“You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up”
Bruce at his largest in terms of both commercial appeal and sound, this was the spark that ignited ‘Boss Mania’ and saw Springsteen go from playing to packed arenas of the faithful to selling out stadiums and play-acting himself to newer audiences against a screen that projected his newly pumped-up image punching his fist into the air, ushering in the final verse of the misappropriated title-track to his then-new album Born in the USA to the cheap seats at the back of the crowd.
Thirty million (and still counting) sales, seven top ten hits. That cover. That Ben Stiller parody. Born in the USA is Bruce’s biggest selling album and, probably, his most well-known. Yet commercial heights do not always equal creative heights. There’s always a sacrifice, a deal with the devil to achieve those numbers. For my money, the production and sound on this blockbuster meant that the details that make for a great Bruce song were sacrificed somewhat.
But let’s not get confused, though. At this point in the list we’re really getting into the quality end of the spectrum, the wheat has been separated from the chaff and we’re down to lining up in order of personal preference and anything from here on in will likely regularly feature on any stereo and may well top other ‘favourite / best’ lists.
The title track is inescapable, even on this side of the Atlantic, whenever Bruce is mentioned. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s a belter of a song. Let’s skip over the way in which it was misinterpreted as that’s been discussed ad nauseam. I think what fascinates me is just how different this version is from the original demo cut around the Nebraska sessions is (perhaps this was the key to the sacrifice – in its original form it would not have been so misunderstood yet would never have reached such a wide audience) and that the version on the album is only the band’s second take at it – Max Weibnerg didn’t even know Bruce was going to count the band in for another punch at the four-and-a-half minute mark but The Boss has praised ‘Born in the USA’ as his drummer’s finest recording*.
That being said, I dont’ always listen to it when I play the album so over-exposed did it become and it was one of those songs that put me off Bruce initially. Listening to Chapter & Verse recently it sounds so out of place sat between ‘My Father’s House’ and ‘Brilliant Disguise’ as to almost sound like the work of a different artist. Almost.
Perhaps it was a cultural thing – Reagan harped on about a new morning in America while that country’s cinema heroes of the early 1980’s were muscle-bound and jingoistic, here we were had Thatcher and mining strikes (cinema audiences dropped to an all-time low in ’84) so a bicep-baring Bruce singing heartland rock against a backdrop of the Stars and Stripes was never going to be as huge here as it was in the US** and I don’t think this one has quite the lasting appeal in comparison to his other work.
I think that those songs at the start of the album are the ones I enjoy least and rarely listen to. I’d struggle to quote a lyric from ‘Darlington County’ say, or easily recognise ‘Working On The Highway’ if played live. The recording of Born In The USA dates back to 1982 and many of the tracks were written at the same time as those that appeared on Nebraska**. Bruce himself has said that “if you look at the material, particularly on the first side, it’s actually written very much like Nebraska – the characters and the stories, the style of writing – except it’s just in the rock-band setting.” Given that the fabled ‘Electric Nebraska’ has yet to see the light of day I can see why, the songs just don’t suit the sound – in my own humble.
Perhaps its another one of those results of a protracted recording period. Sessions for the album were spread over so many months (years even) that it can seem a little disjointed and with so many songs recorded it would be hard to find the perfect balance and he toiled with it for a long time. At one point in 1982, with the demo tape that would become Nebraska ready for release and a record of band material also ‘ready’ he toyed with releasing the two as a double album; one solo, one ‘band’ with a tracklisting ready as:
BORN IN THE U.S.A
DOWN, DOWN, DOWN (I’m Goin’ Down)
MY LOVE WILL NOT LET YOU DOWN
WORKING ON THE HIGHWAY
I’M ON FIRE
THIS HARD LAND
Yet then he released Nebraska as a stand alone (no tour, no real fanfare) and took a break before picking up recording again in early 1983 with newer songs coming up and wouldn’t conclude until February of 1984. As such a wealth of material was recorded and never released – you could easily pick a dozen of any such songs and create an album that would still be considered a classic. So the protracted recording, agonising and umming and erring (toying with releasing different selections and demos as is) as Bruce searched for that elusive ‘binding factor’ means that perhaps this record isn’t as consistent as it deserves to be.
But… but BUT. This album contains a wealth of such strong material that even if I tend to skip a few tracks a the start there’s enough here to warrant its inclusion in the top half of this list. Even limiting myself to two tracks from each album when I compiled my own Top 20 Springsteen songs was a tough one with this album and those I chose weren’t released as singles.
‘Downbound Train’ remains one of my favourite Springsteen songs and one I feel is criminally overlooked.
‘I’m On Fire’ gets many a play as does ‘Bobby Jean’. And then there’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’. When Landau listened to Born in the USA his reaction was “we don’t have a single” and told his charge to go home and write one. Legend has it a guitar was thrown at this point. However, Bruce set about writing about his frustration about writing – “It went as far in the direction of pop music as I wanted to go – and probably a little farther.” His biggest single to date (with it the album actually had seven) and one which initially wasn’t popular with the band. Van Zandt has said “It was much, much, much more produced. I didn’t like that song when I first heard it.”*** While it may still have its detractors I still really enjoy it a lot more than some of the album’s other singles like ‘Glory Days’.
Overall Born in the USA is something of a grab-bag album. Certainly affected by over-production in its unabashed reach for the maistream (no qualms here, if any artist is going to shift thirty million copies of an album I’d rather it a Springsteen than a Beiber) it nonetheless contains more than its fare share of solid Springsteen tunes that carry the album into the higher quality end of his catalogue.
Highlights: ‘Downbound Train’, ‘Bobby Jean’. ‘I’m On Fire’, ‘Born In The USA, ‘No Surrender’, ‘Dancing In The Dark’.
*While Weinberg is fond of the song for the same reasons, his favourite of these sessions, ‘This Hard Land’ was shelved like so many of the 80(!) recorded.
**It was a hit, though, nonetheless, topping the charts and shifting just over a million. I don’t feel though that it had quite the same cultural impact as it did for Bruce at home.
***Van Zandt would leave the E Street band in 82 (though this wasn’t really announced until after the recording of Born in the USA) and Nils Lofgren would join in time for the tour. The official line being that he’d joined in order to help see Bruce rise to success and, job done, it was time to focus on his own music.