A couple of years ago, I began an occasional series of posts about mega-selling albums I’d never actually listened to properly, in full, as albums. It’s easy, when you know big singles from those records, to imagine you have a handle on the whole thing. Easy, but often wrong. So, every now and again, I sit down with a multi-platinum monster that I have contrived never to have listened to all the way through until now. So pull on your best blue jeans and white tee, and stuff a red baseball cap in your back pocket – we’re going to get to grips with Born in the USA…
I’m not a big Bruce Springsteen fan.
I didn’t hear him at the right age. I think that’s the thing. As I was growing up in the UK, from the late eighties to the late 1990s, Springsteen was a star, of course, but he wasn’t inescapable. George Michael was inescapable. Annie Lennox was inescapable. Mick Hucknall was inescapable. Oasis were inescapable. Bruce was a guy who had a bunch of songs I knew, but that to me all seemed unconnected to each other. Some of them I really liked. But some of them sounded bombastic and overwrought. Some sounded cheesy. Some sounded like Meat Loaf – which is to say, bombastic, overwrought and cheesy. I didn’t really have a handle on the man’s story or the shape of his career, and how this could all be part of the same thing.
I remember hearing Born to Run in full at university or shortly thereafter and being pretty underwhelmed by it. The saxophone (never my favourite instrument) was a mark against it, but that high, tinkling piano and the band that sounded on the brink of falling apart all the time? These didn’t appeal much, either. More fundamentally, though, I couldn’t connect with the stories Springsteen was telling. The desperate romanticism of the title track and Thunder Road seemed the height of uncool. I was too cynical for them.
He seemed a thoroughly decent guy – true to himself, true to his values, true to his music, true to his fans. All admirable things that I was in favour of. But, scared off by Born to Run, I never investigated the Springsteen catalogue properly, and was happy to take him song by song. Some of which, as I said, I liked very much.
Last week, my friend Yo Zushi sent me a demo of a new song he’d written, saying he felt like it was a Springsteen kind of thing and asking if I’d work on it with him. I thought he was right about the song’s Bruciness, and so for research purposes I listened to some of Springsteen’s songs, paying particular attention to his guitar tone. He’s a Tele player, obviously. I knew that. But I wanted to hear a bunch of different records to zero in further. What pickups? Big amps or small? Pedals or amp overdrive? That kind of stuff. When I started to track some parts, I wanted whatever I put down to sound right.
Looking for answers and tonal inspiration, I put on Born in the USA and stayed for the whole thing, realising that I was unwittingly researching one of these I’ve Never Heard posts.
The title track will need no introduction. Whatever Bruce Springsteen had been up to this point in his career – and it’s worth remembering that Born in the USA was the sequel to the lonesome, home-recorded, lo-fi Nebraska – this was something new and different: huge sounding, even compared to The River, aggressively martial and, via Roy Bittan’s synthesiser (a CS-80?), thoroughly contemporary in its day.
Positioned at the start of album, Born in the USA is part clarion call, part thesis statement and part provocation. An artist updating their sound this dramatically must know that some fans won’t like it, but Springsteen didn’t shrink from showing his hand early. That the song was widely misunderstood by people who didn’t listen to the verses and mistook the chorus’s roar of defiance for ra-ra jingoism is well known. Trump and some of his supporters were doing it only a month ago. Thirty-five years on, though, it remains very powerful. Roy Bittan’s synthesiser riff is attention-grabbing, but mix engineer Bob Clearmountain wisely lets it become a background element for much of the song, clearing space for Springsteen’s extraordinary vocal.
A little of Bruce in vein-bulging mode usually goes a long way for me, but in this case the song lives or dies by his ability to exist within the gargantuan arrangement and not be drowned out by it. The truly desperate edge to his voice – the raggedness that gets more noticeable as the song progresses, and which wasn’t smoothed away via edits and punch-ins – is key to how he communicates meaning. Even if you can’t hear the words (and Springsteen’s enunciation is never the clearest), you can hear from the tone of voice they’re delivered in how angry the singer is, how many times he’s been down, and how he refuses to stay there. The song isn’t without hope (he signs off “I’m a cool rockin’ daddy in the USA”, after all), but this guy has been given bum deal after bum deal, and we’re going to hear about it.
Cover Me is barely disguised disco rock (originally written for Donna Summer), with drummer Max Weinberg playing four on the floor on his kick drum. The main guitar riff has a definite R&B feel, too. In contrast to Born in the USA, where the backing is a bit ragged and lurches in tempo every time Weinberg plays a fill, the performance by the band here is tight, if a little clenched. But that’s natural to the song – it wouldn’t feel right if it were too smooth. The star of the show is, once again, Springsteen. His vocal is well judged – he sounds like the same guy singing Born in the USA, but it’s dialled down a wide notch or two. Most impressive, though, is the lead guitar, which on the basis of the liner notes and some of the live performances I’ve watched on YouTube is played by Bruce himself. I note, approvingly, the pinch harmonics in the solo halfway through the song, and string bends more in tune than some big-name lead guitarists who play a lot faster and flashier than the Boss.
