Scarecrow by John Mellencamp

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Scarecrow by John Cougar MellencampWhile much of popular music in 1985 was moving towards more synth-based compositions and refined production, John “Cougar” Mellencamp decided to return to his roots on Scarecrow. In fact, Mellencamp was so dedicated to incorporating the sound of classic 1960s music that he mandated to his band that they learn about a hundred old singles verbatim while rehearsing for recording the album. The result was a highly entertaining and successful album which set the template for many future works.

Mellencamp’s breakthrough album was 1982’s American Fool, his fifth release as “John Cougar”. Following this success, he insisted on using his birth name, Mellencamp, on future releases. 1983’s Uh-Huh was another commercial success and the first to feature both Larry Crane and Mike Wanchic on guitars.

Co-produced by Don Gehman, the album was the first to be recorded at Mellencamp’s studio in Belmont, Indiana, known as “The Belmont Mall”. Along with the definitive 60s music theme, the lyrical theme of this album was the transitional economy which saw the ruin of many family farms during the era, giving the album an overall bittersweet tone.


Scarecrow by John Cougar Mellencamp
Released: November 4, 1985 (Riva)
Produced by: Don Gehman & John Mellencamp
Recorded: Belmont, Indiana, March 20-April 29, 1985
Side One Side Two
Rain On the Scarecrow
Grandma’s Theme
Small Town
Minutes to Memories
Lonely Ol’ Night
The Face of the Nation
Justice and Independence ’85
Between a Laugh and a Tear
Rumbleseat
You’ve Got to Stand for Somethin’
R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
Primary Musicians
John Cougar Mellencamp – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Larry Crane – Guitars, Vocals
Mike Wanchic – Guitars, Vocals
John Cascella – Keyboards
Toby Myers – Bass, Vocals
Kenny Aronoff – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

The main album theme is portrayed on the opening track, “Rain On the Scarecrow”, co-written by George M. Green. Mellencamp’s chanting lyrics are dark and desperate, while musically this track builds on a sixties-type folk riff with bright guitars and a direct bass by Toby Myers. “Grandma’s Theme” follows as a short interlude of a traditional tune called “In the Baggage Coach Ahead”, sung by Laura Mellencamp, John Mellencamp’s actual grandmother. This links to “Small Town”, a standard folk-rocker built with a strong and direct drum beat by Kenny Aronoff. The song reached #6 on the  US pop charts and was adopted as a rustic theme by many subsequent interests.

“Minutes to Memories” is another co-composed by Green and this stays in the same vibe as the previous song with some interesting percussive effects and other little sonic treats. This song does get interesting and intense later on with backing vocals by Mimi Mapes complimenting the rest of the ensemble. “Lonely Ol’ Night” starts with simple, dueling riffs, which are worked in well with the steady beat of the song. This popular track contains some of the best melodies on the album, with the title inspired by a line from the 1963 film, Hud, starring Paul Newman. “The Face of the Nation” is built with a unique bass riff by Myers accompanied by bouncy guitar by Crane and choppy keyboards by John Cascella throughout, However, it is Aronoff’s drumming which shines brightest on this track.

Scarecrow‘s original second side begins with “Justice and Independence ’85”,a drum-driven funk rocker which attempts to cleverly use titles as names for members of a family. “Between a Laugh and a Tear” is the song on the album which sounds closest to the old “John Cougar” sound, as a direct rocker with subtle guitar riffs and backing vocals by guest, Rickie Lee Jones. The catchy “Rumbleseat” is acoustic pop with plenty of melody and entertaining riffs, more great bass by Myers and a perfect blend of guitars by Wanchic and Crane. “You’ve Got to Stand for Somethin'” stays in same vein as much of the other songs musically but seems to randomly drop famous people and events and seems to try too hard to make a profound point.

John Mellencamp Band

The closing track, “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. (A Salute to 60’s Rock)”,  finds the intended sound perfectly. This catchy, Top 10 pop hit with definitive sixties elements and topical tributes, features a cool mid section with a nice array of short instrumental leads, including a penny whistle organ by Cascella. Despite all this, Mellencamp was initially reluctant to include the song on the album, feeling it was too light-hearted in contrast to the more serious songs.

