“Real American” is one of the most recognizable songs in American culture (embarrassing, but true). Written by vocalist Rick Derringer and released on 1985’s The Wrestling Album (novelty brainchild of WWF head honcho Vince McMahon and Cyndi Lauper’s boyfriend/manager, David Wolff) , “Real American” helped thrust what was once a fringe sport firmly onto the national stage, bringing wrestling to MTV and a far, far wider audience than even that year’s inaugural Wrestlemania.
Despite all this, it’s never been released as a single, and the actual lead singer of the original hit, Bernard Kenny, has disappeared into obscurity. It’s been a wild ride, so we attempted to catalog its all-American, by-the-bootstraps rise to not-so-self-aware stardom.
In 1985, Derringer was 11 years removed from his hit single “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Coo” (and 20 years removed from the classic #1 track “Hang On Sloopy,” on which he sang lead vocals), but he remained a titan of the rock ’n’ roll industry. After working extensively with bands like The Edgar Winter Group, Air Supply and Bonnie Tyler, Derringer bounced around, shredding guitar solos for Barbra Streisand and writing songs with his partner at the time, Kenny. One of those songs, of course, was “Real American,” and while the two didn’t know what it would eventually be used for, as soon as they wrote it, they knew it was destined for glory.
Derringer, writer and producer of “Real American”: My writing partner Bernard Kenny and I sat down one night in 1984, and we had the idea to write the most patriotic song of all time. We were really proud Americans, and we wanted to express that in the song. So that was the whole objective behind it when we sat down — a few hours later, the song “Real American” was born. After it was written, we actually played it, and it brought us to tears. We knew we had done such a good job, and it was destined to be a hit.
Jimmy Bralower, drummer on The Wrestling Album: Well, I’ll tell ya man, there’s some truths to this one that seem to be hidden. The main thing is that it’s not Derringer singing this song! It’s an old friend of mine, a guy named Bernard Kenny who’s the co-writer — who is a fucking killer singer — and never got credit.
Sean Neumann, professional wrestling reporter for VICE, Rolling Stone: Critically… a lot is wrong with the song. It’s goofy as hell; it’s one of the cheesiest songs you’ll ever hear. Song-wise it’s just outright propaganda, but in the context it was used and released — in the professional wrestling world — it’s perfect.
Bralower: That opening is so iconic — that’s Bernard singing, that free-standing vocal before the guitar riff comes in. A total hook, and an earmark of a great hit. That specific recording that’s famous, I can tell you for certain, that’s Bernard singing.
There’s a new version with Rick singing, and it’s just not it. Usually I wouldn’t step out and say this stuff, but Bernard Kenny is one of the great singers who never became famous. Don’t get me wrong: Rick’s a great singer and a brilliant fuckin’ cat, but Bernard is the unsung hero of this song. You haven’t heard that voice anywhere else. Unfortunately that was a big break for him, and he got shut down in terms of getting credit. One of those old great music biz stories. I remember him having a bit of a bug up his ass about getting sort of screwed out of his credit for this thing.
The Original Release
In 1983, the stars aligned for professional wrestling. Now referred to as the “Rock ’n’ Wrestling Connection,” the era began, strangely enough, with wrestler Lou Albano starring in Cyndi Lauper’s music video for “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” In the meantime, MTV was at peak popularity, and local news channels were being consolidated into national cable packages. The upshot was, when MTV aired their first wrestling match on live TV on July 23, 1984, wrestling became primed to take over a national audience. One year later, David Wolff (Lauper’s boyfriend) called upon Derringer and Vince McMahon to produce The Wrestling Album , a compilation of songs that would supposedly cement wrestlers into the world of rock ’n’ roll.
Neumann: The WWE has contracted some really great songwriters over the years — highly underrated, honestly — like Jim Johnston, who made most of the songs during the Attitude Era and through the 2000s. Then CFO$, who makes most of the entrance music today. Rick Derringer was no different.
