April 12 – The Fool At 40

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!

15 thoughts on “April 12 – The Fool At 40

  1. Badfinger (Max)

    I never put much stock in the Grammy awards… and maybe this is why. Not saying it wasn’t a good album but how the hell did Scarecrow not win? Uh-huh really set him on his way to that heartland rock scene.
    I do like this record…it seemed like a collection of good songs…Uh-huh sounded more like an album….if that makes sense.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. yep – it’s a feather in your cap to have one (Grammys) but the number of oversights by them through the years is pretty remarkable. they often seem to be playing catch-up, like ‘Hotel california’ getting a Grammy in the 90s…

        Liked by 2 people

    1. yeah, I understand what you mean – this was just an assemblage of songs, Uh-huh sounded a bit more unified, by the time Scarecrow came around, it sounded very thematic…the songs belonged together.
      Ya, it seems fairly ridiculous he’s only got 1 Grammy, and for this one which no one really ranks high on his list of bests (and if they do it’s for ‘Jack and Diane’ not ‘Hurt so Good’)… he’s got lots of nominations. Perhaps because he’s too outspoken and doesn’t like dressing up in tuxedoes and so forth he’s held back a bit.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. loudhorizon

    My wife and I don’t have a romantic ‘our song.’ Its this – ‘Jack & Diane.’ It came out when we were dating, and with her being Diane and my nickname, Jackie – and I played decent level football (soccer) till I got injured …. well, it just HAD to be, didn’t it? 😉

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    1. sounds like it was written just for you! It’s a good song and kind of romantic so hey, seems like a good couples song. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

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  3. Wow, hard to believe this album is 40 years old! I really dig John Mellencamp. It was the “Scarecrow” album and “R.O.C.K. in U.S.A.” that really brought him onto my radar screen.

    While I still enjoy Mellencamp’s straight heartland rock, I generally prefer his more roots-oriented music. I love the “The Lonesome Jubilee” album, which is where his transition into roots rock really started. “Rough Harvest” is also great. And I also really like his collaboration album with Carlene Carter, “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I heard one or two songs by him before American Fool (“I need a Lover” particularly which was done to a bit more mass appeal by Pat Benatar, but I heard both versions around 1979) but ‘Jack & Diane’ was the first to really make me pay attention. ‘Scarecrow’ and ‘Lonesome Jubilee’ were as good a pair of albums as anyone put out in the 80s I think. I quite like his newest (…One-eyed Jack) though it is pretty downbeat… not necessarily an album to listen to in one sitting. I reviewed it when it came out, but I think I recall Max saying at the time that you had done so too.

      Liked by 1 person

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