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Classic Tracks: John Cougar 'Jack & Diane'

Producers: Ron Albert & Howard Albert • Engineer: Donald Gehman By Richard Buskin
Published September 2011

But for the timely intervention of Mick Ronson, John Cougar's celebrated portrait of small‑town American life might never have existed at all, let alone topped the Billboard Hot 100.

As much as I am a little weary of those two, I don't know any other two people in rock & roll who are more popular than Jack and Diane,” John Mellencamp (aka John Cougar) told The Sun in 2008. "Some people probably think there's a place in hell for me because of those two people! But it gave me the keys to do what I want... I've lived the way I wanted to live, sometimes recklessly and stupidly, but still been able to do that. I've been able to live on my whims, that's what Jack and Diane gave me, so I can't hate them too much.”

John Cougar: 'Jack & Diane'A song ostensibly about a high-school couple falling in love, Mellencamp's 1982 hit 'Jack & Diane' — his first and, so far, only US chart topper — espouses the small‑town values with which the no‑nonsense, gravel‑voiced heartland rocker has most closely aligned himself during his 35‑year career. Namely, the industriousness and integrity of rural working class‑life, as inspired by Mellencamp's upbringing in Seymour, Indiana, whose population numbered only about 13,000 people at the time of the song's release. He currently lives in Bloomington, which is about 40 miles northwest of Seymour.

'Jack & Diane' evokes a nostalgia for the kind of fun and games he himself experienced during his youth — "Suckin' on a chili dog outside the Tastee Freeze, Diane's sittin' on Jacky's lap, he's got his hands between her knees.”

Nevertheless, 'Jack & Diane', written by Mellencamp after he watched the 1961 movie Splendor In The Grass depict the unrequited love of high schoolers Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, also points out the good times won't last forever — "Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of livin' is gone.”

"Most people don't ever reach their goals, but that's cool, too,” Mellencamp remarked in a 1982 interview with The LA Herald Examiner. "Failure's a part of what you're all about anyway. Coming to terms with failed expectations is what counts. I try to write about the most insignificant things, really. I mean, someone who picks up a copy of Newsweek, then sits down and writes a song about the troubles in South America — who cares? What's that song telling us that we don't already know? Write about something that matters to people, man.”

Issued on his breakthrough American Fool LP that topped the Billboard 200 while also spawning the hit singles 'Hurts So Good' and 'Hand To Hold On To', 'Jack & Diane' was a solid‑gold slice of Americana that, after spending four weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 with the aid of a music video directed by Bruce Gowers, was selected by the RIAA in 2001 as one of its 'Songs of the Century'.

Team Work

John Mellencamp and his band on American Bandstand, 1982.John Mellencamp and his band on American Bandstand, 1982.Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Born on 7th October, 1951, John Mellencamp formed his first band, Crepe Soul, at the age of 14, and played in various local outfits before relocating to New York in 1976. It was there that he recorded an unsuccessful debut album titled Chestnut Street Incident which, thanks to then‑manager Tony DeFries, was credited to Johnny Cougar.

Despite his apprehension over the new name, the one‑time teen rebel stuck with it through his next few releases: 1978's A Biography, unreleased in the US, which he recorded after moving from MCA to Riva, founded by Rod Stewart's manager Billy Gaff; 1979's John Cougar; 1980's Nothin' Matters & What If It Did, which included a couple of Top 30 hits; and, two years later, American Fool, home of 'Jack & Diane'.

Produced by brothers Ron and Howard Albert, the John Cougar album was engineered by Donald Gehman, who would subsequently co‑produce and co‑engineer American Fool. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Gehman took up the viola when he was eight years old and played that instrument through high school, at which time he was asked to join a rock band by a fellow orchestra musician. It was 1965, and learning to play the bass led to Gehman also becoming the group's technical guru, taking care of its amps and vocal PAs.

"I had been thinking about maybe building my own bass amp,” he now recalls. "So I started investigating how to do this and I met two brothers from Lititz, Pennsylvania, Gene and Roy Clair. Roy was a technician at a liberal arts college, Gene was working at an electronic parts store, selling resistors and capacitors to local people, and I met Gene when I was in that store, trying to figure out how to build my own PA.”

