John Mellencamp – R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.

John Mellencamp took a three-chord pattern that is used many times in rock and roll (Cherry, Cherry is one) and turned it into Rock in the USA. The song worked well…in the middle of the eighties, he turned this very 60’s sounding song into a big hit. The song peaked at #2 in the Billboard 100 and #7 in Canada in 1986.

Mellencamp name-drops several artists, particularly Frankie Lyman, Bobby Fuller, Mitch Ryder, Jackie Wilson, Shangra La’s, Young Rascals, Martha Reeves and James Brown. These artists were Mellencamp’s influences while growing up.

This song was on the Scarecrow album. To prepare for this album Mellencamp had a great idea. He had his band run through 60’s rock songs for a month. They learned them inside and out and applied the feel on the new songs they were working on the album.

Larry Crane the guitarist: “We got a bunch of those tapes you see advertised on TV with all the old songs on them, and God, we learned everything.”

Rolling Stone Magazine’s “100 Best Albums of the Eighties,” ranked Scarecrow at #95… that surprises me that it’s that low on the list. In my opinion, this album was the peak of his career.


From Songfacts

“R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” is subtitled “A Salute to ’60s Rock,” and despite Mellencamp’s feeling that “I don’t think people are getting the idea of what the song’s about, so I must’ve not done a very good job,” the song became a big hit. It tells the story of how rock and roll emerged in America, and how those (now infamous) musicians that were not afraid to take personal risks for the sake of their music became a strong influence on the next generation, including Mellencamp, who sings: “[They] Filled our head full of dreams, turned the world upside down.”

Growing up, Mellencamp listened to AM radio at a time when the same station would play a mix of styles, exposing him to rock, folk, soul and R&B at an early age.

John Mellencamp released “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” in 1985 on his eighth album Scarecrow. The album peaked at #2 in the US, with three Top 10 hit singles, this being the biggest. The overall theme of the album is the decay of societal foundations in rural America, but this song is a departure from that theme. Far from satirical, Mellencamp intends to portray a mournful U.S.A. that has been slowly eaten out from inside by the industries that substitute greed for the American Dream, but “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A” was so against the grain of this album’s emotional profile that Mellencamp almost excluded it from the album.

Mellencamp’s interest in recreating the sounds of the heyday of rock & roll has spanned his entire career; in 2009 he recorded songs for the 2010 album No Better than This at Sun Studios (in the footsteps of Elvis) and other historical locations. The recording techniques used for this album are purposefully raw in an attempt to reconnect with his roots, a reflection of Mellencamp’s ideology of “Real music, for real people!”

In this way, Mellencamp was paying homage, but he was also paying his dues. For example, the late Bobby Fuller’s mention on a Top 10 song, and a platinum album, was enough to revive flagging interest in the artist (as well as get Mellencamp a credit on a Bobby Fuller Four Best-Of album). Said Mellencamp: “When I played in Albuquerque, I think it was, his [Fuller’s] mom and some of his family came down to see me play. They acted like I gave them 60 million dollars just for mentioning his name. They gave me his belt that he died in.”

The instrumental break in this song is very clever. When we first hear it, it’s played on an ocarina, which is a small wind instrument of ancient Eastern origins, thought to be 12,000 years old, and often made in the shape of a bird and used to imitate its fluting song. This is a nod to the song “Wild Thing” by The Troggs, which featured an ocarina solo. In Mellencamp’s song, the riff is then played on guitar and later on keyboards, going through various musical forms popular in ’60s rock. In concert, Mellencamp would often bring a fan onstage to dance with him during this section.

In the months prior to recording Scarecrow, Mellencamp’s band worked their way through nearly a hundred cover songs. Mellencamp hoped that through these covers, they would absorb the stylistic essence of the era through osmosis. Mellencamp’s bassist Toby Myers admitted that, “I thought he was giving us busywork, but he wanted us to understand what made those songs tick so we could put some of that grit into his songs.” The band was surprised by the sheer quantity of different styles that characterized the era. “Take an old Rascals song for example,” Mellencamp said. “There’s everything from marching band beats to soul music to country sounds in one song.”

For the Scarecrow album, Mellencamp moved away from the stage-name, John Cougar, which had been given to him by Tony DeFries, his first manager, and became “John Cougar Mellencamp” (he would drop the “cougar” completely by 1989). This was a fortunate move, because 2009 saw the release of the hit sitcom Cougar Town starring Courteney Cox (as the main “cougar”). The ensuing taunts that would have come with the transition of cultural interpretation from a cougar being an imposing catamount to a sexy middle-aged woman might have been enough to revive Mellencamp’s reputation as a hothead prone to bursts of anger in his old age. As if continually being compared to Bruce Springsteen wasn’t enough…

This song forms part of a greater genre of songs that spell out words in the lyrics, like Otis Redding’s song “Respect” (made famous by Aretha Franklin) or “Lola” by the Kinks.

Mellencamp’s title wasn’t too far from Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.,” released a year earlier. That song was often misinterpreted as a celebration of America, when it was really about the plight of a Vietnam War veteran.

In keeping with ’60s hit single tradition, Mellencamp kept this song under three minutes long – it clocks in at 2:54.

R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.

They come from the cities
And they come from the smaller towns
Beat up cars with guitars and drummers
Goin crack boom bam

R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A., Yeah, Yeah!
Rockin’ in the U.S.A.

Said goodbye to their families
Said goodbye to their friends
With pipe dreams in their heads
And very little money in their hands
Some are black and some are white
Ain’t to proud to sleep on the floor tonight
With the blind faith of Jesus you know that they just might, be
Rockin’ in the U.S.A.

Voices from nowhere
And voices from the larger towns
Filled our head full of dreams
Turned the world upside down

There was Frankie Lyman-Bobby Fuller-Mitch Ryder
(They were Rockin’)
Jackie Wilson-Shangra-las-Young Rascals
(They were Rockin’)
Spotlight on Martha Reeves
Let’s don’t forget James Brown
Rockin’ in the U.S.A.
Rockin’ in the U.S.A.

R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A., Yeah, Yeah!
Rockin’ in the U.S.A.

Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

18 thoughts on “John Mellencamp – R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.”

  1. It surprises me too that the album ranks that low. For a short period of time in the mid-late 80’s he was up there with Bruce in my book. Scarecrow captured the heartland zeitgeist of the time very much like Bruce captured that of the East Coast and Rust Belt. Always liked this video, too.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. #95 took me off guard. I know it was the decade of giant albums but this one is nearly flawless. I agree with the Bruce comment.


  2. It’s a good one, even if one of the “lesser” songs off that album to me. He’d really become a major talent by then. I watched the movie about Clive Davis on Netflix recently & Davis listed him as one of his few mistakes… he had a chance to sign John but he figured “I already got Springsteen, why would I need this imitation” but soon came to learn JCM was one of the great American singer-songwriters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t know it chart at #2 and #7 in Canada…that is much better than I thought.
      I didn’t know that about Davis…he missed the boat on this one…it was good of him to say.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Very cool song – love that retro ‘60s garage sound.

    In fact, it was “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” that made me by the “Scarecrow” album in the ‘80s – the record that started my John Mellencamp journey.

    And as you know, I still dig Mellencamp to this day, even though he sounds very different! While I still like the early straight Mellencamp, my taste has evolved over the decades, and I now prefer his present day stripped back roots sound.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I agree’s looked over…One of my favorites by him…I also like Pop Singer


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