Following its release, Scarecrow peaked at #2 in the US and spawned a major tour through 1985 and 1986. In the spirit of the album’s theme, Mellencamp helped organize the first Farm Aid benefit concert, an annual event which continues three decades later.

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1985 Page

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1985 albums.

 

The Lonesome Jubilee
by John Mellencamp

The Lonesome Jubilee by John MellancampThe Lonesome Jubilee is the ninth album by singer-songwriter John Mellencamp, who released many genres of music dating back to his days as “Johnny Cougar” in the mid 1970s. On this album, Mellencamp made a concerted effort to include rootsy, Americana instrumentation to complement the folk/rock style he had perfected through the 1980s. Unlike any previous album by Mellencamp, The Lonesome Jubilee was planned out in advance and was originally slated to be a double album. However, Mellancamp decided about half the songs he’d written didn’t fit the overall concept so they were shelved and the album was cut back to a single record.

Following his previous album, Scarecrow in 1985 which mainly celebrated roots rock, Mellencamp and his band went on an extensive tour which helped them jive well as a band. With this new album, they a very distinct vision of what they wanted it to sound like from the beginning, with much expansion musically and the addition of fiddle, accordions, richer background vocals, banjos, and more acoustic arrangements in the tradition of folk and country.

The album was also the first to be recorded at Mellencamp’s Indiana recording studio named Belmont Mall, built in 1984. It was co-produced by Don Gehman. Recording took about a “school year”, starting in September 1986 and finishing up in June 1987.


The Lonesome Jubilee by John Mellencamp
Released: August 24, 1987 (Merury)
Produced by:John Mellencamp & Don Gehman
Recorded: Belmont Mall Studio in Belmont, IN, September 1986–June 1987
Side One Side Two
Paper in Fire
Down and Out In Paradise
Check It Out
The Real Life
Cherry Bomb
We Are the People
Empty Hands
Hard Times for an Honest Man
Hotdogs and Hamburgers
Rooty Toot Toot
Primary Musicians
John Mellancamp – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Mike Wanchic – Guitars, Dobro
Larry Crane – Guitars, Mandolin, Harmonica
Tony Myers – Bass, Banjo
John Cascella – Keyboards, Accordion
Kenny Aronoff – Drums & Percussion

This album was one of Mellencamp’s most commercially successful worldwide, charting in ten countries. This was due to two top ten and one top twenty charting songs, starting with the opener “Paper In Fire”, an intense yet catchy song with good lyrical analogies and plenty of teaser riffs from the instrumentation being used on the album. This is followed by “Down and Out in Paradise”, a basic folk-like bitch fest from the perspective of the down-trodden above a decent rock arrangement.

“Check It Out” is the best song on the album with a unique chorus structure and features John Cascella on accordion, front and center with strong rhythm backing throughout, especially by drummer Kenny Aronoff. “The Real Life” may be the closest song on the album to the early eighties folk/rock which brought Mellencamp to stardom in the first place, especially on his 1982 breakthrough American Fool.

Fiddle player Lisa Germano shines on the album’s biggest hit “Cherry Bomb” on which she also provides vocals. Germano would become a permanent part of Mellencamp’s band until the mid 1990s. The song itself follows a nostalgic trip back into the past in the “my how times have changed” strain.

The second side starts with the dark acoustic “We Are the People”, which gives a nod to the tradition of Woody Guthrie, lead by the unique blend of chords of Mike Wanchic and banjo finger-picking by Tony Myers. “Empty Hands” was co-written by George Michael Green, a childhood friend of Mellencamp’s who collaborated with him throughout his career. “Hard Times For an Honest Man” is loosely dedicate to John’s Uncle Joe, who died of cancer around the time of the album. The album’s closer “Rooty Toot Toot” is an upbeat alt-country song that became a minor charting hit.

The Lonesome Jubilee may be Mellencamp’s strongest album, song for song and solidified his signature sound of Midwestern folk in the rock n roll era. Although he continued to have commercial success for many subsequent years, this 1987 album marked the peak of Mellencamp’s career.

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1987 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of 1987 albums.


