7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 2009
You probably know John Mellencamp as the quintessential heartland rocker who penned such anthems as "Small Town" or "Jack and Diane". Maybe you know him as the tough guy who was a part of a motorcycle gang in the video for "Hurts So Good" or the sensitive balladeer on such tunes as "Your Life As Now". You may even know him as a troubadour who has spent much of his career writing political and topical songs with a strong sense of compassion for the working class.
I know and love all of these facets of Mellencamp and his music, but there is one which is not as well-known: the young rocker looking for his big break. Perhaps the reason this part of his catalog is not as well known is that Mellencamp himself has disowned most of his early work.
But just for a moment, forget that this is a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer and Grammy-winner who had nearly as many hits in the 1980s as Michael Jackson. Forget that this is one of the best poets living today. Forget it because it's 1979 and you have no idea who John Cougar is. Probably some talentless wannabe teen idol. The name even sounds fake, like Fabian or something. But still you put the record on and hear a young man who has spent the better part of a decade playing in various bar bands and has to this point made three forgettable albums (including one that would not be released in America for another 30 years). Listen to the urgency in the man's voice. There is a strange undercurrent in which you sense that their must be some level of success in this recording or this guy will be back in Seymour, Indiana within a year working for the telephone company again.
Mellencamp would later be called the Midwestern Springsteen and whether or not this was intentional on his part or not, the comparison is a good one. Mellencamp represented the Midwest in the same way that Springsteen represented the Jersey Shore. Sure, Bob Seger was also from the Midwest (and has also been compared to Springsteen), but Seger's work was much more urban. Mellencamp was the definition of small town and rural and this was his first album to explore those themes. On his earlier albums, his lyrics were full of tough guy cliches and explorations of city life that it was evident he knew nothing about. While the tough guy persona has still not completely disappeared from Mellencamp's music even now, this album showed that he was maturing and mixing this persona with things he did know about.
"Well west of Zion they got a hot spot brewin'/Handcuffs and kisses for the people who live there" he sings to open up the album with the midtempo rocker "A Little Night Dancin'". Lyrics are wonderful with the kind of oblique Biblical references that would become his signature: "Sodom and Gomorrah/they run the roadhouse". Close your eyes and you are in a small town bar on a Saturday night in the late '70s, a town unaffected by punk, disco and other trends of the era.
"Small Paradise" continues this theme but takes a slower, power ballad approach and a darkness right beneath the surface.
"Miami" is one of the great tracks on the album. Unlike earlier albums where John tried to write about city life from a realist perspective that he frankly did not have, this is a total fantasy and both he and the listener know it. This midtempo rocker with a catchy chorus sounds a bit like some of Billy Joel's work from the same period.
"The Great Midwest" is something of a precursor to "Small Town" and other such songs, but with less of a sense of pride for his background. Some of the lyrics are clumsy (he was nowhere near the songwriter he would become), but it really doesn't matter. He gets his point across and anybody from "the great midwest" will know what he is trying to say. One verse in the song is among the best lines he has written in his career: "Well I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth/So I can't talk about the big city high life/But if you wanna talk about bein' bored and runnin' away from yourself/Hell, I can talk to you all night".
"Do You Think That's Fair" is a good mid-tempo ballad, but not one of my favorites on the album.
You have probably all heard "I Need a Lover". It was John's first hit and was also a hit for Pat Benatar who covered it. The long intro sets the mood for one of the finest pure rock songs of his career.
"Welcome to Chinatown" kind of reminds me of his 1982 album American Fool (the album that transformed him from an obscure rocker with a few pop hits into a legitimate superstar), in particular the songs "Can You Take It" and "Thundering Hearts". It is wordier than either though, and the piano and strings add a level of sound that the others do not have.
"Sugar Marie" is the blueprint for future Mellencamp songs like 1991's "Again Tonight": a tale of a night on the (small) town. This one is more of a story song, though: "I got this cowboy comin' with me/This guy's name is Jeffrey Jack/He can shoot the eyes out of a pool ball/He can get those young girls into the sack". But the song's real star is Sugar Marie who is "the only girl I know who can make me forget about me". This song is fun on the surface, but like "The Great Midwest" it also has a sense of disillusionment and boredom with the life it describes.
