Rating Bruce Springsteen
As Hungry Heart, the world’s only Bruce Springsteen dedicated club night, comes to Studio 2, Shaun Ponsonby revisits The Boss’ catalogue.
Bruce Springsteen is a rarity – an artist who has maintained both humungous, stadium filling success and critical clout.
Well – for the most part. There are those who just don’t get it. Weirdly, as superfans, we actually understand that. The image of Bruce Springsteen, macho, overwrought, all-American rock & roll hero could potentially be a difficult pill to swallow.
But that is the cliché of Bruce Springsteen that came on the back of his blockbuster success in the 80s, not the reality. The truth is Bruce Springsteen is far more nuanced than most of his detractors realise. The central theme to his work is the juxtaposition between the romanticism and the reality of the “American Dream“.
Most interesting to us is that, really, the macho image is assumed by the audience rather than portrayed by Bruce Springsteen, be that the cryptic gender of “Terry” in Backstreets, the possible reference to the handkerchief code on the cover of Born In The USA or the fact that, outside of his work, he has been a staunch queer ally for most of his career, whether that’s instigating the concert boycott of North Carolina over their so-called “Bathroom Bill“,or that he was the first major star to include same sex couples in MTV videos (Tougher Than The Rest).
The heart stoppin’, earth’ shockin’, earth quakin’, heart breakin’, love makin’, viagra takin’, history makin’ E Street Band, who have backed him on and off (mainly on) for over four decades are multi-racial, there are men and women. Patti Scailfa, whom he wed in 1991, and “Sister” Soozie Tyrell have been supplementing the gang of boys for decades now.
Of course, that’s not to take away from the boys. Bruce Springsteen made sure he spent time in his autobiography paying tribute to each member individually, and we can’t go through them all here. But special mention must go to guitarist Stevie Van Zandt, the captain of E Street, and his replacement (now bandmate) Nils Lofgren. And Roy Bittan, the most distinctive piano player in the history of rock & roll.
And last but not least, on the saxophone; the Minister of Soul! Secretary of the Brotherhood! Big Maaaaaaaan Clarence Clemons!
There has been a campaign spearheaded by Liverpool Etc‘s Alan O’ Hare to get The Boss to Liverpool. This has yet to happen, though it has reached a level where Springsteen himself was asked about it on Radio 2. But several E Streeters, such as Lofgren, bassist Garry Tallent, Clemons‘ replacement (and nephew) Jake, as well as Van Zandt – who returns this week – have made appearances in the city in recent years. Planet Slop’s Glorified Jukebox also supported the She Street Band for a bumper Springsteen celebration at Arts Club last year.
There is also Hungry Heart – a club night coming to Studio 2 on Saturday, 1st June as part of their 2019 Tour. The bumper to bumper Springsteen session is a joyful marathon run of DJ’s drawing exclusively from Bruce’s epic back catalogue.
So, if we’re going to be listening to Bruce Springsteen‘s back catalogue at Studio 2, we thought this would be a perfect opportunity for us to take a deep look through the Bruce Springsteen oeuvre.
21. Human Touch 
This is nobody’s favourite. He doesn’t seem to aspire to do anything, which is noticeably different from all of his previous efforts. There isn’t any real overreaching theme, he just made a pop album. There is nothing wrong with that in theory, of course. Bruce Springsteen albums often contained at a smattering of pop songs (they’re all over The River, for example). But he had never made a full album’s worth of them, and it wouldn’t have been a problem had he written songs as good as Hungry Heart. But he didn’t. He wrote 57 Channels (And Nothin’ On). It is a great song title, and a good idea, but even Springsteen himself has referred to it as a “playful misfire” and joked that he tried writing happy songs in the 90s; “It didn’t work; the public didn’t like it”.
Perhaps he was unsure of himself. After all, it was his first record since he broke up the E Street Band, replacing one of the most renowned and charismatic house bands of all time with a parade of faceless session men. Bruce being Bruce, there are things worth listening to, especially the title track and Real World (which features a rare co-writing credit from E Streeter Roy Bittan). But we highly doubt that you’ll ever play this more than once.