With clients such as Elvis Presley, Elton John, Yes, Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones, Clair Brothers would subsequently become the world's largest concert‑sound company, and by joining forces with the Clairs from 1965 to 1973 Don Gehman played a major role in the research and development of modern sound reinforcement. Thereafter, having hit the road to work about 300 one‑nighters a year with the likes of James Brown, Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, he not only accepted Stephen Stills' offer to earn his first production credit on 1976's Illegal Stills album, but he also utilised Stills' friendship with the owner of Criteria Recording Studios in Miami to land a position there as a staff engineer.

"It was a big trauma to leave Clair Brothers and all that I had helped build,” he says. "Doing so many different jobs there, from running the sound to driving the truck and helping with the setting up, I was making a huge salary, and I left that to start over for $100 a week. Still, I was 23 years old, and during the next two years I realised how little I knew, because I was around a lot of people who did know. Tom Dowd was the resident dad of Criteria and he came in with great projects two or three times a year. He was our mentor; the person who showed us what was important and what wasn't, and I spent the next four years working under him and people like Ron and Howard Albert.

"Being a team, Ron and Howard had their own formula for making records that John was unwilling to go along with. They built their productions around a group of musicians who they had confidence in, so it was kind of an assembly-line approach — they cut the tracks with the band and then they'd fill in the holes. That's not a bad way to make a record, but John was coming in with his Bruce Springsteen, Creedence Clearwater and Mark Knopfler references, saying, 'I want it to be like this.' He was looking for his signature sound, and since John and Howard were resistant to these references that were outside of their experience, they didn't give it to him. So, we finished the record and it was OK, but not really what John wanted.

"There were a lot of weaknesses. John obviously wasn't the writer that he is today and he was still figuring out how to improve, as well as what he did and didn't like. Shortly after that, he came to me and said, 'On the next record I'd like to work together with you. We'll just do it on our own.' At the time, I had just started working with the Bee Gees, but the whole music scene in Miami was beginning to dry up, things were moving back to Los Angeles and it was getting more and more difficult to make ends meet. The Bee Gees were the local money makers, so when they were building their own studio and offered me an engineering position there, I took it. One of the first projects I did with them was Barbra Streisand's [1980] Guilty album, for which they wrote all of the material and for which I was one of the producers, even though I didn't get credited.”

John Mellencamp relaxing with his band, 1983.John Mellencamp relaxing with his band, 1983.Photo: Juergen Vollmer/RedfernsOfficially produced by Barry Gibb, Karl Richardson and Albhy Galuten, Guilty would sell over 20 million copies. Meanwhile, unable to secure the services of Don Gehman for his own record, John Mellencamp made Nothin' Matters & What If It Did with legendary Southern soul guitarist Steve Cropper taking the production reins, and Gehman now regards this as "a blessing in disguise”.

"Cropper is an amazing writer, arranger and guitar player,” he says, "and he really plugged a lot of holes in John's writing style and his sound. OK, so he didn't like the net result of that sound, but it really taught him how to write and arrange, and he grew tremendously from that. Then, when the next record came around, he approached me again and I said, 'Yeah, I'll do it.' Things were slowing down with the Bee Gees, I more than ever wanted to be a producer, and I thought this might be my shot at getting a foot in the door. So we started making American Fool.”

While the record's first two tracks, 'Hurts So Good' and 'Jack & Diane', are also its stand-outs, the rest of the album compares favourably to its predecessors, courtesy of the all‑around tighter musicianship of guitarists Mick Ronson, Mike Wanchic and Larry Crane; bassists George Perry and Robert Frank; drummer/percussionist Kenny Aronoff; and keyboard player Eric Rosser.

Mick Ronson Saves The Day

At Criteria, the American Fool sessions took place in the brand new Studio E. Designed by John Storyk, this comprised a live area that incorporated Cuban tile and Pecky Cypress wood with stained glass and 27‑foot peaked ceilings, alongside a control room housing a massive, custom‑built 56‑channel MCI console and two MCI 24‑track machines that were locked together.

"It was a horrible‑sounding console, as was all of the MCI gear at that time,” Gehman states. "A lot of people liked it, but when you compared it to a great Neve and API gear it just wasn't up to the task. That said, I could certainly make it work, but in those days I was hung up on a lot of things that people were using to get sounds, whether it be tube microphones or Fairchild compressors. I was starting to learn a lot of that kind of stuff which we didn't have at Criteria, an R&B studio that was set up more for direct sounds, and I had a whole new world open up to me as I met people who were making rock records.”

