Week One: Born in the USA

So on New Year’s Day, an e-mail popped into my inbox about a new blog being run by the good people of MookBarks entitled ‘52 albums in 52 weeks.’ And as a long-time reader of Ruth & Martin’s Album Club I’ve toyed with blogging about music for a long time, but I’ve never gotten around to it and I thought: What if I stalk their blog with my own take on each of their 52 albums? For a start, it is surely better to have someone else make the choices rather than either selecting my 52 favourite records (who wants to hear me get fanboyish about 52 different albums over 52 weeks?) or ploughing through some predictable list of the 50 ‘best records’ of the past fifty years (and having to add a couple of extras, I suppose). And it preserves the element of surprise. I have no idea what I’m going to be writing about next week.

Now, first, a disclaimer. On some level I know that Frank Zappa is right. That writing about music is like dancing about architecture. That it can’t help but miss the point; words are not a terribly helpful tool for describing sound. The more so if, like me, your knowledge of music theory is, to say the least limited. I mean, I think that Dancing in the Dark is mostly G, D and A chords (actually, having re-strung my guitar earlier today – putting into practice a New Year’s resolution to either throw out or start using stuff that is taking up space in my flat – it’s more variations on G, E minor, D and C, with a capo on the second fret) but I can’t pretend to talk knowledgeably about how music is actually made. So mostly what this is going to consist of is stories of what the music reminds me of, what it does or does not have in common with other music, and what memories it brings back. Starting, as it happens, with a particularly gruesome one.

So first up… Born In the USA by Bruce Springsteen. I think I must have heard this a fair bit when I was very young. Certainly, my parents had the album on vinyl, I remember its distinctive cover art which means that it must, for a time, have been one of the records that they actually took out of the rack and put on the turntable, as it was only many years later that I would start obsessively trawling through their vinyl collection, looking to see what I could find of interest.

Playing it again more than thirty years later, though, I’m struck by the fact that the singles are much more familiar to me than the other album tracks. Because the singles, Born in the USA, I’m on Fire and Dancing in the Dark, were everywhere. That last track is weirdly linked in my head with being sat up on the grandstand at Paddock Hill Bend, Brands Hatch, watching a man fall out of his historic racing car and get run over by a pursuing ambulance (actually, I’ve just fact-checked this. He was not run over by an ambulance, but by another competitor. He died.) In my memory, this was the song that was playing over the public address system when the accident happened, although this is almost certainly confabulation on my part as they tended to play music only between the races and have commentary over the PA while there was something happening. I’m guessing that whoever was in charge that day must have decided that music was preferable to having to give a blow-by-blow account of the medics’ fruitless attempts to save the man’s life. So for better or worse, this song is rather incongruously linked in my head to being seven years old and watching a man die in front of me, without quite being aware that this was what I was seeing.

But anyway, having played it through a few times, what do I make of it? Firstly, I realised that while the singles were firmly lodged in my mind, some of the other tracks had escaped my memory entirely: Darlington County and Working on the Highway rang no bells. Perhaps my parents didn’t actually play the album all that much after all. Or maybe it’s because they’re rather forgettable blues-rock workouts – the kind of thing that makes the idea of a three hour Springsteen concert in which he deep dives into the forgotten corners of his back-catalogue a rather unappealing prospect.

The record came out in 1984, a year before Live Aid, and very much at the height of the stadium rock boom. The other day I was watching the Beatles documentary, 8 days a week, and the band expressed frustration at how songs written to be heard in small clubs just didn’t work when played in huge sports arenas to crowds of thirty thousand or more. And certainly not with the technology of the time. Twenty years on, it’s much easier to imagine songs like Glory Days or No Surrender not only working in such a setting, but having been written with it specifically in mind – for fist-pumping lighter-waving, or, these days, smart-phone waving, sweaty crowds.

On the other hand, the album has a melancholy side that had largely passed my six year old self by. For all the talk in the last few weeks about how globalisation and the destruction of small town America has created the conditions for the rise of Donald Trump, it’s clear listening to this record that there is nothing new under the sun and that people thought the same thing was happening to small-town America in the early 1980s, where it was probably cited as the explanation for the election of Ronald Reagan… Downbound Train, My Home Town and Born in the USA all refer to troubles with finding and keeping work . And work is a recurring motif. I’m in two minds about the themes of the record: if you stop to think about it, about a multi-millionaire musician romanticising a life working a road repair man, but on the other hand, the idea that world famous pop stars are only allowed to write songs about the travails of being world famous pop stars just leaves us with Kanye West. And even the sonically upbeat songs can be lyrically dark. Born in the USA is famously a song about how poorly the US treated Vietnam vets which kept getting mistaken for a flag-waving nationalistic anthem by the very people it was attacking, while Going Down is, notwithstanding its perky sound, a song about a relationship hitting the rocks.

It is a very 1980s record – from the opening synth stab and gated snare sound of Born in the USA to the bits of saxophone in Dancing in the Dark. Growing up reading the music press in the early 1990s, I had imbibed the idea that there was something insincere, something fake and corporate, about this whole sound. That anyone who sold bucketloads of records during the previous decade was to be viewed with suspicion, at best. Which is bollocks really and leads only to Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and the duller corners of the shoegaze scene.

Twenty years further on, it’s noticeable that he’s been quite an influence on many musicians of about my age, that 80s rock has been at least semi-rehabilitated. Listen to Ryan Adams’ take on Taylor Swift’s Shake it off and you can’t help but hear I’m on Fire: Minor Victories (see, notwithstanding what I said above, I actually quite like a lot of shoegaze) have more or less ripped off Dancing in the Dark with Scattered Ashes (and added a cat video because it’s 2016…) And 2014 critics’ favourite, War on Drugs Lost in the Dream, an album I played to death last year, is basically a melding of the 80s Springsteen sound with the motorik rhythms of 70s German bands like Neu! and Can.

So it’s been a pleasant reacquaintance. I can’t imagine it being a record that I’m going to keep going back to – those are few and far between – but its best moments are really rather good indeed.

Highlights: Dancing in the Dark, I’m on Fire, Downbound Train.

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