Messages keeps gettin’ clearer, radio’s on and I’m movin’ ’round my place: the ‘other’ Born In The USAs – Part 3

“Much of Born In The USA was recorded live with the full band in three weeks. Then I took a break, recorded Nebraska and didn’t return to my rock album ’til later… Then brain freeze settled in.”

To read Springsteen’s biography Born To Run you’d almost believe that the writing and recording of the songs that made up Born In The USA was a relatively succinct period divided up into a couple of sessions and that the only songs that exist from the time graced the two albums it bore: Nebraska and Born In The USA.

Both Tracks, studio logs and his own Songs book tell a different story though. Between Bruce’s sitting down with “some books, a few scattered guitar picks, and a harmonica rack jostled with the crumbs of the afternoon’s lunch” and, importantly, a Paul Schrader script for a film called ‘Born In The USA’ and penning a song that he initially title ‘Vietman’ and the song hitting the airwaves were several years and a LOT of songs.

Following the decision not to release ‘Murder Incorporated’, and despite the idea of keeping studio costs down, Bruce headed back to New York’s The Hit Factory with The E Street Band from May – June of 1983, though without Van Zandt for the most part.

These final sessions were the end of an era, not realised let alone acknowledged at the time. Aside from the missing Van Zandt’s input, the last sessions for Born In The USA would be the last time Springsteen entered the studio with the full band for a long time to come and would be the last time in which songs would be written and then worked up and arranged with the band until 2020’s Letter To You. It’s also the point at which Springsteen’s prolific period of song writing began to slow and the security around the vault would tighten.

From May through June of ’83, though, Bruce and the band worked on more songs to add to the pile as Springsteen searched for the right sound and feel to make it an album. In fact, it looked like this was it and recording went straight into mixing in July and a possible track listing was born:

Side One:

Born In The USA

Cynthia

None But The Brave

Drop On Down And Cover Me

Shut Out The Light

Johnny Bye Bye

Side Two:

Sugarland

My Love Will Not Let You Down

Follow That Dream

My Hometown

Glory Days

Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart

This album doesn’t ring as cohesive as ‘Murder Incorporated’ ever did. Some of the songs come from the earliest sessions, some from Springsteen’s LA recordings and FIVE new songs from the May-June sessions all of which, as they were mastered, would either go on to serve as b-sides or  appear on Tracks. However, songs like ‘Cynthia’ and ‘Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart’ (she still needed a shooter) aren’t his strongest from this period – Janey the better of the two – and their inclusion here, to me, is indicative that he was doubting the more direct, ‘pop’ leaning of the other material as they harken back more to his work of the previous decade than anything else from this period.\

The lack of cohesion was apparent to all and this version of the album was shelved. The mix and feel of Springsteen’s LA cuts jarring too much with the rest of the cuts. It was back to the studio, again, for another period of writing and recording from the end of ’83 into early ’84. However, it was at this point that ‘brain freeze’ kicked in and work ground to a halt.

Thanks to the increasing security on sessions and the vault the fruit of these last periods of writing and recording are harder to identify. But Springsteen suggests, in ‘Born To Run’ again, that these would have included ‘Bobby Jean’ and ‘No Surrender’ and, er, ‘Refrigerator Blues’, ‘Swoop Man’ and ‘Ida Rose (No One Knows) were also written write before then end of the album’s writing and recording period.

Recognising that Springsteen was at an impasse with his album – and, presumably, with the record label chomping away at his ear – Jon Landau stepped in. He did two things. First, he compiled what he thought were the best of the songs recorded into an eleven-song track list:

Side One:

Born In The USA

I’m Goin’ Down

Cover Me

My Hometown

Bobby Jean

Side Two

My Love Will Not Let You Down

Follow That Dream

Glory Days

Protection

Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart

I’m On Fire

I don’t dig this track list anymore than that created in July of ’83. The songs here are still missing something but it seemed to do the job of giving his charge a charge, if you will. For Springsteen, armed with his newly- recorded songs, then “circled back to my original group of songs. There I found a naturalism and aliveness that couldn’t be argued with. They weren’t exactly what I’d been looking for, but they were what I had.”

