Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen: The story of The Boss's biggest-selling album

3 June 2024, 11:25

Springsteen on Broadway – album trailer

By Mayer Nissim

Bruce Springsteen was already a star before Born in the USA... but that album made him an icon.

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Not many artists are still producing their best work over a decade into their careers. Even fewer are selling anywhere near as many records as they used to.

But then not many artists are like Bruce Springsteen.

The Boss had already released six classic albums by the time we inched toward the middle of the 1980s.

He'd started the decade with the chart-topping The River before scaling things right back for follow-up Nebraska.

Then he went supernova with Born in the USA. 40 years on, we're taking a closer look at Springsteen's most successful masterpiece.

When was Born in the USA recorded, and when was it released?

Bruce Springsteen - Born in the U.S.A. (Official Video)

After the critical acclaim of his early albums, Bruce Springsteen really broke through with his third record – 1975's Born to Run.

He got deeper and grimier on Darkness on the Edge of Town, before an explosion of creativity with the double album The River in 1980.

Then came something of a side-step. He started writing his next album in the autumn of 1981, starting with a song called 'Vietnam', inspired by Ron Kovic's memoir Born on the Fourth of July (later to be made into a film by Oliver Stone starring Tom Hanks), and met several war veterans.

That song morphed into 'Born in the USA', named after an unnamed movie by Paul Schrader for which Bruce was asked to write the music.

Then came a flurry of more songs, and Bruce laid down some four-track demos at his Colts Neck home between December 17, 1981, and January 3, 1982, with the intention of recording them properly with the E Street Band.

Bruce Springsteen - I'm On Fire (Official Video)

And they tried... but the only problem was that little of the album-to-be matched the incredible raw beauty of those demos. So the so-called Electric Nebraska was shelved, and the stripped-back demos were released as the Nebraska album in 1982.

On some of the songs, the band absolutely nailed it. At the Power Station in New York City in April 1982 they put down a load of future classics.

There were more sessions at the Hit Factory in May and June 1983, and yet more sessions that October, and even into 1984.

So between January 1982 and March 1984, Bruce and the band had 70 to 90 songs recorded.

"By that time, I'd recorded a lot of music," he wrote in 2016's Born to Run.

"But in the end, I circled back to my original groups of songs. There I found a naturalism and aliveness that couldn't be argued with. They weren't exactly what I'd been looking for, but they were what I had."

Born in the USA was released on June 4, 1984.

Who plays on Born in the USA apart from Bruce Springsteen?

Bruce Springsteen - Dancing In the Dark (Official Video)

Bruce Springsteen had been playing with the E Street Band since way back in the autumn of 1972, even though the group didn't formally get that name for another couple of years.

But while his live tours – and the Live 1975–85 compilation – are credited to Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, the Boss's studio albums are always released simply under the name Bruce Springsteen.

The preceding Nebraska really was a totally solo Bruce Springsteen album, with Bruce playing absolutely everything on the album all by himself, including guitar, harmonica, mandolin, glockenspiel, tambourine, Hammond organ and synthesizer, as well as singing of course.

Bruce Springsteen - Glory Days (Official Video)

Born in the USA is of course a full band affair, with Bruce back to his day job of vocals and guitars.

He was ably backed by the early 1980s vintage of The E Street Band, which meant Roy Bittan on piano and synthesizer, Clarence Clemons on saxophone and percussion, Danny Federici on Hammond organ, glockenspiel and piano, Garry Tallent on bass guitar, Steven Van Zandt on acoustic guitar and mandolin and Max Weinberg on drums, with backing and harmony vocals spread around the group.

As well as the E Streeters, the album featured extra backing vocals by Richie 'La Bamba' Rosenberg on 'Cover Me' and 'No Surrender', and by Ruth Jackson on 'My Hometown'.

Bruce Springsteen - My Hometown (Official Video)

Despite its snappy coherence, the album has four listed producers: Bruce himself, his manager-producer Jon Landau, knob-twiddler Chuck Plotkin, and E Street guitarist and right-hand man Steven Van Zandt.

Van Zandt actually left the E Street Band after the first batch of recordings. Buon Viaggio, mia fratello, Little Steven ("Safe travels, my brother, Little Steven") read a note in Italian from The Boss on the sleeve. Steve released the solo albums Men Without Women in 1982 and Voice of America in 1984.

Steve was replaced by Nils Lofgren from 1984 to the E Street band's breakup in 1989. He returned for the group's short-lived 1995 get-together and then again for their proper reunion in 1999, with Nils also retaining his place in the lineup.

What is the tracklisting of Born in the USA?

Bruce Springsteen at Giants Stadium, New Jersey on the Born in the USA tour
Bruce Springsteen at Giants Stadium, New Jersey on the Born in the USA tour. Picture: Getty Images

Of the reported 70-90 tracks recorded for Born in the USA, the running order was eventually slashed down to just 11 tracks... and then bumped up to 12, with Steve Van Zandt successfully lobbying for the inclusion of 'No Surrender'.

The final running order of Born in the USA is as follows:

  1. Born in the U.S.A.
  2. Cover Me
  3. Darlington County
  4. Working On the Highway
  5. Downbound Train
  6. I'm On Fire
  7. No Surrender
  8. Bobby Jean
  9. I'm Goin' Down
  10. Glory Days
  11. Dancing In The Dark
  12. My Hometown

Incredibly, over half of the songs on the 12-track album were released as a single. Incredibly, all seven singles from Born in the USA were top ten hits on the Billboard Hot 100.