"Pray for Me" is a good rocker with some great humorous lines, but like other tracks on the album it is somewhat clumsy due to Mellencamp's inexperience at songwriting.
"Taxi Dancer", on the other hand, should have definitely been a single. If it had, I have no doubt that Mellencamp (or rather, "Cougar") would have been a superstar three years before "Jack & Diane". However, in a way I'm glad it wasn't because it is more in the Elton John or Neil Diamond mold. Nothing wrong with that. I'm a fan of both. But if this song had hit number one (and it would have) Mellencamp would have spent his entire career as a singer of soft rock ballads. There would have been no Uh-Huh or Scarecrow and that would have been a loss I couldn't live with. However, I do wish Mellencamp had explored this style a bit more on a few album tracks.
In conclusion, this is Mellencamp's first great album and really the first true Mellencamp album (although in reality the first true Mellencamp album would not be released for another 12 years).
Do I recommend this as your first Mellencamp album? That's up to you. He's certainly made better albums, including last year's Life Death Love and Freedom in my opinion the best of his career (see my review of it). But thousands of people were introduced to Mellencamp through this album, why not you too? It's a little rough around the edges and there are elements of the late '70s production that have not aged as well as his work from a few years later, but below the surface you get a genuine portrait not of a manufactured rock star named Johnny Cougar, but of an American poet and musical genius named John Mellencamp.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on September 11, 2009
I first heard John Mellencamp in late 1979 with his first hit "I Need A Lover". I was immediately taken by the whole album. "John Cougar" is still my favorite Mellencamp album, although I cannot deny that "The Lonesome Jubilee" and "Scarecrow" deserve their acclaim as his best from a critical and commercial standpoint (I would also argue that his album "Cuttin' Heads" deserves to be up there with "Scarecrow"). I heard John remark that this 1979 album was his first real album, and I consider it to be so - despite the earliest fans who enjoy his stuff from the "Johnny Cougar" era. From my first hearing, it was obvious that the Pat Benatar (another debut artist from '79) cover of "I Need A Lover" paled in comparison to the original. My only regret is that there really is no MTV version (that is, quality version) of John's "I Need A Lover" on video (all we have is his grainy live footage). For whatever reason, John chose not to make a version with a quality producer. But John did do videos of several other songs from this album that were competently produced. This album became popular (to the extent that it was) right on the cusp of the new MTV. John made some nice videos from this album, each of them were shown just enough on MTV, plus his hit on the radio, to help make John a nation-wide phenomenon.
Young people today (those that are serious about music) should still have turntables and the ones that do will understand my early decision to begin my cassette tape of this album (cassettes were of course the medium for car audio listening for a generation) with Side 2. It seemed obvious to me (and still does) that the album should kick off with "I Need A Lover". Almost as important, I feel Side 2 is the stronger side. Besides the hit, I love "Sugar Marie" and "Taxi Dancer". By the end of "Taxi Dancer" I am so exhilarated by John's artistry that I can't wait to get to the other side. There seems to be an emotional finality to "The Great Mid-West" and "Do You Think That's Fair" (the end of Side 1) that to me make the those appropriate as the album's closing tracks. Those songs capture the bittersweetness, the "I know what he means", the lyrical Midwestern beauty that are quintessential early John Mellencamp. It is sometimes forgotten by listeners of John's newer music that his early stuff was magical when it came to evoking the travails of failed love affairs and the problems of growing into maturity in small town middle America (this is of course long before John immortalized small town life in his finest ever song from Scarecrow). Early on, John wrote with heartfelt passion about the troubles that others (that is, not self-referentially) experienced in small town life. I do believe this ability to paint life as others experience it was John's finest early talent, apart from his stunning ability to create amazing music. Both attributes are exhibited well in this, his first real album.
