Anyone who grew up in the eighties is going to know this one. This was a big MTV and radio song in 1982. It was on the American Fool album which was his breakthrough. This song helped Mellencamp forge his identity, which was a struggle for him. John was still going by stage name John Cougar at this time. He would use Mellencamp for the follow up album Uh-Huh in 1983.
Mellencamp was inspired by the drum break in Phil Collins In The Air Tonight and asked his drummer Kenny Aronoff to come up with a drum break for this song.
The American Fool album produced two top 5 hits. It peaked at #1 in the Billboard Album Charts and Canada…and #35 in the UK. The song peaked at #1 in the Billboard 100, #1 in Canada, and #25 in the UK.
Mick Ronson played guitar, provided backup vocals, and helped arrange this song.
John Mellencamp: “The image that was given to me by the record company was so far off base of who I was and what I wanted to do,” he said in his Plain Spoken DVD. “I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew what I didn’t want to do. I did not want to be Johnny Cougar, I did not want to sing love songs, I did not want to be the next Neil Diamond, which is what they wanted.”
“I had to figure out what my image was, and I had a girl say to me, ‘John, just be a pair of blue jeans. That’s what you are.’ And the great thing about blue jeans is, you can dress them up, or you can dress them down.”
A song about a high school couple falling in love, Mellencamp wrote “Jack & Diane” as a tribute to life in the rural working class. The inspiration was his hometown of Seymour, Indiana, which had a population of about 13,000 when it was released. The song has a very nostalgic feel, but paints a picture of a couple whose best years will soon be behind them. In a 1982 interview with The LA Herald Examiner, Mellencamp explained: “Most people don’t ever reach their goals, but that’s cool, too. 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.”
In Campbell Devine’s authorized biography of Ian Hunter and Mott The Hoople it is revealed that this song was heavily influenced by Mick Ronson. The multi-talented Ronson (1946-1993), who was best known as a guitarist, recorded as a solo artist as well as playing lead guitar for both David Bowie and Ian Hunter (as Hunter-Ronson). In the book, Mellencamp says he’d thrown the song on the junk heap, adding: “I owe Mick Ronson the song… Mick was very instrumental in helping me arrange that.”
Some of Mellencamp’s high school photos and home movies were used to make the video, which was pretty much an afterthought. His record company hired Jon Roseman Productions to make videos for the songs “Hurts So Good” and “Hand To Hold On To.”
Paul Flattery, who worked for that production company, explained in the book I Want My MTV that Mellencamp made a special request after those videos were completed: “He said, ‘Look, there’s a song on the album the label doesn’t believe in. But I do. Can you do me a favor and save one roll of film, shoot me singing the song, I’ll give you some old photos and stuff and then you cobble it together for me?
The song was ‘Jack & Diane.’ So we stole some editing time in LA. We projected slides on the edit room wall, and we had the tape-op wear white gloves to do the clapping. We didn’t charge John a cent.”
Mellencamp spent a long time crafting this song in an effort to make it a hit. This was part of his plan to become so successful he could ignore critics and tell his record company to stick it. But first, he had to make some concessions, like changing his name.
His manager named him “Johnny Cougar,” and he went along with it, scoring an Australian hit with “I Need A Lover” in 1978. A year later, he altered his moniker to “John Cougar,” which is how he was billed on the American Fool album. The first single, “Hurts So Good” became a huge hit and got him on MTV, and when “Jack & Diane” followed, it accomplished his mission of autonomy through hits.
When he released Uh-Huh in 1983, it was as John Cougar Mellencamp, with songs that were less crafted and more inspired, especially “Pink Houses.” He lived up to his reputation of being difficult, but it didn’t matter because he could call the shots.
Jack and Diane were a interracial couple in the first version of this song, inspired by the blended couples Mellencamp saw during his live performances (Jack was black, Diane was white). He took the race part out of it and made Jack a football star after an executive from his record company heard what he was working on and asked him to do so in an effort to make the song more relatable and therefore boost its hit potential. With race removed from the equation, a broader swath of Mellencamp’s audience identified with the song, especially in the Midwest. He says that lots of folks have told him that the characters are just like them.
Following Phil Collins’ template from the 1981 hit “In The Air Tonight,” Mellencamp ordered a drum break in the middle of this song. His drummer, Kenny Aronoff, had to come up with it on the spot, proving his mettle when he did so. In a Songfacts interview with Aronoff, he told the story:
“I walk into the studio and the co-producer has a Linn LM-1 drum machine. I’d never seen a drum machine before. I’m being told that they’re using this on the song ‘Jack & Diane’ that we were having trouble coming up with an arrangement for. I’m devastated that I’m going to be replaced by a drum machine. I grab the drum machine, I get the manual, and I program the drum part. I’m in the lounge, really bummed out and wondering, ‘What’s the future of the drummer?’ This is 1981. I’m wondering, ‘Will that machine replace us?’
