John Mellencamp’s early years, from Trash to Bowie’s MainMan to “Johnny Cougar” & beyond

By on November 8, 2018

In Night Flight’s “John Cougar Mellencamp: Video Profile” — which aired as a repeat in 1993, during Night Flight’s syndication era — host Tom Juarez tells us that the rock balladeer of America’s heartland was “a little nobody from Seymour, Indiana, who fought his way to the top of the rock heap and stayed there. There’s a lesson in this: stick to your dreams, and don’t let anything get in your way.”

Watch this nearly 45-minute long episode featuring exclusive Night Flight interview segments and some of his best-known ’80s music videos — “Hand To Hold On To,” “Pink Houses,” “Hurt So Good,” “Authority Song,” “Lonely Ol’ Night,” “Crumbling Down,” “Small Town,” “R.O.C.K. in the USA,” “Rumbleseat,” “Paper in Fire,” and, of course, “Jack and Diane” — on Night Flight Plus.

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Juarez — speaking in a bad British accent for some odd reason — is right when he says you should stick to your dreams, which is exactly what Mellencamp did, and his dream was to be a rock star.

The path Mellencamp took to get there, though, was a surprisingly long, winding road with lots of weird little detours along the way, and we thought we’d focus on that here.

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Mellencamp (b. October 7, 1951 in Seymour, Indiana) had so desperately wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll that he joined his first band when he was still in the fifth grade. By age fourteen, now in high school, he was fronting his own band, Crepe Soul.

After he graduated from Vincennes University in 1975, Mellencamp played in several local Seymour bands — including Snakepit Banana Barn and the Mason Brothers — but he had some of his first real success with Trash, a somewhat surprisingly glittery glam rock outfit, who were named after the New York Dolls song.

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In addition to playing a few of Mellencamp’s first original tunes, Trash covered Free’s “Walkin’ My Shadow,” the Stooges‘ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” and a couple of songs — “Suffragette City” and “Ziggy Stardust” — by David Bowie, who was, believe it or not, a huge influence early on.

Mellencamp and his band Trash dyed their hair blue and green, wore heavy eyeliner, and dressed in high-heeled boots and tight leather shirts.

Mellencamp has said that although they were trying to mimic Bowie’s androgynous Space Oddity-era look, but they came across looking “greasy, more Mexican.”

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Trash lasted nearly two years, but after they broke up, Mellencamp was ready to begin his solo career in earnest.

He traveled to NYC and dropped off his demo tape at Bowie’s management company, MainMan Ltd., run by British music mogul Tony DeFries (Bowie had recently parted ways with DeFries, though, firing him by telegram).

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Mellencamp gave his demo to the receptionist, who just happened to be from Indiana, and after hearing that demo, DeFries —  who also managed Iggy Pop, Mellencamp’s other favorite ’70s act — wanted to meet with Mellancamp so badly he sent him a plane ticket to come back to NYC.

Read more about John (now formerly Cougar) Mellencamp below.

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By 1976, 24-year old John Mellencamp was recording his first album — The Chestnut Street Incident — for MCA Records, who didn’t think anyone would actually buy a record by an artist named Mellencamp.

Over Mellencamp’s protests, MCA issued his debut LP under the new artist name they’d created for him, “Johnny Cougar.” Mellencamp was particularly angry because nobody had ever called him “Johnny” before.

The album featured just six originals and the rest were covers of songs, five of them from the 1950s and ’60s. Rolling Stone, in their LP review, said Mellencamp’s debut album was “full of ridiculous posturing.”

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The UK’s ’80s re-release of Chestnut Street Incident‘s alternative cover, looking like Iggy Pop

Chestnut Street Incident sold just 12,000 copies, mostly in Indiana, which led to MCA dropping Mellencamp from their roster and also refusing to release his next album, The Kid Inside.

In 1983 — after Mellencamp had finally become the rock star he was always meant to be — DeFries tried to cash in on his now-former client’s fame, releasing the album with his MainMan logo on the cover.

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In October 1977, Mellencamp — wearing a pink Elvis-like suit with his hair done up in a rockabilly pompadour — opened for the Jam on two consecutive nights at the Whisky a Go Go in West Hollywood.

Mellencamp moved to London for nearly a year to record his third album A Biography (1978), which was released in the UK and Australia, where “I Need a Lover” would end up being his first breakout hit single.

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Riva Records added two of A Biography‘s songs — “I Need A Lover” and “Taxi Dancer” — to what was his fourth album, John Cougar, which most people think of as his first.

“I Need A Lover” would score Mellencamp his first U.S. hit, charting at #28 on Billboard‘s Hot 100.

By 1982, his fifth album, American Fool, was the year’s best-selling album on the strength of two huge singles, “Hurts So Good,” and the #1 single “Jack and Diane,” helped tremendously by MTV’s constant video airplay.

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By now, Mellencamp and his band were opening for just about anyone who would have them on the bill, including KISS, Rainbow, Judas Priest, R.E.O. Speedwagon and Ian Hunter.

His albums that followed in the 80’s — Uh-Huh (1983) Scarecrow (1985), Lonesome Jubilee (1987) and Big Daddy (1989) — were all originally released under the name John Cougar Mellencamp.

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Mellancamp would not be able to completely shake “Cougar” until finally releasing 1991’s Whenever We Wanted as, simply, John Mellencamp.

Watch “John Cougar Mellancamp: Video Profile” on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.