They weren’t exactly what I was looking for…. but they were what he had. To me, this suggests a sense of weariness perhaps. Realisation, maybe, that whatever it was he was looking for wasn’t going to be found and he needed to get something, anything, out? Even if it meant it wasn’t as realised to him as, say, Darkness On The Edge of Town was? It’s a sensation that’s gotten across in the album’s first single:

‘Dancing in the Dark’ came from a now-famous moment when Springsteen was told the album needed a ‘hit’ single to get it on fire on the radio. Tired and weary after what was three years plus of writing and recording for the album and having already stockpiled more songs for Disc Three of Tracks to be one of the strongest, Bruce told Landau that if he wanted it so much, he should it himself.  Springsteen refers to the song as being “about my own alienation, fatigue and desire to get from inside the studio, my room, my record, my head…” It was the last song recorded for the album in February 1984.

Born In The USA changed Springsteen’s career. It pushed him from arenas to stadiums, muscle-bound and posing for the big screen projections to the cheap seats with hit after hit released from it. I’ve covered the album itself in more detail as part of my ‘Least To Most’ Springsteen series so won’t reiterate that which I’ve already covered. It may well have been his biggest but it’s far from my favourite and, with hindsight, Springsteen himself has certainly cooled toward it – it’s grab bag feel still apparent. But it did the job.

Following it would never be easy especially when you take into account the album’s arduous gestation period. Tunnel of Love, a far superior album, was a much more subdued affair and it would be another decade or two before Springsteen was comfortable finding his ‘rock’ voice again. The hesitancy and labouring over songs would also be borne out on the much-maligned Human Touch and his second-guessing over releasing albums would permeate through the next decade as there’s another rumoured album that sits abandoned in his vaults.

Perhaps it, like the wealth of songs recorded during Born In The USA‘s sessions, will see light on the in-the-works Tracks 2 project. Of those songs recorded and cut from the album we know of ‘Murder Incorporated’, ‘Pink Cadillac’, ‘Shut Out The Light’, ‘Johnny Bye-Bye’, ‘Stand On It’, ‘Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart’, ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Pittsburgh)’, My Love Will Not Let You Down’, the brilliant ‘Wages of Sin’, ‘This Hard Land’, ‘Frankie’, ‘Cynthia’, ‘Lion’s Den’, ‘Car Wash’, ‘TV Movie’, ‘Brothers Under The Bridges (’83)’, Man At The Top’, Rockaway the Days’, ‘County Fair’ and ‘None But The Brave’. That’s 20 songs, for those who are counting.

But… those that haven’t been officially released?

Here’s the list, just as indication that there’s a HUGE amount still in the vault. Each of these, in some way, went into the making of the final album and it shows just how much Springsteen put into the sessions even if he never found what he was looking for:

PROTECTION

THE KLANSMAN

SEVEN TEARS

FUGITIVE’S DREAM

ONE LOVE

BETTY JEAN

UNSATISFIED HEART

LITTLE GIRL (LIKE YOU)

DELIVERY MAN

FOLLOW THAT DREAM

SUGARLAND

DON’T BACK DOWN

JAMES LINCOLN DEAR

RICHFIELD WHISTLE

YOUR LOVE IS ALL AROUND ME

STOP THE WAR

BABY I’M SO COLD

BELLS OF SAN SALVADOR

ON THE PROWL

NEBRASKA – E STREET BAND VERSION

ATLANTIC CITY – E STREET BAND VERSION

MANSION ON THE HILL – E STREET BAND VERSION

JOHNNY 99 – E STREET BAND VERSION

HIGHWAY PATROLMAN – E STREET BAND VERSION

USED CARS – E STREET BAND VERSION

OPEN ALL NIGHT – E STREET BAND VERSION

REASON TO BELIEVE – E STREET BAND VERSION

LOSIN’ KIND

FADE TO BLACK

ROBERT FORD

WILLIAM DAVIS

GUN IN EVERY HOME

COMMON GROUND (STAY HUNGRY)