20. Working on a Dream 
There are actually a couple of good tunes on this; Outlaw Pete harks back to his story songs of old, The Last Carnival is a moving tribute to then-recently deceased band member “Phantom” Dan Federici – and a sequel to the much earlier Wild Billy’s Circus Story – and The Wrestler from the movie of the same name was good enough to win him a Golden Globe.
But most of the rest would pretty much confirm all the reasons people don’t like Bruce Springsteen; the overblown, Phil Spector-like production, some really trite lyrics here and there (Queen of the Supermarket, The Raspberries-esque Surprise Surprise), bombast and overly earnest at times. This Life is a particular low point; it is pretty boring, with a droning vocal from Bruce.
It was produced whilst on the road touring the far superior Magic album and was likely supposed to capture the early optimism of Obama’s election. Of course, by the time he hit the road, the Great Recession had become such a disaster that few had reason to feel genuinely optimistic in their day to day lives. But even without that event dampening the album’s message, it is safe to say that it would still be the worst E Street Band album.
19. High Hopes 
This is a weird one. It is basically a collection of oddities and cast-offs from the previous few years, but with an occasionally overbearing Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine taking Steve Van Zandt’s place on guitar (he was in Norway filming Lillyhammer, where he played a New York gangster in witness protection). It is an anomaly in Springsteen’s oeuvre in that it’s an odds and sods grab bag masquerading as a full album.
There are three songs that have appeared elsewhere in different forms, including American Skin (41 Shots) which premiered 15 years earlier and told the story of an unarmed black teenager who had been shot by police 41 times when reaching for his wallet. It is no wonder that he resurrected it for this record, seeing as it sadly remains as relevant as ever. There was also the title track, which Springsteen had initially recorded during his brief reunion with the E Street Band in the mid-90s, and a re-recorded electric version of 1996’s The Ghost of Tom Joad that had more or less been used as the E Street Band’s live arrangement for the past decade and a bit.
Of the rest, there are some surprising covers (The Saints’ Just Like Fire Would and Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream) and a smattering of originals, the best of which is Harry’s Place. But overall, it plays more like Tracks or The Promise sans the intrigue surrounding those releases.
18. Lucky Town 
Released simultaneously with Human Touch, Lucky Town has been far more popular than its sister album.
Apparently it came about as Springsteen was winding down production on Human Touch. He returned to the studio to lay down one more track, which became the song Living Proof. However, rather than just add the song to Human Touch, he ended up recording a whole new record. It is much more stripped down and a far more enjoyable listen as a result.
Again recorded without the E Street Band, we can’t help but think their presence could have elevated the material even higher. The real drawback is that much of the material sounds pretty samey, whereas his old band likely would have found something more interesting to do with it in order to make each song stand out.
Nevertheless, the best moments prove that there was life in the old dog yet, especially If I Should Fall Behind, which The Boss would resurrect when he reconvened the E Street Band full time and transformed it into a song about the bonds between them and the power of friendship.
17. The Ghost of Tom Joad 
One of Springsteen’s solo, mainly acoustic records.
The figure of Tom Joad comes from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and was further immortalised in Woody Guthrie’s The Ballad of Tom Joad. That Springsteen has so much in common with Steinbeck and Guthrie in terms of his view of American life means that this album should fit comfortably into his catalogue.
In some ways, this is absolutely true. It shows genuine artistic growth, at least lyrically – the complexities of the characters in these songs is such that it does take a couple of listens (or at least read through the lyrics) to fully grasp them.
Sinaloa Cowboys is probably one of the most emotionally draining songs in the Springsteen oeuvre; two Mexican brothers come to the USA to find work but end up cooking meth, and when their lab explodes one carries their dying brother to hole they were hiding their money, digs it up and replaces it with his now-deceased sibling.
