Bruce Springsteen’s “last chance power drive” – 40 years of Born To Run

Born To Run: Bruce Springsteen with Clarence Clemons

Born To Run: Bruce Springsteen with Clarence Clemons

As the 40th anniversary of Born To Run approaches, Getintothis’ Shaun Ponsonby takes a look at the pivotal moment when Bruce Springsteen truly became The Boss. 

Bruce Springsteen is a rarity. He is one of the few artists Getintothis can think of to achieve humungous, zeitgeist-capturing, stadium-filling success while maintaining critical acclaim from snobbish music critics like us, desperate to sneer at anything the pleb on the street wants to listen to. They call him The Boss, and with good reason.

He possesses the social commentary of Dylan, with the pop sensibilities of genius producer (and sometime waitress murderer) Phil Spector, the storytelling of Roy Orbison, the kind of soul revival that one would expect to see at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Joe Strummer once said “if you don’t like Bruce Springsteen, you don’t like rock & roll”. Quite the accolade.

Yet it almost didn’t happen.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Born To Run. A last-ditch effort to save his career, the album was a turning point both artistically and commercially. It was the first to hint at what the often misunderstood central theme of Springsteen’s work would eventually be; the juxtaposition between the American dream and the American reality. So, although he frequently uses classic American imagery; the cars, guitars, movie screens and girls in their summer clothes, it is often mournfully underpinned.

Springsteen’s previous two records, his debut Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ and The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle were critically acclaimed, but didn’t shift many copies. He later recalled management relaying with disappointment that Greetings… had sold a mere couple of thousand copies, while he was dumbfounded that a thousand people he didn’t know bothered to buy his record.

As Springsteen’s star grew, other artists would go back to these records to pick out covers, Manfred Man (Blinded By The Light and Spirit In The Night), The Hollies (4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)) and David Bowie (It’s Hard To Be a Saint in the City and Growing Up) among them

Those that accuse The Gaslight Anthem of being Springsteen-lite should really go back and listen to these records. Although touted as the latest “new Dylan” at the time, Springsteen is definitely channelling his inner Van Morrison here. Songs like Spirit in the Night or the undeniably jazzy Kitty’s Back recall an early 70s, Moondance-era Van the Man. Around as much as Van was evoking Jagger during his earliest days with Them.

Both of these albums were released in 1973, and there was a two year gap before his follow-up hit the shelves, an interminably long wait in the 1970s.

The fascinating trait in Springsteen’s songwriting is how, throughout his career, you essentially 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 Bruce would continue to return to throughout his career, and she re-appears in the first line of Thunder Road, the first song on Born To Run.

However, where on previous albums, these characters were just crazy kids hanging out on the street, on Born To Run, they find themselves at a crossroads. They’ve graduated, 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 songs on Born To Run sound different to anything The Boss had done before or, really, since. Most were written on piano, as opposed to guitar. The flourishes to these piano runs were added by then-new recruit Roy Bittan, one of the more important members of the E Street Band (as they became known around this time). This is apparent straight away on Thunder Road.

The piano is prominent, Bittan’s unique style reveals itself, and Bruce’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 screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey, that’s me and I want you only

The difference between these kids and the kids in, say, Rosalita from …E Street Shuffle is that they are ready to breakaway. This is why Bruce is calling Mary to his car. This is an optimistic time for them, freeing themselves from the shackles of their current, suffocated lives. “It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win”.

Getting out is a recurring theme on the album. The other major theme is friendship, both the unbreakable bond and the fragile.

For the former, there’s Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out. 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. This cover was used to articulate the friendship theme of many of the tunes. Springsteen literally leans on Clemons, his on-stage foil until his untimely death in 2011. His onstage presence was so huge that on his last couple of tours without him, Springsteen has replaced Clemons with a 4-piece horn section and the line that refers to him in this song has been sung a capella, as images on the Big Man are shown on screen.

Springsteen and Clarence Clemons at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1975

Springsteen and Clarence Clemons at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1975

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Backstreets. The tale of friendship gone awry. Discussions have raged about the true relationship of the two characters depicted in this highly-charged, emotional epic. It’s clear from the outset how the relationship began; “one soft-infested summer, me and Terry became friends”. But is Terry a boy or a girl? Despite the spelling, the name is generally unisex. Especially as a romantic relationship is hinted at, if not explicitly stated.

The chorus cries “hiding on the backstreets”, if this were two young men involved in a romantic relationship in the early 1970s, it stands to reason that they would hide their love “on the backstreets”. Conversely, it could be a girl and a boy who are hiding for other, darker reasons. But then, it could be merely a very intense platonic relationship.

Either way, the narrator feels betrayed by Terry, and the relationship is no more.

