“Born in the USA” at 35: Ranking the tracks

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It was 35 years ago today – June 4, 1984 – that the album that may be Bruce Springsteen’s best known, Born in the U.S.A., was released. If I didn’t buy it that day, I bought it on the 5th. It was during my junior year of high school, which would also have ended about 35 years ago, that I discovered Springsteen’s music to go along with the Dylan records I was playing in my bedroom after school while procrastinating doing my homework. I remember clearly hearing “Dancing in the Dark” for the radio for the first time and thinking two things: one, it was going to be a hit, and two, was this the same guy I’d been listening to? The sound was so markedly different from his previous LP, Nebraska, that it didn’t seem possible. (Think Dylan going from Blonde on Blonde to Nashville Skyline,  and you get the idea.)

But I bought the album, and played it. A lot. I bought a second copy and kept it sealed. (I may still have it packed away.) When I got a CD player in late 1985, I picked up a digital copy to give the vinyl a rest. Springsteen was very much a part of late high school life, and this album would have been at the center of all that driving around and listening that took place.

In all seven singles from this LP not only charted, they made the Billboard Top Ten. Springsteen has never had a #1 hit, so “Dancing in the Dark” at #2 remains the pinnacle of his chart success. But are the seven singles the best songs from the LP? In a word – no. Let’s rank them – as I see them – and see how close we come. In reverse order:

12. “I’m Goin’ Down” (chart position: #9). I freely admit that I dislike this record. A DJ in Chicago (I forget which one) at the time said it sounded like the song was written in a matter of minutes. I don’t disagree. It’s engineered for pop success, but – blech.

11. “Downbound Train” (not released). If you love Nebraska, this is more your speed, and you’ll probably rank it higher.

10. “Cover Me” (chart position: #7). This isn’t a bad record, really, but that’s how strong this LP is.

9. “Workin’ On the Highway” (not released). This comes up on the iPod every so often, and I’ll always give it a listen. When I saw it live at Soldier Field in 1985 it was better than presented on the LP, I thought.

8. “I’m On Fire” (chart position: #6). A friend and I had a debate at the time: Which is worse – having a freight train running through your head or having the sheets soaking wet? I pick the latter.

7. “Born In the U.S.A.” (chart position: #9). At some point, folks who trot this out as an anthem of patriotism should read the lyrics sheet. It’s been misinterpreted and misused for 35 years. From an instrumentation standpoint, the best part is at the end when Max Weinberg shows us how a drum set is to be worked.

6. “Dancing In the Dark (chart position: #2). Now I start an argument. “C’mon, Len, it’s the guy’s biggest hit.” Yeah, and Chuck Berry’s was “My Ding-a-Ling.” Sure, it’s a decent record, and I don’t hate it; I’m just saying if I re-ordered this LP I’d put it somewhere on Side 2 and perhaps not flip the LP very often. Your mileage may vary.

5. “No Surrender (not released). This was the hardest track for me to rank here. I think I might be biased by the live, acoustic version that was passed around in the 80s. It’s a lot more Dylanesque than a rocker. As a fifteen-year-old dropping the needle on Side 2 of the album, I heard this and thought it was a song of rebellion. The acoustic version makes it feel a whole, whole lot different than that.

4. “Glory Days (chart position: #5). “Nettles got me, bottom of the 9th.” This is a song that I think has a bell curve of appreciation based on age: I think in my 30s and 40s I might have ranked it higher; now, it’s not as soothing to think of one’s glory days as being behind you, assuming that they are. (I read today that for the first time in 100 years there’s no one in major league baseball who is or will turn 40 this year.) Bonus sighting in the video: Bruce’s first wife, beeping the horn.

3. “Darlington County (not released). You’ll disagree with me for ranking this one so high, but I think I did because it’s still un-burnt enough to be fresh. It’s a little dated – we don’t necessarily sing happy songs about what sounds like a guy getting picked up on a charge of statutory – but on this record it sounds like the band was just having a blast. It still sounds that way so many years later.

2. “My Hometown (chart position: #6). This is more classic Bruce, lamenting the fall of small-town America. Drive through the downtown of any small town these days and you see what Bruce describes: whitewashed windows and vacant stores. It’s not a 2019 problem, either: this was noted 35 years ago. There’s a lot of us from a town like this; if it’s not all boarded up, then it’s changed tremendously, and the place you grew up is gone. Put another way, you can’t go home again. (About 15 years ago I re-worked this to be about the southwest suburbs: “Now Bremen Mall’s Menards now – no Gately’s there…” I should see if I still have the whole thing.)

And – my vote for #1 – “Bobby Jean (not released).  This is a close contest, and “My Hometown” almost won it. Here’s why I give the nod here: This is a damned near perfect record. It sounds so damned happy, and yet there’s a tinge of loss. It’s like “Backstreets,” but in this one he’s more at peace with not getting the girl. They were close, they grew apart, but – hey – I remember you, and I still care about you. That’s not the worst message for a pop song to have. When he says he wanted to call “one last time, not to change your mind but to say I miss you baby, good luck, goodbye,” he’s made peace with his lot in life. You’re more likely to get a tear in the eye hearing this one, and that’s the power of the record. (This song is also great because, if it were written today, it would be a more cynical piece about how he caught up with her on Facebook and realized that he dodged a bullet.) Bonus points for the absolutely fantastic sax solo – rest in peace, Clarence.

 

One thought on ““Born in the USA” at 35: Ranking the tracks

  1. It’s really hard to rank these–I think because there are so many memories tied up in this record and that time period. When I listen to Bobby Jean though, I don’t hear him breaking up with a girl. I hear him saying good bye to Little Steven, since he was leaving the band around this time to do his own thing.

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