Aerosmith scaled the charts with a vengeance with their career-rejuvenating, multi-platinum 1987 album Permanent vacation. But before glossy pop-rockers like “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” and mega-ballads like “Angel” put them back on top, the bluesy “Hangman Jury” helped bridge Aerosmith’s heady mid-’70s heyday ers and their new chapter as MTV golden boys.
That Permanent vacation sessions threw Aerosmith into uncharted waters. It was the first time they wrote an album sober after years of dangerous, band-breaking drug addiction; their first time recording at Vancouver’s Little Mountain Sound Studios with glam-metal producer du jour Bruce Fairbairn; and their first time collaborating with outside songwriters in the form of Jim Vallance, Desmond Child and Holly Knight.
These new circumstances left the veteran rockers a little rattled, but as the music began to flow, their worries began to melt away. “I was a little apprehensive about writing and playing completely sober,” guitarist Joe Perry reflected in his 2014 memoir Rocks: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith. “So when the riff for ‘Hangman Jury’ came flying off an old funky Silvertone guitar I’d found, I was relieved. The music was there. The music was always there.”
Listen to Aerosmith’s ‘Hangman Jury’
With its booming harmonica, swampy guitar licks and ominous storytelling about a man who shoots his (allegedly) adulterous wife, “Hangman Jury” deliberately evoked old blues greats Perry and Steven Tyler had been raised on – perhaps to a mistake. “The music for ‘Hangman’ reflected the relationship I had always felt for Taj Mahal’s deep-rooted blues,” Perry wrote in Rocks. “I knew we were off to a good start. I kept telling myself that as a sober kid I had loved music. The excitement and drive was built in, not delivered by a bottle or a drug.”
Tyler’s lyrics—especially “Oh, boy, don’t you leave the trace-a-lack-a” chorus — was inspired by “Linin’ Track,” a traditional folk song covered by several blues artists, including Taj Mahal and Lead Belly. While Tyler mistakenly believed the song was in the public domain, Lead Belly (born Huddie Ledbetter) had claimed the authorship of “Linin’ Track” decades earlier, Vallance explained, helping the reformed Toxic Twins get the song across the finish line. Lead Belly’s version of “Linin’ Track” was posthumously released in 1989, and his estate subsequently sued Aerosmith for copyright infringement over “Hangman Jury”.
Listen To Lead Belly Perform ‘Linin’ Track’
The damages from the lawsuit paled in comparison to the success Permanent vacation, which sold 5 million copies in the US and re-established Aerosmith as world-conquering rock behemoths. “Hangman Jury,” released as a promotional single alongside the album on Aug. 18, 1987, peaked at No. 14 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart that December. More importantly, it helped re-establish Aerosmith’s blues-rock credibility and became a fan favorite among metalhead teenagers and hotshot producers.
“Even my 14-year-old son, who loves heavy metal – he listens to Aerosmith and all that, Jimi Hendrix and Metallica – he came up and said, ‘I like this one, and I like this one, but you know, I really as “Hangman Jury.” It was like the first song he played over and over from the record,” Perry shared Baltimore Sun in 1987. “And I spoke to Rick Rubin – he loves AC/DChe produced Cult record [1987’s Electric]he did [Beastie Boys‘] “Fight for your right to party” – and he saying, ‘I like this one, and I like that one, but you know, I really like “Hangman Jury.” It’s interesting, the spectrum of people who pick up on it.”