One of the decade’s big albums came out this day in 1982 and made a star out of John Mellencamp – though back then he still had to use the name “John Cougar”.
American Fool, his fifth album (and third ‘big label” one) was released 40 years ago to middling reviews, at best. Rolling Stone gave it only 2 stars (out of 5) lambasting him saying “all he has to do is open his mouth and out oozes insincerity” although they did approve of his “tight, unpretentious Indiana band.” Fans didn’t care though, the album hit #1 in the U.S. and Canada, going 5X platinum in both countries and spawning a pair of massive hit singles : “Hurt So Good” (which he says was written as a joke) and “Jack & Diane”. While the former topped out at #2 on Billboard, it spent 16 weeks in the top 10, most of any record that decade. Surprisingly as well, it earned him his only Grammy to date, for Best Male Rock Performance. And the latter, well it was a #1 hit then, became his biggest-selling single and as he puts it gets played more on radio now than it did in ’82 and it “gave me the keys to do what I want…I’ve been able to live on my whims, that’s what ‘Jack and Diane’ gave me.” He’s variously said it was inspired by the 1962 movie Sweet Bird of Youth, about an aging gigolo going back to his hometown, or by people he saw in his hometown of Seymour, Indiana. A third single, the pleasant enough little pro-love song “Hand to Hold Onto” also made the top 20 in the States, but after that the album wasn’t really chock-full of timeless classics. In fact, Mellencamp has largely eschewed himself from most of the other run-of-the-mill rock songs on it. However, not only did the album spur him to stardom, so too did it for producer Don Gehman. Up until that point he’d largely been a studio engineer but his work on producing this one not only made him Mellencamp’s go-to guy for producing for most of the next decade, but also got him work on several R.E.M. and Tracy Chapman albums as well as Hootie & the Blowfish’s biggie, Cracked Rear View.
All of which came as a surprise to him, as well as to John. “Nobody liked the record at Phonogram,” Gehman says adding Mellencamp swore at the execs, physically pushed one out of the studio when he’d given the singer some negative feedback and dared them to not release it! It earned him the nickname “Little Bastard” at the record company… but soon it would be said in a fond tone, once it began topping the charts. It was exciting for them, but also scary says drummer Kenny Aronoff. Within weeks they went from opening for Heart to headlining shows, and feeling “my God – how can you do it again? There’s no formula…I didn’t want to go back to having to have a ‘day job’. None of us did.” Happily for them all, the near-equal success of his follow-up album the next year, Uh-huh, pretty much ensured they wouldn’t have to do that!
While John may have at times indicated “Jack and Diane” wasn’t the epitome of his writing ability, he certainly has a fondness for it and its ongoing appeal. He announced last fall that there is a Broadway musical based on it coming soon, but he says it’s not going to be a cheery “Jukebox musical”. “Every problem that this country’s going through today is in that musical,” he says and other than it will revolve around two young kids called Jack and Diane, Diane’s going to be a Hispanic character in the small Midwestern town and it will be built around a number of his songs. Other than that, few details are otherwise known but sounds not that “fool”-ish at all!