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Bruce Springsteen’s Transformation: The History of ‘Born in the U.S.A.’

Born in the USA
Columbia Records

We expect our musicians to evolve over the course of their career. But few could have predicted the complete transformation made by Bruce Springsteen when his album ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ was released on June 4, 1984.

Springsteen had kept a relatively low profile since ‘The River’ world tour concluded in Sept. 1981. He didn’t return to the road to support his stark, acoustic masterpiece, 1982’s ‘Nebraska.’ When he did surface, it was usually to sit in with friends at Jersey Shore bars like the Stone Pony or Big Man’s West, which was owned by E Street Band saxophone player Clarence Clemons.

So when fans bought ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ and looked at the photo on its inner sleeve, they could not have been prepared to see that the once-scrawny singer had been hitting the gym. “I was a big fan of meaningless, repetitive behavior,” he said in Peter Ames Carlin’s bio, ‘Bruce.’ “And what’s more meaningless than lifting a heavy object and then putting it down in the same place that you found it? There are probably other psychological reasons behind it, but otherwise it was a perfect match for me. The Sisyphean aspect of it just completely suited my personality.”

It wasn’t just Springsteen’s appearance that had changed. As nearly every other rock act was doing at the time, synthesizers were brought in to help modernize the sound of the E Street Band. And while they dominate some songs, like ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’ ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and ‘My Hometown,’ for the most part Roy Bittan’s keyboards blend well with Danny Federici’s Hammond organ. Coupled with a shiny mix by Bob Clearmountain, the songs on ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ fit perfectly on the radio at the time, even if some of the sounds Bittan used haven’t aged particularly well.

As bright as the finished product was, the recording of it was anything but. Brucebase says that at least 86 songs were recorded in four sets of sessions spanning 13 months. The first round took place from Jan. through May 1982. This was the infamous “Electric Nebraska” period where Springsteen was unable to capture the same emotions with the band as he did on the acoustic demos he had recorded on Jan. 3, 1982. Instead, he had engineer Toby Scott clean up the cassette tape as best as he could, and it was released that September. The full-band versions of the ‘Nebraska’ material still has yet to surface on any bootleg.

That doesn’t mean the sessions were completely fruitless. The entire first side of the album — ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’ ‘Cover Me,’ ‘Darlington County,’ ‘Working on the Highway,’ ‘Downbound Train’ and ‘I’m on Fire’ – plus ‘I’m Goin’ Down’ and ‘Glory Days,’ were cut during those four months.

Watch ‘I’m Goin’ Down’

Recording stopped after Springsteen made the decision to put out the ‘Nebraska’ demo tape. After its release, he retreated to his recently purchased house in Los Angeles. A few weeks into 1983, he spent three months cutting another batch of songs with just him and a drum machine. He considered fashioning an album out of the roughly two dozen songs as sort of a sequel to ‘Nebraska,’ but realized the effect it would have on his band. None of the tracks from this time made it on to the record, but ‘Shut Out the Light’ and ‘Johnny Bye-Bye’ were released as b-sides.

He reconvened the E Street Band in New York in May for another month of sessions. These were a little more productive, with ‘My Hometown’ making the final cut and ‘Pink Cadillac,’ ‘Stand on It,’ and ‘Janey Don’t You Lose Heart’ eventually being used as b-sides.

A handful of one-off sessions in late 1983 produced ‘Bobby Jean’ and ‘No Surrender.’ But even though they had enough for a full release – and the outtakes that surfaced on ‘Tracks’ and the bonus disc on ‘The Essential Bruce Springsteen’ showed that there was more than enough stellar material in the can – by Feb. 1984 there was still something missing: the sure-fire hit single. Manager Jon Landau did his time-honored duty, and demanded that his client write something that would guarantee radio airplay.

Furious that nothing was good enough, Springsteen channeled all of his frustrations onto the page. But it worked. ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ with its synth hook and rock-solid groove, was exactly what Landau wanted and the last track recorded for the album. Now it was time to figure out which songs to make the final cut.

