"I had written a catchy song," Bruce Springsteen recalled in an interview last year with Rolling Stone, "and I felt it was a really good song, probably one of my best since 'Born to Run.' I knew it was going to catch people — but I didn't know it was going to catch them like that, or that it was going to be what it was."
Born in the U.S.A. — the album, the song and the sixteen-month tour — turned out to be the breakthrough that Springsteen fans had been expecting for a decade. The influential Jersey musician became the world's biggest rock star — and a bona fide American icon, to boot.
As a result, Springsteen found himself dominating the album charts in 1984 and 1985. He hit the Top Ten seven times and wound up in heavy rotation in the theretofore unfamiliar terrain of MTV. The album inspired those who knew what his bitter, tough-minded songs were really saying (from numerous songwriters to novelist Bobbie Ann Mason, whose In Country owes a debt to the LP), as well as many others who misinterpreted and exploited the cover's American-flag imagery (among them, both 1984 presidential candidates and countless advertising agencies and jingle writers).
For Springsteen, who'd been catapulted into the media spotlight almost ten years earlier, when his album Born to Run landed him simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek, Born in the U.S.A. afforded him an opportunity to do it over again, older and wiser and not so awestruck by the machinery of fame. "The Born in the U.S.A. experience obviously had its frightening moments," Springsteen told Rolling Stone. "But I was thirty-five, and I had a real solid sense of myself by that time. With Born in the U.S.A., I had a chance to relive my 1975 experience when I was calm and completely prepared and went for it. It was like 'Great. We're selling all those records? Dynamite.'"
But it took Bruce Springsteen a long time and a lot of soul-searching to get to the point where he was willing to welcome that kind of stardom. Born to Run was followed by two years of legal difficulties and, finally, the grim, relentlessly downbeat Darkness on the Edge of Town. The commercial breakthrough of The River was answered by the bleak acoustic album Nebraska. But when it came time to assemble a new album, Springsteen's choice was clear: If he was ever going to make a blockbuster rock record, this would have to be the one.
Besides, he already had most of the songs. Springsteen and the E Street Band had recorded seven of the songs on Born in the U.S.A. prior to the release of Nebraska in a three-week blitz in May 1982: "Glory Days," "I'm Goin' Down," "I'm on Fire," "Darlington County," "Working on the Highway," "Downbound Train" and — most crucial of all — "Born in the U.S.A."
Springsteen originally recorded the last of these on the acoustic demo tape that became Nebraska, but he quickly abandoned that version, feeling it didn't really work in that format. At the start of the May sessions with the full band, Springsteen revived the song in a new, electric arrangement. "Bruce started playing this droning guitar sound," says drummer Max Weinberg. "He threw that lick out to [keyboardists] Roy [Bittan] and Danny [Federici], and the thing just fell together.
"It absolutely grabbed us. We played it again and got an even better groove on it. At the end, as we were stopping, Bruce gave me the high sign to do all these wild fills, and we went back into the song and jammed for about ten minutes, which was edited out. I remember that night as the greatest single experience I've ever had recording, and it set the tone for the whole record. That track was so special; it was really something to live up to."
For a while, though, Springsteen was ambivalent about following through with the rock record whose tone had been so dramatically set by "Born in the U.S.A." "He spent a good deal of time after the release of Nebraska feeling very close to that album," says Springsteen's manager, Jon Landau, who coproduced Born in the U.S.A. "I don't think he was ready to suddenly switch back into the 'Born in the U.S.A.' mode."
Springsteen drove to Los Angeles, where he began recording demos on his own, most of them closer in sound and spirit to Nebraska than to Born in the U.S.A. Some, like "Shut Out the Light," eventually appeared as B sides; others, such as "Sugarland" and his overhaul of Elvis Presley's "Follow That Dream," never appeared.
When he returned to recording with the E Street Band, the sessions were marked by prolific songwriting and a freewheeling approach on the part of Springsteen. "I remember one night when we were completely packed up to go home and Bruce was off in the corner playing his acoustic guitar," says Weinberg. "Suddenly, I guess the bug bit him, and he started writing these rockabilly songs. We'd been recording all night and were dead tired, but they had to open up the cases and set up the equipment so that we could start recording again at five in the morning. That's when we got 'Pink Cadillac,' 'Stand on It' [both used as B sides] and a song called 'TV Movie.'... Bruce got on a roll, and when that happens, you just hold on for dear life."
In the end, though, most of the sessions were inconclusive. Of the dozens of songs he recorded from mid-1982 to mid-1983, only "My Hometown" would make Born in the U.S.A.'s final cut.
Eventually, Landau and coproducer Chuck Plotkin convinced Springsteen that the best songs were from the May 1982 sessions. Late in the recording process, however, Springsteen wrote a few more standouts, including "Bobby Jean," his benediction to guitarist Steve Van Zandt, who'd left the band to pursue a solo career, and "No Surrender," an optimistic raveup. The album slowly and painstakingly assumed a shape with the help of band members, colleagues and friends who were asked to vote for their favorites from about twenty contenders.
Born in the U.S.A. appeared to be finished, but then Landau, in an exchange that he admits was "testy, by our standards," told Springsteen that the album needed another song. He had a list of requirements: It should unify the record, it should be written in the first person, and it should capture where Bruce was at that point in time. Springsteen objected — "The obvious response is, 'Hey, if that's what you want, then write it yourself,' and I got a little bit of that in this case," says Landau — but three days later Springsteen played Landau a new song born of his frustration and confusion. Its title was "Dancing in the Dark." With that, his blockbuster was finished.
Born in the U.S.A. was Springsteen's triumph, though he doesn't regard it as his best work. "That was a rock record," he says from the vantage point of four years later. "When I put it on, that's kind of how it hits me: That's a rock record. And the bookends ["Born in the U.S.A." and "My Hometown"] sort of covered the thing and made it feel more thematic than probably it actually was, you know? But I never really felt like I quite got it."
Still, if Springsteen looks back at Born in the U.S.A. as merely "a rock record," it should be pointed out that this was the album that defined how hard a record could rock, how much a rock record could say and what impact a rock record could have.