35 Years Ago: ‘Jack and Diane’ Hits No. 1, but Does John Mellencamp Even Like the Song?
It was the “little ditty” that became a big hit, and caused some huge headaches for John Mellencamp along the way. For a feel-good, singalong song, “Jack & Diane” has an awfully tortured history – one that didn’t end with the single’s chart-topping success in 1982.
The story of Mellencamp’s early years as a rock singer is just as tortured, rife with management kerfuffles, musical differences and stage names. Back in the ’70s, the Indiana rocker was first introduced as Johnny Cougar, a figure the music industry had designs on making a new pop idol. Exercising some small bit of control, Mellencamp soon shortened the moniker to John Cougar (no one had ever called him “Johnny”) and worked at incorporating rootsier elements into his recordings.
When writing material for the LP that would become 1982’s American Fool, Mellencamp drew on his memories of growing up in the small town of Seymour, Ind. “Jack & Diane,” in particular, evoked bygone days of teenage life: Tastee-Freez, Bobbie Brooks clothes and fellow Indiana native James Dean. Yet, the song wasn’t initially inspired by teenage love in the heartland of America, but the increasing number of interracial couples that Mellencamp had noticed while touring the country.
“Originally the line was Jack was not a football star, Jack was an African-American,” Mellencamp told Huffington Post in 2014. “In 1982, when I turned the song in to the record company, they went, ‘Whoa, can’t you make him something other than that?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t really want to. I mean, that’s the whole point. This is really a song about race relationships and a white girl being with a black guy, and that’s what the song’s about.’ And they said, ‘No, no, no, no.’ … So, anyway, through much debate and me being young, I said, ‘Okay, we’ll make him a football star’.”
Mellencamp changed his socially conscious song into a tune about “typical” teenagers, drawing on the film of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth. Instead of describing the difficulties of being in an interracial relationship, he imbued the lyrics with hallmarks of his own small-town upbringing and referenced universal issues of growing up and moving on. The idea, the singer would later explain, of the final version of “Jack & Diane” was to find significance in the insignificant. “Oh yeah, life goes on,” he sings in the tune, “long after the thrill of living is gone.”
That same idea could have been applied to the recording process for “Jack & Diane,” which began with Mellencamp traveling to record new tracks with producer Don Gehman in Miami. Gehman had worked on previous Cougar recordings, and the two appeared to share ideas about a straight-forward sound. But “Jack & Diane” would prove to be anything but straight-forward.
“‘Jack & Diane’ was a terrible record to make,” Mellencamp said in 2008. “When I play it on guitar by myself, it sounds great; but I could never get the band to play along with me. That’s why the arrangement’s so weird. Stopping and starting, it’s not very musical.” To translate the folksy song to big-budget recording, Mellencamp and Gehman would need plenty of assistance. Some of it came from unlikely sources, including Phil Collins, the Bee Gees and a Spider from Mars.
“You see, one of our models for ‘Jack & Diane’ was Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’,” Gehman told Sound on Sound in 2011. “John came in one day and, after he sat down and played it, he said, ‘This is what I want to create. I want to have a couple of verses that sound like a little folk song and then I want the big, bombastic entrance of some drums, and we’ll take it to a whole new place.”
Watch Phil Collins' 'In the Air Tonight' Video
That was fine, except that for the fact that Gehman and Mellencamp didn’t yet have a plan for the verses. Plus, they had no idea how to record a “bombastic entrance of some drums” like the one on the Collins single. Enter the Bee Gees, the disco titans with whom Gehman had worked previously. The trio let him borrow a rare LinnDrum machine, which was handed over to Mellencamp’s drummer Kenny Aronoff. He programmed the steady beat for the first half of the song. At least part of “Jack & Diane” was coming together.
But there was still the big drum moment that Mellencamp desired. Aronoff knew what to play, but Gehman didn’t know how to deliver such a huge sound. That’s where the expertise of ex-David Bowie guitarist (and former member of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars) Mick Ronson came in handy. Mellencamp knew Ronson from the ’70s, and asked him to help out for a day in the studio. It was then that the glam guitar hero gave Gehman a quick tutorial on how to apply an effect called gated echo to a drum recording – in a similar manner to what Hugh Padgham had done with “In the Air Tonight.” And Ronson’s help didn’t stop there.
“I owe Mick Ronson the hit song ‘Jack & Diane’,” Mellencamp reflected in 2008. “Mick was very instrumental in helping me arrange that song, as I’d thrown it on the junk heap. ... All of a sudden, for ‘Jack & Diane,’ Mick said, ‘Johnny, you should put baby rattles on there.’ I thought, ‘What the f--- does put baby rattles on the record mean'? So he put the percussion on there and then he sang the part, ‘Let it rock, let it roll’ as a choir‑ish‑type thing, which had never occurred to me. And that is the part everybody remembers on the song. It was Ronson’s idea.”
