Born In The USA
Behind one of the highest-rated albums of all time lie some simple musical building blocks. Douglas Noble takes Bruce Springsteen’s classic set apart, song by song
Bruce Springsteen’s seventh album, Born In The USA, couldn’t have been more different to its predecessor, the dark, stripped-down Nebraska. It was lavish, modern, radio-friendly and uplifting, packed with strong songs and even one carefully-honed hit single, and it would bring the New Jersey songwriter his breakthrough from critical success to mainstream stardom.
Springsteen wrote many of the songs on Born In The USA on acoustic before opening up the arrangements to the E Street Band. Recording engineer Toby Scott recalled: ‘In those days, Bruce had a particular way of teaching the band a song. He wouldn’t play it for them from the beginning to the end; he would show them the different parts, but not necessarily in the order that they appeared.’ This encouraged spontaneity; the musicians also played live together in the studio.
The title track was one of those songs. After Bruce had played a guitar line, it was adapted into a keyboard riff. ‘It absolutely grabbed us,’ drummer Max Weinberg recalled. ‘We played it again and got an even better groove on it. At the end, as we were stopping, Bruce gave me the high sign to do all these wild fills, and we went back into the song. I remember that night as the greatest single experience I’ve ever had recording. It set the tone for the whole record.’
Thanks to this way of working the songs on Born In The USA have a real freshness, yet they’re layered with processed keyboards and an explosive snare drum sound (listen to the snare at the start of Born In The USA and Darlington County). Nevertheless, Springsteen wanted his songs to stand on the strength of the characters, not the production. ‘So even something like Glory Days, which I thought was a good dance record, I sang it on acoustic guitar and tried to make sure that the people in the song were solidly there,’ he pointed out. The positive vibe extended to the choices of keys: of the 12 songs on Born In The USA, the most common key is A major, shared by four songs. Only two songs are in a minor key: Cover Me is in B minor, while Downbound Train is in G minor (but played in the fretboard key of E minor with a capo at the third fret). Curiously, both I’m Goin’ Down – one of the A major songs – and Cover Me sound sharper than concert pitch.
1. A5, A6, F#M AND C#M/G# CHORDS
A 5 chord is one that consists solely of the root/first note and the fifth of a scale, so it is neither major nor minor, as it’s the third that determines whether a chord is major or minor. In blues, 5 chords are often used in conjunction with 6 chords, in this context a 6 chord being one that consists of root/first note and the sixth note of the scale. Here we’ve got two note versions of A5 and A6. F#m is the basic open Em shape barred at the second fret, and C#m/G# is the basic open Am chord barred at the fourth fret, but with the first finger also holding down the bottom string at the fourth fret – so, this is a C#m chord played over a G# bass note.
2. RHYTHM GUITAR PART (4/4 TIME)
Here’s a rhythm part similar to the start of Glory Days. We’re using the A5 and A6 chords from Ex 1 in bar 1, then shifting them a string higher to create D5 and D6 for bar 2. Each bar ends with a two- or one-note link that leads into the next bar. This rhythm part is a stock blues accompaniment, although in blues it would usually be played with a shuffle or triplet feel; here we are playing straight 8s.
3. PROGRESSIONS USING I, IV, V (4/4 TIME)
Much of the harmonic backdrop on this album – such as the songs Born In The USA, Glory Days and Cover Me – uses chords I, IV and V. The first line shows a progression using chords I and IV in the key of A, similar to the basic underpinning of Born In The USA (see Ex 6).
The second line shows a progression using chords I, IV and V. It’s similar to the verse progression of My Hometown although you can hear very similar patterns on songs like No Surrender and Darlington County. Interestingly, although the verse of the studio version of No Surrender is based on an F/C/Bb/F/C progression, live performances have this second C chord changed to Am.
4. STOCK PROGRESSION USING I, IV, V, VIM (4/4 TIME)
I’m Goin’ Down adds another chord to the I, IV and V progressions explored in Exercise 3, with its use of the implied chord VIm. We say ‘implied’ because the fuller chord would be VIm (or F#m) since it’s in the key of A major, but the rhythm guitar chords are played as stripped-down 5 chords. This exercise shows a similar progression. Notice the accents on certain chords, the ‘arrowhead’ signs; these give the part character and forward momentum. I’m Goin’ Down repeats the same four-bar progression all the way through the song. I’m On Fire also uses these chords, but in the key of E major and using fuller versions of the chords – so, it uses E, A, B and C#m. In I’m On Fire Springsteen often plays these chords as arpeggios, fingering the full chord shapes but only plucking individual strings.
