Johnny Can't Read

Album: I Can't Stand Still (1982)
Charted: 42
Play Video


  • This was Don Henley's first single as a solo artist. He formed the Eagles in 1971, but the band called it quits in 1980, reuniting in 1994. During that hiatus, Henley had a very successful solo career, charting 12 songs on the Hot 100. His second single, "Dirty Laundry," was his biggest chart hit, reaching #3 in the US.
  • Henley wrote this song with Danny Kortchmar, who also produced the song and played the organ. Musically, the song evokes the '60s, since Kortchmar built the track around a Farfisa organ riff. "Electronic organs are what you hear on all those records," he said in our 2013 interview. "We wanted to use a piece of gear that hadn't been used that you hadn't heard much at the time. We were trying for new sounds and original sounding stuff."
  • The character "Johnny" in this song is a lunkhead with no use for studies. He ends up in jail, since he is in no way prepared for adulthood.

    The song touches on a few issues important to Henley: illiteracy, distraction and the American school system. Henley is a voracious reader who used his writing talents to compose lyrics to many beloved Eagles songs. He proved that you could be a bookworm and a party animal at the same time, provided you got down to business when you had to.

    The video, which was directed by Paul Gurian, played up the distraction theme, with Johnny finding plenty of things to do besides study. What Henley mentions as distractions (TV, music, Rubik's Cube) pale in comparison to the iPhones and other gadgets that would consume the attention of young people decades later.
  • The video for this song was Henley's first as a solo artist (he appeared the previous year with Stevie Nicks in the video for "Leather And Lace"). While it did show up on MTV, it got surprisingly few spins considering the dearth of videos the network had to choose from in the years after they launched in 1981.

    Henley was an obvious choice for hot rotation, since MTV saw themselves as having a Rock format and was desperate for established American acts (videos had been popular in Europe for a while, which is where most of their content came from). Logistics may have been a problem, since MTV was in New York and Henley was based in Los Angeles, but it still seems odd that he couldn't get more time than A Flock Of Seagulls or Haircut 100. Henley didn't even make a video for "Dirty Laundry"; his MTV breakthrough came in 1984 with this clip for "The Boys of Summer."
  • This song ends with the lyrics "There's a new kid in town..." which is a nod to the Eagles' "song of the same name." The 1977 hit about the trappings of fame and young love also mentions the "Johnny" character by way of an old saying: "Johnny come lately, the new kid in town. Will she still love you when you're not around?"

    The term "Johnny come lately" is used to describe a brash newcomer or someone who is late to embrace a trend.

Comments: 2

  • Robert from NycThis came out a year after Oingo Boingo's "Only A Lad". Not saying he ripped it off but...
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn August 15th 1982, "Johnny Can't Read" by Don Henley entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart on position #80; and on September 26th, 1982 it peaked at #42 {for 2 weeks} and spent 11 weeks on the Top 100...
    And on its 11th and last week on the Top 100 it was at #98; and on the same week his next release, "Dirty Laundry", debut on the chart at position #73, and 10 weeks later on January 2nd, 1983 it would peak at #3 {for 3 weeks}...
    On the day that “Johnny Can’t Read” entered the Top 100 at #80, his fellow ex-Eagle Glenn Frey was also entering the chart with "The One You Love" at #87...
    Donald Hugh Henley celebrated his 67th birthday last month on July 22nd, 2014.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Michelle Branch

Michelle BranchSongwriter Interviews

Michelle Branch talks about "Everywhere," "The Game Of Love," and her run-in with a Christian broadcasting network.

Angelo Moore of Fishbone

Angelo Moore of FishboneSongwriter Interviews

Fishbone has always enjoyed much more acclaim than popularity - Angelo might know why.

In The Cards

In The CardsSong Writing

Songwriters have used cards and card games to make sense of heartache, togetherness, and even Gonorrhea.

Song Titles That Inspired Movies

Song Titles That Inspired MoviesSong Writing

Famous songs that lent their titles - and in some cases storylines - to movies.

James Williamson of Iggy & the Stooges

James Williamson of Iggy & the StoogesSongwriter Interviews

The Stooges guitarist (and producer of the Kill City album) talks about those early recordings and what really happened with David Bowie.

Dan Reed

Dan ReedSongwriter Interviews

Dan cracked the Top 40 with "Ritual," then went to India and spent 2 hours with the Dalai Lama.