Bruce Springsteen released the record that would become his biggest-selling album of all time thirty years ago on June 4, 1984. “Born In The U.S.A.” would skyrocket Springsteen to global success, get misappropriated by a President, and turn his ass into an international icon. The album featured seven top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, tying Michael Jackson’s record set with “Thriller” (“Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” would later yield seven in 1989-91, as well) and went on to be certified 15-times Platinum by the RIAA.
“‘Born In the U.S.A.’ changed my life and gave me my biggest audience,” Springsteen said in his 1998 lyric anthology, “Songs.” “It forced me to question the way I presented my music and made me think harder about what I was doing.”
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Boss’s iconic album, we’re taking a track-by-track look — and listen — back to each of its twelve tracks.
1. “Born In The U.S.A.”
The record opens with majestic synth chords, soon accompanied by Max Weinberg’s snap-to-attention snare rim shot, reminiscent of (and influenced by) the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” And that voice: Springsteen snarls straight out at you: “Born down in a dead man’s town / The first kick I took was when I hit the ground / You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much / Till you spend half your life just covering up…” The E Street Band comes in like a bulldozer after the first chorus, turning this song into a powerhouse, one that still brings the crowd to their feet night after night no matter whether he’s playing it in New Jersey, Barcelona, or Dublin.With those lyrics, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could take this song as a paean to America, but they did, and they still do. The pinnacle of misunderstanding would be reached at a 1984 campaign stop in New Jersey, where Ronald Reagan stated that “America’s future rests in the message of hope, in the songs of a man that so many young Americans admire, New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.”
Springsteen’s initial response would come at a concert shortly thereafter, in the form of an introduction to a song off of “Nebraska,” “Born In The U.S.A.”‘s bleak, acoustic predecessor: “Well, I heard that the President was mentioning my name in his speech the other day, and I got to wondering what his favorite album of mine must’ve been. I don’t think it was the ‘Nebraska’ album; I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.”
He would later specifically address the incident, telling an interviewer, “You see the Reagan reelection ads on TV — you know, ‘It’s morning in America’ — and you say, well, it’s not morning in Pittsburgh. It’s not morning above 125th Street in New York. It’s midnight, and there’s a bad moon risin’. And that’s why when Reagan mentioned my name in New Jersey, I felt it was another manipulation, and I had to disassociate myself from the president’s kind words.”
“Born In The U.S.A.” would ultimately peak at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and spend 17 weeks on the chart.
2. “Cover Me”
Originally written for Donna Summer, Springsteen kept “Cover Me” for himself after he recorded a demo and liked it so much he decided to hang onto it. (He would later make up for it by writing her another song, “Protection.”) “She could really sing and I disliked the veiled racism of the anti-disco movement,” Springsteen noted later. “Cover Me,” which would peak at No. on the Billboard Hot 100 and spend 18 weeks on the chart, is a love song, an impassioned plea for his lover to stand by his side against the outside world. The track also features some fiery guitar licks revealing an underlying intensity in the otherwise straight-ahead rocker, highlighted by a compact, tasteful solo halfway through.
3. “Darlington County”
“Darlington County” manages to combine all of the Springsteen tropes: two buddies out on the town, working hard, looking for some pretty girls. In anybody else’s hands, the song would feel hackneyed; in Springsteen’s hands, he creates a delightful story that’s still an audience favorite to this day, right down to the “sha-la-la’s” on the chorus, which remain ripe for audience sing-a-longs.
4. “Working On The Highway”
Borrowing lyrics from a “Nebraska” outtake, “Working On The Highway” is a enjoyable, Elvis-tinged romp telling the story of a guy who decides to risk it all on the wrong girl. Musically, it’s minimalist, backslap rhythm underscoring a slightly echoey vocal, highlighted by a handful of guitar notes here and there. Garry Tallent joins in 30 seconds later, his bass adding another rhythm line to the song.
5. “Downbound Train”
Beautiful, powerful, heartbreaking, “Downbound Train” is, hands down, the saddest song on the record. A forlorn tale of lost love and hard times, this one is summarized best by the unforgettable line, “Now I work down at the car wash / where all it ever does is rain.” This is another number for the rhythm section, drum and bass, moving the lyrics along while synthesizer and acoustic guitar fill out the color and emotion of the track.
