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Mellencamp exits longtime label

(ran GB edition)

Two surprises from John Mellencamp: his first-ever "best of" compilation, and his intention to leave Mercury Records, his label for his entire recording career.

The best of, titled The Best that I Could Do, comprises 16 Mellencamp hit singles and key album tracks, along with a new cut, Mellencamp's just-recorded cover of Terry Reid's Without Expression. Mercury will release the disc Nov. 18. Mellencamp is being allowed to leave the label and will consider future options "quickly thereafter," he says, though he will fulfill his contract obligations with an album of new acoustic versions of past work, which he says Mercury will release "at a certain point a couple years down the line."

As for The Best that I Could Do, the album starts with the late-'70s hit I Need A Lover, then proceeds through '80s and '90s career highlights including Ain't Even Done With the Night, Hurts so Good, Jack & Diane, Crumblin' Down, Pink Houses, Lonely Ol' Night, Small Town, R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A., Paper in Fire, Cherry Bomb, Check it Out, Get a Leg Up, Human Wheels,Wild Night and Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First). Without Expression is the closer.

"I was supposed to deliver a greatest hits in 1985 as far as my contract goes," says Mellencamp, "but I kept putting it off for 10 years. But the situation just came up where they really wanted it for this Christmas, and I said, "Okay.'

"To be perfectly frank, I wasn't very good at picking (tracks) _ and had actually left off Paper in Fire. I've just been fortunate to have had a lot of hit records, though Human Wheels doesn't qualify as a hit record _ but it's really the best single I've ever had."

Of course, this begs the question of why Mellencamp isn't putting out a two-disc best of, or even the boxed set that has long been rumored.

"I didn't think Mercury wanted a two-disc set because it's harder for them to sell them," Mellencamp says. "There's definitely enough material to do a box, but that's really a lot of work to do it properly, and it would be frightening for me to walk into the vault and go weed through Jack & Diane live _ on TV, the radio mix, and the 10,000 other versions of that song _ and it would be that way for all of them. There's so much material to choose from that I'd probably have brain damage, and besides, I'd rather make a new record, because that's the fun part of this job."

At least Mellencamp was able to record one new song for the package in Without Expression. The song appears on the critically praised British rocker's 1968 album, Bang, Bang You're Terry Reid.

"He was a huge influence on me as a vocalist in my younger days," Mellencamp says. "I was listening to the album a few months ago and realized that he had essentially sung himself out of a hit record: It was a beautiful song, but his voice was just too powerful. He was . . . kind of a rock 'n' roll Donovan, if I had to describe him. He spit out fire!

"As a young guy, I was really drawn to vocalists because I was in a cover band in high school, and it never dawned on me to write a song, because what could you do with it when you could be doing Honky Tonk Women? So I was drawn to people like Terry Reid and Paul Rodgers and Michael Fennelly of Crabby Appleton."

As The Best that I Could Do documents, it wasn't long before Mellencamp was in fact having his own hits with his own compositions via Mercury's Riva Records imprint; he has remained in the Mercury family ever since.

"I've been there 22 years, which is amazing," he says. "But I've never known another life, so to be leaving there is downright thrilling."

Mellencamp makes it clear that this is no slight on Mercury. "I've never known any other world," he continues, "but let's face it _ it's a different world. To have the opportunity to go to a different record company and see how it works is exciting, and I don't think I'll have a problem getting a deal _ but I may have a problem getting the one I want.

"I need to know how a record company is going to work an artist with a 22-year history, when they're still trying to work artists the same way as in the '70s and '80s _ radio and MTV. MTV really isn't the music channel it once was, and they can't sell a 22-year "heritage' artist."

A record company today must know how to reach "the biggest market that's ever existed in the United States," Mellencamp notes _ meaning the baby boom generation _ "which right now most labels seem to be ignoring. I don't pretend to have the answer, but I think it's ridiculous to try to sell records to teenagers, because teenagers don't buy my records _ and there ain't that many teenagers out there anyway in the marketplace.

But I'm wide open and will entertain anything anybody has to say, but if it's MTV and radio, oh well, they're great things that have to happen _ but can't be the only thing. I don't know that it would work even for the Beatles."