TRUE LOVE IS HARD TO COME BY

I DON’T CARE

THE MONEY WE DIDN’T MAKE

JOHNNY GO DOWN

BODY AND SOUL

SAVIN’ UP

OUT OF WORK

LOVE’S ON THE LINE

CLUB SOUL CITY

HOLD ON (TO WHAT YOU GOT)

WORKIN’ ON IT

GONE, GONE, GONE / SEEDS

KING’S HIGHWAY

JUST AROUND THE CORNER TO THE LIGHT OF DAY

INVITATION TO YOUR PARTY

BAD BOY

GLORY OF LOVE

SHUT DOWN

100 MILES FROM JACKSON

ROLL AWAY THE STONE

SWOOP MAN

UNDER THE BIG SKY

REFRIGERATOR BLUES

IDA ROSE (NO ONE KNOWS)

NOW AND FOREVER / SUMMER ON SIGNAL HILL

That’s an additional 58 songs in varying forms of completion, mastering and circulation. With those already released and the 12 that made up Born In The USA‘s final track list and that gives us…. 90 songs.  With the suggestion – that kicked off this series – from Max Weinberg that nearly 80 were recorded with the band… it’s likely that a few of these were either not recorded or never went beyond Bruce, a guitar and a basic recording.

With less songs written for Tunnel of Love – only an additional eleven on top of the album – and subsequent albums, Born In The USA was the end of Springsteen’s most prolific period of song writing, it even looks to have knackered him out for writing for some time to come. It – along with the missing album from the 90’s – represents one of the few remaining rich seams of  work that have yet to tapped. Those efforts that didn’t make his later-career albums were cherry-picked for the hotchpotch High Hopes and they weren’t anything like as strong as those that made up The Promise or The Ties That Bind collections. So, here’s hoping we get to hear from both these periods soon because there are some fucking BELTERS awaiting mastering and release in this treasure trove:

 

Unsatisfied hearts and murder, incorporated: the ‘other’ Born In The USAs – Part 2

“Halfway though recording the biggest record of my life, Steve Van Zandt left the band. I’ve always felt a combination of personal frustration, internal politics and unhappiness with some of my decisions led to Steve’s departure…. the timing must’ve felt to him like now or never. Looking back today, I think Steve would agree it didn’t have to be that way. We could’ve done it all, but we weren’t the same people then that we are today.”

In the summer of 1982, following the decision to release Nebraska as it was, Steve Van Zandt had visited Bruce in a New York City hotel room to discuss his role their creative partnership. Bruce, though, didn’t feel they were in a “partnership” and steered his ship his way, it’s how it had to be to work the way it did. Van Zandt wanted a more collaborative deal and greater involvement. It couldn’t be. So he bid farewell to E Street. Though a formal announcement wouldn’t be made until May 1984 and he’d grace the linear notes of Born In The USA, Van Zandt’s input from this point forward would be minimal.

I think Springsteen is perhaps more sensitive to feedback than he’d let on. Look at the mixed response that Human Touch and Lucky Town garnered – it meant he ended up ditching a complete album’s worth of material in the 90’s in favour of getting the band back together for a Greatest Hits, as though to remind the public of what they loved about him in the first place. The reaction to Nebraska surprised Springsteen. This quiet set of songs, so far from the sound of The River, was oft-cited as one of the year’s best albums by critics and, while many Springsteen fans were surprised by it, the positive feedback to what was essentially a series of demos meant Bruce paused in his push to Born In The USA‘s thumping beats.

After the release of Nebraska and his ‘Jersey Shore Bar Tour’, and best man duties at Van Zandt’s wedding, Bruce took off west. In search of sun and escaping the Jersey Devil over winter? Maybe. But as ’83 arrived, Bruce was already busy. Through winter he’d worked at ‘Thrill Hill Recording’ – his home studio in his Hollywood Hills studio (though in ’83 this wasn’t the ‘bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills’ bought ‘with a trunkload of hundred thousand dollar bills’) – with yet another album’s worth of material emerging. Only these weren’t of the ‘Glory Days’ ilk, these songs were closer to Nebraska in theme and approach.