6. “I’m On Fire”
Springsteen turns crooner; this number is definitely for the ladies: “Hey little girl, is your daddy home? / Did he go and leave you all alone / I got a bad desire / ohh ohh ohh I’m on fire.” The vocals smolder, and the sparse instrumentation constructed out of synthesizer, snare drum, and guitar riff (based, according to Springsteen, off of a Johnny Cash and Tennessee Three rhythm he was playing with in the studio one night) is clearly built to give Springsteen room to do just that.
The video starring Springsteen as a mechanic working on the car of a lonely rich woman of this song plays into that image, “I’m On Fire” would reach No. 6 on the Hot 100 and remain on the chart for 20 weeks.
7. “No Surrender”
“No Surrender” is an anthem of friendship and youth and never giving up, most notable for the lyric, “We learned more from a three-minute record /than we ever learned in school.” It was a last-minute addition to the record, included at the urging of Steve Van Zandt even as he left the E Street Band to pursue a solo career. Van Zandt was right: “No Surrender” is a pounding, driving, rollercoaster of positivity, rainbows, blue skies and white fluffy clouds that’s become a Springsteen classic.
8. “Bobby Jean”
“Bobby Jean” is a rollicking 4/4 ballad whose highlight is the plaintive sax solo from Clarence Clemons which brings the song to a close. It’s deceptively powerful, the story building in momentum from verse to verse, and was absolutely written to be sung in a stadium so the entire crowd could wave their hands in the air back and forth in time. The song is believed to be written in tribute to Steve Van Zandt and his friendship with Springsteen:
“Now there ain’t nobody, nowhere
nohow gonna ever understand me the way you did
Maybe you’ll be out there on that
road somewhere, in some bus or train traveling along, in some motel room there’ll be a radio playing and you’ll hear me sing this song
Well, if you do, you’ll know I’m
thinking of you and all the miles in between and
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“
The liner notes of “Born In The USA” offered the dedication: “Buon viaggo, mio fratello, Little Steven.”
9. “I’m Goin’ Down”
“I’m Goin’ Down” is easily the most underrated song “Born In The USA” despite its chart success — it reached No. 9 on the Hot 100. It’s a prime exemplar of the kind of good-time party song that Springsteen and E Street do best, sliding easily through the verses with a deceptively sad tale of faded love despite the bouncing rhythm. And, yes, there’s another golden Clarence Clemons sax solo right in the middle, and a fun, jumping end. It’s another song that’s still a crowd pleaser around the globe, and with good reason.
10. “Glory Days”
Another one written for a stadium-sized sing-along, “Glory Days” is a tale of lost youth and adult resignation and acceptance of where you’ve ended up: high school baseball stars, marriages that didn’t quite work out, and sitting around talking about the good ol’ times.
“I had a friend was a big baseball
player back in high school (yeah)
He could throw that speedball
by you, make you look like a fool boy
Saw him the other night at this
roadside bar, I was walking in, he was walking out
We went back inside, sat down,
had a few drinks, but all he kept talking about was
The video starred Springsteen as the aforementioned baseball player, and also featured his new wife, Julianne Phillips, in a walk-on role. “Glory Days” would peak at No. 5 on the Hot 100 and stay on the chart for 18 weeks.
11. “Dancing In The Dark”
There was a point at which “Born In The U.S.A.” was finished, but Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau, told Bruce that he still needed a single. “Dancing In The Dark” was what he came back with. “It went as far in the direction of pop music as I wanted to go — and probably a little farther,” he later said. (That doesn’t explain the Arthur Baker 12′ remixes, however.) “Dancing In The Dark” was the first single, and the most popular song from the record, reaching No. 2 on the Hot 100 and spending 21 weeks on the chart.
It was helped along by its video, directed by Brian DePalma, and featuring a then-unknown Courtney Cox, pulled out of the audience by her hero to dance onstage. The video inspired hundreds of bad dance moves and hundreds of dreams of dancing onstage for Springsteen fans of both sexes.
12. “My Hometown”
This poignant ballad inspired by events in Freehold, New Jersey, Springsteen’s actual hometown, tied back into the themes introduced by the title track — events that impact a community, such as factory closures and racial incidents — but with the reminder that no matter what, this was still your hometown, and you should stand by it. “My Hometown” would go to No. 6 on the Hot 100 and remain on the chart for 15 weeks.