AmericanA to Z: John Cougar Mellencamp

This A-Z  is taking a small liberty. For ‘C’  we are looking at, and appreciating, the transformation of John Cougar Mellencamp from AOR-radio-friendly hit seeking pop-rocker, to gritty roots activist. Somewhere in the early to mid-1980s John Cougar seemed to lose his desire to emulate highly produced ‘heartland rock’ and emerge under his own name. And along the way he dropped the (much needed for this feature)[C]ougar too.  Maybe 1983 was the time he felt it right to assert himself and not pander to what record companies wanted. Maybe he cottoned onto the connotations of the term Cougar.

The metamorphosis began around the time of ‘American Fool’, an album showcasing his strongest songs to date; ‘Jack and Diane’ and ‘Hurts So Good’ from that album are still rock radio staples. But then came 1983’s ‘Uh-Huh’ where he kept the Cougar, added Mellencamp and seemed to dial back on the 1980s slick. This time the slicking was done to control unruly greaser hair and dirt epitomized the nine numbers his band swaggered through on the record.“This album was written, arranged and recorded during a sixteen-day blow-out at THE SHACK” advised the liner notes. Two dust covers seem to exist for the album, one with a stylised painting/photo of John. Sure he was in a rocker’s white T-shirt and blue jeans but it was an awful cover. I had a different one, the one showing a side-on close up of John, his hair kept mussed this time, a nonchalant cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth and his denim jacket collar upturned (hint, it is at the top of this feature). Inside were even better photos of the band at play (with and without instruments). These guys look like a rough rock n’ roll outfit. The songs had a Stones groove, but this was “Exile on Main Street” recorded, quite literally it seems from the photos, next to a pig-sty. These guys did not look like they were art school dropouts who might trumpet that they were not worried about petty morals, and then retreat to fashionable Chelsea. They looked far more like they were used to hanging out the front of drug stores and actually knew from the start that when you fought authority there was only one winner. Live, back to basics and one take recordings are not rare, but not always done as well as this one which screams character and charisma. Listen to the cough JCM does before he starts singing after the xylophone solo in the Bontempi –beat driven ‘Jackie O’, it’s perfect.

In 1985, for me, he topped what was already a classic album with ‘Scarecrow’. The cover shot now drew back a step; the cigarette is gone, the unruly hair still there, as is the collar-turned-up denim jacket. Now John leans on a barbed wire fence with a pensive look and a slightly out of focus farm as backdrop. And we are in very familiar territory. The sweeping stories of teenage ‘Jack and Diane’ are gone, to be replaced by a personal touch, ‘Small Town’ is more autobiographical; ‘R.O.C.K In The USA’ a map of adolescent influences. And, of course, the magnificent ‘Rain On The Scarecrow’, an excoriating commentary on the plight of the smallholder farmer. Singing about the demolition of farms and farming communities was not enough, and he became a fierce spokesperson for the farmers’ plight leading to him helping found Farm Aid with Neil Young and Willie Nelson.  ‘The Lonesome Jubilee’ continued the journey in 1987. Critically acclaimed to have his strongest songs, the album adds fiddle and accordion and really starts to root around in folk and country traditions. The cover this time is John, looking like rock star Michael Hutchence, sitting at a bar/diner with a weather-beaten (we presume) farmer, two people whose lives have very different trajectories, united for a beer.

1989 saw ‘Big Daddy’ complete this second half of the 80s powerhouse quartet of records, though in truth it was not as good as the previous three. The nineties began with a record from just John Mellencamp, and so our ‘reason to be a ‘C’’ has gone. The subsequent records can be appraised by someone else under ‘M’. But let’s link a tune. So many good songs and so many poor videos. I would have loved to share ‘Authority Song’ with its ‘Footloose’ rockabilly riff, but quite frankly the video has not travelled well. So let us have a look at the wonderful ‘Pink Houses’ from ‘Uh Huh’ and admire ‘Rain on The Scarecrow’ form ‘Scarecrow’.


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Andrew Riggs

His later albums are also pretty damn good ‘Freedom’s Road’

Paul Dickson

Loved him from when I was a kid and Pink Houses is a great tune – always reminds me of Key West