Dancing in the Dark / Bruce Springsteen – No 5, 1984
Bruce Springsteen was no stranger to music fans by the time the 1980s rolled around. He kicked off the new decade with his first number 1 (in the US, #8 in Australia) album, a double LP opus called “The River”. After a long tour he went back into the studio to make the follow-up.
Looking for more of the big anthemic sound that carried the best parts of “The River” to radio success, Springsteen wrote over 70 songs that were to be in consideration for the followup. He recorded a series of 15 songs, with just his voice and acoustic guitar, onto a cassette tape as a demo and the E Street Band started recording them.
The resulting album, 1982’s “Nebraska” ended up being composed of 10 of those original demos. The band sessions resulted in what music producer and YouTuber Rick Beato would later term “demo-itis”, where the studio sessions couldn’t produce anything as great as the original demo. Coupled with Springsteen’s nervousness about the pop sheen of some of the songs they had already recorded, he got cold feet and he released the dark and somber demos in response. Some of those band sessions were successful, and they were included on what would be the next band album, ultimately known as “Born In The USA”.
After working on these songs for over two years, Springsteen and his manager/producer Jon Landau chose 11 songs for the final album. Landau told an exhausted Springsteen that, “we need a single. The album doesn’t have one yet. Go and write another song”.
Springsteen reportedly replied, “I’ve already written 70 other ones. If you want another song, write it yourself.”
Despite this, Springsteen went back to his hotel room, let off some steam and started writing about what he felt. In his memoir “Born to Run” he writes that Dancing In the Dark is his song about “my own alienation, fatigue and desire to get out from inside the studio, my room, my record, my head and live.”
Landau was correct in saying that if Springsteen could take a story about a broken down soldier and Vietnam Veteran and turn it into an anthem (in the form of the track Born In the USA), he could make exhaustion into a party anthem. And that’s exactly what Springsteen did. A simple song, structurally borrowing from (but not exactly following) the standard 12-bar blues format, driven by a powerful melody and a memorable synth riff, this was perfect for the time.
Dancing in the Dark was a smash, hitting number 2 in the US and the top 5 in Australia. It was just the hit the record needed, and it paved the way for six more singles to follow from the “Born In the USA” album. It made Springsteen one of the hottest acts in the world, alongside Madonna and Prince. Given this was the era of MTV in America and the music video’s dominance on television everywhere, a video was required. Watching it back now, Springsteen looks awkward, dancing around the stage holding a microphone and without this trademark blonde Fender Telecaster guitar strapped to him. It is also notable for putting Courteney Cox on TV in front of millions who hadn’t seen her other film roles, and who wouldn’t see any others until her most famous role in the 90s as a cast member of the sitcom Friends.
With Dancing in the Dark, and the “Born in the USA” album, Springsteen let go of his hang ups around making a pop record and he let the music go in the direction it needed to go. Once he saw how much of an impact these songs had on audiences all over the world, he gave up worrying and enjoyed the ride.
David Kowalski is a writer and podcaster.