Two hours later, I’m summoned into the control room, where John tells me, ‘I need you to come up with a drum solo or something after the second chorus.’ At that moment, I was absolutely terrified and excited. Excited because I’m now going to be playing on the record. Terrified because I knew that I had to save the song in order to save my career. Because if I didn’t come up with it, they’d replace me. Two people had already been fired in the band and when I joined two years prior, I was fired from playing on the record. So, this was a scary moment for me.
The long and short of it is, I come up with this part on the spot and it becomes a #1 hit – John’s biggest hit ever. That and ‘In The Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins are probably the two most air-drummed solos on pop radio, ever [even Mellencamp air drums it in the video]. It’s not technically hard, but I was forced to create that on the spot.”
Up until the big drum break, a drum machine was used on this song, but drummer Kenny Aronoff gave it a human touch not just for the break, but also the section that immediately follows. “When I got into the groove after the drum solo, the drummer that influenced me to hit the floor tom on beat four was Steve Gadd from a recording he did on a Chick Corea album, and the song was called ‘Lenore,'” Aronoff told Songfacts. “Steve Gadd would always hit the beat on beat four. I thought that was cool, so even though I don’t sound anything like Steve Gadd and nothing like he was playing on the Chick Corea record, that track influenced me to hit the floor tom, which made my hi-hats open.”
The only musical couple song that can rival this one for popularity is the standard “Frankie And Johnny. Most other hit songs of this nature were cribbed from literature or film, like “Romeo And Juliet” and Bonnie And Clyde. In 1978, Raydio had a hit with “Jack And Jill.”
Weird Al Yankovic planned to parody this song on his 1983 debut album as “Chuck And Diane,” making fun of the royal couple Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Yankovic couldn’t get Mellencamp’s permission to do the parody (which he asks as a courtesy, as anyone can parody a song as long as proper royalties are paid), so he used the lyrical content for an original song called “Buckingham Blues” instead. Yankovic did parody the song on the 2003 Simpsons episode “Three Gays Of The Condo,” where he sang it in animated form as “Homer And Marge.”
This is the only #1 Hot 100 hit in Mellencamp’s career, and based on streams and downloads, his most popular song.
The Sun October 10, 2008 asked Mellencamp if it bothered him being best known for this little ditty. He replied: “That song is 30 or so years old and it gets played more today in the United States than it did when it came out. As much as I am a little weary of those two, I don’t know any other two people in rock and roll who are more popular than Jack and Diane. 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’m 57 today. 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.”
In 2012, a film was released called Jack & Diane, but Mellencamp had nothing to do with it, and the song is not used in the movie. In the film, Jack (played by Riley Keough) is a girl, and she and Diane have a lesbian relationship. Mellencamp said in a statement: “You don’t hear my song in the film, and I played no part in suggesting or offering this title. It’s most apparent that the lead characters were named with the hope that the familiar title might resonate in some people’s minds. I guess that’s OK to do, strictly from a legal perspective, but riding on someone else’s coattails and having a moral compass is left up to each individual.”
Mellencamp mentioned the title characters again in his 1998 song “Eden Is Burning.” The first line is, “Diane and Jack went to the movies.”
Jack and Diane
A little ditty ’bout Jack & Diane
Two American kids growing up in the heart land
Jack he’s gonna be a football star
Diane debutante in the back seat of Jacky’s car
Suckin’ on chilli dog outside the Tastee Freez
Diane sitting on Jacky’s lap
Got his hands between her knees
Jack he says:
“Hey, Diane, let’s run off behind a shady tree
Dribble off those Bobby Brooks
Let me do what I please”
Saying oh yeah
Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone
Sayin’ oh yeah
Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone
Now walk on
Jack he sits back, collects his thoughts for a moment
Scratches his head, and does his best James Dean
Well, now then, there, Diane, we ought to run off to the city
“Baby, you ain’t missing nothing”
But Jack he says:
“Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone”
He says: “life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone”
Oh, let it rock, let it roll
Let the bible belt come and save my soul
Holdin’ on to sixteen as long as you can
Change is coming ’round real soon
Make us woman and man
Oh yeah, life goes on
A little ditty ’bout Jack and Diane
Two American kids doin’ the best they can