The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A.

The Making of Bruce Springsteen's Born In The U.S.A.

A lot of smash-hit albums have clear inspirations or stand out wildly when compared to an artist’s previous efforts, but that wasn’t the case with Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. It was similar in tone, content, and style to some of Springsteen’s previous (equally popular) albums and it didn’t necessarily launch at some pivotal moment in U.S. history. What made it so special was actually a number of subtler, smaller factors combining to give a personal touch to grander themes of social commentary that others had already worth thin.

Springsteen started working in music long before he recorded under his own name. He performed with bands The Castiles and Steel Mill but never found much success. Then in 1971, Springsteen formed his own band, aptly titled The Bruce Springsteen Band. After some challenges where it seemed Springsteen would be better off performing solo (he wasn’t), he reunited the band in 1972, now going by the name everyone knows them as, The E Street Band.

Even then, he still wasn’t much better off, despite creating what’s now generally recognized as major contributions to the history of rock music. Springsteen signed a deal with Columbia Records in 1972 — specifically with Clive Davis and John Hammond — but that wasn’t the whole story. The only reason an unknown and unsuccessful Springsteen was able to sign with Columbia was thanks to producer Mike Appel, who believed he recognized what he later called "a new Bob Dylan" in Springsteen.

Springsteen signed a contract with Columbia
He signed Springsteen to his production company Laurel Canyon, according to a Rolling Stone exclusive, then tried getting Springsteen on board with a major label. Columbia was the goal, but despite Springsteen impressing John Hammond during an interview and performance, Hammond wasn’t keen on making the decision without input from others at the label. Hoping to spur Hammond into action with the threat of losing Springsteen, Appel signed Springsteen to Sioux City Music for publishing, a company that just so happened to be owned by Appel’s business partner Jim Cretecos. His plan worked, and Springsteen signed a contract with Columbia shortly after. It wasn’t a very straightforward contract though, and it ultimately served as a catalyst for Springsteen’s dive into some of his darker and most successful works before Born In The U.S.A. While Springsteen himself just wanted to make music to satisfy his own desires for creation and follow in the footsteps of his music idols, Rolling Stone says Appel genuinely believed Springsteen had the makings of greatness (based on comments the producer made in an interview with Record World). That same Rolling Stone piece also points out that part of the trouble with Appel’s contract was that it denied the singer most of the profits from his own creations and severely limited how and with whom he could record. Initially, that wasn’t a significant problem. In 1972, Springsteen was hard at work on his first album with Columbia, Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey — although part of that was convincing the label to let him sing about his hometown and not put New York on the cover. In the end, Springsteen was pleased with the results, according to the Icons of Rock encyclopedia. Of course, those who heard him play live seem to have appreciated it as well.
Columbia over-marketed Springsteen as some kind of folk music renaissance
Appel’s conviction that Springsteen was the next Bob Dylan unintentionally ended up doing more harm than good when the album released. Columbia over-marketed Springsteen as some kind of folk music renaissance and tried getting him added on to tours as a guest performer aside from his own shows. Icons of Rock claims these performances actually angered fans more than anything because they either didn’t understand who he was supposed to be or just didn’t buy into the false hype surrounding Columbia’s folksy Dylan image for Springsteen. The album was essentially a flop despite Springsteen developing the start of a cult following and the success of the single “Blinded By The Light” — which Davis encouraged Springsteen to record specifically for publicity. His second album with Columbia, The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle, didn't fare much better. Springsteen told Rolling Stone that for the second album launch, Davis — who Springsteen says was his biggest supporter at Columbia — left, and his only other ally was Hammond. The problem with that, Springsteen said, was that Hammond lost interest in him after Asbury Park’s commercial failure, so The Wild hardly received any marketing. Springsteen then told Rolling Stone that he remembers one instance at a club on Long Island where the audience actually walked out when Springsteen’s band was announced as the opening act. Appel started taking down names of people who left, which Springsteen said didn’t help matters at all. To the vocalist, it all felt like a battle — and that extended to the recording when Columbia told him to re-record the entire album with a studio band or it would “go in the trash.” Dramatic as it sounds, Springsteen’s third album with Columbia would ultimately decide the fate of his career, but (in typical Springsteen fashion) there was a touch of character in the doom and gloom. Speaking of what would happen if the album failed, he commented “I said, 'Don’t worry fellas, we have no place to go. We’re not going away. We’re going to continue.”
He struggled with accurately transferring the emotions and desires he felt into sound
