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The nearly forgotten story of the 'Born in the U.S.A.' remixes

In 1984, <em>Born in the U.S.A. </em>made Bruce Springsteen the biggest rock star in the world. Along the way, one chapter of the album's legacy has nearly vanished from official history: club remixes of three of the album's biggest singles.
Illustration by Jackie Lay. Photos by Aaron Rapoport/Corbis and SGranitz/WireImage (Getty Images)
In 1984, Born in the U.S.A. made Bruce Springsteen the biggest rock star in the world. Along the way, one chapter of the album's legacy has nearly vanished from official history: club remixes of three of the album's biggest singles.

In the service of creating his landmark 1984 album, Born in the U.S.A., it had taken Bruce Springsteen two years, multiple studio sessions, several alternate track listings and close to 100 songs to get to the point where he felt that he had a record that was ready to release. “I finally stopped doing my hesitation shuffle,” he confessed in his 2016 autobiography, Born to Run. In the spring of 1984, he signed off on the final song list and the label brass were invited to hear the finished product.

Springsteen had been on Columbia Records since he was signed by John Hammond — the same producer who’d discovered Bob Dylan — in 1972, and they’d stood by him through the previous six albums. That included two early records that didn’t sell well, a lawsuit by his former manager that prevented him from recording for two years and a habit of giving away songs that other artists then made into hits (“Because the Night,” his co-write with Patti Smith and “Fire” by The Pointer Sisters, for example), while still elusively chasing his own. But with his seventh record, Springsteen was finally ready to get out of his own way and make a bid for the higher echelons of success.

The record company was ecstatic. Al Teller, at the time the label’s highest ranking executive, told Springsteen and manager Jon Landau that he predicted that the album would sell 10 million copies in the U.S. (it ended up selling 17 million) and that he saw at least five hit singles (there were seven), and put together a two-year promotional plan in order to make that happen.

For his part, Springsteen pitched in with an international tour, but was also more willing to engage in other sales efforts than he had been previously. So while he hadn’t wanted any part of appearing in a video to support 1982’s Nebraska, he enlisted Brian DePalma and danced onstage with a then-unknown Courteney Cox in a video for “Dancing in the Dark” that MTV showed at the top of every hour.

When Columbia suggested enlisting a producer to create a 12” dance remix of “Dancing in the Dark,” Springsteen agreed and was given a list of names to choose from. The idea of something disco-adjacent was still, at this point, uncharted territory for an artist so deeply rooted in rock and roll, but it was absolutely a destination of choice and not a random decision on the part of the label to which the artist had no input.

The dance remix — often an extended version of a song with the balance shifted toward the beat, rebuilt to be played in dance clubs — already had become currency for electronic and pop-adjacent bands, and would soon become standard for a record’s release plan. It was a harbinger of the way rock and pop and soul and dance would intermingle in the mid-'80s, a melding of genres that widened the horizon for artists and music fans. That vista seemed to vanish a year or two later, and with it, the kind of broad acceptance and understanding of cross-genre pollination that made the presence of a Springsteen song on the dance chart feel different, sure, but also cool as hell. But once that horizon closed, even the very existence of the remixes as part of Springsteen’s history seemed to vanish.

Arthur Baker was the name that Springsteen chose from that list of potential remixers. Baker grew up as a rock and roll kid in Boston — he’d even seen early Springsteen shows there — and after studying record production and working as a DJ, had made a name for himself as a producer and remixer in hip-hop. His work in 1982 on Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock” was genuinely groundbreaking, its liberal borrow of Kraftwerk transformed into a different shape, echoing everywhere on dance floors and in what felt like the very air of New York City. The next year, Baker would perform the same trick with the bouncy keyboard riff of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” taking it out of an AOR (album-oriented rock) cubicle and elevating it further afield, one of many facets that helped Cyndi Lauper become a household name in the early ‘80s.

The “Girls” remix is what got Baker the nod for “Dancing in the Dark.” Born in the U.S.A. co-producer Chuck Plotkin told Billboard in 1985 that what Team Springsteen had liked about it was, “It was adventuresome enough to constitute something new, but also kept in mind the meaning of the original.” Speaking to NPR this spring, Baker says that when it came to the Springsteen assignment, he didn’t want to rob the remixes of their origins as rock and roll songs. “I use[d] his guitar solo on it, it sounds amazing," he says of "Dancing in the Dark." "To me, it doesn’t sound like a dance mix. I didn’t put a house beat underneath it or anything, I did try to stay organic with it.” Springsteen was actually in the studio with Baker, watching him work during the “Dancing in the Dark” remix sessions, and Baker tells the story of Bruce going out for a beer run when they temporarily lost power.