First out of the tracks was 'Dancing in the Dark', released ahead of its parent album. Then came 'Cover Me' and 'Born in the USA' itself before 1984 was out.

The following year saw the release of 'I'm on Fire', 'Glory Days', 'I'm Goin' Down' and finally in November 1985, 'My Hometown'.

What songs were left off Born in the USA, and have any of them been released since?

Pink Cadillac (Single B-Side - 1984)

Experts and Bruce-ologists like the people at Bruce Base have scoured the archives and the record and pieced together a comprehensive record of every single part of the four phases of recording for Born in the USA.

Of the songs not included on the album, it's best to start with the ones we've actually heard.

'Pink Cadillac' was the B-side of 'Dancing in the Dark'. 'Shut Out The Light' was on the flip of 'Born in the USA'. 'Johnny Bye Bye' was on the other side of 'I'm on Fire'. 'Stand On It' was on the B-side of 'Glory Days'. 'Janey, Don't You Lose Heart' was the B-side on 'I'm Goin' Down'.

All of those B-sides were included on 1998's Tracks compilation, as were the following previously-unreleased Born in the USA outtakes:

  • A Good Man Is Hard To Find (Pittsburgh)
  • My Love Will Not Let You Down
  • Wages Of Sin
  • This Hard Land
  • Frankie
  • Cynthia
  • Lion's Den
  • Car Wash
  • TV Movie
  • Brothers Under The Bridges ('83)
  • Man At The Top
  • Rockaway The Days

Bruce Springsteen - Murder Incorporated

Since then, there's only been one formally-released Born in the USA song, with 'Murder Incorporated' being included as one of the four "new" songs on 1995's Greatest Hits album.

Then there are songs that you can possibly find, though not exactly legally:

  • Protection
  • The Klansman
  • Seven Tears
  • Fugitive's Dream
  • One Love
  • Betty Jean
  • Unsatisfied Heart
  • Little Girl (Like You)
  • Delivery Man
  • Follow That Dream
  • Sugarland
  • Don't Back Down
  • James Lincoln Dear
  • Richfield Whistle
  • Bells Of San Salvador

A small number of songs are known to have passed hands among private collectors:

  • Your Love Is All Around Me
  • Stop The War
  • Baby I'm So Cold

The Klansman - Bruce Springsteen (1983 Demo)

Then there are the songs that have never been heard by anyone outside of The Boss’s camp, including tantalising recordings of the Electric Nebraska sessions among them:

  • On The Prowl
  • Nebraska
  • Atlantic City
  • Mansion On The Hill
  • Johnny 99
  • Highway Patrolman
  • Used Cars
  • Open All Night
  • Reason To Believe
  • Losin' Kind
  • Fade To Black
  • Robert Ford
  • William Davis
  • Gun In Every Home
  • Common Ground (Stay Hungry)
  • True Love Is Hard To Come By
  • I Don't Care
  • The Money We Didn't Make
  • Johnny Go Down
  • Body And Soul
  • Savin' Up
  • Out Of Work
  • Love's On The Line
  • Club Soul City
  • Hold On (To What You Got)
  • Workin' On It
  • Gone, Gone, Gone
  • King's Highway
  • Just Around The Corner To The Light Of Day
  • Invitation To Your Party
  • Bad Boy
  • Glory Of Love
  • Shut Down
  • 100 Miles From Jackson
  • Roll Away The Stone
  • Swoop Man
  • Under The Big Sky
  • Refrigerator Blues
  • Ida Rose (No One Knows)
  • Now And Forever / Summer On Signal Hill

What is the front cover of Born in the USA all about?

Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA
Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA. Picture: Alamy

The front cover of Born in the USA is one of the most iconic – and controversial – in all of rock music.

The photograph was taken by premier rock snapper Annie Leibovitz and features Bruce from the back, wearing his all-American blue jeans and white T-shirt, with a red baseball cap stuffed into the back pocket

If those colours (blue, white, red) weren't enough, Bruce is standing in front of the red and white stripes of the US flag.

The presence of the flag, and the 'Born in the USA' name married to how uplifting that title track sounds has led those who never bothered to read the lyrics (and who didn't know much about Bruce Springsteen to start), to think of it the album and its sleeve as some sort of rah-rah 'go USA' patriotic/nationalist piece.

Obviously, anyone who listened to the words ("Sent me off to a foreign land/ To go and kill the yellow man") or had listened to any Bruce records before, knew his feelings about the US were much more ambiguous.

Some of those people took one look at the cover, Bruce's unsighted right hand, and thought he was urinating on the flag.

There was absolutely no truth to that.

The best line about the sleeve came from the man himself, who quipped to Rolling Stone: "The picture of my ass looked better than the picture of my face".

Where did Born in the USA get in the charts and how many copies has it sold?

Bruce Sprinsgsteen on the Born in the USA tour in Washington, DC
Bruce Sprinsgsteen on the Born in the USA tour in Washington, DC. Picture: Getty Images

We've already described Born in the USA as Bruce Sprinsgteen's biggest-selling album and mentioned its seven top 10 singles, but that doesn't start to do justice to just how massive a commercial success Born in the USA is.

In the UK, it's gone triple platinum, with sales of over 1,120,000.

In the US it's gone 17 (SEVENTEEN) times platinum, racking up sales over over 17 million copies.

Worldwide sales are estimated at over 30 million.

Naturally, the album went to number one in both countries, as well as in many places all over the world.

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