With that in mind, Springsteen and his bandmates all worked incredibly hard to make sure they didn’t have to put that to the test. The songwriter drew on his desires for freedom and the promises it offered when writing most of Born to Run, though he recalls in his memoir that it became a sort of obsession as well. He struggled with accurately transferring the emotions and desires he felt into sound, and it upset him to the point where he hurled the first master copy of it into a hotel pool. Despite recognizing how much work everyone put into Born to Run, he ultimately only heard the negatives when listening to it, Springsteen told Rolling Stone. “It was a moment when your music was the totality of your identity, and so you were so caught up and so invested in it," Springsteen said. "Part of what made the record good is that we went to extremes to structure it and compose it and play it in this very detailed and drive-yourself-crazy fashion.” It clearly paid off. Following earlier advice from Davis about recording a single, Springsteen recorded “Born to Run” as a single and released it to radio stations to much acclaim. According to Peter Carlin’s book Bruce (as paraphrased by Ultimate Classic Rock), Springsteen met former Rolling Stone editor Jon Landau in April 1974 while reading a review of The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle posted in a Cambridge, MA, club called Charlie’s Place. Springsteen happened to bump into Landau, and they discussed the review together. A month later, Landau attended a Springsteen concert in Cambridge, The Boss became something of a musical revelation to him. Prior to that point, Landau had become disillusioned with music and wanted more than just a career of criticism. When he heard Springsteen in concert, including what might have been the first live performance of “Born In The U.S.A.,” Carlin says Landau felt rejuvenated. His famous comment about Springsteen being the future of rock was (at least according to Ultimate Classic Rock) famously taken out of context, as what Landau really meant was that Springsteen represented a future where all that was good about rock, folk, and earlier artists could be combined into one sound.
The new sound made Born to Run incredibly successful
But Springsteen wasn’t too pleased with this new hype, as Appel’s "Bob Dylan" remark had apparently left a sour taste in his mouth. What he was interested in was Landau’s comments about his second album’s weaknesses, primarily its poor sound. Springsteen then asked Landau to offer advice on the recording of Born to Run, and Landau gladly assisted him in helping to create a more polished sound as a co-producer. The new sound — along with Springsteen’s heartfelt lyrics and a rigorous touring schedule to promote the album — made Born to Run incredibly successful. The timing was significant as well, as Rolling Stone’s exclusive article covering the lawsuit phase of Springsteen’s career says. Springsteen wanted to continue working with Landau, and his contract with Appel was nearing its end. Appel moved to keep Landau from working with Springsteen on his next album, and Springsteen responded with a lawsuit of his own on July 27, 1976. The lawsuit alleged that Appel committed fraud and exploitation against the songwriter, demanded an audit of Laurel Canyon and basically tried to prevent Appel from being further involved with Springsteen’s career. Appel responded with an injunction preventing Springsteen from recording with anyone else, which cost the rock star a full year of work outside of writing songs for other artists (including “Because The Night” for the legendary Patti Smith). After a long year of court battles, Springsteen submitted an affidavit outlining how the year of no work was harming his career and asking to continue working with Landau because “Landau has brought to the studio higher qualities which have given tremendous stride to my creative development. I enter the studio with virtually millions of scattered ideas to which Landau, through his unique ability to communicate with me . . . has been able to provide the focus and direction necessary to shape my thoughts into finished musical compositions.” Springsteen eventually won out and began working on his next landmark album, Darkness on the Edge of Town — a much darker, cynical and wistful album that Springsteen himself described as the counterpoint to Born to Run. Where one was about chasing dreams and limitless possibilities, the other focused on the challenges, heartaches and crushing disappointments that can come with realizing those dreams. Like most of his work, Darkness was rooted in the emotional fallout of his recent court struggles and other hardships he was facing. In his memoir, Springsteen also speaks of other motivations for journeying down a darker road. The singer comments that he’s always struggled with anger born from his own family troubles growing up, such as his father’s inability to commit to family life and affection. Dealing with the darkness inside — or not knowing how to deal with it — also informed his music choices and the desire to examine specific character stories through his music, hence the likes of “Badlands” on Darkness.
Springsteen’s album proved a huge success

Despite dealing with such heavy themes, Springsteen’s album proved a huge success while earning praise for its serious contemplation of genuine problems. It’s some of the same praised mentioned about Born In The U.S.A. as well (minus a bit of the darkness), but it's only one of the aspects that makes the latter his most memorable work.

Another part of it was Springsteen himself and how he conducted himself as a musician. In what was becoming his usual fashion of neglecting commercial success for artistic satisfaction, The Boss wasn’t content to imitate this success for his next album — instead wanting to go darker and more personal.

