Dec 10

Born In The UK

FT26 comments • 1,017 views

Sometime last night the beer-sodden shell of a thing then inhabiting my mortal frame posted a question on Twitter, and the question was this: what is the UK equivalent of “Born In The USA”? I dimly remember having a conversation about how every time I am put on hold by American Express I hear BITU and I can’t even begin to fathom the layers of irony or post-irony or whatever going on there.

Or maybe Amex just think it’s a rockin’ good song. Which it is! A few people answered my question by saying “Tom, what do you mean by ‘equivalent’?” I wish I knew! Was I talking about the song as a stadium rock anthem or was I talking about the song as a classic of lyrical misinterpretation, or was I talking about it as an angry indictment of the treatment of working class war veterans? Or all of the above? And of course there doesn’t have to be an ‘equivalent’ -but I was delighted by the range of interesting answers I got. Here are some of them:

“London Calling”: Has the rabble-rousing quality, and I guess it’s about something different from what you might think it’s about. Though I’m never totally sure what either of those ‘abouts’ are.

“Shipbuilding”: This got the most mentions of anything, I assume because it’s a) a terrific song and b) specifically about the experiences of working class communities involved in a pointless post-Imperial war. A “British equivalent” to Born In The USA is always likely to be smaller-scale and more domestic musically, and this is. So the only box it’s not ticking is lyrical misunderstanding.

“Live Forever”
: I dunno, is there any ‘side’ to “Live Forever” which people don’t get? If so I don’t get it either, though after many years’ distrust I’ve reluctantly come to accept it’s a really good record.

“Born In The UK”: Badly Drawn Boy did a song called this! A commenter kindly linked it on YouTube so I can go listen, and I did, and I have to say it’s more of a British “We Didn’t Start The Fire”.

“Good Morning Britain”: Ramalama stuff from Aztec Camera and Big Audio Dynamite’s Mick Jones. Is aiming, I think, for a similar ironic title/savage lyrics juxtaposition, but isn’t as strong a song, and in BITU the power comes from the singer’s life story forced up against the rhetoric he still wants to believe – here it’s a bunch of slogans partying with a bunch of other slogans.

“Between The Wars”: A couple of people mentioned this Billy Bragg song, which I love. It’s a lot more broad-brush than Born In The USA, and the anger in it isn’t in it, if you get what I mean – it comes out of a knowledge of the context it was written and recorded in. So not an equivalent, but very good.

“Penny Lane”: Don’t see this at all! Sorry!

“God Save The Queen”: Wasn’t stated whether they meant the Pistols one or the actual National Anthem. Both are, er, anthemic, both also set out their stall pretty openly (so we’re still stumbling on the whole misunderstanding thing). “Anarchy In The UK” also mentioned a few times, I think there’s a playfulness in that one which BITU lacks, but perhaps a British equivalent ought to be playful. Hence…

“Parklife”: The first song which fits the double-edged anthem bill, in that it was probably meant as ironic and it was probably taken as celebratory… but these are big, baggy uncertain “probablies”: like Springsteen, Albarn is obviously in love with the music he’s using and very aware of its potency. For all that, there’s a cruelty in some of Blur’s records which is completely absent in Springsteen’s.

“Three Lions”: It caught a mood and then set a mood: as an anti-anthem written by genuine fans it became part of a mass performance of fandom, so I can see the parallel here. But it’s too much about football to be the best parallel.

“Jerusalem”: And here’s a left-field, but rather good, candidate: a radical song left unchanged but adopted to the point where it’s seriously talked up as an alternative national anthem. Obviously it’s not a rock song – though it’s as stirring – and it’s a lot older than Born In The USA, but we’re an older country and we rock less well.


  1. 1
    Andrew Hickey on 30 Dec 2010 #

    Re: Shipbuilding, in the liner notes to the Girls, Girls, Girls compilation, Costello talks about how some USian listeners heard it, without the context, as being about having sex in a boat. I can’t see it myself, but…

  2. 2
    nhn917674 on 30 Dec 2010 #

    “We Are The Village Green Preservation Society”?

  3. 3
    the pinefox on 30 Dec 2010 #

    It is nice to see an article inspired by Bruce Springsteen, whom I like as much as almost any person in the history of music.

    I think that the answer has to be an overtly socio-political-themed song – it wouldn’t really count as a parallel otherwise.