“I had an idea,” he told Carlin. “And it was an idea that I had been working on for several records…I was a strange product of Elvis [Presley] and Woody Guthrie, and I pursued the pink Cadillac in my own way, but I was fascinated by people who had become a voice for their moment. Elvis, Woody Guthrie, Curtis Mayfield, Bob Dylan, of course. I don’t know if I felt I had a capacity for it or just willed my way in that direction, but it was something I was interested in. Probably because it was all caught up in my identity. You cannot figure out who you are if you don’t understand where you come from, what were the forces that work on your life as a child, as a teenager and as a young man. What part do you have to play? How do you empower yourself?”

While it’s a stretch to call ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ a concept album, it’s clear that the 12 tracks were chosen because of the way they fit together. Personal, social and sexual politics often intertwine within the songs, from the cheap-thrill seekers who run afoul of the law in ‘Darlington County’ to the economic hardships that end a relationship in ‘Downbound Train.’

Watch ‘Downbound Train’

Knowing he had a blockbuster on his hands, Landau worked with Columbia on the marketing plan. He wanted – and got — a treatment similar to what had brought Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ to unprecedented sales. That meant a two-year campaign with a new single every three months, beginning with ‘Dancing in the Dark.’ Released on May 4, the song was, by the summer, the No. 2 single on the Billboard Hot 100, kept out of the top spot for four weeks by Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry.’

With a smash hit single on his hands, Bruce Springsteen was set to begin a lengthy tour. But the E Street Band had a transformation of its own when Springsteen’s longtime friend, guitarist and co-producer Steve Van Zandt, left the group during the recording of the album. He did this partially to pursue a solo career, but also because he felt his role as one of Springsteen’s two chief sounding boards – the other being Landau – had been marginalized.

“Jon on his right and me on his left,” he told Carlin. “Jon representing the career, the business, the narrative end. Me representing rock n’ roll, the street, where it was coming from. A healthy balance, and it proved to be quite successful…All of a sudden I could tell he wasn’t hearing me…and I thought the way to preserve the friendship was to leave. “

Van Zandt was replaced by Nils Lofgren, a guitar wizard who had played with Neil Young and fronted his own critically acclaimed band, Grin. To cover the bulk of Van Zandt’s vocals, he brought in Patti Scialfa, a mainstay in Asbury Park who had auditioned for a Springsteen offshoot called Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom back in 1971.

“She busted the boy’s club, big time,” Springsteen said when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. “It went like this, ‘OK, fellas. There’s gonna be a woman in the band. We need someone to sing all the high parts. How complicated can it get?’ Well, a nice paparazzi photo of me in my jockey shorts on a balcony in Rome, 10 of the best years of my life, Evan, Jesse, Sam — three children genealogically linked to the E-Street band – tells the rest of the story. Everybody wants to know how I feel about the band. Hell, I married one of ‘em.”

As much as that sounds like it was a seamless transition — despite the eventual affair — Springsteen admitted when he inducted the E Street Band into the Hall 15 years later that he had some reservations about bringing a woman into the group.

“Her entrance freaked us out so much that opening night of the ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ tour, I asked her to come into my dressing room and see what she was gonna wear! So she had on kind of a slightly feminine T-shirt and I stood there, sort of sweating. At my feet, I had a little luggage bag that I carried with me, and I kicked it over. It was full of all my smelly, sweaty T-shirts and I said, “Just pick one of these. It’ll be fine.”

Watch ‘Dancing in the Dark’

The tour began at the end of June in St. Paul, MN. The opening show also served as the shoot for the ‘Dancing in the Dark’ video, which featured then-unknown actress Courteney Cox pulled out of the crowd to dance with Springsteen. A week later, ‘Born in the U.S.A’ was the No. 1 album in the country, where it would stay for four weeks. Everything seemed to be going according to the schedule, but Springsteen would soon find himself at the heart of the debate about what it means to be an American.

For a stop in late-August at the Capitol Centre just outside Washington, D.C., drummer Max Weinberg, a political news junkie, invited the panel of ABC’s ‘This Week with David Brinkley’ to the show. George Will was the only member who accepted. Two weeks later, he devoted his nationally syndicated column to what he saw. “I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any,” he wrote. “But flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: ‘Born in the U.S.A.!’”