But truth be told it never reaches the heights of his other solo albums. There is a lack of melody at times, and it occasionally feels a little forced. Not to take away from major highlights in the title track and Youngstown. It is still his best studio album of the 90s.
Showing how out of favour Springsteen was at the time, it missed the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic.
16. The Ties That Bind: The River Outtakes [2015/Recorded 1979-1980]
We weren’t sure whether to include this one, as half of it was released in the outtakes collection Tracks and it wasn’t released separately from The River reissue box set.
Though it is an interesting collection; a handful of songs that never made it onto The River album in 1980, it does highlight why that album is one of the weaker records of Springsteen’s classic period. As great as the songs are, you could have switched pretty much any of them with what ended up on the finished album.
Conversely, though, that does simultaneously speak volumes about how good the material on this release is, from the high octane opener Meet Me In The City, the punky, 80 second burst of Held Up Without a Gun and the poppy Take Em As They Come.
15. Magic 
One of the harder edged E Street albums, there is a sense of apprehension on much of Magic.
Once striving to be apolitical, it was clear by the mid-point of the noughties that Bruce viewed things differently in middle age. Although he dabbled in social politics at times, he didn’t become explicit until 1995’s The Ghost Of Tom Joad. But here, he barks about the Bush administration, the “tricks” of the political classes (the title track), the Iraq war (Gypsy Biker, Last To Die), illegal wiretapping (Living In The Future) and corporate conglomerates (Radio Nowhere).
Yet he still balances it all to the point where you wouldn’t know it unless you were looking for it. You can bop along to a song like Living In The Future without realising the subject matter of the song. That song also best represents the real thrill of the album; the greater presence of Clarence Clemons, who had been present but mainly in a back seat for many years.
14. Tracks /18 Tracks  [Recorded 1972-1998]
Following The Ghost of Tom Joad, Springsteen started going through his unreleased material and eventually decided to release a four disc box set of rarities, with the occasional b-side thrown in for good measure.
Unlike some collections of this ilk, such as Dylan’s, you don’t necessarily get a clearer picture of Springsteen’s work. He is, after all, a craftsman who labours on his music. Like Prince, anything he puts out there will be complete.
It does, however, offer an alternative history of Springsteen. What if he released Thundercrack instead of Rosalita? What if Pink Cadillac made the cut instead of I’m Goin’ Down?
There are some glaring omissions; his sought after original versions of Because The Night (Patti Smith), Fire (The Pointer Sisters) and The Fever (Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes) would find their way into the public domain later, but are absent in the original box set, and there is nothing from the much mooted Electric Nebraska sessions, but it is still a belter collection.
It was followed a few months later by 18 Tracks, a single disc version of the album which included three tracks not in the box set, including the aforementioned The Fever and a solo version of the much bootlegged The Promise, the intimacy of which might be superior to the full band version released decades later.
13. Tunnel of Love 
The inevitable divorce album. This was Springsteen’s follow-up to Born In The USA, and it probably wasn’t the album that audience wanted.
As his first marriage broke down, he entered the studio without consigliere Steve Van Zandt for the first time in over a decade and realised he had reached a crossroads in his work following the zeitgeist-capturing success of Born In The USA. Consequently, he tried some very un-Springsteen things, especially on the road. The Tunnel of Love tour was even a little – gulp! – theatrical.
Like most of Springsteen’s albums, the title track is central to the theme. The confused mess of the song’s relationship (“You, me and all that stuff we’re so scared of”) speaks for itself. Unlike past compositions, this isn’t a romantic view of relationships, it’s profoundly realistic. As a result, the material hasn’t only aged impressively (aside from some overly synthisised 80s production), but they are by far his finest set of songs about relationships, and for the first time he sounds confident on the subject. In fact, Tougher Than The Rest, one of his finest songs, period.
The front cover also adds “car” to “wall” and “Clarence Clemons” in the “Things on which Bruce Springsteen leans on album covers” list.
