The original Eras tour: how Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA conquered the world

Cult following: Springsteen sealed his reputation with Born In The U.S.A.
Glory days: Springsteen sealed his reputation with Born In The U.S.A.

At 11pm on October 2 1985, at the end of a four-night stand at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Bruce Springsteen called time on one of the most profitable rock tours of the decade. Spanning 15-months, 156 concerts and 14 countries, the 15-month Born in the USA. tour played to more than 5.3 million people in arenas and stadiums in which not a single ticket went unsold. With a combined gross of $80 million – or 250 million quid when adjusted for inflation – this most profitable of travelling circuses was the Eras tour of its time.

As distinct from Taylor Swift, though, the 36-year old son of New Jersey was not a natural pop star. Rather, he was a rocker. Even with his colour setting dialled up to the max, he seemed at odds with the shiny materialism of the Eighties. Backed by the all-conquering E Street Band, onstage in LA, Springsteen spoke on behalf of aid organisations working for the unemployed and of the perils of governmental monkey business in Central America. Some of his biggest hits were deeply weird. “At night, I wake up with the sheets soaking wet and a freight train running through the middle of my head,” he sang on I’m On Fire, one of the many singles harvested from the album Born in the USA.

Today sees the LP re-released as a special red-vinyl edition in a gatefold sleeve with a booklet featuring archive material and new sleeve notes.

Just as they do now, back in 1985, the patrons on Main Street regarded Bruce Springsteen as their representative in song. “The Boss means America,” a ticketholder at the Coliseum told the Los Angeles Times. “He represents not the rich or the beautiful, not [LA] or New York, but the other people, the common people, the people in-between. When he sings, he sings about love, America and working. When he’s onstage, he’s there for everybody, even the people in the back row. He doesn’t condescend. I’m a bartender, and he’s the kind of guy that you can sit down with and have a beer.”

On the face of it, Born in the USA represented a notable change from the album that preceded it. Unveiled in 1982, the acoustic sparseness of Nebraska (essentially a two-track demo recorded in a single day) featured a cast of characters diminished to the point where violence was only ever a heartbeat away.

They were defiant, too, for all it was worth. “At the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe,” Springsteen sang of a man looking down at a dead dog “like if he stood there long enough that dog’d get up and run”. Believe all you want, he seemed to be saying, but you’re wasting your time.

Born in the USA, meanwhile, offered the possibility of hope. “I’ll shake the world off my shoulders,” promised the narrator of the blockbusting leadoff single Dancing In The Dark. Getting into the swing of the age, the track was accompanied by a music video aired on MTV with the kind of ubiquity normally reserved for Madonna. Directed by Brian De Palma, the concert clip ends, famously, with Springsteen cutting a rug onstage with a young Courtney Cox. As if confirming its mainstream credentials, Alfonso Ribeiro later revealed that Cox’s moves provided the inspiration for “The Carlton” dance beloved of his character in The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air.

The iconic Born in the U.S.A. publicity shoot
The iconic Born in the U.S.A. publicity shoot

The starting point for it all, though, was a long way removed from Hollywood film directors and canned-laughter sitcoms. In 1981, while Bruce Springsteen was pulling together the material for Nebraska, he penned a further seven songs that would form the spine of its high profile successor. Listeners who may have been duped by the pop-star music videos or the brightly coloured Annie Leibovitz photo on the album’s front cover might care to note that at least one of these compositions would confirm that the differences between the two LPs were presentational rather than substantive. What’s more, this meaningful distinction would cause no end of grief.

With his feet up on the coffee table at his home in Colts Neck, New Jersey, the process began with Springsteen pondering a work-in-progress inspired in part by a script sent to him by the writer Paul Schrader. Picking out chords on his sunburst Gibson J200 acoustic guitar, he then turned his head towards a few scribbled lines in a notebook about the plight of veterans returned from the war in Vietnam. The title was taken from the screenplay at his side. It was called Born in the USA.

As he would later write in his autobiography, Born To Run, from 2016, “Born in the USA remains one of my greatest and most misunderstood pieces of music. The combination of its ‘down’ blues verses and its ‘up’ declarative choruses, its demand for the right of a ‘critical’ patriotic voice along with pride of birth, was too seemingly conflicting (or just a bother!) for some of its more carefree, less discerning listeners… Records are often auditory Rorschach tests; we hear what we want to hear.”

The Boss: Springsteen performing with his wife-to-be, Patti Scialfa
The Boss: Springsteen performing with his wife-to-be, Patti Scialfa - Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

It’s worth considering, I think, how this most iconic of tracks might have been received had it appeared in downtrodden form on Nebraska. In fact, I would say it seems all but obvious that its story of a beleaguered serviceman who can’t catch a break back home in the States, or the brother who lost his mind at the Battle of Khe Sahn, would have been right at home there.