Derringer: When The Wrestling Album came along, we had the whole thing put together and really organized, and we still hadn’t used “Real American” anywhere yet. So we thought this would be a good use of it.
Bralower: “Real American” is the only song on the album that didn’t involve wrestlers; it was just a Derringer thing, who they brought to do the “rock god” thing, which he was great at.
Derringer: It may have been Vince McMahon’s decision to say, “Go ahead, this is a great song. Let’s not jeopardize its quality with a wrestler not doing it justice.” So it may have been Vince’s decision to say, “You guys go ahead and do the vocals on that one.”
Bralower: Derringer would come in and do the guitar, and I did drums. Then they overdubbed it. It was the only song on the album done by a professional group of people and had nothing to do with wrestlers performing on it. So “Real American” was more an assembly thing than it was a kinetic magic moment in the studio.
Derringer: We didn’t alter the original at all for the WWE — we just laid down the legit version we imagined, and that was the one they used.
Bralower: So recording the song itself was straightforward, nothing sexy. But I gotta say it was surreal when all the wrestlers were all at the studio in their fucking wrestling gear. Typically those guys were always in character, except that day in the studio. Like, I remember Hulk Hogan at the time had this big fucking feud with Brutus Beefcake on TV, but in the studio they were just chatting in the hall like normal friends.
The Rise of Hulkamania
“Real American” was originally given to the extremely America-themed tag team U.S. Express, while Hogan was allotted the synth-heavy instrumental, “Hulk Hogan’s Theme.” However, U.S. Express left the WWF shortly after the album’s release, and in December 1985, Hogan adopted both the song and the persona of the American hero, stamping out foreign bad guys and standing up for what’s right. This was at the peak of Hogan’s powers: The year prior, he’d pinned The Iron Sheik for the WWF championship and “Hulkamania” was born. By 1985, he was the de facto face of pro wrestling.
Bralower: Before Hulk, it didn’t have the earmarks of becoming as iconic as it did. I mean, it was a cool track, but we were making hit records in those days, so they were all cool tracks, you know what I mean?
Derringer: Hulk was a cool guy. He was a very prominent, visible, high-profile wrestler, so from that point-of-view you couldn’t ask for anything better.
Neumann: To understand the success of that song, you have to grasp how big of a star Hulk Hogan was. He’s the biggest professional wrestling star there ever was and likely ever will be, and he was a pop-culture phenomenon. Everyone knows who Hulk Hogan is, even today. He’s the Elvis of pro wrestling. The song was enormous because he was an enormous figure in the entertainment world — then and today.
Bralower: At the time, not everyone had theme songs — they’d just ring the bell and the ring announcer would bring them out from the side. This song was the beginning of making wrestling super showbiz-y, and it just so happened that with MTV, wrestling was becoming nationalized, so it was getting pumped into a huge audience. Plus, at the time, there was like a Russian dude who was a bad guy, and there was the [Iron] Sheik. So Hulk, the American dude, rose to superstardom by battling them, and that song was so perfect for those battles. Everything aligned so perfectly.
Neumann: The key to a professional wrestling entrance song is the same as writing a pop song, with hammering home hooks and repeating and repeating and repeating the same stuff over. It’s all about branding the character and sticking those points into fans’ heads. So for Hogan there’s these catchy melodies and they’re singing about how great of a hero he is, and that he’ll “fight for what’s right,” and specifically, he’ll fight for you. The song does a great job of setting the stage for when Hogan comes out. You know right then and there that he’s the good guy and that you’ve got to cheer for him.
Derringer: Hulk used it everywhere! Every time he went in the ring he used it as his theme song. Every time he did a television appearance he played the song. He created videos. In fact, when we made the original music video with Hulk, he was playing the bass guitar — he’s a bass player. I showed him, “This is kinda the bass part we play,” and I remember him saying, “HEY, that’s not the bass part you play, come on, show me the real bass part!” So I showed him what we really played. [But in] the video we see Hulk playing that little Fender Stratocaster guitar, and it looks really small on him.