While most of the American Fool musicians playing in Studio E were in booths, the DI'd bassist was in the main room with drummer Kenny Aronoff who, according to Gehman, was recorded "with a lot of ambient mics that didn't work.”

"There was probably [an AKG] D12 on the kick,” he says, "[AKG] 451s on the hi‑hat and as overheads, [Sennheiser] 421s on the toms, and Schoeps mics for the room, along with [Neumann] U87s and PZMs. However, none of this made any difference. I thought I'd be able to get great sounds in that new state‑of‑the‑art room, but John Storyk had put in so much absorption that, no matter what, we couldn't get any reflection. It was just dead and I was unknowingly trying to get an ambient drum sound.

"You see, one of our models for 'Jack & Diane' was Phil Collins' 'In The Air Tonight'. 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.”

Not that either Mellencamp or Gehman knew how to recreate Collins' trademark drum sound which, thanks to producer‑engineer Hugh Padgham's innovative use of heavily compressed room ambience and gated reverb, distinguished so many 1980s productions.

"That was one of the things that really hung us up,” Gehman confirms. "I didn't know anything about rock & roll drum sounds — I didn't understand how you even made a gated sound. Still, having originally been managed by David Bowie's manager Tony DeFries, John knew people within that camp, including Bowie's guitarist Mick Ronson. So we asked him to come in for a day and help us with the arrangement of a track called 'Weakest Moments'. Then, when we mentioned how we were trying to get a rock sound on the drums, he said, 'Well, you ought to do a gated echo with a plate.' I said, 'Huh? What do you mean?' He said, 'Make the plate kinda short, put gates on the returns and gate the send,' and when I did that it was one of those 'Aha!' moments — 'Oh, my God, so this is how you make something sound like it's getting hit hard.' That was the beginning of things starting to click. Just that one little thing made it like we were a rock band. What Mick told us was a gift.

"We also used a LinnDrum borrowed from the Bee Gees at a time when there were only two of those machines in the entire country. Kenny programmed the little drum-machine beat for the first half of 'Jack & Diane', and for two months we had the intro, the first three verses and all the stuff up to where the real drums enter. Every day, we were pounding away at the sound, trying to make this thing launch. Then, once we had the drum sound, Kenny came up with the drum entrance that's on the record. Shortly after, we got the 'let it rock, let it roll' background bridge and it all tumbled together fairly quickly.”

"I owe Mick Ronson the hit song 'Jack & Diane',” John Mellencamp told Classic Rock magazine 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 fuck 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.”

Making Arrangements

Mellencamp has also remarked that the clapping on 'Jack & Diane' was recorded simply to help sustain the tempo and was supposed to be removed, before he realised the song didn't work without it.

"I don't recall that being the case,” Gehman says. "I always thought it was part of the hook. From day one, John came in with a production model of what he wanted to do. Just listen to 'In The Air Tonight'. Certainly, when he first rehearsed the song it didn't have a chorus. It was just a lot of verses tucked together. But then, what is the chorus to that song? What's unusual about the production is that there are a lot of hooks. There are musical hooks, there are the claps, there's all kinds of stuff. Still, while John's memory is horrible with regard to how certain things happened, it's true that, until we had 'let it rock, let it roll', there was no payoff.

John Cougar: 'Jack & Diane'"That was a gang vocal, with the guys all standing around one mic, and we layered it with some low harmonies, creating three or four tracks of three or four people. The band had a lot of singers. Mike Wanchic and Larry Crane both had very unique voices.”

As did John Mellencamp, who initially stood inside a booth while the rhythm section played, and sang his guide vocals into a U87 as well as a C500.

"I remember experimenting with some Sony mics at the time. Ultimately, we switched over to a [Neumann] U67, but that wasn't until later when we finally realised that was his mic. John ran the gamut with his performances. I remember 'Hurt So Good' requiring six takes being comp'd syllable by syllable, and then I can remember doing that on other songs and him sitting down and singing them from one end to the other.

"To his credit, after the American Fool record, John became a much better singer. I don't know what happened, but I've seen it happen with a lot of artists, including Darius Rucker, who I couldn't get to sing in tune to save his life on Hootie & The Blowfish's debut album, Cracked Rearview Mirror. Once I'd made a record with him he would rarely need more than two takes to get what was required, and John became that same guy, singing 'Pink Houses' [a hit single off 1983s' Uh‑Huh album] from one end to the other. In 2001, I was brought in to produce the vocals on his Cuttin' Heads album and then mix the record, and by and large he sang things in sections. There was none of that craziness.

