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On This Day In Music… February 16, 1985: 'Born in the USA' Gives Bruce Springsteen his Debut UK No.1 Album

The Boss’s seventh studio LP remains his most successful - and controversial - release.

bruce springsteen born in the usa
Source: Columbia Records

Springsteen's most successful album is also his most misinterpreted.

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The album that made Bruce Springsteen a superstar is also his most misunderstood. Released in June 1984, Born in the USA topped the charts in nine countries, spawned seven top 10 singles, and went on to sell over 30 million copies worldwide – making it by far The Boss’s most commercially successful LP, as well as the 22nd best-selling album of all time. On February 16, 1985, it gave Springsteen his first British No. 1 – he has subsequently released a further 10 U.K. chart-toppers to date.

Springsteen’s previous album Nebraska had arrived only two years before, but where that LP – recorded as demos on a four-track recorder – had been a sparse, haunting, acoustic affair, Born in the USA was anything but. The guitars were plugged in, the drums pushed front and center, and huge, quintessentially 80s synths underpinned almost every track. It remains Springsteen’s most defiantly “pop” record… which makes the fact that many of the songs, including the title track, sprang from those same Nebraska sessions all the more surprising.

“I had these two extremely different recording experiences going," Springsteen later told Mojo. “I was going to put them out at the same time as a double record. I didn't know what to do.”

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bruce springsteen performing live
Source: mega

'Born in the USA' would go on to become the 22nd best-selling album of all time.

Strip back the commercial sound of Born in the USA, however, and the connection to Nebraska becomes obvious. Springsteen’s tales of hard-up, working-class folks struggling to get by in an America they still love but feel increasingly isolated from, echo the downtrodden stories of that previous LP… though now they came with added fire, fury, energy and even humor.

Despite that, Born in the USA was misinterpreted from the start. The title track – immediately co-opted by the American right as a patriotic assertion of the power and glory of the motherland – is anything but. Beyond the thumping backbeat and fist-pumping refrain is a devastating tirade against the Vietnam War and the subsequent neglect of the men who fought in it. “Born down in a dead man’s town, the first kick I took was when I hit the ground,” it begins – and concludes with a verse that is a damning indictment of the very same political organizations who believed themselves to be celebrated by the song.

“Down in the shadow of the penitentiary, out by the gas fires of the refinery; I’m 10 years burning down the road, nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.”

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The themes of blue-collar men and women struggling to find dignity, security or even a little happiness amid the slings and arrows of 80s America continue throughout. “Glory Days”, (another apparently patriotic war cry) is, once you get beneath the anthemic synths, a sad tale of two washed-up loners with nothing to celebrate but memories of high school: “The time slips away; leaves you with nothing mister, but boring stories of glory days.” Even the apparent optimism of “Dancing in the Dark” is tempered with frustration: “Man I ain’t gettin’ nowhere, I’m just living in a dump like this.”

The album’s closing track, and the most Nebraska-like on the LP, “My Hometown”, couldn’t be musically further from the pomp and majesty of its opener – but lyrically the two are twinned. “Now Main Street's whitewashed windows and vacant stores,” he sings. “Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more…”

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Born in the USA also remains celebrated for its iconic sleeve design – an Annie Liebovitz shot of Springsteen in scuffed jeans and white t-shirt, red rag in his back pocket, in front of the U.S. flag. It is a supremely powerful image – and, like the music, also intensely conflicted, with some even suggesting that it depicted the Boss urinating on the stars and stripes.

Springsteen himself has remained ambiguous about the meaning. “The flag is a powerful image, and when you set that stuff loose, you don't know what's gonna be done with it,” he told Rolling Stone. "The picture of my ass looked better than the picture of my face, that's what went on the cover".


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