At age 24, Mellencamp, determined to break into the music business, moved to New York City and signed on with agent Tony DeFries (at the time well-known for representing David Bowie). DeFries insisted that Mellencamp's first album, Chestnut Street Incident, a collection of covers and derivative originals, be released under the stage name Johnny Cougar, a move Mellencamp claims was made without his knowledge and against his will. The album was a failure, and Mellencamp lost his contract with MCA Records.
He signed to the tiny Riva Records label and recorded 1978's A Biography, unreleased in the US, but which yielded a hit in Australia ("I Need A Lover"). Riva added this song to the next album, John Cougar (1979) to minor success. After one more album with Riva, Mellencamp signed with Mercury Records and released his breakthrough album, American Fool, in 1982 (see 1982 in music). The songs "Hurt So Good" and "Jack and Diane" sent the album to the top of the charts.
With a major hit under his belt, Mellencamp insisted on changing his billing to John Cougar Mellencamp (compromising by keeping the stage name as well as his true last name), for the 1983 follow-up, Uh-Huh, which was another top-10 hit and spawned several hit singles. Despite his popular success, Mellencamp had fared less well with critics who tended to view him as a derivative heartland rocker in the mold of Bob Seger. He rectified this in some quarters with the release of Scarecrow in (1985). The album's lyrics were socially aware, with several songs focusing on the plight of the American family farmer, and Mellencamp soon helped organize Farm Aid with Willie Nelson. Mellencamp, now fully asserting his power as a hitmaker, now went simply as John Mellencamp and made waves by refusing to allow alcohol or tobacco companies to sponsor his tours.
1987's The Lonesome Jubilee was departure from his earlier material; it incorporated country and folk influences (see 1987 in music). It generated several more singles, including "Paper in Fire" and "Cherry Bomb". By 1993's (1993 in music) Human Wheels, Mellencamp's critical reception was solid and Dance Naked (1994 in music) spawned his biggest hit in years, "Wild Night" (a with Me'Shell NdegeOcello, cover of Van Morrison).
In 1999 Mellencamp covered his own tunes as well as those by Bob Dylan and the Drifters for his album "Rough Harvest," one of two albums he owed Mercury Records to fulfill his contract (the other was "The Best That I Could Do", a best-of collection) (1999 in music).
2001 (2001 in music) found Mellencamp teaming up with artists such Chuck D and India.Arie to deliver a more laid back record with "Cuttin' Heads", spawning the single "Peaceful World". "Trouble No More" followed in mid-2003 (2003 in music). , a quickly recorded collection of rootsy bluesy covers of artists such as Robert Johnson and Lucinda Williams.