Week 20: Bruce Springsteen

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Born In The USA

It’s probably one of my more bizarre associations but Springsteen’s Born in the USA album always reminds me of our first family VHS video recorder.  It wasn’t our first video recorder though.  People remember the video format battle being between VHS and Betamax but there was a third format that if it had been a little or probably a lot more reliable could have been a contender.  This was back in the day where most people rented their TVs and video recorders from the likes of Radio Rentals.  TVs weren’t that reliable so it paid to just rent and call out an engineer when it stopped working which in my memory it did on a regular basis.  It also allowed you to keep up with the changing technology like getting a remote control.

For some reason Radio Rentals were pushing a different video format backed by Phillips and Grundig called the V2000.  The big advantage this format had over its rivals was the ability to record on both sides of the tape like a standard music cassette which doubled the capacity and allowed a recording time of 6 or 8 hours depending on the size of the tape.  At that point VHS could only do 3.   This was before VHS brought out machines which could do something called long play which meant you could get 6 hours on a 3 hour tape which they did by slowing down the recording speed.  They also eventually brought out 4 hour tapes that could record 8 hours using long play.

v2000

So the big selling point for the V2000, pictured above, was the increased capacity available which was all well and good but the machines were completely unreliable and I think over the time we had them it was away getting fixed more than it worked which was a shame as the quality of picture was far superior to VHS.  My dad is a big film buff so he saw the advantage of all that increased capacity but eventually he gave in and got the much more reliable VHS which by this time had the option of long play and that finally sold it so my dad and it was cheerio to the V2000.

And the whole point of that story is this conversion to VHS coincided with the release of the Born In The USA album and Springsteen getting plenty of TV time including one particular programme, an Old Grey Whistle Test Special about the album which included some live footage and that, my friends, became the very first thing I recorded on the our new VHS video machine.  I think I still have the tape somewhere.

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I have to admit I’m mainly a Springsteen tourist although a little bit more than just a greatest hits type of fan.  He is one of those artists you can throw yourself into but despite being a huge admirer of him I’ve never immersed myself fully in his music unlike some of my friends who know the rarest of tracks and can pinpoint how rare a live outing for any of his songs are.  I just don’t have the time and dedication for that kind of devotion given my other musical obsessions but I can’t  help but admire it.

Springsteen has an aura and authenticity that surrounds him that so many of the current music acts whose manufactured personas would crumble under any kind of detailed scrutiny,  would die for.  Springsteen like all the great singer/songwriters of our time can tell a story from the viewpoint of the protagonist and its this ability that has gained such a massive and dedicated fan base over the years. People understand and feel his lyrics on a day to day basis.  He understands the fight of the common man because he is one despite his undoubted riches and accompanying fame and fortune.  He has somehow managed to continue to understand the trials and tribulations and the hardship that people go through on a daily basis.

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Oddly, despite BITUSA being his most successful album it is probably the most divisive among the Springsteen community.  This was the album that propelled him from arenas to stadiums and I guess many Springsteen fans felt they had lost him to the masses at that point. Possibly a bit of a selfish stance to take but one I can sympathise with as many bands I’ve loved have been swallowed up by the success of reaching the arena or stadium circuit and have become shadows of the band I originally fell in love with.  To Springsteen’s credit he still has the ability to this day to release some very good albums although occasionally a bit of quality control wouldn’t go amiss, much like Neil Young.  Sometimes less is more.

BITUSA though is for me just a great album that was right place, right time. It was packed full of immediately accessible and memorable songs. Lyrics that meant something and told stories so many could relate to. It was a time when America was looking at itself in a different way. The Cold War with the USSR was coming to an end as glasnost and Gorbachev changed the Iron Curtain forever.  America was trying to come to terms with the fall out of the Vietnam war, Reagan politics was devastating small and large American towns as communities who were reliant on one large business to supply employment had to watch as these businesses closed down or moved away and left behind shattered towns some of which have never recovered.

Legendary rock star and icon Bruce Springsteen performs during his "Born in the U.S.A." tour in Philadelphia

Springsteen touched the zeitgeist perfectly on this album as a similar scenario was taking place in the UK as Thatcher’s all out attack on the unions and the working man in the UK was also taking place. Whole mining communities were left devastated along with steel workers, car builders and anyone else who had stood up to the destruction being wrought across the land as Thatcher pursued policies designed to break the spirit of the proud working man. Springsteen’s lyrics easily crossed continents and communities.

We had the title track that dealt with Vietnam and a damning commentary on those who were left to deal with the aftermath in a country that preferred to forget the war took place and the shameful way their veterans were treated.  Bizarrely many US politicians have used this song as some kind of patriotic rallying call and clearly have never read or understood the lyrics or are completely lacking in irony.

Familiar Springsteen subjects like road songs (Darlington County), nostalgia (My Hometown, Glory Days) and of course boy meets girl (Dancing in the Dark, Bobby Jean) litter an album that produced seven hit singles from the albums twelve tracks.

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The album also came out when MTV was making the music video the must have accompaniment for any single release.  This saw Dancing in the Dark doing the unthinkable and rivalling Born to Run as his most famous song. The video also famously had Friends star Courtney Cox in pre Friends days joining Springsteen on stage.  With so many singles released Springsteen was on regular rotation on the video channels and this all added to the subsequent rise in popularity and the inevitable stadium tours.