    I am tempted to say ‘Panic’ just to reopen the old ‘Panic’ debate.

    Or, I suppose, any number of Jam songs might fit your bill of being ‘misunderstood’ etc: written from the Left then taken up more widely. ‘That’s Entertainment’, then? It has the sardonically reused title, the lyrical detail, the geezerish popularity.

    Of the very interesting suggestions above, ‘Shipbuilding’ is close but perhaps ‘Between the Wars’ is the closest. (nb that the Boss originally did his song on a loud acoustic, so was close to Bragg’s early musical model.) It looks banal to name these as they are obvious political songs, but they are also genuinely the closest things that one can find to ‘Born in the USA’ due to the military content, etc.

  4. 4
    flood14571 on 30 Dec 2010 #

    In October I attended a University of Minnesota football game, and they had one of those “text which song you want to hear during halftime” thingamabobs. “Born in the U.S.A.” was one of the options, and it won handily. They run a closed-captioning feed on the giant digital scoreboard, and shortly after “Sent me off to Vietnam / To go and kill the yellow man” scrolled across the bottom, you could practically hear the needle scratching on the record. I’d like to think a handful of people were enlightened on that crisp and sunny afternoon.

  5. 5
    Erithian on 30 Dec 2010 #

    Well, the American right has belatedly listened to “Born in the USA” and understood it – berkish but dangerous talk-show host Glenn Beck denounced it as unAmerican earlier this year, as discussed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Nz_tGVnAlg

    Of course Reagan tried to appropriate it at an election rally in 1984, leading Bruce to wonder aloud “so he’s a fan, I wonder what his favourite album is? Probably not Nebraska.” Indeed the acoustic version pinefox refers to above was originally going to be on the Nebraska album, which it would have suited in tone. The version we all know was bombastic and sounded rabble-rousing, so perhaps lent itself to misinterpretation more than it should.

    Thinking of a UK equivalent, bizarrely, one of the first things that came to mind was a folk song that featured in a BNP election broadcast in (IIRC) 2005, along the lines of: I’ve come back from the war, injured and homeless, and I can’t get housing because it’s all been given to those bloody asylum seekers. I can’t remember the title or the singer, and I’m fairly glad I can’t, but I think Nick Griffin might even have written the lyrics.

  6. 6
    Sandy on 30 Dec 2010 #

    Interesting that you asked about the “UK”, rather than England, there are regional songs (and Penny Lane is *nearly* one of them). They might be seen as a cartoon in the rest of the UK, but The Proclaimers ‘Letter from America’ has some of the same elements, but isn’t really bitter about its patriotism.

    The The’s ‘Heartland’ could have had the potential to do this, but of course wasn’t exactly popular enough to be widely misinterpreted.

  7. 7
    the pinefox on 30 Dec 2010 #

    Oh! Though I think ‘shipbuilding’ / ‘between the wars’ is the correct answer, doesn’t D Cameron’s approval of The Jam make them win the ‘political misappropriation’ category after all?

  8. 8
    swanstep on 30 Dec 2010 #

    Bragg’s The home front which fades into jerusalem stirringly/mournfully might be a contender.
    The final track of ABC’s Beauty Stab, ‘United Kingdom’ should also be a contender. (I can’t believe that that track isn’t on youtube, I may have to try to upload it.)

  9. 9
    Mark M on 31 Dec 2010 #

    I really like Good Morning Britain, though I’m not sure why.

    Re 7: I don’t give DC credit for much, but I suspect he got the surface point of Eton Rifles and decided he liked it anyway.

    I think the answer, in so far as there is one, is definitely Jerusalem, especially when heard at the end of term in the chapel of one of our larger fee-paying educational establishments.

  10. 10
    swanstep on 31 Dec 2010 #

    OK, I’ve uploaded ABC’s United Kingdom to youtube here if anyone’s intersted (just a rudimentary vid.). You won’t be able to see it if you’re in Germany but anyone else should be good.

  11. 11
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 31 Dec 2010 #

    The answer is Candle in the Wind!

    i: Elton J is a contemporary of Brucie’s
    ii: Both were declared the “future of rock’n’roll” early in their careers (EJ by John Lennon!)
    iii: ???
    iv: misappropriation! by elton himself! of the spirit of his own earlier song!