12. Wrecking Ball 
This hit me hard when it came out. Responding to the economic crisis facing America (and the West in general), and the lack of consequence for those responsible, he unleashed Wrecking Ball; quite possibly the angriest record of his career.
Sound-wise, the songs are pitched somewhere between his previous decade. Much of the record sounds like The Seeger Sessions, but there’s also a touch of Devils & Dust and The Rising, which is probably best exemplified by Death To My Hometown – an angry tirade against “the greedy thieves” responsible for the recession and putting millions of people out of work (though that message is a little dubious seeing the prices of his recent Springsteen on Broadway residency).
We Take Care Of Our Own is also probably the most misunderstood song in his catalogue since Born In The USA and is along the same lines in both stadium bombast and ironic lyric (spoiler: America does not take care of its own, no matter how much they might claim that they do).
As an added bonus, it was also featured the final tracks recorded by Clarence Clemons, who passed away in 2011.
11. The Promise [2010/Recorded 1977-1978]
Springsteen has such an influence of classic 60s pop that it would inevitably make its way into his work in flourishes. But, for better or worse, in the 70s he would often discard these tunes in search of a larger ideal. Had this been in modern times, he likely would have had a second career as a ghost writer for pop stars, and the proof is in this two disc pudding.
This was part of the 2010 six disc reissue of Darkness on the Edge of Town, but did also receive a separate release for those who didn’t want to fork out for the whole shebang. All outtakes from the period, some of them were given to others (most notably Because The Night to Patti Smith, but also Rendezvous to Gary US Bonds, Talk To Me to Southside Johnny and Fire to The Pointer Sisters), but they were mostly unheard by all but the bootleggers.
There’s also a few alternate versions, but not like alternate versions you get on most deluxe editions, with a slightly different lyric or extended intro. The alternates here are completely different songs. This version of Racing In The Street has hope. Come On (Let’s Go Tonight) is the same music as Factory, but with a totally unrelated lyric.
It is no mystery why many of these songs didn’t make the cut on the brooding Darkness on the Edge of Town, but it is a shame that they went unheard for 30 years. Good pop is harder to write than anyone gives it credit for, and here Springsteen offers up two discs of his possible alternative career.
10. The Rising 
I probably would have put this higher had it been a little shorter. The story in Springsteenian folklore is that a few days after 9/11, he was filling his car up at a New Jersey gas station and was approached by a fan who told him “We need you now, Bruce”.
That makes it sound dreadful, but he manages to make it apolitical and avoids being mawkish. This is not an album about 9/11, it is an album about loss.
Titles like Lonesome Day, You’re Missing, Nothing Man make that clear, even if Into The Fire and My City of Ruins (which has always resembled Van Morrison’s Crazy Love to these ears) hint at – but don’t explicitly state – what caused this loss.
Given that part of the purpose of the album is the healing process, it isn’t all dour; Waitin’ on a Sunny Day, and the enduring title track are amongst the positive songs of remedy and spirit. That song has become a staple of live shows, much to the chagrin of some long-time fans, but it tends to fit its purpose both in the live set and the album; a moment of respite after we’ve explored the darkness.
It can be hard to pull off an album like this in the climate in which it was made, but he arguably created the exact record that America needed in the months after the tragedy.
9. Devils & Dust 
One of The Boss’ meditative, folk-ish albums, and definitely one of his stronger efforts in later years.
Perhaps still in the frame of mind he was in when writing The Rising, Devils & Dust feels almost like a concept album, but in reality the songs are less connected than they were on Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad, and it isn’t quite as depressing.
The music is a big part of that. The Ghost of Tom Joad in particular was a little unmusical, but he added far more colour on Devils and Dust. Perhaps this is why some of the lighter moments stand out so much; Long Time Coming breezes along with some interesting imagery, but the use of the phrase “fuck it up” towards the end is always a little jarring and a bit at odds with what we’ve been presented with up to that point of the song (though, thankfully, not enough to ruin it). All The Way Home was originally given to Southside Johnny as a late night barroom ballad in the early 90s, but the version here is radically different, with a countrified twang.
