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Vinyl Cave: A Biography by 'Johnny Cougar' Mellencamp
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John Mellencamp may be my favorite songwriter and performer to come to prominence in the 1980s. Along with much popular success over the years since his 1982 blockbuster album American Fool, he's gradually also come to enjoy quite a bit of positive critical regard. But I'd still argue his body of work as a whole is underrated by many; I've often encountered music fans who would enjoy his albums, but have mostly ignored Mellencamp due to the misguided opinion he's just a "Midwestern Springsteen" clone or other nonsensical ideas engendered by his run of '80s pop chart hits ... and, well, the whole "Cougar" thing.

Even as a huge fan I've never been much of a booster for Mellencamp's albums prior to American Fool. His initial 1976 effort as Johnny Cougar, Chestnut Street Incident has some okay original songs but is weighed down by unnecessary (if fun) covers. Mellencamp's then-producers at MainMan and MCA decided to pass on even releasing the tracks recorded as a second album until a 1983 cash-in effort, The Kid Inside. I'd always assumed the 1979 John Cougar disc was third in his recorded chronology, but it turns out that's not at all the case. After the Chestnut Street album sank quietly into the cutout bins, Mellencamp tried again with a different production group, who recorded his next album in England and convinced him to move there for a time to promote it.

A Biography was released in 1978, again as "Johnny Cougar," by independent label Riva in the U.K. and Australia. The album apparently didn't do too much business in the U.K. but randomly spawned a hit single Down Under: "I Need a Lover." A year later that song would also become Mellencamp's first hit stateside, with Riva securing U.S. distribution probably at least partly due to the song's Australian success. However, for Mellencamp's homecoming re-launch as "John Cougar," the rest of the A Biography album was scrapped.

Upon first discovering the existence of A Biography last year, I very shortly had a copy on the way from overseas. And I'm glad I did. It's by far the best album of Mellencamp's early years, a well-sequenced, self-penned song cycle working with the same sort of humanistic, working class themes he would become known for later. Musically it's overall a hard rock record but one not afraid to include quieter moments, something that is a hallmark of Mellencamp's best albums from the mid-'80s and beyond. Also important is the presence of guitarist Larry Crane (as well as bassist Ferd Frank), the first pieces of the dynamic band Mellencamp built for his storming of the charts to come.

It's somewhat surprising in retrospect that A Biography was left behind for the new tracks on the John Cougar album. That disc has its moments, but is dragged down by arrangements trying too hard for stock pop chart moves. The only song saved other than "I Need a Lover" was "Taxi Dancer," which provides a perfect example of the differences between the two albums. The original U.K. album take has a gentle, fragile beauty about it, the backing only some quietly picked guitar, some melancholy sax fills by Andy Mackay, and restrained, classy strings. The re-do uses some of the same elements, but employed for MOR pop, with Clemons-y sax blats, generically cheesy strings, and the addition of drums and backing singers.

The album's obscurity is not completely surprising; Mellencamp has been outspoken over the years about his feelings about most of his early records. To date, A Biography has never been on vinyl in the U.S., and wasn't actually reissued anywhere that I can discover until a 2005 CD release finally officially unleashed it stateside. That CD quickly went out of print, but the album at least is currently available in MP3 form on Amazon. Mellencamp's most recent project is an intriguing concept: a supernatural musical collaboration with T-Bone Burnett and author Stephen King titled Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. A touring production will be staged at the Overture Center on Friday, October 25. (Riva RVLP6, 1978)

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