Born In The U.S.A. was actually conceived and half-recorded while Springsteen was still working on Nebraska — an album even darker and more musically brave than Darkness On The Edge of Town. Nebraska completely eschewed the usual accompanying rock band in favor of just Springsteen and a guitar, and AllMusic describes it as one of the darkest classic rock albums ever.

But while working on it, Springsteen was bubbling over with ideas for additional albums that didn't fit the theme. He recalls in his memoir wanting to both do a concept album delving into character stories (like Nebraska) and wanting to work on a more personal album. In the end, Springsteen and his band ended up working on roughly 80 songs — many of which obviously didn’t end up on either album — but it was the personal songs getting back to the artist’s roots that became Born In The U.S.A.

Born to Run memoir

In his aforementioned Born to Run memoir, Springsteen reflected further on his career at that point. He’d covered both character stories and his roots through songs before, but never had he done them together. He felt the need to connect his family relationships with the broader themes explored in his other albums to understand where his family fit in with the story of his country and explore what the distance was between the "American Dream" and American reality. In short, it was time to bring his characters home, which was a process years in the making.

Springsteen recounts how he ventured out to an Arizona drug store  while on tour in 1978 and saw a memoir of a Vietnam veteran, Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic. He bought it on a whim and read through the entire thing very quickly, and then he went to the hotel pool (although probably not the one from earlier in his career) and started chatting with someone he’d seen around the hotel before that point — someone who happened to be Ron Kovic.

The Vietnam War formed an integral part of Springsteen’s life (as it did for basically any young man in the 1960s), as he did whatever he could to try and avoid the draft, such as claiming he was gay or constantly on LSD. He ended up disqualified from the draft anyway thanks to a concussion he’d suffered in 1967, but that didn’t stop him from thinking about who took his place. He discusses it further in both Rolling Stone and his memoir, saying he looked at the primarily working class, African-American people on the bus with him heading to the draft center and realized how wrong it was that they should be expected to give up their lives when others were exempt because they went to college.

His thoughts about Vietnam were why Kovic connected Springsteen with Bobby Muller, an activist for veterans who helped set up a benefit concert in August 1981. The concert was a huge success, and Muller noted it was a “pivotal moment” for the veterans’ movement. But it was pivotal for Springsteen too, as biographer Brian Hiatt said Springsteen started working on what would become “Born In The U.S.A.” the month following the benefit concert.

Originally called just “Vietnam” - veterans’ issues were much more blatant, and it was politically radical too

Originally called just “Vietnam,” Hiatt said it was a vastly different single compared to the one that eventually released. Its callouts to veterans’ issues were much more blatant, and it was politically radical too.  Springsteen lambasted the government and apparently called for justice against former president Richard Nixon, saying they should have “cut off his balls.”

But Springsteen started revising his draft and surprised the E Street Band by bringing the song out during recording sessions for Nebraska in April 1982 — although Hiatt pointed out that there are a couple of stories about how this actually happened. Keyboardist Roy Bittan said Springsteen just started playing an acoustic version of the song, and each band member started picking up the riff and created their own sounds around it, while drummer Max Weinberg said everyone started repeating the riff and Springsteen created the sound from there.

Either way, that early live take was so good that it’s what ended up on the album. The rest of the recording was a bit rockier, though, as the band worked through a number of songs and eventually had to stop recording to actually focus on Nebraska. But before they had finished, Landau forced another single for Born In The U.S.A. out of Springsteen, “Dancing in the Dark.”

“Dancing in the Dark” made it to number two on Billboard’s Top 100 and kicked off a smash-hit tour that eventually went global. After the album itself launched, it occupied Billboard’s top spot for an entire month due to its deft weaving of personal, political, and social critique.

Granted, some of the popularity could stem from certain parties not exactly absorbing the lyrics. “Born In The U.S.A.” in particular ended up being misused by Ronald Regan and his coterie as a song emblematic of everything right with the country — even though it went against both what the song actually said and Springsteen’s own views. Regardless, it rather ironically helped catapult Springsteen to the forefront of the rock scene, as did the release of “Born In The U.S.A” as a single in 1984. It was, as Rolling Stone said, the first time a rock star showed they could create a "rousing anthem" that still expressed the voice and pain of the people. The single itself actually helped the album reclaim the top spot on the charts from Prince’s Purple Rain. Combined with Springsteen’s actions afterwards — such as taking part in We Are the World and donating to local food banks and charities while on tour — both the message in his lyrics and his identity as the people's rock star were cemented in history.