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John Mellencamp's No. 1 Breakthrough Album "American Fool" is now 40 Years Old

In 1982, John Mellencamp, who was going by the stage name of "John Cougar", was making the album "American Fool" when a record company executive dropped in on him in the recording studio. This executive was wearing a pink shirt (which is a crucial detail, mind you) and was not exactly very complimentary of the music he was hearing. He decided to put his two sense in and suggest very boldly that Mellencamp add horns to the sound mix. At once, Mellencamp threw him (apparently so) out a side door into an alleyway.

Maybe he got his hearing checked after that.

What's interesting about this is that producer Don Gehman stated in a 2011 interview that "American Fool" was plagued with layers of issues. "We had twenty or so songs, we had a record company that was hoping we were making a Neil Diamond-type album... We had "Jack & Diane", we had "Hand To Hold On To", we had "Weakest Moments" - we had some good songs - and while I don't know the precise nature of the discussions that took place, Riva [Records] went from wanting to get a new producer to not even wanting John on the label anymore. Finally, they came around to letting us finish it but wanting to hear the new songs we were going to cut."

However, "American Fool" was Mellencamp's career breakthrough album and landed itself at the top of the charts for nine consecutive weeks. It went five times platinum and spawned iconic songs like "Hurts So Good," which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and "Jack & Diane," which peaked at No. 1.

"Jack & Diane" was the biggest hit for Mellencamp. The track featured guitars and background vocals from Mick Ronson, best known for being the lead guitarist in David Bowie's famed 1970s backing band, The Spiders from Mars.

Another song on the album, "Hand To Hold On To," peaked at #19 on the Hot 100 and was well received by listeners. This was not a song Mellencamp resonated with, which is why he stopped playing it in 1988.

The raucous tracks, "Danger List", co-written with guitarist Larry Crane, and "Can You Take It" - are equally enjoyable songs. They both exuded rock energy, as the first track could have easily made it on the country charts. The latter straddled the Rolling Stones and Southern rock divide, something Mellencamp was drifting into so well during the peak of his career.

The album was very raucous and perhaps even too much for Mellencamp himself. "To be real honest, there's three good songs on that record, and the rest is just sort of filler." He stated in an interview. This kind of rings true as at least eight songs on the track carry very heavy beats, or as Mellencamp put it "bam-bam-bam drums." The album closer, "Weakest Moments" is a mellow, acoustic-driven piece that is perhaps the most vivid and beautiful moment of storytelling on the album. The rock-centered style of the tracks helped launch it toward being nominated for Best Rock Album of 1983. The song, "Hurts So Good", co-written by Mellencamp's childhood friend George S. Green, is as pure a rock song as it can get. It influences Lynard-Skynard-like-70s guitar riffs with the most modern 80s drum sound.

Mellencamp would go on to help organize the first Farm Aid benefit concert with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in Illinois on September 22, 1985. These events helped raise over $60 million for struggling family farmers as of 2022. Throughout his career, Mellencamp would create and change his style of appeal. He would finally ditch the stage name of "John Cougar" for his real name and try more folk/roots/arena rock music. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, followed by an induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018.

Written by Gabrielle Thompson


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