacked a little bitty baby.” The lyric “put a bullet in his brain” would also be amended on the radio edit.
David Fincher would helm the song’s music video. Its cinematic style and haunting storytelling would be a precursor of things to come for the director, who later found huge success with movies like Seven (1995), Fight Club (1999) and The Social Network (2010).
Watch Aersomith’s ‘Janie’s Got a Gun’ Video
The third single off Aerosmith’s hugely successful Pump album, “Janie’s Got a Gun” was released as a single on Nov. 8, 1989. It became a hit, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, while the video was quickly added into heavy rotation on MTV. Meanwhile, the song’s content stirred emotions, as the public argued over gun violence, abuse and whether the track glorified vigilante justice. Aerosmith had struck a nerve.
The song earned Aerosmith the first Grammy of their career, as “Janie’s Got a Gun” took home the award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal.
More than two decades later, Tyler launched Janie’s Fund, a nonprofit organization providing protection and counseling for female victims of abuse.
“You know, part of me wants to say, ‘What a socially relevant statement this is you finally made, Steven,’” Tyler noted in the documentary The Making of Pump, as he reflected upon the pride he had in writing “Janie’s Got a Gun.” “And the other part says, ‘Well, that may be true, but it’s really only rock ‘n’ roll.’”
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