Kenny Aronoff

The drummer, who appears in the new documentary film Hired Gun, recounts the making of one of his most famous tracks.

 

The process of writing, arranging, rehearsing, and recording a John Cougar Mellencamp song went something like this: John would come to rehearsal with a song and either play it on his acoustic guitar while singing, or play a cassette tape of him playing and singing it. The challenge for me was always to come up with a simple, cool beat that would make the song special and inspire John and the band to come up with cool hook lines, parts, and arrangements for the song, and to ultimately get his song on the radio to be a number-one hit single. He wanted my drum parts to be hook lines, and they were for a lot of his songs.

We had to take his songs and arrange them in such a way that they would get everyone’s attention and people would want to hear that song over and over again. We all knew “Jack & Diane” was a cool song and a possible hit, but we weren’t sure what to do with it except for the obvious. The obvious parts didn’t make the song special enough, though, and John knew it more than anyone.

As soon as I heard the song I played an obvious beat: accented 8th notes on the hi-hat, a cross-stick on 2 and 4 on the snare that eventually turned into a heavy back beat on the snare, and the bass drum on 1, the “ah” of 1, and the “&” of 2. This beat, and the groove and all our parts together, sounded great for the first intro, verse, and chorus, but there was no way this would work all the way through the song. We needed to develop the song with new parts and ideas to keep everyone’s interest.

We eventually learned that whatever didn’t sound great in the rehearsal room would sound worse in the recording studio. Everything is more exaggerated in the studio. So, we knew that unless we came up with some cool parts and arrangements to this song, it wasn’t going to make the record.

We recorded American Fool at Criteria studios in Miami, and the Bee Gees were recording in the next room. When we walked by their room, we heard the relentless programmed groove of the song they were working on. Not very rock ’n’ roll at all. They were experimenting, trying to come up with a new sound on their record. Then one day our producer, Don Gehman, walked into our main recording room with a Linn 1 drum machine. That’s what the Bee Gees were experimenting with. My immediate thought was, I hope we aren’t using a drum machine on our songs. I hated the idea of a drum machine replacing real drums. It wasn’t that common in 1981, but John didn’t care. All he was interested at this point was making his song a hit single.

So I immediately grabbed the drum machine, read the manual, and programmed the beat I was playing on my kit. I used its floor tom sound to replace my kick drum part and its tambourine sound to replace my hi-hat part on my kit, and we used handclaps to replace the backbeats on my snare drum. Every sound I programmed on the Linn 1 had its own output on the back of the machine, which went to an individual track on the 24-track 2″ recording tape that we were using to record our music.

After I programmed the drum parts on the Linn 1, I went into the lounge to play pool. Eventually John called for me and said, “We want a drum solo after the second chorus.” My immediate thought was, “Are you serious, a drum solo on a ballad? How the hell will I do that?”

We spent an entire day getting drum sounds in the big room. We had been recording drums in a small room to get that controlled sound, like most people did back then, but John wanted a huge drum sound, which was not common on commercial radio songs except for what Phil Collins had done on his song “In the Air Tonight.”

When it came time for me to make my entrance I decided to do something simple and powerful. I played “&” 4 on my kick and snare. Everyone in the control room gave me thumbs up.

John didn’t like anything I did. I went into the control room to discuss what I was playing. Everyone was trying to make suggestions to me about what to play, and it actually was more confusing than helpful. As I walked back to my kit I realized that if I didn’t come up with a part, John would bring someone else into the studio to play the drums. There was no way I wanted that to happen.

I had twenty-five feet to walk over to my kit and figure it out…twenty…fifteen…ten…5…. I still wasn’t sure what I was going to play. I sat at my drums, and—bam—the idea of playing the same rhythmic pattern I had been playing, but starting it one 8th note later, popped into my head. So instead of starting on beat 1, I started on the “&” of 1. Then, instead of going down the toms like everyone else, I went up the toms. Just as I finished that part, John liked what I played and he screamed into my headphones, “Hit a cymbal crash cymbal!” which I immediately did, and then I went down the drums emulating a classic Phil Collins fill. When I ran out of toms I decided to do a quarter-note triplet on snare, rack tom, and floor tom, and my drum solo or musical idea was complete. John loved it!

Then it was time for me to groove. I played the original groove to the song with a lot of power while playing 16th notes on my hi-hat. When I got to beat 4, I hit my snare with my floor tom together in order to get a big powerful explosion. Hearing Steve Gadd play a Mozambique beat on a Chick Corea record gave me that idea.

John and I went back and forth on whether I should play the hi-hat all the way through this section, and I eventually settled on playing 16ths on beats 3 “e” “&” “ah” from soft to loud, which created power and excitement into beat 4 on the snare and floor tom. It was Mick Ronson, David Bowie’s guitar payer, who was in the studio with us for a week, who suggested to John that people should sing the chorus a cappella over my drum groove.

Not only did the song go to number 1, but so did the album American Fool, and it’s still played on the radio every day, thirty-five years later. That song basically launched my career. It was my big break. That album won two Grammys and sold millions of records.