American Fool by John Cougar

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American Fool by John CougarAmerican Fool may mark the midway point of the artist’s evolution from the stage name “Johnny Cougar” back to his given name John Mellencamp. The differing names (of which there are four distinct) mirrored the change in musical style and image from the slick, glam-like pop star of the 1970s to the earthy, folk singer of the 1980s. This album straddles the line between the two, with a slight edge to the former as it tends to get quite formulaic as it progresses. In 1974, when Mellencamp was struggling to break through in the music industry, his manager suggested that his given name was too hard to market and concocted “Johnny Cougar” for the artist. The name used on American Fool, his sixth overall, was simply “John Cougar” the last of three to use this name.

Although his previous album, 1980’s Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did yielded two Top 40 singles, Mellencamp hated that album, dismissed its material as “stupid little pop songs”, and derided its outlandish cost of production of about a quarter of a million dollars. So it was clear that he wanted to move in a different direction with this album, and he accomplished much with a more authentic sound throughout. Still, American Fool is an uneven album with the bulk of the good (and popular) material on its first side and much repetitive filler on the second.

Also, there are, unfortunately, a bunch of interesting performances on this album that have gone un-credited. A record of who performed on the keyboards, accordion, harmonica, and who were female background singers, have been hard to discover. These are apparently session performances, but they all enhanced the album above the very basic core sound of the five credited musicians.

 


American Fool by John Cougar
Released: July 10, 1982 (Riva)
Produced by: Don Gehman & John Mellencamp
Recorded: Cherokee Studios, Los Angeles & Criteria Studios, Miami, 1981-1982
Side One Side Two
Hurts So Good
Jack and Diane
Hand To Hold On To
Danger List
Can You Take It
Thundering Hearts
China Girl
Close Enough
Weakest Moments
Primary Musicians
John Mellencamp – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Mick Ronson – Guitars, Vocals
Larry Crane – Guitars
George Perry – Bass
Kenny Aronoff – Drums

 

The album opens with “Hurts So Good”, co-written by George S. Green, a childhood friend of Mellencamp’s who would go on to collaborate on some of his most recognizable songs. This song is as pure a rocker as you can get. Its sonic boundaries combines a Lynard-Skynard-like-70s guitar riff with the most modern 80s drum sound (a potent formula) and it follows the common rock arrangement of Intro/Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Bridge/Chorus/Outtro. “Hurts So Good” would be Mellencamp’s biggest hit to date, reaching #2 on the Billboard charts.

A couple of other songs on the first side stick to this same basic formula, including the pleasant and melodic “Hand to Hold on To” and “Danger List”, a song composed by Mellencamp and guitarist Larry Crane. This latter song contains some harmonized guitars over an acoustic intro, returning to simple riff intermediately throughout the verse and chorus. It is reserved and quiet through most of its duration but gets louder and more rock-oriented as it approaches the end. According to Mellencamp, he recorded about 30 different improvised verses for the original demo and weeded out the ones he didn’t like for the final cut.
 

 
As much as “Hurts So Good” and the rest of the first side stick to convention, “Jack & Diane” is completely original in arrangement, using all kinds of instrumentation. “Hand claps” were added to the sparse, main electric riff to help keep time with the intention of removing them on the final cut, but it was just too empty without them so this distinct sound was kept in the mix. The acoustic verses and choruses are accompanied at different times by nice little flourishes of piano, organ, bass, and percussive effects. The song was recorded at Criteria Studios in Miami and Mellancamp gave the credit for the arrangement to the legendary Mick Ronson, who salvaged the song after Mellencamp had thrown it on the “junk heap”.

The second side of the album is much less rewarding with the bulk of the material being lesser songs that strictly follow the same formula as the hits on the first side. Ironically, the strongest moment on this side is the closing song “Weakest Moments”, a moody ballad with nice lyrical motifs. The song is acoustic throughout and also contains an interesting flute-like organ lead, an accordion, and a female backing chorus. Cougar’s vocals are a bit exaggerated in their melancholy, but otherwise this a fine tune to close the album.

With the commercial success of American Fool under his belt, Mellencamp had enough clout to add his real surname, going as “John Cougar Mellencamp” on his next album, 1983’s Uh-Huh. Eventually, the evolution would be complete and this artist would simply become John Mellencamp.

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1982 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1982 albums.