But those moments aren’t the heart of the record, even if they make it feel more human than either Tom Joad or Nebraska. Like The Rising, recent events play a big part in Springsteen’s storytelling, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq is clearly his major gripe – and would remain so on 2007’s Magic.
8. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions 
This is probably the loosest and most fun studio album of Springsteen’s career.
“Sister” Soozie Tyrell, regular E Street Band violinist, put Bruce in touch with a group of folk musicians and they basically recorded the album live at Bruce’s house with no rehearsal. And it feels that way. You can even hear his kitchen door open at the start of Old Dan Tucker. After the mourning of The Rising, and the political meditation of Devils and Dust, a rambunctious party record seemed like the right move.
Though billed as a tribute to folk singer Pete Seeger – who you could probably argue is as much The Boss to his generation as Springsteen is to his – it doesn’t actually include songs written by Seeger or in his style. Instead he attempts to capture Seeger’s ethics, especially on the likes of the overtly political Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep, Eyes on the Prize and We Shall Overcome. My Oklahoma Home also seemed to have been chosen in response to Hurricane Katrina (“I built my shanty there/Now my Oklahoma home is blown away”).
But this isn’t an album to think too much about. It’s to put on, grab a few beers and sing along to. Which makes it a rarity in Springsteen’s catalogue, but a total joy.
7. The River 
The River is an odd one. Its best moments are among Springsteen’s greatest. But like most double albums, it loses its steam at several points, particularly on disco two.
Up until The River, Springsteen’s records never really prepared you for his live shows, so the plan was to make an album that was akin to that experience. The frat rockers that were traditionally represented by covers on stage were now penned by Bruce himself, with the likes of Sherry Darling and Out In The Street becoming live favourites.
What is interesting is that even though this is known as the album where Springsteen let out his inner frat rocker, it also saw him reach within for increasingly mature material, some of it personal. The classic title track was famously inspired by Bruce’s own sister, and Independence Day is one of what would be many songs exploring his complex relationship with his father.
He also finally scored a US hit with Hungry Heart (written, weirdly, for the Ramones), and though there are some critics who have continually dismissed the likes of Two Hearts, they remain amongst his best pop songs, and always come alive on stage. Not everything can be like the slow, brooding Drive All Night.
6. Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ 
Springsteen’s debut was probably the quickest album he ever made. Much was made of him being one of the many “New Dylans”, but I have always considered this to be a channeling of his inner Van Morrison more than Dylan, especially on Spirit in the Night.
He hasn’t quite mastered his lyrical style yet, and is probably a little more verbose than he needs to be. The middle eight of For You, which always leaves me short of breath just listening, is an obvious example, but opener Blinded by the Light takes that crown. Springsteen wrote it using a rhyming dictionary, which is how he managed to make “Madman drummers, bummers and Indians in the summer” to be the first line on his first album (incidentally, his retelling of this on VH1 Storytellers is definitely worth a watch).
Growing Up is probably the highlight though – it is certainly the tightest and the most sophisticated song on the record, and features some of his finest one liners (“I found the keys to the universe in the engine of an old parked car” is a classic Springsteen image). It exemplifies the humour that stops Bruce from veering into pretentiousness. It – along with It’s Hard To Be a Saint In The City – was also covered by David Bowie, who saw early promise in The Boss.
The fascinating trait in Bruce’s songwriting is how, throughout his career, you potentially follow the lives of the same group of characters. This started way back on his debut with Mary, Queen of Arkansas. Mary would be a character he would return to throughout his career, be that the girl dancing across the porch in Thunder Road, or the person hosting a wake in The Rising.
Fun fact: Clarence Clemons only features on late additions Blinded By The Light and Sprit in the Night (both later covered by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band) because he was missing.
5. The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle 
Released just a few months following his debut, this is a very different album than Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ. It feels much more like a band album for a start, with saxophonist Clarence Clemons and the soon-to-leave David Sancious making a particular stamp. That they are all pictured on the inner sleeve underlines this.
