That time John “Cougar” Mellencamp channeled James Brown and Mick Jagger…and got an MTV hit!

As part of a private Facebook music group called “Lost Pop Hits (M.I.A.),” I participate in a daily song tournament in which tunes from a given year compete against one another in a 128-entry, single-elimination bracket (think March Madness with twice the entries) to determine the “best” record of that year.  The songs are seeded based on how they performed on the Billboard Hot 100 during the subject year. Winners of each match are determined by vote with between 200-300 group members voting in an average matchup each day.

We’re up to 1983 now and a recent battle pitted Bryan Adams’ “Cuts Like A Knife” against John Mellencamp’s “Crumblin’ Down.”  It was a classic battle of the ‘80s most famous Canuck vs. rock’s favorite Hoosier from Indiana.  A chord-heavy Canadian pop-rock tune vs. a classic, angst-riddled banger from the heartland.

This matchup immediately took me back to high school and the fall of 1983, the beginning of my senior year when Mellencamp’s tune debuted on MTV.  “Crumblin’ Down” was the first single from his new album Uh-Huh, the follow-up to the previous year’s American Fool – the blockbuster album that produced his two biggest hits, the omnipresent one-two punch of “Hurts So Good” and “Jack and Diane.”

John Cougar Mellencamp’s 1983 album ‘Uh-huh.’

John Mellencamp’s Uh-huh was a highly anticipated follow-up to one of the ‘80s biggest albums, but things had changed significantly for music in the one year since American Fool was released. For starters, MTV had exploded from its one-year-old infancy in 1982 to become a musical mega-force in ‘83.  What was once a fledgling medium for mere entertainment was now much more.  It was a proven hit generator that artists either had to embrace or otherwise find themselves left behind.  

Also – perhaps because of MTV – the second British Music Invasion was in full effect in America, at the expense of many American musicians…and then there was that little album called Thriller.

American rock and pop artists had to reckon with all three of those factors in 1983, and I dare say John Mellencamp rose to the occasion.

In “Crumblin’ Down,” he and co-writer George Green came up with a rollicking political rocker.  The song had all the traditional Mellencamp musical trademarks: jangly guitars, a rockin’ beat, a great hook, and the singer’s highly energized vocals to convey the urgency of the situation.

The song’s lyrics were even more compelling, with the verses addressing the pressures of fame – Mellencamp’s own in this case – and the choruses dealing with the frustration of potentially losing it all.  The political aspect was more subtle, as Mellencamp has since said the song touches on themes of working-class people losing their livelihoods in Ronald Reagan’s America, though neither the former president or any of his policies are directly or indirectly referenced.  

It’s been reported that, in writing the song, Mellencamp and longtime partner Green took turns adding lines to try and out-do one another.  This might explain why the verses’ lines don’t even rhyme until they’re about to lead into the chorus.  As a result, the lyrics might have come off as random and rambling, but they were at once unorthodox and clever.

John Mellencamp in the video for his 1983 top-10 hit “Crumblin’ Down.”

But it was the song’s video that took it over the top.  In it, Mellencamp starts off as a chain-smoking, ripped-jean performer who is initially seated, with one heel and one hand’s fingers nervously tapping to the song’s frenetic opening beats.  He sings the opening lines while still seated, ultimately standing with his guitar as the song’s energy builds.  

Then what comes next was a display of versatility that no one could have seen coming, unless of course you took to heart the song’s lyric in the second verse where the rocker proclaims to be a “real good dancer.”

John Mellencamp goes into a fancy foot-shuffling, hip-shaking dance move, dancing around parking meters, at one point jumping over one and putting on some spin moves before doing a full split that channeled the Godfather of Soul himself, the late James Brown.  Throughout his routine, Mellencamp – who for the first time in his career had nixed the nickname “Cougar” – swayed and pranced and kicked in ways that would make Mick Jagger proud. 

It prompted the most casual of fans – myself included – to wonder where had this John Cougar Mellencamp been the previous four years?

However, the video’s high point – literally – was at the 2:37 mark (see video above) during the song’s bridge.  It was during a ladder routine where Mellencamp climbs to the top and continues singing before sliding down the rails on the opposite side while he elongates the word “dowwwwnnn” to finish the bridge.  The darkly lit set, coupled with some interesting cuts to different camera shots, raises doubts as to whether it was actually John or a stuntman that performed the move, but it was a clever touch that rates among the best in any JCM video. 

In essence, it was John Mellencamp giving his all in the video performance of his life for a song that many consider to be his best rocker.  “Crumblin’ Down” wound up being one of the most played videos on MTV during the last months of 1983 and the single peaked at No. 9 on Billboard’s pop chart (and No. 2 on their rock tracks chart).

When all was said and done, “Crumblin’ Down” wasn’t even the biggest hit on Uh-huh. That would be the follow-up “Pink Houses,” which peaked at No. 8 on the Hot 100. But in a year when Michael Jackson’s Thriller had ruled the charts and his videos dominated MTV, John Mellencamp and “Crumblin’ Down” proved, if nothing else, that MJ wasn’t the only one who could dance his way through a video and make it work.

And it was from “Crumblin’ Down” that we all learned – as Mellencamp already knew – that this cat really was a real good dancer.

(Oh, and for those who are interested, Bryan Adams’ “Cuts Like A Knife” narrowly defeated “Crumblin’ Down” 88-83 in the song hits tournament to advance to the next round.) 😢

DJRob

DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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John “Cougar” Mellencamp In more recent times.
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