How Bruce Springsteen Survived the ‘80s
We’ve been spending this month at Ultimate Classic Rock looking at how rock’s biggest acts dealt with to the changes that were brought about by the ’80s. Bruce Springsteen didn’t only survive the ‘80s. He dominated them.
In 1990, Rolling Stone named him the “Voice of the Decade,” and, even accounting for that magazine’s famously unconditional love of all things Springsteen, it was the right choice. Only two other musicians could have laid claim to the title, but while Michael Jackson sold more records, he wasn’t as prolific. Prince, on the other hand, made considerably more music and probably had higher highs (1999, Purple Rain, Sign ‘O’ the Times), he also had lower lows (Lovesexy, Batman and, outside of Purple Rain, his film career).
No rocker in the ‘80s toed the line between artistic credibility and commercial prospects better than Springsteen. On two occasions he reached new levels of popularity (The River was his first No. 1 album and Born in the U.S.A. turned him into one of the world’s biggest artists) and then paired back his sound to create arguably the best records of his career (Nebraska and Tunnel of Love).
That attention to integrity was of the utmost importance to him. As corporations looked to get a foothold in the music industry, either in the form of tour sponsorships or use of an act’s songs in advertisements, Springsteen was one of the few major names who refused all offers that came his way. It solidified the bond with an audience he'd built throughout the ‘70s and, especially after Born in the U.S.A. broke, created a public image – intentional or otherwise – of him as a true American blue-collar hero.
Watch Bruce Springsteen's Video for "Dancing in the Dark"
That level of trust came into play as he became more politically aware. It started in September 1979, when he performed at the No Nukes concert although, unlike the other artists, he didn’t make any speeches against nuclear power from the stages. A little more than a year later, on the night after Ronald Reagan’s election, he told the audience in Tempe, Ariz., "I don't know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it's pretty frightening."
Reagan and/or his speechwriters probably didn’t know about this, because four years later, while running for re-election, Reagan looked to tie himself to Springsteen during a campaign stop in New Jersey. “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts,” he said. “It rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”
Reagan’s challenger, Walter Mondale, responded with a statement, “Bruce Springsteen may have been born to run but he wasn't born yesterday," and claimed to have had the rocker’s endorsement – which wasn’t true. Springsteen reacted to it all by saying from the stage in Pittsburgh, “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album must’ve been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.” Then he played “Johnny 99,” about a laid-off auto worker who gets drunk and shoots somebody. That night, he made a $10,000 donation to a local food bank, beginning a custom at his concerts that has continued through the decades, and it was reinforced by his participation in the “We Are the World” project to benefit African famine relief efforts.
Springsteen wouldn’t get involved in presidential politics until 2004, but one of his last public acts of the '80s was his most political of his career at the time. He joined Sting and Peter Gabriel on the Human Rights Now! tour. Over six weeks, they played 20 shows on five continents to raise money for Amnesty International in recognition of the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Still, it was easy to see why the candidates of both major parties were trying to co-opt him as their own. In addition to his musclebound, t-shirt-and-blue-jeans all-American image, many of the songs on The River, Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. were about people who were hit by economic hardships. And despite being a Democrat, he wasn’t blaming either party — the songs were written during both Democratic and Republican administrations, after all — for their plight, but rather focusing on how they affected his characters’ personal lives.
Watch Bruce Springsteen's Video for "Atlantic City"
By the time the dust had settled on Born in the U.S.A., the album had spent seven weeks at No. 1 and placed seven singles in the Top 10, while his 15-month world tour saw Springsteen move from arenas to stadiums. And he also found time to get married.
He had met model-actress Julianne Phillips in October 1984 and they tied the knot only seven months later. When it was learned that his next album was going to be called Tunnel of Love, it was widely expected to be a collection of songs reflecting his newfound domestic bliss. But when it arrived in October 1987, it showed the exact opposite. A song cycle that begins with courtship, goes through love and marriage and ends with the narrator taking a late-night drive, alone with his doubts and fears.
Almost as startling about Tunnel of Love was the lack of the E Street Band. Using a drum machine and playing virtually all of the guitars and keyboards, Springsteen brought in his longtime collaborators on an as-needed basis. But they were there for the Tunnel of Love Express tour, which returned to arenas and “only” lasted six months. However, the shows were often criticized for lacking the magic of years past, a first for Springsteen, whose reputation as a live performer was unparalleled in rock.
Any questions about the state of his marriage were answered shortly after they reached Europe in June 1988. In Rome, he was photographed on his hotel balcony with backup singer Patti Scialfa, and he was forced to admit that the couple had separated. Springsteen and Phillips divorced in 1989.
Watch Bruce Springsteen's Video for "Tunnel of Love"
A year after the Human Rights Now concluded, Springsteen fired the E Street Band. Although the core of the band came together in 1973, his associations with some of its members extended to the Jersey Shore bar scene of the late ‘60s. “I needed to take a break, do some other things, probably play with some other musicians, which I hadn’t done in a long time,” he said years later. “I just didn’t know where to take the band next. It seemed like we’d reached an apex of what were were trying to do and say.”
As the ‘80s ended, he and Scialfa moved to Los Angeles full-time, where their first son was born in 1990, and they married in 1991. A year later, he released two albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town, on the same day. Recorded largely with first-call L.A. session musicians, many of the songs – including “Better Days,” “If I Should Fall Behind,” “Living Proof,” “Real World” and “My Beautiful Reward” – reflected his new life with Scialfa in a way that people had expected Tunnel of Love to be.
Bruce Springsteen Albums Ranked Worst to Best