"R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." is subtitled "A Salute to '60s Rock," and despite Mellencamp's feeling that "I don't think people are getting the idea of what the song's about, so I must've not done a very good job," the song became a big hit. It tells the story of how rock and roll emerged in America, and how those (now infamous) musicians that were not afraid to take personal risks for the sake of their music became a strong influence on the next generation, including Mellencamp, who sings: "[They] Filled our head full of dreams, turned the world upside down."
Growing up, Mellencamp listened to AM radio at a time when the same station would play a mix of styles, exposing him to rock, folk, soul and R&B at an early age.
John Mellencamp released "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." in 1985 on his eighth album Scarecrow. The album peaked at #2 in the US, with three Top 10 hit singles, this being the biggest. The overall theme of the album is the decay of societal foundations in rural America, but this song is a departure from that theme. Far from satirical, Mellencamp intends to portray a mournful U.S.A. that has been slowly eaten out from inside by the industries that substitute greed for the American Dream, but "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A" was so against the grain of this album's emotional profile that Mellencamp almost excluded it from the album.
Rolling Stone, when reviewing their "100 Best Albums of the Eighties," ranked Scarecrow at #95, and reported that Mellencamp's band had spent the months prior to recording getting familiar with the rock repertoire from the '60s, practicing in what used to be a dog kennel at Mellencamp's house. Of this time, Mellencamp's guitarist Larry Crane said, "We got a bunch of those tapes you see advertised on TV with all the old songs on them, and God, we learned everything."
Mellencamp's interest in recreating the sounds of the heyday of rock & roll has spanned his entire career; in 2009 he recorded songs for the 2010 album No Better than This at Sun Studios (in the footsteps of Elvis) and other historical locations. The recording techniques used for this album are purposefully raw in an attempt to reconnect with his roots, a reflection of Mellencamp's ideology of "Real music, for real people!"
In the lyrics to the song, Mellencamp name-drops several artists, particularly Frankie Lyman, Bobby Fuller, Mitch Ryder, Jackie Wilson, Shangra La's, Young Rascals, Martha Reeves and James Brown. These are references to the artists and bands that shaped his sound and influenced his early music.
In this way, Mellencamp was paying homage, but he was also paying his dues. For example, the late Bobby Fuller's mention on a Top 10 song, and a platinum album, was enough to revive flagging interest in the artist (as well as get Mellencamp a credit on a Bobby Fuller Four Best-Of album). Said Mellencamp: "When I played in Albuquerque, I think it was, his [Fuller's] mom and some of his family came down to see me play. They acted like I gave them 60 million dollars just for mentioning his name. They gave me his belt that he died in."
The instrumental break in this song is very clever. Mellencamp says the riff was lifted from Neil Diamond's first hit, "Cherry, Cherry." When we first hear it, it's played on an ocarina, which is a small wind instrument of ancient Eastern origins, thought to be 12,000 years old, and often made in the shape of a bird and used to imitate its fluting song. This is a nod to the song "Wild Thing
" by The Troggs, which featured an ocarina solo. In Mellencamp's song, the riff is then played on guitar and later on keyboards, going through various musical forms popular in '60s rock. In concert, Mellencamp would often bring a fan onstage to dance with him during this section.
In the months prior to recording Scarecrow, Mellencamp's band worked their way through nearly a hundred cover songs. Mellencamp hoped that through these covers, they would absorb the stylistic essence of the era through osmosis. Mellencamp's bassist Toby Myers admitted that, "I thought he was giving us busywork, but he wanted us to understand what made those songs tick so we could put some of that grit into his songs." The band was surprised by the sheer quantity of different styles that characterized the era. "Take an old Rascals song for example," Mellencamp said. "There's everything from marching band beats to soul music to country sounds in one song."
For the Scarecrow album, Mellencamp moved away from the stage-name, John Cougar, which had been given to him by Tony DeFries, his first manager, and became "John Cougar Mellencamp" (he would drop the "cougar" completely by 1989). This was a fortunate move, because 2009 saw the release of the hit sitcom Cougar Town starring Courteney Cox (as the main "cougar"). The ensuing taunts that would have come with the transition of cultural interpretation from a cougar being a big, badass cat, to a sexy middle-aged woman, might have been enough to revive Mellencamp's reputation as a hothead prone to bursts of anger in his old age. As if continually being compared to Bruce Springsteen wasn't enough…
This song forms part of a greater genre of songs that spell out words in the lyrics, like Otis Redding's song "Respect" (made famous by Aretha Franklin) or "Lola" by the Kinks.
Mellencamp's title wasn't too far from Bruce Springsteen's "Born In The U.S.A.
," released a year earlier. That song was often misinterpreted as a celebration of America, when it was really about the plight of a Vietnam War veteran.
In keeping with '60s hit single tradition, Mellencamp kept this song under three minutes long - it clocks in at 2:54.