    I see you are unconvinced but I am right…

  12. 12
    punctum on 31 Dec 2010 #

    BUT he sings “Goodbye ENGLAND’s rose” rather than “Goodbye BRITAIN’s rose” ergo NOT VALID

  13. 13
    punctum on 31 Dec 2010 #

    The real ”Born In The UK” (especially as he wasn’t!).

  14. 14
    Pete on 31 Dec 2010 #

    If your talking Britpop, then perhaps the Boo Radleys “Wake Up Boo” has the anthem / slight misunderstanding (done on purpose to live off of the royalties) though isn’t particualrly English. If we can have another go with Blur then Country House is possibly closer, but even meaner.

    How about Things Can Only Get Better by D:Ream?

  15. 15
    Billy Smart on 31 Dec 2010 #

    I’d nominate ‘It’s Grim Up North’ – It even ends with ‘Jerusalem’!

  16. 16
    the pinefox on 31 Dec 2010 #

    ‘country house’ is actually quite a good call – sarcastic but anthemic, relatively unusual in a #1 I would think.

  17. 17
    Alex S on 1 Jan 2011 #

    As well as Badly Drawn Boy’s ‘Born in the UK’ there is Adam Ant’s version from his recent live shows. It goes on for about a quarter of an hour, with repeated hectoring of the audience and the refrain “Land of the brave, home of the free – ’til they fucked it up with CCTV”.
    In that it represents a once-proud figure reduced to the stage of an embarrassing mentalist wreck, I fear it’s far too good a summary of too much about this country. But nobody’s ever going to misinterpret its sledgehammer stylings.

  18. 18
    Alex on 1 Jan 2011 #

    The Jam, Going Underground: “These braying sheep on my TV screen”

  19. 19
    wichita lineman on 1 Jan 2011 #

    Do you think Paul Weller was watching Countryfile?

  20. 20
    Tommy Mack on 1 Jan 2011 #

    What about Design for Life? It’s working class pride and struggle, rather than bitterness and betrayal, but I pretty widely misunderstood by blokes bellowing along with “…we only want to get drunk” while doing just that.

  21. 21
    swanstep on 1 Jan 2011 #

    PIL, Rise
    Pink Floyd , Fearless (the track from Meddle with the FC chant in it)
    Radiohead, National Anthem

  22. 22
    jim5et on 1 Jan 2011 #

    Common People; acerbic attack on class tourism becomes student union disco singalong.

  23. 23
    swanstep on 2 Jan 2011 #

    I should add that this has been an interesting exercise to think through. The US overall is much more given to explicit national-level reflection (probably as a result of having a written constitution with a very particular, strangely moving first person plural form, but probably also a result of its post-ww2 hegemony and also its size and relative isolation – oceans to left and right, poor county below, empty country above, etc.) than the UK is, or than most other places are. Its popular music just reflects this.

  24. 24
    Pete on 2 Jan 2011 #

    Haha, just thought of another one. Tubthumping!

  25. 25
    the pinefox on 2 Jan 2011 #

    Mr Baran has a knack for coming up with answers which are gleefully brash but, it must be admitted, oddly convincing.

    The US may be given to national reflection, but so is the UK – it’s one of our major industries.

    Can’t really agree about ‘common people’: the lyrics are very up-front and audible, people remember sing along with them – you can hardly imagine an equivalent to the ‘go and kill the yellow man’ moment posted above, ie. someone suddenly realizing that the song was something to do with class. But I think I also just have a resentment of the song or of the idea that it articulates a worthy position on class, rather than just a have-your-cake-and-eat-it mix of lust and spite (though otherwise, musically / melodically, a good and effective track. I used to have two copies of the 45).

  26. 26
    chelovek na lune on 2 Jan 2011 #

    ABC’s “United Kingdom” seems the most viable suggestion so far to me (and I certainly can’t come up with anything better) : so many other potential contenders (thus far mentioned or unmentioned) are regionally or class-specific, or pertaining to only one country, or one part of one country within the UK, in all cases thus failing to unite the kingdom (and I would love to suggest “Oliver’s Army”…but that also fails on this count). And the Aztec Camera and Mick Jones number….somehow fails to cut the mustard to me. “The past is filled with shame”. Oh do be away with you. Just a bit too …not so much pessimistic as unnecessarily negative.

    Granted, the ABC number is not the most cheerful song (and in, a way, is as set in its time as “Ghost Town”, but well, it would’t be too British were it to have been that…

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