Next come a couple of lower-key tracks, both of which hark back to music of earlier eras. Darlington County is a raucous Stonesy singalong (apparently, he often plays a few bars of Honky Tonk Women before the first verse), with Clarence Clemons firmly in Bobby Keys territory on saxophone. Working on a Highway, meanwhile, is a rockabilly revival. Both songs feel deliberately minor after Born in the USA and Cover Me, a way to let off some steam and tension, and Darlington County does its job fine. I daresay its fun live. Working on the Highway is a different matter. It seems to be about a guy who runs away with an underage girl, is caught by the police and her brothers, and is sent to prison. Of course, to tell a story is not to condone the events that occur in that story. But in the context of an uptempo party song, the lyric is pretty gross, as the music works to obscure what’s happening, and Springsteen’s not really interrogating the actions of this guy. It almost feels like you’re meant to feel bad for him, like Chuck Berry on No Particular Place to Go. Statch-rape party songs are more than a little not OK. A clanging misstep.
Downbound Train feels more substantial, and presents no such problems. It was recorded during what fans call the Electric Nebraska sessions, during which Springsteen and the E Street Band tried to get workable versions of the songs he had been demoing at home on his new Teac Portastudio. The most famous product of those sessions was Born in the USA itself. Downbound Train went well enough that Springsteen put the recording to one side along with Born in the USA once he decided to release the Portastudio versions of what would become Nebraska. Downbeat and minor key, it’s played empathetically by the band, who mostly drop out for the long third verse in which Bruce runs to the house in the wood only to find his lover no longer there – or dreams he does, at least.
Side one ends with I’m On Fire, which is even better. Like Working on the Highway, it has a rockabilly feel, with Max Weinberg playing pattering sixteenths with brushes and a snare cross-stick on the backbeats, with no cymbals or tom fills. Unlike Working on the Highway, though, it doesn’t feel retro – Bittan’s synthesiser and the palm-muted electric guitar (Springsteen, I assume, but it could be Steven Van Zandt; as far as I know Nils Lofgren isn’t on the recordings) are very 1980s touches, and in fact remind me of an American answer to Avalon-era Roxy Music, which shares something of its very adult, quietly passionate mood and atmosphere. It’s one of the best songs on the record.
No Surrender immediately reestablishes the signature Born in the USA sound at the start of side two – we’re back in the world of big guitars, bigger drums and arena-sized gestures. The brisk tempo partially obscures the fact that for large stretches the melody is the same note over and over again, but not enough to keep the track from wearing thin for me somewhere during the second verse. The middle eight works a similar formula, compounding the problem. Not a dead loss by any means, but one of the record’s weaker songs.
Bobby Jean is interpreted by many as a farewell to the departing Steven Van Zandt, who left the E Street Band after sessions for the album wrapped. It’s musically lighter and more wistful than much of the album, with a high-register piano riff from Roy Bittan that feels a little ABBA-ish. Born in the USA doesn’t give too many moments in the spotlight to Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, but both are featured on Bobby Jean – Federici has a prominent synth-organ part, and Clemons gets a long solo in the outro, which adds a celebratory note to the coda of a song that wears its melancholy lightly, but is still ultimately a lament for something lost.
I’m Goin’ Down, the sixth single from the album (there were seven in total), feels like side two’s answer to Darlington County – a fun, uptempo romp about sexual frustration within an established relationship. Not one to take particularly seriously. Musically, its strongest moment is the third verse after Clemons’s King Curtis-ish solo, in which bassist Gary Tallent drops out, leaving the song to be carried by the palm-muted electric guitar and Max Weinberg’s enormo-drums. Federici’s on good form on Hammond organ – nothing too showy, but adding variety and interest throughout.
Glory Days is a goof, but one with a long cultural reach. Unlike Dancing in the Dark and Born in the USA, it seldom gets UK radio airplay, yet it was one of the four songs I knew off the album before listening to it properly for this piece. Possibly the first time was at his Superbowl performance in 2009, though it rang a bell even then.
With its rinky-dink organ, recalling vintage rock’n’roll hits like Chris Montez’s Let’s Dance, and its outro mugging between Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt, it’s precisely the kind of thing that felt irredeemably cheesy to me in my twenties. But as well as being musically so good humoured and infectious that not going with it makes you feel like a curmudgeon, it’s a pretty sharp piece of storytelling. Comparing the romanticised heroes of Springsteen’s Born to Run-era songs and the baseball player and single mother of Glory Days reveals quite how much is going on here. As the song says, viewed at a distance the glory days of these people may not amount to all that much, and evenings spent comforting yourself with nostalgia may be boring for those around you, but Springsteen – or his narrator within the song – doesn’t put them down for looking back fondly on their youth; he’s guilty of doing the same thing himself in the final verse. I could perhaps have done with twenty seconds less of the Bruce-and-Little-Stevie schtick at the end, but that’s a minor gripe.