Sandwiched oddly appropriately between the recently released ‘classic’ concerts and 2019’s Western Stars in my iTunes is a Springsteen bootleg called Unsatisfied Heart. These dozen songs of surprisingly good quality for something so desperately unofficial, all come from those sessions at Thrill Hill Recording over the winter of 82-83. There’s a longer, better take of ‘Johnny Bye Bye’ and ‘Shut Out The Light’ with ‘County Fair’ making its earliest appearance, but the rest… remain the stuff of vaults and bootlegs (and, perhaps, a Tracks 2, now we know that such a project is in development) and I’m very glad to have these in any form. Why? Well, some of these are among his most compelling to date, even 40 years on.

Take ‘The Klansman’ as an example: never performed live and only one take circulating but while the music is richer than the material on Nebraska (drum beats and synths appearing) the lyrics are pretty heavy “I was ten years old when my Pa said, “Son, some day you will see, when you grow to wear the robes like your brother and me”:

Songs like the two above along with tracks like ‘Richfield Whistle’ – a real hefty story song in the vein of some of The River‘s ‘down on their luck’ character songs – or ‘Sugarland’ are both lost for now in terms of official releases but represented a different tact for Bruce. These are more fleshed out in sounds and found him leaning more toward drum beats and synth sounds that he’d later take further, albeit after Born In The USA had died down and the E Street Band had been parked. It’s a shame but, as is often the way, Bruce was exploring every possible avenue on the road to his next album and was still in the midst of a prolific song writing period.

‘Follow That Dream’, though, seemed to stick out for Bruce and would appear on a few tentative album track lists. Springsteen took Elvis’ 1962 song, changed up the lyrics and rearranged the pacing, slowing it right down:

Having decided that a follow up to Nebraska wasn’t in the works just yet, Springsteen instead returned to the East coast with the idea of combining the work previously recorded with the E Street Band and the best of his Thrill Hill sessions and releasing an album called Murder Incorporated:

  1. Born In The USA
  2. Murder Incorporated
  3. Downbound Train
  4. My Love Will Not Let You Down
  5. Glory Days
  6. This Hard Land
  7. Johnny Bye Bye
  8. Frankie
  9. I’m Going Down
  10. Working On The Highway
  11. I’m On Fire

It’s a stellar track list and he even went so far as to list ‘Sugarland’, ‘Follow That Dream’, ‘Don’t Back Down’, ‘One Love’ and ‘Little Girl (Like You)’ as probable b-sides. Whether or not tracks like the already pretty great ‘Don’t Back Down’ from the Thrill Hill sessions would’ve been re-recorded with the full band… we’ll never know but Murder Incorporated would’ve made one hell of an album. Let’s face it, ‘Born In The USA’ aside, any album with ‘Murder Incorporated’, ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’, ‘This Hard Land’, ‘Downbound Train’ and ‘I’m On Fire’ on is gonna be a knockout.

Hell, for my money, it would’ve been a more consistent and less ‘grab bag’ album and I’d have rated it a lot higher than I do Born In The USA. Not feeling me? Try it:

See? It fucking kicks.

Instead, though, Bruce decided the timing wasn’t right and – despite the original plan behind getting a four-track to reduce studio time and cost – went for some more studio sessions instead, returning to New York’s Hit Factory in May 1983. Given that Steven Van Zandt – at that point known as ‘Miami Steve’ – was busy working on his second solo album – it would be the band’s first without him and their first sessions in nearly a year.

You’d think they were nearly there but a lot more songs, doubt and writer’s block lay ahead while a good couple of album’s worth of songs lay behind.

 

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:

BORN IN THE U.S.A
MURDER INCORPORATED
DOWNBOUND TRAIN
DOWN, DOWN, DOWN (I’m Goin’ Down)
GLORY DAYS
MY LOVE WILL NOT LET YOU DOWN
WORKING ON THE HIGHWAY
DARLINGTON COUNTY
FRANKIE
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.