If you heard it in the summer of 1984, or if you can track it down now (one hint: look on YouTube), the first thing you’d notice in Baker's “Dancing in the Dark” remix is how the rhythm track completely envelops you before you get any clues as to what the song is. The keyboard intro hits later, with the delay making the first few lines more impactful. The remix makes the song larger; it’s not just a bright pop tune any more, and it’s just barely hugging the border with rock and roll — it’s still on the edges, but could make a break for it at any second. And Springsteen’s vocals in the original beautifully convey frustration and exasperation up front, but you physically, tangibly feel the distance in the remix. Baker engineered the feeling of a larger room, a more vast expanse — which, for a song that’s about isolation and alienation, is an essential reading.

But not everyone agreed with this new direction, especially within the core fanbase Springsteen had been building for over a decade. In the fall of 1984, Backstreets Magazine, the professional-grade fan publication devoted to the Boss, declared, “The 12” remix version of ‘Dancing in the Dark’ is unequivocally the biggest piece of s*** ever to be pressed onto vinyl and adorned with Bruce Springsteen’s name … Simply put, I can’t believe Springsteen actually released this monster canine of a record.”

That opinion wasn’t an outlier — rock radio wasn’t particularly inclined toward the project either. The remix was released at the same time that the single was No. 2 on the Hot 100 (it would lose out to the No. 1 spot because of Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” a worthy opponent) and right as the album hit No. 1. Baker told NPR, “I woke up one morning and I heard [on the radio], ‘That was a controversial Arthur Baker remix.’ That's how I woke up. And they were taking phone calls and some guy said ‘Someone should kill that guy.’ ” There was also a theme, Baker recalls, of, “I’m sure Bruce had nothing to do with this. He would never let this happen!”

These weren’t the only voices, but it was a sentiment voiced by many fans who had been there since Springsteen’s earliest days, and it feels like this might be one of the reasons that, to this day, the remix has never been released on CD and has not made its way onto streaming services, despite the fact that it was successful by any widely accepted metric. “Dancing In The Dark” went to No. 7 on the Billboard Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart — it was on the chart for three and a half months — and was the best-selling 12” of the year. In The Village Voice, Robert Christgau called the remix “one of the all-time Phil Spector tributes and about as disco as, I don't know, John Mellencamp gone Motown.”

The existence of the 12” remix didn’t eliminate the album version, which was still right there, and in constant rotation on both AM and FM radio. It was just something new, something else. Springsteen took a chance releasing this particular set of songs. It was, in many ways, a brave and bold move. Baker’s contribution matched Springsteen’s, and then amplified it: The remix was an improv-level “yes, and” to what the Boss had already accomplished. Springsteen had decided he was ready to further test the edges of his abilities, and Arthur Baker said, “Great, I’ll drive.” Baker got the assignment to remix the next two singles as well.

“Cover Me,” the album’s second single, was the next song handed to Baker. The track was originally written for Donna Summer, but either Springsteen or manager Jon Landau recognized that he should hold onto it. Here, Baker opens with the keyboard riff, rightly zeroing in on it as the beating heart of the song. That melody line captures the feeling of passionate longing; it is the first thing you hear in the “Undercover Mix” version, the first of four separate versions, including Dub I, Dub II and the ubiquitous shorter Radio Edit.

Baker’s work on “Cover Me” represents the most drastic departure from the original of his three Born in the U.S.A. remixes, but as with “Dancing in the Dark,” Baker doesn’t jettison the rock and roll, he just deploys the focus differently. The guitar licks go in and out, but they’re still very much a presence. The wonder in this version is dance powerhouse Jocelyn Brown’s incredible backing vocals that echo and accompany the main melody line, adding to the intended heat of the composition. Her vocals are not a Baker addition — her track was on the master tapes that were handed over to him, which means that this was an approach considered at some point during the recording of this song. (Baker clarified to NPR that he can’t say whether Bruce himself did, just that they were on the master tapes.)

Baker tells NPR that he was told that Springsteen was struggling with the live arrangement of “Cover Me": “They said, 'He doesn’t want to play the song live, and we want to put it out as a single, can you do something with it?' ” Listening now to Springsteen’s live version from that era (you can hear a recording from the Meadowlands in 1984 thanks to his official live archive series), the link between the two is clear: echo and reverb on the vocals, keyboards leveled up high in the mix, Patti Scialfa reprising the Jocelyn Brown harmonies. In concert, “Cover Me” swung with purpose as opposed to the straight-ahead rock and roll of the studio version. There would always be some flaming hot guitar work, too, before going back to the themes of the intro, the echo of “Cover me, baby … the whole world is out there … just trying to score … I’ve seen enough … I’ve seen enough …. ” It made the girls swoon.

