Least to Most: Bruce – Born in the USA

“You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up”

bruceborn1984Bruce 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:

DOWN, DOWN, DOWN (I’m Goin’ Down)

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.

15 thoughts on “Least to Most: Bruce – Born in the USA

  1. What is it about ‘Born in the USA’ that makes so many older Bruce fans so conflicted? Anybody that came to him through this album has unalloyed feelings. For some of us, yeah we like it but I think we know there as a naked stab at commercialism here. And yet it’s a good album! I think that, to some extent, it’s ‘Dancing in the Dark.’ Wikipedia says this: “In a first-for-Springsteen effort to gain dance and club play for his music, Arthur Baker[4] created the 12-inch “Blaster Mix” of “Dancing in the Dark”, wherein he reworked the album version.” Oh, God. The last thing any Springsteen fan wants to hear is ‘dance and club play.’ It’s funny that Landau was the ‘we don’t have a single go write one” guy. Every album has one.

    But I actually like the tune despite that. When the rockers do dance music or (ack!) disco, they do it pretty well. (See – Stones, “Miss You” or Dead, “Shakedown Street”.) But to your point, much of what’s here is really good. “Cover Me,” “I’m On Fire,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” “My Hometown.” As much as I like the title song, if he had never done this version and had only done the acoustic version I’d be perfectly fine with that. I have never, not for a moment, liked “Glory Days.” It’s the antithesis of Bruce’s (old guy whining here) romantic, sax-driven, funky, jazzy sound.

    You are likely correct in asserting that the misunderstood title cut was probably more popular here in the States. There are many people who cannot get through a day without waving the flag even metaphorically. But hey, bright side – Courtney Cox.

    Last note – I never bought this album, possibly because of its radio ubiquity. So I don’t know some of the songs. And some Springsteen songs are, frankly, interchangeable to the point that I thought ‘No Surrender’ was on The River.

    Last, last note – “Cover Me” is my favorite song on this album. I work out to it and I bet it would be a better choice for me on my next karaoke than the Eagles’ “Best of My Love.” (Seriously). I bet I could simulate Bruce’s rasp but Don Henley? Big mistake. 😀

    • Oh it’s most definitely a good album, no question. Growing up over here the title cut was often on the radio / tv etc but it just never connected with me. When I bought Greatest Hits in ’95, a post-Nirvana music landscape opening up and my ears alert, the sound of those songs from this album simply sounded dated already and were skipped. It was those songs like The River, BTR and Atlantic City that had more bite and still do.
      As for the dance element – I think Bruce has often had a bit of that in there even if some albums omitted it. It’s in his musical DNA as he covers in his book, that love of the 60’s pop and R&B so it’s a natural progression. I’ve not heard the Arthur Baker remixes but will seek em out. While looking for some background on this album I came across this ’84 interview in which he touches on the subject: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/the-rolling-stone-interview-bruce-springsteen-on-born-in-the-u-s-a-19841206

      • That Rolling Stone interview with at 35-year-old Springsteen is a real find. Well worth reading in and of itself, if only to see that his thinking then and his thinking today are very similar. (Minus the part about not being sure if he’s a family man.). I also liked hearing his takes on the albums, how “The Wild, The innocent,” was the genesis of a certain character arc. All good stuff.

        As to the dance stuff, I was not aware till I read that article that he actually asked Arthur Baker to do those remixes. I thought the guy just picked up on the songs and did it. Naive of me I guess. I agree that dancing and pop music have been part of Bruce’s make-up for a while. In fact, in his book recall his mentioning he was going to various places to dance with and meet girls while his buddies were all just hanging out. So I have no problem with dancing per se. But I’m just really, really glad where we’re past the point where Bruce (or anyone) would even consider turning his songs into (ack!) disco. I will let the remix here speak for itself.

      • Yeah, I lost a good bit of time reading that and marvelling at how – post reading BTR – so many of his values remain. I also love that remix!

  2. Great post. You’ve nicely summed up how I feel about this album. The ubiquitous title track suffers badly from 80s production values but at its heart lies a very impressive song. I hated Dancing in the Dark originally but the lyrics won me over in the end. And Downbound Train is an absolute stunner. I’ve always longed to hear a ‘naked’ mix of this album stripped of all that 80s BS production.

  3. You love the remix? Oh, shit. I fucking hate it. I was trying to show how badly it sucks. Oh, well. To each his own. BTW, I actually really like Dancing in the Dark as a song. Bruce retains his essential Bruce-ness no matter what.

    • Sorry, Jim, my tongue was well and firmly in my cheek. If the album’s production values have aged poorly then that remix and the drum machine beats…. it’s as though someone’s just hitting random ‘drum’ buttons on a casio keyboard.

      • Oh, thank God. For a minute there I thought you had gone to the Dark Side. I take these things quite seriously and so was prepared for drastic action. Said action being to fly to the UK in May, scoop you up, grab a pint or two at the local and then get you a dose of Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall. 😀

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