Where Greetings… had a much stronger folk influence, this goes much deeper. Kitty’s Back is almost jazz-sounding, Wild Billy’s Circus Story is something Tom Waits may have done a few years later and E Street Shuffle has a clear soul and funk feel. He may have been signed as a Dylan-esque singer-songwriter, but Springsteen made it clear that he had no desire to stay in that pretty limiting bracket.
The street lyrics from Greetings… were sharpened, but this time for all the nostalgic glow for the places and the characters on the Jersey Shore that Bruce sings about here, it does feel like he is growing up and leaving his old haunts behind, which is probably where Born To Run comes in.
We would be remiss not make special mention of Rosalita (Come Out Tonight). If ever there was a perfect rock & roll song, I’d go for this one. It’s silly, it’s epic, it does all the things rock & roll is supposed to do.
4. Nebraska 
The one that people who don’t like Bruce Springsteen like.
There are a lot of accusations of Springsteen being over-produced, but that accusation is based on the Springsteen cliché, not the reality. Nebraska was recorded on a four track tape recorder in his living room. Just him, a guitar, harmonica and a few flourishes here and there.
It is stark, quiet, introspective. On most of his records there is a feeling of hope for the characters he sings about. But there is little hope offered here. They are outsiders, criminals and people the system have left behind. It is totally uncompromising and one of the most challenging albums a star the size of Springsteen has ever released.
Take the title track, the true story of a murder spree committed by Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. This opens the album, and it barely lets up from the despair for a moment. Look at Johnny 99, where the protagonist was laid off and drunkenly murders a night clerk. Or Atlantic City, where he resorts to organised crime.
Lyrically it fits in perfectly with his lyrical evolution. But musically and commercially? Consider that this is sandwiched between the frat rockin’ hits of The River and the mega success of Born In The USA and it comes across as a definite bold move, even if it was the right album for that time.
3. Born In The USA 
This is really the only time Bruce actively tried to claim the zeitgeist, and he succeeded beyond anything he dared dream of.
But, like Prince that same year with Purple Rain, Born In The USA isn’t necessarily a safe album. The title track is infamously one of the most misunderstood songs in history. To this day, I have had to argue with people who misinterpret it as a flag-waving American anthem and not a protest song about the mistreatment of Vietnam veterans by the US government (“End up like a dog that’s been beat too much, and you spend half your life tryin’ to cover it up, I was born in the USA”). Contrary to its legend, it isn’t masquerading as anything it isn’t – it’s right there in the lyrics.
But the title track sums up the approach on much of the album. Despite the deceptively upbeat music, lyrically this is a pretty dark record. Some songs, such as Working On The Highway (and indeed BITUSA itself), were initially recorded acoustically for Nebraska and reworked for this album. …Highway began life under the name Child Bride, and sees our protagonist jailed for marrying “a little girl” – quite literally. I’m Goin’ Down is the sinking depression of knowing a relationship is over. And Glory Days is a somewhat ironic title.
Yet there is hope. Despite all the hardships, the characters aren’t backing down, possibly best exemplified by No Surrender (and, as an aside, “We learned more from a three minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school” is one of the most memorable lines he’s ever written, and undoubtedly one that most of his audience can relate to).
As pop hits go, Dancing In The Dark is an 80s classic, and the fact that the song is about Springsteen’s inability to write Dancing In The Dark – with constant references to “Sittin’ round here tryin’ to write this book”, “I ain’t got nothin’ to say”, “Ain’t gettin’ nowhere”, “You can’t start a fire without a spark” etc – makes it even better.
The success of Born In The USA (equaling Thriller’s record of seven top ten singles) has meant that The Boss hasn’t left stadiums unless he wanted to. It’s his biggest selling album, and one of the biggest selling of all time. And it’s a great ride, that can’t be denied. But it is hardly the most Springsteen sounding album.
