Out by the gas fires of the refinery – The ‘Other’ Born In The USAs, Part One

In January 1982, just a few months after the final show of  The River Tour, recording sessions for Bruce Springsteen’s next album got under way.

These sessions fell right in the midst of Bruce’s most creative and prolific period. Just look at the sheer bounty of songs that were recorded and cut from Darkness… and The River. Each of those albums has received the lavish archival treatment with a load of previously unreleased gems seeing daylight for the first time – on top of those already released on Tracks!

Born In The U.S.A was no exception – according to Max Weinberg nearly 80 songs were recorded over the course of the entire. Springsteen and co-producer Chuck Plotkin have cited 70 but it’s likely that the Mighty Max Weinberg is counting those ten songs which made up Nebraska – as it’s almost impossible to separate the writing periods for the songs that made up the two albums’ sessions.

Yet while there’s a clamouring for it, it’s unlikely that Born In The USA will ever receive the same treatment as its predecessors. Springsteen has, with the distance of time, grown less effusive in his praise for it – “‘Born in the U.S.A’ more or less stood by itself. The rest of the album contains a group of songs about which I’ve always had some ambivalence” – and Tunnel of Love was a determined move away from the sound and scope of Born In The USA with subsequent albums shying further away from it’s naked, world-conquering ambition.

Either way you look at it, there were several versions of ‘an album’ that were ready to go before we got the Born In The USA we know today. So let’s take a look at ’em.

The story of how Nebraska, Springsteen’s out-of-left-field lofi masterpiece came to be has, by now, been well told. But let’s recap. Tired of spending time and money working songs up on the studio, Bruce got his hands on a 4-track recorder. How much money? Well, in the promotion for Letter To You he pointed out that “learning how to record, we spent all the money we had. At the end of The River album I had $20,000 in the bank.” Well known dodgy deals with former managers aside, considering the success of Born To Run, The Darkness and its tours…. something needed to change. Avoiding studio costs, he laid down some tunes on 3rd January 1982 and then took them to the E Street Band to get loud / flesh out / give some soul. Yet something wasn’t right. The songs didn’t suit the band sound. As Bruce states in ‘Songs’: “I went into the studio, brought in the band, rerecorded, remixed, and succeeded in making the whole thing worse.”

So, after walking around with it in his back pocket (so the story goes), Steven Van Zandt gave The Boss the nudge he needed and those songs were released as they were, mastered from the cassette to vinyl, as Nebraska.

The decision to release ten songs from his January tape was made in May 1982. Nebraska features ten songs. The January tape had – depending on whose account you take as gospel – 15 or 17 songs on it. Not all of the ‘Electric Nebraska’ sessions made things ‘worse’. For of those initial January 1982 tape, songs including ‘Born In The USA’, ‘Working On The Highway’ ‘Downbound Train’, ‘Pink Cadillac’ and a song then called ‘Down, Down, Down’ (to become ‘I’m Goin’ Down’) came about.

It will come as little surprise to realise that between January and May of 1982, Bruce had managed to put together two albums worth of material. He toyed with putting them both out as a double album – the acoustic Nebraska songs would make up one half, with the other ‘electric’ side made up of both reworked songs from the January tape and newer songs written since:

Side One Side Two
DOWN, DOWN, DOWN (a.k.a. I’m Goin’ Down) I’M ON FIRE

Just look at that track list. As early as May 1982 Springsteen was ready to go with two albums. This first ‘what could have been’ Born In The USA already has seven of the twelve songs that would make the final album. But look at those others…. ‘This Hard Land’ is a stone-cold Springsteen classic, Max Wienberg’s favourite from the sessions and one that wouldn’t see the light until it was re-recorded 1995’s Greatest Hits. The original ’82 version is just as fine.

‘Murder Incorporated’ would have to wait with ‘This Hard Land’ until 1995’s Greatest Hits with ‘Frankie’ and ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’ – both of which are absolute gems – a little longer for 1998’s Tracks for their day in the sun. Until then they were assigned to the vault as Springsteen continued working on the album, which wasn’t immediate.