“Jack & Diane” took shape, striking a balance between a prickly acoustic guitar and crunching waves of electric distortion while preserving the distinctive hand claps, which Mellencamp claimed were originally just a placeholder to keep the rhythm together. But even as the recording was taking shape, neither the singer nor his record label seemed too pleased with the results.
It was a toss-up as to what made Riva Records more upset: the money Mellencamp and pals had been spending in Miami’s Criteria Studios or the songs that they had created. For some reason, the label had notions of Mellencamp becoming the next Neil Diamond and “Jack & Diane” certainly wasn’t “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.” But even Mellencamp, exhausted from wrestling with the song in the studio, wasn’t certain of the results. His band members were more enthusiastic and convinced the singer to make sure it landed on his next LP.
Slowly, everyone seemed to come around on “Jack & Diane.” The song was installed as the second track on American Fool, released on April 12, 1982. When the label wanted to put money into music videos for the lead single (and smash hit) “Hurts So Good” and “Hand to Hold on To,” Mellencamp surreptitiously secured materials to ensure a video for “Jack & Diane,” too.
“He said, ‘Look, there’s a song on the album the label doesn’t believe in. But I do. Can you do me a favor and save one roll of film, shoot me singing the song, I’ll give you some old photos and stuff and then you cobble it together for me?’,” recalled Paul Flattery, who worked for the video production company, in I Want My MTV. “So we stole some editing time in L.A. We projected slides on the edit room wall, and we had the tape op wear white gloves to do the clapping. We didn’t charge John a cent.”
“Hurts So Good” went to No. 2 on the Billboard chart and was supported by a slick video in heavy rotation. But that clip didn’t turn into the MTV staple that “Jack & Diane” became, with its low-rent scrapbook approach of moving boxes containing family snapshots, grainy footage and Mellencamp doing freeze-framed air punches. All of this would soon become iconic.
When fans’ appreciation for the song seemed to outpace enthusiasm for other American Fool tunes (crowds weren’t singing along to “Hand to Hold on To” as Mellencamp began touring to promote the album), Riva was convinced to release “Jack & Diane” as the LP’s second single in July. The popularity of the song and its video skyrocketed, and the single topped the singles chart on Oct. 2, 1982, staying put for the next four weeks. Meanwhile, American Fool reigned atop the Billboard albums chart from early September to early November. Whether going by John Cougar, John Cougar Mellencamp or John Mellencamp, the singer has yet to repeat his trip to the top of either chart.
The blockbuster success and complicated creation of “Jack & Diane” have led to some mixed feelings and backhanded compliments when it comes to Mellencamp’s thoughts on his biggest hit. As a performer who likes to emphasize his body of work over the potential to be known for one song, he has admitted to giving biting answers to fans who ask him, “What happened to Jack and Diane?”
“In my charming way, I’d say, ‘They’re not real people’,” he confessed, according to Mellencamp: American Troubadour. “‘Nothing happened to them, because I made them up’.”
He’s been equally pointed in interviews (which he has made clear he doesn’t enjoy giving). Although he’s talked about the enduring popularity of “Jack & Diane” and even acknowledged the advantages of having a bit hit single, Mellencamp has also hinted that he keeps the song at arm’s length. He’s said things like “I can’t hate [‘Jack & Diane’] too much,” in regards to what commercial success meant for his career.
“Hanging on to a song like ‘Jack and Diane,’ I really don’t take a smidgen of pride in that I’ve written that,” he said to BlueRailroad’s Paul Zollo. “I don’t take pride in the fact that one song was able to climb the charts and one song wasn’t. I take pride in the fact that I was able to create these songs. That seems to be more important than the fact that this song was a hit or that song was a hit.”
Watch John Mellencamp Perform 'Jack & Diane' in 2013
Yet, “Jack & Diane” endures. Mellencamp even revisited the characters in 1998, name-checking the couple in the opening lines of “Eden is Burning.” Plus, Mellencamp has continued to perform “Jack & Diane” in concert deep into his career, a decision that was not made merely out of obligation. For instance, the singer has expressed his contempt for “Hurts So Good” by hardly playing it since 2005. But the “two American kids doing the best they can” keep appearing at Mellencamp’s shows.
It seems that, decades into his career, fans’ reactions can mean much more that monetary success when it comes to “Jack & Diane.” “I think people, particularly in the Midwest, really identified with these characters,” he told Rolling Stone in 2013. “I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said, ‘I’m Jack and I’m Diane. You wrote about my life.’ To me, that’s a successful song.”
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