Despite this massive popularity though Springsteen has always come across as a very down to earth normal guy given his fame.  No doubt some of this is part of his PR persona but this is a difficult act to portray for any length of time.  He seems to me the kind of guy you would happily go for a pint with and just talk about normal every day things.

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His live shows are justifiably legendary clocking in at 3 hours plus and the energy and passion shown by Springsteen and his E Street band would shame bands half their age. It took me until Dublin in 2003 before I witnessed him live with another 4 shows since then including a memorable evening at Hyde Park in 2009 when my wife was around 6 months pregnant so going down the front wasn’t an option so we got ourselves a blanket and sat in front of one of the big screens and got a close up view of proceedings.  This is normally something I absolutely hate massive outdoor shows for but on this day it was just perfect.  A beautiful sunny evening, a great crowd, a few beers and Bruce providing the soundtrack. I’ll never forget the brilliant rendition of Racing in the Streets which silenced a massive Hyde Park crowd.  I also saw close up the love Springsteen had for the ‘Big Man’, Clarence Clemons who clearly wasn’t in the best of health.  Springsteen shows haven’t been quite the same since he left us.  It was just a great show by a great performer surrounded by a great band.

I have many pals and also my doctor who are massive Springsteen fans and who travel all over the place to see him. My doc goes to Australia, the US and mainland Europe to see his idol.  I usually forget why I’m there as we chat about music for most of the time.  My old friend Craig, who will get many mentions in these blogs as he was my main accomplice in discovering new music, his particular obsession was collecting Bruce bootlegs which at the last count numbered over 400 and I thought I was bad with over 200 Pearl Jam bootlegs.  Later in life I met one of a number of Paul Smiths I now know who is also a huge fan and I asked him to give me his view on the album that split a fan base.

Over to Paul.

I first heard Bruce Springsteen when I worked in Listen Records in Cambridge St, Glasgow. An American lad , who was backpacking round Europe, worked alongside me for a while, and played The Wild, The Innocent and The E St Shuffle one day, telling anyone who’d listen that this guy Bruce was “Awesome”, It didn’t really leave a mark on me at the time, as I was still hooked on the Bowie/Roxy thing. The next time I heard Bruce, Johnny Walker was playing the single Born to Run on Radio 1. He played it twice in a row. I was completely hooked. I bought the Born to Run album on release day, and have been a fanatic Bruce fan since.

Born in the USA was a game changer.

Bruce had returned from the highly successful 1981 River Tour of Europe with his eyes opened to the outsiders view of the USA, through the experiences of being in Europe and his own reading, which included The History of The United States of America.

He settled into his rented house in Colt’s Neck, New Jersey to write about his experiences and his feelings about his homeland. He also wanted to demo his new songs so that he could save studio time when the Band started to record. The sessions were extensive, and the untouched four track demos became the stark, genre defining Nebraska album. The songs recorded, but not used for Nebraska, included Born in the USA, which was the only new song that was improved when the band recorded it. Many of the E Streeters say it was their greatest moment in the studio, and the very first take would ultimately surface as the title track of Bruce’s next record.

Born in the USA was a huge rock record. It benefited massively from the rise of MTV and the recent invention of CD. The lead single , Dancing in the Dark, became an enormous radio/tv hit, with it’s cheesy video putting Bruce in the public eye like never before.

This didn’t sit all that well with the old , hardcore fans, and as the BITUSA album spawned 7 top 10 singles Stateside , and dance re-mixes by Arthur Baker of Cover Me and Dancing in the Dark compounded the feeling that Bruce had “sold out”.
The World tour which followed moved Bruce from Arenas to Stadiums overnight, with the attendant hangers-on, and the general consensus was that we had lost Bruce to the masses.

The songs on BITUSA told a different story though, and even President Reagan was able to mis-interpret the title songs savage attack on the post Vietnam USA , and used the somewhat jingoistic chorus as a rallying call to Republicans. Bruce, to his credit, didn’t miss, and onstage said ” I hear the President was listening to my records. I guess it wasn’t this one” before launching into Johnny 99 from Nebraska.

Born in the USA became an easy target for long term fans, as it elevated Bruce to worldwide superstardom, and seemingly stole the real Bruce in the process. Songs that were left off the finished record, including masterpieces like Murder Inc, Frankie and This Hard Land became undergound fan favourites, while the more obvious hit list of Dancing in the Dark, Cover Me, Bobby Jean, My Hometown and BITUSA itself became ubiquitous radio fodder.

In hindsight, and with over 30 years distance between , BITUSA was a defining record in Bruce’s canon. He shied away from the publicity in its wake, and became the writer/performer we have witnessed over the years that followed. Most fans learned to live with the impact, and would now acknowledge the BITUSA album as something of a classic.

Seems Paul and I have similar thoughts on the BITUSA period and how it affected Bruce and his fans. Many thanks to Paul for contributing his thoughts.

I doubt there are many who will read this who aren’t familiar with a lot of the songs from BITUSA but I’ve put in my top 5 below for your listening pleasure.

Cheesey video alert.

See you on week 21.

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