Instead, the decision to release Nebraska ‘as is’ in 1982 effectively put a hold on recording sessions. Recording would have to wait as Springsteen oversaw the final preparations for Nebraska and would spend the summer on his ‘1982 Jersey Shore Bar Tour’ – making guest appearances throughout New Jersey. Given that Nebraska featured very little fanfare and wasn’t accompanied by a tour, the break in writing and recording may have been down to another factor: Steve Van Zandt was no longer a member of The E Street Band.

Springsteen would resume work on his next album in April 1983 but there would be a few more versions of Born In The U.S.A to go through before he was done.

8 thoughts on “Out by the gas fires of the refinery – The ‘Other’ Born In The USAs, Part One

  1. This may, or may not, come as a surprise but this album was not universally hailed at the time. Diehards like me knew that Bruce came as much from a troubadour background as he did from a rock ‘n roll past. But even we had a hard time wrapping our heads around this album. But there it sits. For me, if the whole fucking thing had only produced “Atlantic City” and the chicken man, I would be well satisfied.

    • I’m not too surprised. It’s not a top five for me and I reckon a lot of the ‘other’ BitUSAs contained better tracks. But for the time and what it achieved for him the end result did the business. It still seems at odds with the rest of his then-catalogue for sure

      • And a big risk for the record company. Wikipedia says this: The album’s reverb-laden vocals and mood combined with dark lyrical content have been described by music critic William Ruhlmann as “one of the most challenging albums ever released by a major star on a major record label”.

        Because of the album’s somber content, Springsteen chose not to tour in support of the album, making it Springsteen’s first major release that was not supported by a tour, and his only such release until 2019’s Western Stars.

      • Ah, got my wires crossed. I really enjoy Nebraska, a lot more than USA. But I think the label also knew what was coming would more than make up for any risk and it probably meant they gave USA a lot more weight in the promotion department. As for tour.. he was probably too wary of performing without a band just yet. I know with Western Stars it was more a case that he wanted a break after all those nights on Broadway. But then Covid has given all artists a much longer than planned for break from performing too.

        Still very happy you guys have killed off the orange prick. It’s not only provided a mass sigh of relief but hours of entertainment watching his massive tantrum turning him into a laughing stock.

      • I recall that Bruce toured solo some years back. I didn’t even try to get tickets. If I’m going to see him live, I want the full E Street experience.

        As to Orange Buffoon, recall that he’s always been a laughing stock. But now he is not only that but also a loser. Oh, wait. He was also always that. Joe will straighten things out and Captain Shithead will take his plasce as the worst president in American history.

      • I’m hoping a good part of that place in history will be in a prison or in courts facing all those charges that are just waiting until Jan to surface

      • It is the subject of some debate over here as to what will happen. Assuming he doesn’t pardon himself, Joe could pardon him for “the good of the country.” That would likely be to placate the SEVENTY-ONE MILLION people that voted for him, fully 8 million more than last time. In 2016 they could have used the excuse that they “didn’t know.” Now they have no excuse. They know exactly what kind of person he is and they approve. That number alone will tell you what kind of country the US really is. We tell ourselves (and the world) we are one thing, but we are actually quite another.

        It Trump does get pardoned federally he still has to deal with the Southern District of New York. They may well have enough on him to put him away for years. The question is whether we have the will to put a president in prison, no matter how awful the charges are. Has a Prime Minister ever gone to prison? It is a tough hurdle psychologically.

  2. Love this record. Bruce was digesting a lot of stuff. The whole Charles Starkweather thing and Maliks ‘Badlands’ were akin to it. As far as I’m concerned he made one of the best albums out there. I remember a TV jock smashing this record on his show. I’ll let you fill in the blanks on that individual. I wonder what he was digging. This record hit so many switches for me. He has continued to be moved by this vibe. Good piece T.

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