"Welcome To Chinatown" is an under-appreciated tune about being taught about love from an older woman. The chorus rocks with an energy that still blows me away 30 years later. His newer music of course cannot evoke quite this feeling of youthful passion and honesty. And just as important, only in his earlier albums (through Scarecrow perhaps) does John's voice have this amazingly powerful energy and timbre. "Chinatown" is one of the finer examples of John's raw and passionate voice from this unrepeatable earlier period. Another is "Hot Night in a Cold Town" from "Nothing Matters and What If It Did" (still my favorite of his album titles). If you listen to these first two albums (especially the first) you notice that John used a lot of piano and orchestral strings that he no longer used after these albums. Of course Mellencamp is now famous for his fiddle and accordion accompaniment, but I do relish the piano and strings from this first album.
"Sugar Marie" in my opinion is his best song ever that evokes his young man energy and rogue-ish satisfaction with living the wild single life (sadly, this would become an actual Mellencamp trait even during his second, ultimately failed, marriage). "Sugar Marie" began John's Steinbeck-like ability to name characters in an original yet unforgettable way. We all know a Jeffrey Jack and some of us maybe wish we were him. His reference to tequila sunrises is John's only reference to cocktails in his oeuvre. This song is a fine example of the unpretentious social-observation quality of John's best music. Plus it's super fun to sing along to! It was this song, along with the I Need A Lover hit, that made me realize in 1979 that John had a special talent and could be as big as he wanted to be. Everything he did after this only confirmed this conviction.
"Taxi Dancer" is John's semi-ballad from the album and nothing he did later quite captures the emotional impact that this song, and several other of his earlier songs, had on me. It's happy and it's sad (as so many of John's best songs are) and the music and the lyrics evoke powerful images like the best art. Younger people today have no idea what a taxi dancer even is. I love the reference to Paso Robles - John didn't know anything about California but he knew enough to weave this out-of-the-way small country town name into this poignant tune. Come slow dance with me, we can pretend this floor is the Broadway stage.
"A Little Night Dancin'" actually kicks off Side 1 and it is the best song on this side. There is a hot spot west of Zion, folks, and if you want to get a little dish on what goes on there (Sodom and Gomorrah would not be shocked by the handcuffs and kisses) buckle up and crank this song as loud as you can as you motor through the night.. A brilliant, effervescent paean to the roadhouse in all young people who like to have fun.
Regarding "I Need A Lover", the brilliant hit that makes this album, John has related how his band and he had just discovered (no false airs) how to change chords while playing the same riff, so the first 2 minutes of this song are the instrumental intro. He never did this again, but thank goodness he did here because it works in a way that the finest rock 'n roll does - a powerful enticement to one of the great songs of all time. He talks about radios, telephones, videos, pool rooms, the human jungle, and weakness ("won't somebody turn off that light!"). And of course the macho fantasy (too often achieved) of getting rid of the girl after he has had his way with her. For years I was convinced that, no matter how many great songs John wrote (and he wrote many), he would never write one that would be quite as great, as fun, as amazing, as this song. I had to eat my words when he came up with "Small Town" on Scarecrow. But I still have, like a nostalgic lament to a bygone time, a special place for this hit which captures John Mellencamp at the height of his powers - melodic, boisterous, irreverent, uncomplaining, with powerful vocals and intense guitars and rhythms, with soul and exuberance, and an amazing musical sense to evoke emotions. Some of us might outgrow this reverie someday, and we will be the poorer for it.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
John Cougar Mellencamp hits it out of the park on what is his first real album, aside from a couple of early albums which have, unfortunately, been reissued. Of course, "I Need A Lover" is the best thing here, but many of the other songs are great, too, including "Great Mid-West" and "Do You Think That's Fair." The fact that he believes that the young Australian tourist jailed in Indonesia on drug-smuggling charges was unjustly convicted makes it even more worth going back to the beginning of Mellencamp's career.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 29, 2005
I just have to rate this 5 stars to counter-act the unfair 2 star rating that another reviewer left. This CD is better than that.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 3, 2014
I was in a record store, remember them , in 1979 and they were playing this album in the store and I was drawn in. This is the best Cougar-Mellencamp album he has ever done. Every song strong,passionate and literate. I need a lover was the hit but others are as good if not better. Pray for Me, Living in Miami, Taxi Dancer, Chinatown,Night Dancing and Small Paradise. Listen to the lyrics to Pray for Me with references to God, Moses, shakespere,cain and able, and punch and judy,it does not get any better.
on June 16, 2013
I bought this album years after it was released, I was too young in 1979, but when I discovered John Cougar Mellencamp in the mid-eighties, I started to buy his previous albums as well as everything else he has released since. Out of his 21 studio albums to date, this is my 4th favourite, the top 3 dating from 1991, 1987 and 1998, so as you can see I like all eras or styles.