Dancing in the Dark is a fantastic piece of pop songwriting, brilliantly arranged and expertly mixed by Bob Clearmountain. The uber-steady tempo (noticeably more mechanised than the live-feeling backing tracks of the other songs) suggests the drums were cut to a click track, heavily edited or sequenced, or perhaps some combination of all three. This gives the song its dance-pop feel, but the guitar and Springsteen’s vocal imbue a lot of energy, as does the sheer size of the backbeat. I’m not sure if there’s a bass guitar on it or if all the low end comes from the prominent eighth-note synth that plays throughout the song; it’s certainly the dominant low-register instrument in the mix.
Bittan’s the focal point of the arrangement – that instantly recognisable synth melody in the intro – but what impresses me most is Springsteen’s vocal. He’s mush-mouthed as always, but his choices about when to give the big lines a bit extra (“wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face”) and when to underplay others (his reading of the line “I just know that there is”, for example) is unerring throughout. I’m not qualified to say if it’s his best song (I’ve not heard them all; that’s why we’re here), but it has to be in the conversation.
My Hometown ends the record on a subdued, affecting note. Springsteen’s voice is out front and exposed for the whole first verse, with only Bittan’s synthesiser and a simple bass drum and tambourine rhythm from Weinberg. The rest of the band come in for the second verse, but the sound is still contained and, at least by the standards of Born in the USA, intimate. As the arrangement becomes bigger, the focus of the lyrics moves from a child being taught the values of hometown pride and community by his father to increasing racial tensions and economic decline. The song ends with the singer taking his own child out to show him his hometown, probably before the family leave it forever.
It’s the kind of song that I suspect Springsteen fans treasure most about Bruce’s work. Empathy and compassion pour out of every note. He points no fingers, but it’s clear that he’s angry about the hollowing-out of communities like this by economic factors far beyond the control of people who live in such places. He’s clear-eyed about the consequences, too. It doesn’t matter how much you love your home and your neighbours – if there’s nowhere to work, people will have to move on, never to return.
So for all its shiny surfaces, Born in the USA is an album that begins with a disillusioned army veteran’s roar of wounded defiance and ends with a family man preparing to pull out of town in search of a better life for his young son. I suspect the vast majority of the millions upon millions of people who’ve bought and loved the record understood what was being said within its 12 songs; only the wilfully deaf could fail to. So I don’t think it’s a fair criticism of Bob Clearmountain’s gigantic mix that it obscured the message of the songs, as some have argued.
What is, perhaps, a fair criticism is that such a big sound is a hard listen over the course of 47 minutes. It’s just so hard, so bright and so loud.
It was tracked at two of New York’s marquee studios, the Hit Factory and the Power Station, venues at which a lot of big-selling records have been recorded. The plan was always for a really hyped, modern drum sound, which Springsteen had been after for his music since Darkness on the Edge of Town, at least. The Power Station, particularly, was almost the headquarters of the mid-1980s gated-reverb drum sound, in which explosively reverberant room mikes are triggered by the close snare drum mike. The result is a drum mix that blows the snare drum up to giant size but allows for a measure of close control over everything else.
In expert hands like those of Bob Clearmountain, the results could be dazzling. And I should say, I love a lot of Clearmountain’s work. His mixes on Roxy Music’s Avalon are truly mind-blowing to me, and when he’s in less subtle mode, he can be great, too: his work on Simple Minds’ Once Upon a Time, the Pretenders’ Get Close and Hall and Oates’s Big Bam Boom (appropriate title, that) is really fine. But even among these, Born in the USA stands out as sonically aggressive mixes. It’s not just the brute volume; the mix is also somewhat brittle and trebly. I’m On Fire and My Hometown offer much-needed sonic contrast but I could have lived with a nine- or ten-song version of the record, cutting Working on the Highway and one or two out of No Surrender, Darlington County and I’m Goin’ Down, largely just because it’s hard to listen to the whole thing without ear fatigue.
All of that said, Born in the USA sold somewhere between 20 and 30 million units (we can never be sure of sales figures for records released before the introduction of SoundScan), suggesting that not that many people share my, ultimately pretty small, reservations about it. Springsteen’s concerts are still peppered with its songs today, even its more minor tracks like Darlington County, No Surrender and, alas, Working on the Highway. Ultimately, I may prefer Fables of the Reconstruction, Rain Dogs, Tim, New Day Rising or the Doghouse Cassette from 1985 – music that’s smaller in scale, and not always playing to the back row of an arena – but it’s impossible to listen to Born in the USA and not be impressed by how Springsteen managed to create music so thoroughly contemporary while not compromising his songwriting vision at all.