"Sometimes it's the process, sometimes it's a learning curve for the artist. You can't draw any conclusions about someone's ability. Sometimes the pitch reference of the song is such that the artist can't hear where he needs to go. You'll bang your head against the wall for days just trying to get things in tune until you realise that he's keying off some guitar part that's out of tune. It's always been a mystery and it still hasn't changed.”

Ditto Mellencamp's views on 'Jack & Diane' which, according to his Classic Rock interview, "was a terrible record to make. 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.”

Gehman agrees. "That song eludes everyone,” he says. "Without the middle section, it barely exists as something you could sit and play on an acoustic guitar and hold anyone's interest. That's why the mix was so difficult. There's one bass note in each intro setup, and I had to twist John's arm to let me put that in because I felt like it needed to be rooted somewhere. The song is kind of tied together with lots of little pieces that are sequential in terms of their call and response. As every section is a new set of instrumentation, it required a lot of tracks; something which was part of the 48‑track approach that I was accustomed to by then, so we could make it all happen. Drums and drum machines take up a lot of room — 24‑tracks aren't very good at that unless you mix everything down.

"Along with all of these technical difficulties, I was trying to produce the song so that it felt current. We had a backwards cymbal coming out of the 'let it rock' section, but John didn't want to know about any of those tricks. That wasn't where he really wanted to go. However, we came up with a very sophisticated production, and almost all of the records that John and I made together were that way. They come off sounding like they're pretty simple, but if you look at the track layout and how many things come and go — different guitar sounds, the chorus and all the instrumentation changes — you realise how much we worked our asses off to make it sound like it was played from one end to the other when it wasn't. In those days, that required a lot of work.”

The Final Hurdle

For his part, despite the welcome success of American Fool, John Mellencamp was less than ecstatic about the contents.

"To be real honest, there's three good songs on that record and the rest is just sort of filler,” he opined in a 1984 Creem magazine interview. "It was too laboured over, too thought about, and it wasn't organic enough.”

Gehman concurs: "It was fraught with layers of problems. We had 20 or so songs, we had a record company that was hoping we were making a Neil Diamond‑type album, and after we spent two or three months in the studio recording these songs and mixing them to the best of our ability, I can remember an A&R guy in a pink shirt coming in to listen to them and basically thinking we had nothing. At that point, they put a stop to the project. 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 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.”

It was during this uncertain period that Mellencamp collaborated with lyricist George Green, who he had known growing up in Seymour, Indiana, and 'Hurt So Good' was one new result of their partnership. Another was 'Thundering Hearts'.

"Once John had 'Hurt So Good', he felt like he had what he needed to launch the project,” says Don Gehman.

"The record company thought it would bomb,” Mellencamp asserted in his Creem interview, "but I think the reason it took off was — not that the songs were better than my others — but people liked the sound of it, the 'bam‑bam‑bam' drums. It was a different sound.”

Indeed, once the sessions resumed, they took place at Cherokee Studios in LA, where engineer George Tutko was well versed in the art of making rock records.

"We cut four more tracks, finished what we had to do — including one of the power‑chord guitars on 'Jack & Diane' — and then mixed the album there on a Trident console,” recalls Gehman, who in 1984 relocated to Los Angeles where, due to the industry's generally diminished budgets, he now works almost exclusively in specialised home studios, including his own Pro Tools‑based setup. Among his current projects is one with 15‑year‑old singer‑songwriter Noah Benardout, who just happens to be a great‑great‑nephew of Irving Berlin. Featuring four of his songs, the web site recently attracted around 250,000 hits within just three weeks.

"Mark Stebbeds, who had helped us with some ideas at Criteria, was, I think, also with us in Los Angeles,” Gehman continues. "John liked having engineers around. Whenever I worked with him, he was always saying, 'Bring in somebody else who's got ideas besides yours. I want to hear what they have.' So we would bring in other engineers for a week or have them mix the record, or I would work with them. Having engineering partners was great for me — I learned a tremendous amount from observing some of them.”

Nevertheless, nearly 30 years later, despite having so much more studio experience under his belt, Don Gehman still isn't sure that he would have approached the American Fool project any differently.

"Given the personalities, I don't know that much would have ever changed,” he says. "You can't view that stuff outside the context of what was going on in the world in 1982 and what was available technologically. It was a different time. The only constant is that John was an amazingly creative man and still is.”