Yes, the album John Cougar has a strong late-seventies sound; what's wrong with that? I like so many tracks on it, some I love, especially `Sugar Marie' **** and `A Little Night Dancin' ***(*) These you can indeed dance to, they are cheeky numbers lyrically but remain adorable musically. Dare I say, the beginning of Sugar Marie, makes me think of some good Neil Young? `Small Paradise' *** starts with some keyboards and some nearly-flamenco guitar, then the drums wake you up and the electric guitar has a say, but there is something touching in the lyrics behind the naughtiness (it's the way, he says "Alright then, hold me tight and kiss me"!) It's perfect to dance and kiss to (trust me). Another track to smooch to, while slow dancing is `Taxi Dancer' **(*) a re-worked version from the 1977 album A Biography (not released in the US). In '77, JM's voice sounded very young, two years later it is huskier and makes the tale more believable. The 1st version was slower with a hesitating sax, in fact, a sort of acoustic version of this 1979 version, which I think is very good with sweeping piano (think Billy Joel), violins and sax (think Clarence Clemons), female backing vocalists going woooo... it's nearly 5 min long, I guess the single was shorter than that. `Do You Think It's Fair' **(*) is charming, though the keyboard bridge might make you cringe. I also like `Miami' ** which was a single in Australia only (where the whole album was titled Miami), it sounds quite fun. `Pray for Me' ** is quite assertive with its guitars and the vocals (he's not too impressed about something). `Welcome to Chinatown' *(*) starts with some slow piano and then accelerates a bit, it's quite a wordy tale and might remind you of `Kid Inside' in its tone, it ends with lots of guitar; it's a hard song to describe in fact.
I'm not a big fan of the track `I Need a Lover' * (which was also first recorded on A Biography and frankly the 2 versions are very much the same). That's just personal preferences, but I find this track a little repetitive, that's all. And I don't really like `Great Mid-West' but I can see why it would touch some people, it has a reverie type of mood to it, in places the vocals make me think of Rod Stewart! But the lyrics are about poverty in the Mid-West (where else?)
Is the album uniform? Yes, it runs very well from beginning to end. John Mellencamp wrote all the tracks on his own. His vocals are clear but there is THAT voice we now can identify so easily and which must have been new to a lot of listeners at the time: it sounds so mature for a 28 year old man, it's amazing in its texture and already we can hear a variety of tones and moods, changing from serious or accusing to sad, warm or even flirty. So, I would also state that there is plenty of contrast also, even with that great late-seventies production and arrangement that is there all the way through.
For the record, I own all JM's albums and I have uploaded more reviews. I give **** max. to tracks I love, * to songs I feel are still worth listening to.
on January 16, 2008
If you like less commercial, less pop oriented rock, then get this album. This is my favorite John Cougar album for this reason. Many of the songs are hard hitting rock songs - A Little Night Dancin', Small Paradise, Miami, Great Mid-West, and Pray For Me are spectacular songs you will never hear on the radio. They also have staying power. I Need a Lover is w/o a doubt the highlight and much better than Pat Benetar's version. The long intro is killer. This album is worth your money! I have not yet heard the remastered version, but will order it soon.
on March 13, 2015
I've been a Mellencamp fan since Scarecrow but never listened to this album until a month or so ago. Now, it's one of my favorites albums of his...now a throwaway song in the bunch. Pray for Me, Small Paradise, Living in Miami...great stuff, and I've very glad I finally gave it a listen.
on July 11, 2010
I listened to this album from start to finish and liked every song on it. I must say I was surprised. I love John Mellencamp, but with any artist it's rare for me to like all the tracks on an album. It should be considered one of the great classic rock albums of all time.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2006
This "album" has always drawn me in. Its so american and down to earth. Its just raw rock and roll that I related to then and still do.