Backed by the E Street Band in pummelling form, however, the song became a case study in just how easily songs with readily discernible lyrics can be misconstrued. The trade magazine Cash Box described it as being a “straight-ahead anthem that celebrates America’s traditional values”, for example, while Libertarian columnist George Will wrote “I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics” – wow, no kidding – but that Born In The USA’s chorus was “a grand, cheerful affirmation”. Will even suggested to Ronald Reagan’s handlers that The Boss might fancy endorsing their candidate in his campaign for re-election as president in the general election of 1984. The approach was duly rebuffed.

Nice try. But as Greil Marcus wrote in a review for the magazine Artforum, the song is about nothing less than “the refusal of the country to treat Vietnam veterans as something more than non-union workers in an enterprise conducted off the books. It is about the debt the country owes to those who suffered the violation of the principles on which [it] was founded, and by which it has justified itself ever since. In other words, the song links Vietnam veterans to the Vietnamese – or rather (because… Springsteen personalises everything he touches) one veteran tries to make that link.”

All of which is pretty heavy fare for a record that has since become the 20th bestselling album of all time. After debuting on the American Billboard Hot 200 at a somewhat pallid number nine, Bruce Springsteen’s seventh LP rose to the top of the chart two weeks later. A residency in the top-10 lasting an astounding 84 weeks made it the highest selling album of 1985. Across the Atlantic, after arriving on the chart at number two, The Boss at last reached the summit of the British listings eight months later.

In a marketing strategy pioneered by Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the album’s momentum was sustained by a steady drip-feed of singles and attendant music videos. In releasing a whopping seven stand-alone tracks – along with Dancing In The Dark and I’m On Fire, there came the title track, My Hometown, Glory Days, I’m Goin’ Down and Cover Me – Columbia Records evidently disagreed with the assessment of their signatory and his manager, Jon Landau, that the LP should spawn no more than two singles. The suits called it right. Each of the seven songs found their way into the US top 10.

Bruce Springsteen performing in 1984
Bruce Springsteen performing in 1984 - Chris Walter

“Bruce Springsteen has enlarged his onetime cult following to immense proportions,” wrote Philip Elwood in a piece for the San Francisco Examiner published in the autumn of 1984. “[Concert promoter] Bill Graham… told [me] this week that he ‘offered Springsteen’s people six sold-out nights’ in the Bay Area, something he had never done before.” Instead, 150,000 people applied for the 27,000 tickets available for a pair of dates at the Oakland Coliseum Arena. When the Born In The U.S.A Tour wended its way back to Northern California, in September the following year, The Boss performed for more than 100,000 ticketholders over two nights at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum stadium right next door.

It really didn’t get much bigger than this. Certainly, when the representatives from the Garden State visited Europe in the summer of 1985, it was to play, and to fill, the continent’s largest venues. Around this time, many were the people who regarded a three-night stand at Wembley Stadium – not to mention dates at Roundhay Park, in Leeds, and Newcastle’s St James’s Park – as evidence of overnight success. Not so. Four years earlier, at Wembley Arena, Bruce Springsteen and his group had wowed 84,000 people over seven nights on the tour in support of The River LP. The only difference being, that crowd had been drummed out of the woodwork by an album rather than its singles.

In other words, this was no fleeting dalliance. Four years later, in his review of the tour, the critic Richard Williams noted how “on Wednesday evening, in the vastness of Wembley Stadium, [Springsteen] chose a rare moment of calm towards the end of his three-hour concert to remind his 72,000 listeners of the importance he attaches to that historic relationship [with London]. It was one of several signs that, despite his new status as the tabloid newspapers’ favourite pop sensation, he continues to respond primarily to the whisper of his conscience.”

Hysteria: Springsteen performing to a sold-out Wembley Stadium, 1985
Hysteria: Springsteen performing to a sold-out Wembley Stadium, 1985 - Steve Rapport/Getty Images

In time – in fact, rather quickly – these whispers would lead Bruce Springsteen away from the blinding light of pop stardom. He’d remain a megastar, of course, but he’d had his fun. On the US leg of tour in support of the Tunnel Of Love album, from 1988, he played in arenas on dates that were sometimes announced at only a few days’ notice. After breaking up the E Street Band – the old gang reunited in 1999 – he even went so far as to ponder his status as “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt”. Thing was, though, the authenticity of it all couldn’t be denied, not even by him. At no point in the last 40 years has he ever issued a song that sounds as if it was written by a millionaire.

It’s quite the trick, really, considering the extent of his fortune. At the end of his Born in the U.S.A. tour, for the first time in his life, Springsteen met with his accountant. “I would shake the hand of a Mr Gerald Breslauer,” he writes in his memoir, “who would tell me that I had earned a figure that at the time seemed so outrageous that I had to ban it from thought… I couldn’t contextualise it in any meaningful way. So I didn’t. My first luxury as a successful rock icon would be the luxury not to think about, to downright ignore, my luxuries. [It] worked for me.”

The 40th anniversary edition of Born In The U.S.A. is available now