This song is about finding a low-maintenance lover who knows when to go away and won't require a commitment. The song is tinged with loneliness, however, as Mellencamp seems to be going crazy sitting at home all alone, watching TV to see what's happening out in the world. Seems he's going crazy with or without a lover.
Mellencamp wrote this song, and it was his first hit. At the time, he was known as "John Cougar," which had recently been changed from "Johnny Cougar," the name given to him by his manager, Tony DeFries.
Released as Mellencamp's first single, it had a huge impact on his career, which was waning at the time. His first album, Chestnut Street Incident, was released in 1976 and sold poorly. His next album, A Biography, was issued in 1978 only in the UK, Germany and Australia, and included this track. The song did well in Australia, charting at #5, so it was included on his next album, John Cougar (which was released in America), with "I Need A Lover" also issued as a single in the States. The song climbed to #28 in December 1979 and earned Mellencamp another album. The singer says that at the time, he was worried that he was already washed up.
Pat Benatar recorded this on her first album in 1979. Her producer, Mike Chapman, heard Mellencamp perform the song at the Los Angeles club The Whisky a Go Go when he was the opening act for the British band The Jam. Benatar's album sold well, and as the credited writer on one of its 10 tracks, Mellencamp got a welcome infusion of cash from the royalties.
On the album version of this song, which runs 5:35, there is a 2:29 intro before the vocals come in. Most of this intro was excised from the single release, which runs 3:44.
Mellencamp got his first taste of fan adulation when he went to Australia to promote his album. "When I landed, there were kids - a bunch of screaming girls, and some guys with a haircut just like mine - waiting for me," he said in his Plain Spoken DVD. "I couldn't even get picked up in Bloomington, where I lived, if I was hitchhiking, but in Australia I had the #1 album and the #1 single in the country. I couldn't even take it seriously - it was a joke. I thought it was an isolated incident."
He realized that hit songs gave him power, and if he could keep them coming, he could call the shots, which is exactly what he did: after becoming a top-selling artist, he started using his real name and doing things on his terms.
"I figured out after the 'I Need A Lover' experience, that I had to go over everybody's head," he said. "I had to go above the rock critics' head, I had to go above the record company's head, and I had to make records that they would play on the radio that were undeniable hits. I didn't know how to do that. I got lucky with 'I Need A Lover,' but how do I do that again? I had no idea. The only way I knew I was going to survive was to become so radio-friendly that there was no way anybody could stop me from moving onward."
MTV was still three years away, but Mellencamp made a video for this song, directed by Bruce Gowers. This was because his record company promoted him in Europe and Australia where TV shows often broadcast music videos. It was just a performance clip, and Mellencamp didn't think much of it, but by the time MTV launched, his videos - still directed by Gowers - got more refined. "Hurts So Good
" and "Jack & Diane
" proved very popular on the network and made him a video star.
In Stephen King's 2015 novel, Finders Keepers, a scene set in 1978 references the song as a drunk man in a holding cell keeps belting the lyric, "I need a lover who won't drive me cray-zee!"
This was used in the 1981 comedy Private Lessons.