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Six Definitive Songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to John Mellencamp

@TomTaylorFO

“John is one of the great American songwriters and a great rock spirit.” – John Fogerty.

Since 1976, John Mellencamp has been extolling heartland rock like a six-string version of Raymond Carver. Much like the famed writer, Mellencamp’s music couples the bravura of visceral rock with the earthiness of small tales that show for many of us the subtext is the story. His melodies are far from dower but his tales remain unflinchingly free of glamour or gloss, and with this unassuming style he has amassed an audience of millions with many huge hits.

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Growing up in Indiana, he fell in love with the introspective stories of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie as well as the barnstorming styles of James Brown and The Rolling Stones. These four central influences can clearly be heard throughout his work which first burst into the mainstream in the 1980s after a disastrous start in the industry. This tortuous trip to the top, however, proved to be part of the learning curve for him as an artist and it made his work even more unflinching thereafter. 

As Mellencamp said himself: “What is there to be afraid of? The worst thing that can happen is you fail. So what? I failed a lot of things. My first record was horrible.” However, he soon moved on and as his lyrics suggest, he kept looking forward: “It’s what you do not what you say. If you’re not part of the future, then get out of the way.”

With this mantra in mind, Mellencamp set about foraging into new creative avenues and expressing progressiveness in his art. He soon found himself with an ever-growing audience and now he has scored 22 top 40 hits in the US with no sign of letting up any time soon. He has sold over 60 million records worldwide and is a member of both the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Hall of Fame. Even the late great Johnny Cash described him as “one of the 10 best songwriters in music.” 

All of that without even mentioning his work in film and musical theatre, activism or visual art! It’s fair to say that Mellencamp is somewhat of a renaissance man, he’s no doubt even useful with his hands. Below we’re looking at the six songs that define him best. 

The six definitive songs of John Mellencamp:

‘I Need a Lover’

As Mellencamp said himself, his first tentative step into music was somewhat of a misfire and while that may be part of his narrative as an artist, it wasn’t until his second record that he began to define what he might be about. Even still he wasn’t much of a fan, stating: “A Biography is so bitter. I mean I don’t even like to listen to it. I can’t believe it’s me. The songs were written in ’76 or ’77. The lyrics were real awful. They were real ‘I hate you. I hate this.’ And that’s the way I felt at that time.”

However, with ‘I Need a Lover’ we get a first hint of the artist he would later become. Released under the name Johnny Cougar, there is still evidently a lot of feet finding going on, but somewhere in the mix is the humble autobiographic style he has soared with since this little flutter. Mournful and melodic, it couples Rolling Stones tracks like ‘Happy’ with a Johnny Cash-like dirge. 

‘Jack & Diane’

With the 1982 record, American Fool, John ‘Cougar’ Mellencamp finally landed his first commercial success. Having lingered dangerous close to the ash heap of history, the love ballad of ‘Jack & Diane’ finally soared. With hints of a sound and a scope similar to Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’, it welcomed Mellencamp into the world of little ditties, with Springsteen-esque one-liners in tow. 

With mentions of James Dean and the likes in the lyrics, Mellencamp crafts a romantic all-American tale crammed with iconography and choir sections to ram it all home. Even for the cynics who might call it kitsch, there is enough atmosphere in the mix to conjure at least a modicum of nostalgia and romanticism. 

‘Small Town’

As mentioned in the intro, Mellencamp’s songs are forever grounded in the small towns that spawned them and he made that patently obvious himself in a song that decrees his mantra throughout. 

Even the inception of the song seems to be perfectly befitting of his work. As he told American Songwriter in 2004: “I wrote that song in the laundry room of my old house. We had company, and I had to go write the song. And the people upstairs could hear me writing and they were all laughing when I came up. They said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ What else can you say about it?”

‘Jackie Brown’

By this stage, Mellencamp was onto his tenth album which shows how truly prolific he was. Transitioning into a more country style, his sound may have mutated slightly, but his sure-footed steps through American society and its pitfalls remained

With ‘Jackie Brown’ he went full Raymond Carver and spoke of the truth that for many people money problems aren’t the subtext but the whole story in itself. In the end, he espouses one of the finest lines in his career: “But who gives a damn about Jackie Brown? Just another lazy man who couldn’t take what was his.” Fortunately, the sweet melody offers up exultation from the ironies of uber-capitalism and offers a glimpse that we can at least find solace despite dire circumstance.

‘Fruit Trader’

Self-titling your 15th record implies one of two things, you’ve either ran out of ideas or you’re moving onto something new. Fortunately, for fans of Mellencamp, it was the latter. He had just signed for Columbia Records and was looking to mix up his narrative. Mellencamp being Mellencamp, however, it was never likely to be a complete severance from his earthly timeless style, thus he ventured into the past in an act of upcycling. 

As he told Guitar World Acoustic in 1998:  “Initially, I wanted to make a record that barely had drums on it. Donovan made a record Sunshine Superman (1966). I wanted to start with that same kind of vibe—Eastern, very grand stories, fairy tales. We ended up with a few Eastern instruments. But everybody prepared to make that record. After the last tour, I gave everybody Sunshine Superman, and I said: ‘Listen to this record, because you’re going to need to know it.'”

‘Wasted Days’ (with Bruce Springsteen)

Throughout their careers, Bruce Springsteen and Mellencamp have been compared more times than Trump Cards, thus, it was no real surprise to see the gingham growl-off finally come together for the brand-new single ‘Wasted Days’. With the salad days looking a little wilted for the duo of folk-rock phenoms, the time was nigh to look unflinchingly into the future once more. 

Now, with Mellencamp turning 70 and Springsteen two years ahead of him it is clear how far both stars have come. Traversing the tricky waters of the MTV-infected 1980s when even the most traditional songwriters were touched by the synth-pop sedation, they are survivors with heaps of wisdom to extol. The sound now is of two old buddies with a story to tell, as Springsteen says, “I love John a lot. He’s a great songwriter and I have become very close and had a lot of fun with him,” that certainly comes out in the song. 

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