Will was right about some things. Springsteen’s characters didn’t whine about their plights. They simply asked for a fair shot at the American Dream and had reacted in kind when it was denied. But his biggest mistake was in his use of the phrase, “grand, cheerful affirmation.” The main character of ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ may have accepted his 10-year jail sentence, but the chorus was a shout of anger at a country that had turned its back on those who had sacrificed for it, and to not acknowledge this was, at best, a simple misinterpretation or, at worst, a politically motivated lie.

Then-President Ronald Reagan’s speechwriters immediately saw an opportunity to capitalize on Will’s column. At a re-election campaign stop in Hammonton, N.J. a week after it ran, Reagan invoked the name of the state’s favorite son. “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts,” he said. “It rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”

Watch Ronald Reagan Mention Bruce Springsteen

It was a masterstroke of politics. Without seeking Springsteen’s endorsement – which he was never going to get – or even probably knowing a single song of his, Reagan’s message was clear: if you like Bruce Springsteen’s music, vote for me.

For most of his life, Springsteen had stayed away from making his political views known. The exceptions were a benefit for George McGovern in 1972 and the ‘No Nukes’ concert at Madison Square Garden in 1979. But now he had no choice but to enter the fray.

Two days later, during a concert in Pittsburgh, Springsteen said, “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album must’ve been. I don’t think it was the ‘Nebraska’ album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.” He then performed ‘Johnny 99,’ which is about a laid-off auto worker who gets drunk and goes on a crime spree.

The campaign of the Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale, seized on the moment by claiming that the former vice president had Springsteen’s endorsement. When the Springsteen camp issued a denial, Mondale retracted. Springsteen wouldn’t openly become involved in presidential politics until 2004.

Still, it made perfect sense for both candidates to try to get Springsteen’s approval. After all, the recently concluded Summer Olympics in Los Angeles had been a blowout for the American athletes – mostly due to the boycott of the majority of the Eastern Bloc countries – and jingoism was rampant. With both candidates looking for symbols that uniquely defined America, they only needed to look as far the t-shirt-and-Levi’s-wearing man who posed in front of the flag.

But that show in Pittsburgh introduced a new element into the Springsteen live experience. He donated $10,000 to a local food bank that had been established to provide food to steelworkers who had lost their jobs. To this day, Springsteen partners with food banks wherever he plays, giving them table space in arenas, informing the crowd of their work and making his own contribution.

Watch ‘Born in the U.S.A.’

The release of ‘Born in the U.S.A.”s title track as a single in late 1984 helped pushed the album back into the top in mid-January 1985 (Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ had held the No. 1 spot since unseating Springsteen in early August). Later that week, the U.S. leg of the tour ended in Syracuse, after which he flew to Los Angeles to participate in the all-star ‘We Are the World’ project.

Springsteen’s new-found global fame took him to Australia and Japan across March and April. Shortly after returning to the United States, he made headlines again. But it wasn’t for his music. Bruce Springsteen had gotten married.

He had met Julianne Phillips, a former model and aspiring actress, the previous October when the tour reached Los Angeles. A whirlwind romance, which somehow managed to stay out of the tabloids, followed, and on May 13, they tied the knot in secret at her hometown of Lake Oswego, Oregon. A couple of weeks later, the album’s fifth single ‘Glory Days’ was released, eventually reaching No. 5. The video featured an appearance by Phillips at the very end.

Watch ‘Glory Days’

When the tour reached Europe that summer, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band made the jump from arenas to stadiums, and did the same when they returned to the U.S. in August for two more months of shows. By the time the dust settled, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ had sold 15 million copies, with all seven of its singles hitting the Top 10 (not to mention ‘We Are the World,’ which hit No. 1).

In nearly four years from the first recording sessions to when ‘My Hometown’ fell off the charts, Springsteen had gone from a successful musician to the biggest white pop star in the world (Only Jackson and possibly Prince were more popular). But the transformation came with consequences. His difficulty in adjusting to his fame would, by decade’s end, result in the dissolution of both his marriage — due to the aforementioned “photo of me in my jockey shorts on a balcony in Rome” – and (temporarily) his band.

Next: Top 10 Bruce Springsteen Political Songs

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