Not Fade Away: John Mellencamp Reclaims His Name (And Creative Control) With Uh-Huh

By Brian Ives,

John Cougar Mellencamp, John Mellecamp, john prine, Mike Wanchic, Not Fade Away, T-Bone Burnett, Uh-Huh

In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on John Mellencamp‘s ‘Uh-huh’ — recorded when he was called “John Cougar Mellencamp” — as it turns 30. spoke with Mellencamp’s longtime guitarist Mike Wanchic about the album.

What’s in a name? A lot: especially if that name happens to be “Mellencamp.” John Mellencamp famously had his name changed, at the behest of his management company, to the sexier and easier-to-market “Johnny Cougar” when he first started his big-time music career in the ’70s. But after the success of 1982′s American Fool (which included the hit singles “Hurts So Good” and “Jack And Diane”) Mellencamp had the cache to reclaim his name. (It would be a few more years before he would drop the “Cougar” entirely on his 1991 album Whenever We Wanted.)

But as John’s longtime guitarist Mike Wanchic tells, Mellencamp began wrestling creative control from record labels and managers on American Fool. “If you go back to the late ’70s, everybody had to have a producer. We had the Albert Brothers [Ron Albert and Howard Albert] on the [1979] John Cougar record, and we felt, ‘Wow, could this be any more off base?’

“And the next record [1980's Nothin' Matters And What If It Did] came up and we used Steve Cropper,” a Memphis session great and member of Booker T and the MG’s. “And we loved him, goddamn, he’s a Stax legend, so we said OK. We made that record, [but] even though it had a hit ["Ain't Even Done With The Night"], it still was not even close to a reflection of who we were. That was sort of too slick, too ‘L.A.’ On what became American Fool, we decided to hire Don Gehman, who was the engineer on the John Cougar record.”

And that, Wanchic says, was when they started to reclaim their Stones-influenced garage band sound. “We said, ‘We will give you the title ‘producer,” and that would take out of the record company’s control the need for a quote unquote producer and allow us the latitude to produce it ourselves. And from then on, that’s the way it’s been. We’ve never had an outside producer until T-Bone [Burnett] came in.” Burnett, the creative force behind the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack among many other projects, produced two Mellencamp albums, 2008′s Life, Death, Love And Freedom and 2010′s No Better Than This.

During the recording of American Fool in Los Angeles, Wanchic continues, a record exec came to the studio and suggested that they use a horn section. Mellencamp’s response was to summarily eject him from the studio. So, for Uh-Huh, they took a different recording approach, and one that the label was probably too intimidated to question.

Wanchic says that instead of using a big time studio, they did the opposite: they went to Brownstown, Indiana, where they had a friend who had a half-finished house, and brought a mobile studio and created their own temporary studio. ”If we [had] told the label we were going to do that–and we’re just going to jack around for like 20 straight days, and we’re gonna make the record on the spot, with no pre-production, no nothing–I don’t think any record company exec would have hung his job on that.”

The album saw the arrival of bassist Toby Myers, who joined Wanchic, guitarist Larry Crane and drummer Kenny Aronoff, who would make up of the core of Mellencamp’s backing band for the rest of the ’80s. And while he never named his group (a la the Silver Bullet Band, the Heartbreakers or the E Street Band), they were as important to Mellencamp’s sound as the players backing Seger, Petty and Springsteen.

Wanchic, the only remaining member of that band still working with Mellencamp, says that those four players were indeed a potent mix. “That was the band, that was the sound, that was what took us to the heights that we reached. That was the core sound that we followed all the way through the ’90s: guitar, bass, drums. We’ve always been a guitar-driven band.”

Uh-Huh centered around one of Mellencamp’s most enduring anthems, “Pink Houses.” Was it clear from the beginning that it would be a hit? “Yes, definitely,” Wanchic says. “When it comes to writing, [Mellencamp] writes like a folk singer on an acoustic guitar. He would play basic chords, and then we would embellish it, come up with hooks and bridges.”

Years later, when singer/songwriter/bassist Meshell Ndegeocello guested on Mellencamp’s cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night,” she told the band that she loved “Pink Houses,” and that she’d even entered MTV’s contest to win an actual pink house in Indiana.

Beyond the singles, Uh-Huh still holds up today. Not that Mellencamp and his band play all of the songs in concert anymore: “Play Guitar” used to be a concert highlight (it would often be mixed with “Gloria”), but lyrics like “Forget all about that macho s*** and learn how to play guitar!” no longer seem age appropriate. “We were young cavalier men at the time,” Wanchic says of the song. However, “once you hit your 50s it seems less relevant. It’s too out of step with who we are now.

“When we put together a show today, we try to project not only who we were, but who we are now. We’re still relevant, we’re still making records, we’re not a band who is purely living on their legacy.”

“Jackie O” saw Mellencamp cowriting with an icon of Americana , John Prine, which Wanchic says was a huge thrill: ”I was a huge fan of his before I was ever in this band. He had a great band called the Famous Potatoes, they were just fantastic. As a songwriter, a lot of people feel he’s right up there with Dylan. We’ve invited him to several Farm Aids, and we’ve been his backing band.”

Another song, “Lovin’ Mother Fo’ Ya,” had a somewhat corrupting effect on a future movie star. Before the song starts, you hear someone yell, “What the f***?” That would be Mr. Wanchic. And years later, he met longtime Mellencamp fan Matthew McConaughey–a teenager when Uh-Huh was released–who greeted him by saying, “I know you: ‘What the f***?’”

Not everyone was so amused, however. “My mother really liked that,” Wanchic says. “Yes that was me! The headphones were so loud during a playback, it blew my head off. ‘What the f***?,’ as I so eloquently put it. My mom heard the record and said, ‘Is that you?’ ‘Yeah, mom, that’s me.’”

Mellencamp and Wanchic–along with Crane, Myers and Aronoff–would go on to make a number of other classics, including 1985′s Scarecrow, 1987′s The Lonesome Jubilee and 1989′s Big Daddy. Crane left after that point, with Myers and Aronoff eventually following. But curses and all, Uh-huh represents one of the greatest American bands–regardless of whether or not they had an official “name”–at the beginning of a very long peak.

Uh-Huh will be included in John Mellencamp 1978 – 2012, a 19-CD boxed set collection covering Mellencamp’s studio albums, which is due out December 10.