2. Darkness On The Edge Of Town 
Prior to Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Springsteen had been legally barred from recording for three years, so it is no wonder that the optimism and romanticism that had been so present on Born To Run was absent here.
This would likely have been the case anyway. The characters in Darkness… feel the same as the characters in Born To Run, but reality has hit them. They were kids in 1975. Now they have responsibilities. In Born To Run, they are bustin’ out of this lousy town, and now they have reached the Darkness On The Edge Of Town.
Listen to him howling in frustration on the title track or Streets of Fire. Or the heavy biblical imagery of Adam Raised a Cain, the first of his many songs about the complicated relationship he had with his father.
But take special notice of Racing In The Street, a harrowing seven minute epic. On Born to Run, Springsteen was using the all-American imagery of the car in the same way Brian Wilson had 15 years earlier. Now we are catching up with these people and find that the car didn’t bring them the freedom that they assumed it would. It takes these very American symbols, and turns them on their heads.
That’s not to say it’s too much in the vain of Nebraska. It isn’t. Some of the biggest set list mainstays are here, most notably Badlands and The Promised Land, both fist pumping arena fillers that still thrill to this day (Badlands, in fact, is regularly a show opener).
As you grow older, you appreciate Darkness… increasingly, and it proved that Bruce was willing to sacrifice commercial success for his artistic sensibilities.
1. Born To Run 
Born To Run still captivates as a perfect distillation of everything that is great about rock & roll, steeped in Roy Orbison, girl groups, Dylan, Phil Spector. It’s one of the few perfect albums.
Where on previous records, these characters were just carefree kids, on Born To Run, they find themselves at a crossroads. Their lives are about to begin for reals…and they sure as hell ain’t gonna do it in this lousy town. “It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we’re young”. The guy who was ready to leave it all behind on The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle was in the car and heading towards to state line.
The piano is prominent, Roy Bittan’s unique style reveals itself, and Bruce Springsteen’s lyricism has evolved greatly. Where once he would try and stuff as many words into the verse as possible, here he lets them breathe, and the cinematic scope of the world he is painting becomes clearer than ever. You can literally see the opening lines happening in your mind’s eye. The first line of Thunder Road sets the precedent; “The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves/Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays”.
The other major theme is friendship; indeed Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out is essentially the story of the E Street Band’s formation, it takes an old-school R&B vibe, complete with horn section. The main protagonist is Bad Scooter (BS = Bruce Springsteen, geddit?), down on his luck, “searching for his groove”. One day, everything changed when “the Big Man joined the band”. The Big Man, of course, refers to Clarence Clemons, the legendary saxophone player who accompanies Springsteen on the album cover, used to articulate the theme of many of the tunes. He literally leans on Clemons, his on-stage foil until his untimely death in 2011.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Backstreets and Jungleland; heartbreaking epics about betrayal, defeat and friendships gone awry. The former is sexually ambiguous, the latter features a saxophone solo from Clarence Clemons that ranks as one of the greatest instrumental performances ever put down on record.
If the title track was the only notable song on the album, it would still be an important work. It’s epic, yet concise. A song that was so important to The Boss that he laboured over it for an interminable length of time. He put strings on, took them off, added horns, removed them, re-added some strings, but not others, and recorded no fewer than eleven guitar tracks to get the sound he wanted. Rock critic Robert Christau went as far as to say that the Wall of Sound technique was “the fulfilment of everything [Phil Spector/The Ronettes’] Be My Baby was about and lots more”.
But more importantly, this is where Bruce Springsteen became The Boss. This is where he solidified his theme; the juxtaposition between the American dream and the American reality. People rave about Nebraska and Darkness On The Edge of Town. Maybe they’re objectively “better” albums from an artistic point of view. But Born To Run has that irresistible youthful optimism.
And as a personal bias, Thunder Road is one of the top three songs ever written.
Hungry Heart, the world’s only Springsteen dedicated club night, comes to Liverpool’s Studio 2 on Saturday 1st June 2019 at 10.30pm. Tickets are available now.