To learn that John Mellencamp was not only in a glam rock band in the early 1970s, but also covered David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” as well as the Iggy and the Stooges’ number, “I Need Somebody”—and did so long before those songs were revered—is one of those, “Wait, what?!?” moments. It goes against everything we think we know about a conventional performer with an established image.
At the tail end of 1972, Mellencamp formed the Bowie-inspired glam group, Trash. Around this time, he wrote his first two songs: “Loser,” purportedly a tribute to Lou Reed (despite its title), and “One Way Driver,” which Mellencamp says was influenced by the Stooges. Trash never went anywhere, and a year later Mellencamp recorded a solo demo. He subsequently took the tape to New York, where he shopped it around to various record companies. Rejected by them all, he figured he’d next try Bowie’s management, so he could get turned down by his hero’s handler. Instead, Tony Defries, the man behind MainMan—an organization that had also represented Iggy and the Stooges—signed him.
Mellencamp’s first record, Chestnut Street Incident, came out in 1976 on MCA Records. He didn’t realize his name had been changed to “Johnny Cougar” until he saw a mock-up of the album cover. When Mellencamp objected, Defries told him the LP would be released that way or not at all.
His 1977 follow-up , The Kid Inside, was rejected by MCA, and Mellencamp was dropped. He would soon part ways with MainMan, but after he became successful in the early 1980s, Defries released The Kid Inside.
It’s unclear when “I Need Somebody” and “The Man Who Sold the World” were recorded, exactly. Neither were on the original LPs. The Stooges cover is often included as a bonus track on CD reissues of Chestnut Street Incident, while the Bowie song is usually paired with The Kid Inside (though this edition of the first album has the two). It’s very possible Mick Ronson is the guitarist on one or both of the tracks, as Bowie’s former right-hand man played on Chestnut.
When I first heard these covers, I was surprised to find that Mellencamp’s versions ain’t half bad. I was so tickled by them that I checked out his first two LPs, hoping to find other unusual, pre-fame gems, though I soon realized that I was probably wasting my time (and indeed I was).
Anyway, it’s fascinating to hear a guy we think of as a heartland rocker seriously take on Bowie and the Stooges. It’s like finding out Robert Palmer covered Hüsker Dü.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Alastair Riddell & Space Waltz: New Zealand’s answer to David Bowie were a teen sensation in 1974