5. TRANSITIONS TO CHORD VIM (4/4 TIME)
There’s one particular move which you’ll often find Springsteen making – changing from the tonic major chord to chord VIm at the start of the bridge, or ‘middle 8’. This I-VIm change can be heard in Dancing In The Dark at 1:50, My Hometown at 2:04 and Working On The Highway at 1:45. Our fifth exercise shows such a change in the key of A major. The first two bars represent the end of the second chorus, and bars 3 and 4 represent the start of the middle 8. The F#m chord shape is shown in Exercise 1.
6. REPEATING MOTIF (4/4 TIME)
The intro of Born In The USA is a keyboard version of the chorus melody. As in the intro and in the chorus, the same basic melody is played and sung over a chord progression that changes from I to IV. This is represented in this exercise. There’s a two-note motif on the top two strings played initially over a B bass note in bars 1 and 2, then over an open E note in bars 3 and 4. For maximum effectiveness, make sure the B bass note in bars 1 and 2 is allowed to ring on; try holding it down with the first finger.
An inversion is a chord in which the lowest note is not the root note of the chord. Here we’ve got G/D, which is a G chord with D at the bottom (normally it would be G); C/E, which is a C chord with an E note at the bottom; and C5/G, which is rather a complicated way to describe an inverted two-note power chord shape.
8. DARLINGTON COUNTY INTRO (4/4 TIME)
The intro of Darlington County features a guitar riff worthy of Keith Richards, and we can get there by using the chords from Exercise 7. Finger the G/D shape from Ex 7, pluck strings five, four and three, then immediately hammer-on with fingers three and one to the C/E shape. Then, lift fingers two and three and pluck the G/D chord again. This is followed by a slide ‘from nowhere’ to the 12th fret of the fifth string; try playing the fifth string at the 14th fret with the third finger, then as soon as this note is struck slide down two frets to the 12th fret. Keith Richards is fond of the C/E to G/D chord change on strings five, four and three, although he usual plays these changes in open G – the fifth string is a G so these two chords can be played as C/G and G, adding body and depth to the voicings.
9. CHROMATIC CHORD AND INVERSION (4/4 TIME)
All the previous progressions and riffs, encompassing 10 of the 12 songs on Born In The USA, are diatonic – that is, they do not contain any notes outside the key. Bobby Jean is interesting, though: it’s the only song on Born In The USA that makes prominent use of a chromatic harmony or chord… a chord that is not normally part of the key. This chord is B7, used in the key of A major, and the diatonic equivalent would be Bm. Widely believed to be about the sudden and painful departure of Steve Van Zandt from the E Street Band, it has been suggested that this use of a major chord instead of minor hints at reconciliation.
The main progression of Bobby Jean uses an inversion created between accompaniment and bass. After the A chord the basic tonality of the accompaniment is C#m, but the bass makes a classic downwards semitone movement to G#, so the overall effect is C#m/G# (Springsteen also uses this progression in the pre-chorus of Born To Run). This exercise echoes the repeating progression of Bobby Jean; see Exercise 1 for the fingering of C#m/G#. Finger the chord shapes notated and let the notes overlap, picking the notes as indicated to get a feel for this progression.
10. LEAD LICKS (4/4 TIME)
‘I got signed in the pack of the “new Dylans” but I could turn around, kickstart my Telecaster and burn the house down. It was my ace in the hole,’ Springsteen once told Rolling Stone magazine. Cover Me has a great example of the man doing just that. He starts the solo at 1:37 with tremolo-picked octaves, similar to the first line below. Finger the notes, then strum the strings as quickly as possible. Springsteen also plays the intro melody of No Surrender in tremolo-picked octaves.
At 1:47 he uses some pinch harmonics, as shown in line two, bar 1. Fret the third string at the ninth fret, then, with a tiny part of the plectrum showing between thumb and index finger, ‘dig in’ with the pick and the fleshy part of the thumb immediately behind the plectrum should set off the pinch harmonic. Slightly later, at 1:53, Springsteen plays an ascending figure based on the B pentatonic minor scale using hammer-ons, similar to line 2, bar 2. He ends the solo at 1:57 with a trill – a rapid alternation between F and G, similar to line 2, bar 3. Feel free to experiment with this – Springsteen starts with slurs, then plucks every second note, and does not stick to strict semiquaver movement.