The "Cover Me" Dub versions — Dub I vs Dub II — adhere to more strict definitions of the terminology. Dub mixes in reggae traditionally jettisoned the vocals, boosted the rhythm section and added echo or reverb. Dub I opens with congas and vocals, while Dub II goes deeper, remaining percussion-heavy while leaning hard on the organ riff, Springsteen’s vocals emerging in snippets, both solo and paired with Jocelyn Brown’s harmonies. The guitar solo gets its space, floating in and catching you by surprise, carrying most of the space of the chorus and into the next verse, popping up again just when you think it’s done. The Dub versions are sexier; they identify the song’s intention and enliven it. They have more depth; they offer a moment to take a breath in the corner of the club, but you still want to keep moving.

“That’s my favorite of the three, because that one I easily can play out now in a cool club, and people will really dig it, and I really like it,” Baker says. “It had the vibe to me, a Jamaican reggae, the vocal, you could have Black Uhuru cover that, you could have a reggae artist cover that, with that bass line.” “Cover Me” got as high as No. 11 on the Billboard Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart and hung around on the chart for about three months.

The last of Baker’s remixes on this project was for the title track, the album’s third single. Unlike the previous singles, “Born in the U.S.A.” was a straight-ahead rock anthem, better suited to fist-pumping singalongs rather than sharp dance floor moves. And what Baker created was less a remix than a deconstruction: He took the recording and amplified every distinct element of it. Max Weinberg’s elegantly martial drumming and Garry Tallent’s rolling bass were pushed up front or at least equal to the vocals, with the keyboards running behind, playing support. The delicate chimes of the glockenspiel kept things from getting too heavy, especially as he let the track build to the song’s climax — and then stripped it all back down to the basics on the bridge, before one last glorious surge. The Freedom Dub is even more drastic, with its focus on what sounds like just the kick drum track before introducing a lusher version of the melody.

Billboard approvingly noted at the time that "the dub suggests that anything in 4/4 time could be a hip-hop, and is Baker’s most liberal re-interpretation to date of another producer’s work,” but the “Born in the U.S.A.” remix didn’t chart or gain the critical accolades of the others. It’s less a dance number than a sound sculpture. That’s what makes it the most interesting of the three, and an antidote to the sadly misunderstood anthem the song had become, thanks to everyone from Ronald Reagan to Walter Mondale trying to claim it (and by extension, the star who made it) to their benefit in an election year.

The fanbase’s disapproval of the remixes at the time was definitely a symptom of the tail end of the “Disco Sucks” phenomenon, where anything that smacked of dancing was seen as off-limits in a rock and roll context. Speaking with NPR, Baker said, “I don’t want to say that it was racist; it was, you know, anti-dance.” But later, talking about writing “Cover Me” for Donna Summer, Springsteen himself commented, “I disliked the veiled racism of the anti-disco movement.” And at a basic level, it was a symptom of Springsteen’s fans feeling a sense of loss (or at least annoyance — the new influx of fans made it even harder to get what was already a tough ticket) in having to share their guy with a wider, broader audience.

When trying to parse why the remixes have been relegated to the dustbin of history, the fan reaction back in the day might offer some clues, or at least context. But it’s still an unfortunate omission. Born in the U.S.A. was a watershed moment for Bruce Springsteen. It’s the album most identifiable with him on an international scale, and everything from the b-sides to videos, the artwork to the band’s onstage regalia are important elements of the story. It’s probably worth noting that there has been no Born in the U.S.A. box set, the kind of expected retrospective offering from an artist at his level that rounds up outtakes and almost-rans never before released to the public. The remixes were, and they are absolutely part of the story, and yet they have been out of circulation for decades.

Springsteen has spoken at length about how he made a deliberate choice with Born in the U.S.A. to reach for the masses. “There was value in trying to connect with a large audience. It was a direct way you affected culture. It let you know how powerful and how durable your music might be,” he said in 1998. And the reality was — and still is — what Springsteen told Kurt Loder in Rolling Stone in the middle of it all back in 1985, “I was always so protective of my music that I was hesitant to do much with it at all. Now I feel my stuff isn’t as fragile as I thought." (NPR asked Springsteen to talk about the remixes for this article, but through a spokesperson, he declined, citing his tour schedule and other commitments.)

Despite the fact that the only way you can hear the remixes these days is if you own the vinyl or find a carefully digitized upload from a dance music historian, you can still hear their influence today, particularly in the way “Dancing in the Dark” has evolved over the last 40 years: The way audiences (especially in Europe, where the remixes were even more popular) have been fond of singing back the “whoa-oo-ooo’s” after every line of the verse is a direct lift from Baker’s “Blaster” remix. And if you listen to any versions of the song from the 2024 tour, the current live version of “Dancing In The Dark” is as close to the remix as it’s ever been. The horn section, especially, adds the same kind of sweetness, dimension and texture Baker first isolated in his production.

No wonder Baker’s view on the project is that they were successful: “I’m really proud of [the remixes] because they were all three really different types of mixes and songs. And I think they all did what they were meant to do. He was happy with them. And they still sound good.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Caryn Rose
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