Born in the USA - Classic Albums Revisited
Published on 04 June 2021
Today in 1984, Bruce Springsteen released his seminal album Born in the USA. As a shoe in for an respectable record collection, the album is littered with so many classic tracks it’s almost strange to think about a time where it didn’t exist. At this point in his career, Springsteen had already made a name for himself as one of the most exciting songwriters and live acts on the planet. His albums Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, the River and Nebraska had blown his little known debut out of the water, establishing his dominance as a bar room rock band with a sound big enough to fill stadiums.
Music is tricky and keeping up momentum at that level is tough and near impossible for many artists. However, with Born in the USA, boldly beginning with a title track which dealt with Springsteen’s views on the Vietnam War and its impact on the American people, he pulled no punches. By no means the safe choice, this collection of songs was daring, imaginative, vivid, hopeful and potent. We'd even go as far as to say that it may even be his most flawless record track by track. Today we’re going to take a look at some of its most special moments. It isn’t often albums enter the greatest of all time conversation, so it’s only right that on it's anniversary we give this one the credit that it so clearly deserves.
Born in the USA
Track one of Springsteen’s red white and blue jeaned album sets the tone for the full record. From the iconic, explosive snare sound to the distinctive synth lead, this is a track that listeners never forget. Springsteen snarls and roars the first verse with such a raw passion that you can feel how much he meant every word.
Growing up in New Jersey, Bruce watched most of his friends and classmates ship out to war, often to return broken or scarred, if they were fortunate enough to make it back. Although he was completely against the Vietnam conflict, he's spoken before about feeling a type of survivor's guilt from being one the few out of his childhood friends who managed to avoid being sent out to fight. This feeling fuelled the album's title track, particularly the verses which contradict the booming, seemingly pro American chorus. Witnessing the alienation veterns felt upon their return had a profound effect on Springsteen who used the anthemic track as the focal point of the album, even posing in front of an American flag on the cover.
'Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land'
Protest songs don’t get much realer than this, although we’re not sure a protest was really what he intended. As with most of his music, it was likely more a statement and reflection of the way he felt and what he saw around him every day. Part of Springsteen's genius lies in bringing life and emotion to the small things most of us miss. In this case, seeing the people he grew up with having to cope with the war and it’s fallout was all the inspiration he needed.
I’m On Fire
While Spingsteen’s often praised for his storytelling, sometimes his more straightforward pieces end up being the standouts. I’m On Fire is one of those moments. As one of the 7 charting singles of the 10 track Born in the USA, the song is as brooding and seductive as they come, building up over a haunting Rockabilly beat before fading out the first side of the record. The track came about almost by accident with Bruce working out the guitar parts on the spot and bringing in half finished lyrics from another song he was writing.
As the synths creep in, I'm On Fire becomes one of the quieter and more intense moments on the album, finding more in common with Nebraska than the blaring upbeat sound throughout most of BITU. Now a favourite in the Boss' live shows, the haunting and passionate track goes to show you that every idea is worth capturing when you're recording, you never know how brilliant it could end up.
'Tell me now, baby, is he good to you?
And can he do to you the things that I do?
Oh no, I can take you higher'
Although not one of the many tracks that dominated the charts from Born in the USA, No Surrender is such a rowdy rock anthem that it's always been a favourite of ours. Anthemic and epic, the song tells the ever familiar story of young friends growing up together. Springsteen's writing always brings a romantacism to experiences that everyone can relate to and No Surrender is such a fantastic example of how clever his lyrics are.
Drawing on his own younger life playing in bands and striving for his music to be heard against all odds, Bruce's journey is as impressive as his music and you feel how greatful he is for his good fortune in songs like this. Lines such as "we learned more from a three-minute record, baby than we ever learned in school" are so relatable and instantly bring you back to the days of your life where music was the most important thing in the world. The fact this tune wasn't released as a single shows you how deep the album goes - even the less well known moments are truly brilliant.
'We made a promise we swore we'd always remember
No retreat, baby, no surrender'
Although never confirmed, there's been a lot of speculation that the track Bobby Jean was written about Springsteen's relationship with long term guitarist and writing partner Steven Van Zandt. Although the head scarf wearing guitarist later returned and still gigs with the Boss to this day, Little Stevie left the band to pursue his own solo career and in doing so, left Bruce without his copilot. The pair grew up together, playing in a number of bands and supporting each others music from the very start. This track feels like mourning the loss of an incredible musical partnership, where Bruce is left on his own without the final goodbye he so desperately needed.
Ending with the lyrics "I'm just calling one last time not to change your mind, but just to say I miss you baby, good luck goodbye, Bobby Jean", Springsteen wishes the best to his comrade, despite being left to find his own way for the first time since the pair started working together. The ambiguity of the lyrics are part of what make them so special - however you interpret them the song is rippling with raw emotion, remorse and hope.
'Now you hung with me when all the others turned away turned up their nose
We liked the same music we liked the same bands we liked the same clothes'
Dancing in the Dark
As another of the album's standout singles, Dancing in the Dark's infectious synth parts and crooning lyrics have it up there with Springsteen's most popular tracks. Incredibly, the song was actually written after producer Jon Landau told the Boss that the album needed a single... We're pretty sure he was chuffed when 7 tracks ended up charting! That said, without his prompt we wouldn't have this exceptional peice of riotus rock n roll, so we can't say too much.
Although it's now among the most recognisable from the album, Bruce struggled most with writing Dancing in the Dark. It's lyrics even deal with his frustrations in trying to come up with another a hit single, along with his struggle to adapt to the success of his earlier albums. Before the final version was finished, the band laid down no less than 58 mixes to get it right. It's safe to say they nailed it, given how successful it became. Just remember that dedication and self belief next time you're struggling to finish off a song!
'You can't start a fire
You can't start a fire without a spark
This gun's for hire
Even if we're just dancin' in the dark'
Springsteen's career as a musician didn't come easy, especially growing up. Coming from a working class background where even long hair made you the subject of ridicule, he always felt like an outsider. While this no doubt helped shaped the writer we all know today, it also left its mark on Bruce. The final track of Born in the USA begins with him taking a drive through his town as a child, his father expressing a sense of pride for Freehold Borough where they lived. However, instead of a nostalgiac look at his upbringing, Springsteen uses the track to take a more honest look at the town's tougher times, highlighting issues such as racial conflict and unemployment. The track concludes with him moving his own son away but not before he takes a drive with him just as his father did, showing him where he grew up and how it shaped him.
My Hometown is particularly potent and always seemed like a strange one to end the largely anthemic album. It's a reminder that Springsteen is never one to write music for the sake of it and that with every happy, upbeat sing along comes a darker, more honest, reflective peice. We absolutely love the way this song comes together and in our opinion is one of the writer's strongest. There's an honesty and remorsefulness to it that sums up everything that's special about Bruce's writing. As we mentioned earlier, he's an absolute master in taking subjects we can all relate to and breathing a life and perspective into them that you don't see coming.
'Last night I sat him up behind the wheel
And said, "son, take a good look around
This is your hometown"'
Classic albums don't come around often, but if you takea quick look through Springsteen's massive back catalgoue, you'll find more than a few. As a writer, he's up there with the most significant in the history of popular music and Born in the USA is the perfect starting point for anyone who isn't familiar with his work. From social commentary to personal reflection, it's an extremely powerful collection that taps into your own experiences growing up. We have no doubt that Bruce's legacy will continue forever and we sincerely hope that this album means as much to future generations as it did to his.
We'd love to hear about your favourite tracks from it so drop us a comment and let us know. In fact, why not just throw the full album on and remind yourself how good it really is?