We were really happy about all that. But still somewhere in the back of my mind I thought, Man, this song should be somehow more legit than just a wrestler’s theme song. We had wanted to write this fabulous patriotic song for all Americans. We saw it somehow on a different level than a wrestler’s theme song, so in some ways I was a little let down.
Hogan’s reign in professional wrestling lasted nearly two decades, and he used the song throughout (save for when he turned heel, joined the nWo and used Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child”). But following the sport’s heyday in the 1990s, Hogan and “Real American” faded from cultural relevance, his most prominent media appearance of the 2010s being in perhaps the most notorious sex tape of all time. In recent years, though, it’s reemerged as either a parody of buffoonish patriotism, or (facepalms at the ready) as an apparently completely straightforward expression of patriotism on the campaign trail.
Neumann: A lot of the appeal to the song is that Top Gun-like sound of the 1980s that makes people nostalgic. It’s developed more into a meme than anything — the ultra-patriotic lines are so cheesy they’re funny. I still think Hogan’s song works today for his character, but he and the song have mostly faded from pop culture since his 2002 match against The Rock at WrestleMania 18, widely considered one of the best matches of all time.
If it was newly introduced for a fresh character, however, it would fall flat and hard. It would likely be for a jobber, someone who is set up to lose all the time. They still do America versus other countries storylines, but they’re not as aggressive, and thankfully, fans have done a great job speaking up and calling the WWE out when it does something terribly xenophobic or racist. So these storylines are becoming less and less frequent, which is a good thing
Derringer: All of a sudden, Hillary Clinton was running in a primary election against Barack Obama, and I got word that she was using “Real American” as her campaign song. It’s no commentary on Hillary, whether you like her or not, but we were excited because all of a sudden the song had become somehow a lot more legitimate than simply a wrestler’s theme song. I heard the same about Newt Gingrich during his 2012 run for president.
Neumann: Politicians still use the song in political ads, just like they do with Lee Greenwood and all those other songs. It just shows this sort of cartoonish version of the United States, and it’s hard not to roll your eyes or laugh when you hear it.
Derringer: Next I heard that on America’s Got Talent, a guy smashed 45 watermelons on his head, and they played it as his victory song. “I’m a real American, I can balance 40 watermelons on my head.” So we went, “Wow! This thing is cool, and it’s growing.”
Then, all of a sudden, Barack Obama decided to unveil his birth certificate at the correspondents’ dinner a couple years ago, and they made the video of that dinner and his presentation, and used the entire song to show his birth certificate bouncing in and out of the video, and his smiling face. That video, at this point, has gotten more than 20 million hits on Youtube.
Bralower: I’m surprised it’s not Donald Trump’s theme song by now, to be honest with you.
Derringer: We actually heard that Donald Trump used it in four videos. So we’re very excited in general that it’s a great wrestler’s theme song, but that it’s become almost a new national anthem in some points of view, and remains one of the most heard and recognized songs that’s never been released as a single. I play it in my concerts every night, and everybody knows it no matter where I go. The modern world of internet usage is still sketchy, but I usually do get royalties whenever it’s used.
The song itself has, in a way, come full circle, albeit in a depressingly sinister way. It began as a perfect representation of jingoistic Cold War novelty, necessary in the world of 1980s wrestling — the American good guy body slamming foreign bad guys while waving the stars and stripes. Somewhere in the 2010s it reemerged as a self-aware, tongue-in-cheek tool to poke fun at blind patriotism. And now, in our current timeline of facts not mattering and reality itself in question, it’s reared its head again — a song once used to drum up faux-patriotism now unironically a rallying cry for a new brand of alt-right nationalism, the soundtrack to “America First” fever. So where will the song go next?
Derringer: Every song you write, you hope will be “it,” and “the best song you ever write.” We were impressed with our work the night we wrote the song, but frankly, you never know — you might think it’s the best song you’ve ever written, but the audience is the decider. In retrospect, we never expected it to be this successful, the way it has become. Now, as time goes on, I’ve since recorded a new version that I’m getting ready to unleash on the world…