Blame it on the lies that killed us, blame it on the truth that ran us down
You can blame it all on me, Terry, it don’t matter to me now
When the breakdown hit at midnight, there was nothing left to say
But I hated him, and I hated you when you went away

All that’s left now is the pathetic reminiscing about better times, another theme Springsteen would return to again and again, most notably on 1984’s Glory Days.

Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go and see?
Trying to learn how to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be

Thus ends the first side of the album on a sad, lonely note. This would also be the pattern on side two, beginning with an optimistic song about a bright future, and ending in despair with an epic, emotional reality.

The second side of Born To Run begins aplomb with the title track. The first taster of the album, it pointed to Springsteen pushing his own boundaries like never before. 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, perfecting each individual aspect. 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”.

The album’s final track is Jungleland. Like Backstreets, a cry of despair, betrayal and defeat. In Wings For Wheels, a documentary on the making of the album produced ten years ago, Springsteen suggested that every single one of the stories told on the record could be happening in a single night. Nowhere is that more apparent than on Jungleland.

We begin with a character known only as the Magic Rat, who drives over the state line to meet his girl. “Together they take a stab at romance and disappear down Flamingo Lane”. As they do, we sweep across the city, we meet the street kids and the gangs as “there’s an opera out on the turnpike, there’s a ballet being fought out in the alley

Eventually whatever the Magic Rat and his girl were up to catches up with them, and the Rat is shot dead. Out in the streets, nobody even flinches. Clearly, this is such a common occurrence that one more on the death toll isn’t going to cause any ripples.

The real centrepiece of the song, though, is a saxophone solo from Clemons that became his showpiece on stage, the signature moment of his entire career. A solo so great, that it becomes one of those rare musical moments that is wholly life-affirming and makes you believe everything is going to be OK.

Which makes the way it was recorded and mixed all the more intriguing. Springsteen demanded so many takes that they were unable to choose just one. They ended up literally piecing it together, with everyone’s hands on faders, pretty much “live” in the studio. As incredible as that solo sounds, it was never played the way you hear it in the studio.

Which was pretty typical of Springsteen. He was labelled a perfectionist around this time, and the making of Born To Run makes a pretty good case for it. Recording began in May 1974 and ended in July 1975, mere weeks before the album’s August release date. Mixing was finished the morning the band set off for the delayed album’s supporting tour.

Springsteen & the mid-70s E Street Band

Springsteen & the mid-70s E Street Band

When the final LP was given to Springsteen, he listened intently. Then he ripped it off the player and threw it away and said he wasn’t releasing it. He told his people that he was through, and any ideas you might have will be for the next record.

In retrospect, it seems he could have just been exhausted by it. Fourteen months working on anything, and you’re never going to want to see or hear the bloody thing again. It didn’t take much for him to relent. A couple of days later someone told him it sounded good, and he said “OK, release it then”.

The road began as a release for Bruce and the band. Save for a quick bout to break in new recruits drummer Max Weinberg and the aforementioned Roy Bittan, they were finally out of the studio, and able to blow off some much needed steam. However, despite the strength of the shows, it wasn’t long before things would go downhill.

It began with Columbia Records and what Joni Mitchell referred to as the “starmaker machinery behind the popular song”. The label’s hype machine often infuriated Springsteen. When he became the first person to simultaneously appear on the covers of both Time and Newsweek magazines, he exclaimed; “I don’t understand what all the commotion is about…I feel like I’m on the outside of all of this, even though I’m on the inside. It’s like you want attention, but sometimes you can’t relate to it.

Famously, during his first trip to the UK that November, Bruce personally walked up and down the aisles of the then-Hammersmith Odeon, removing posters and flyers that read “Finally London is ready for Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band”. He didn’t want that weight of expectation, and it seems that he was right. Monty Python’s Michael Palin was in the audience that night, and he wrote that the hype meant that much of the audience came to the show with a fair amount of skepticism, and a review of the album on BBC Two’s Old Grey Whistle Test also called out Columbia for the publicity campaign.

Then came the lawsuit.

Springsteen was barred from recording his next album due to a lawsuit brought on by now-former manager Mike Appel. With his Born To Run royalties also withheld until the case was resolved, Springsteen was forced to live on the road as his only source of income until the two parties finally reached a settlement in 1977. When he was finally able to record the follow-up to Born To Run, long after the commercial momentum of the LP had subsided, he came up with Darkness on the Edge of Town. What happens when these kids in Born To Run do manage get out of town? Nothing. It’s the same old shit with a different zip code. That is Darkness…, following the brash optimism of much of Born To Run, it is a wake-up to reality. One that couldn’t have existed without it’s predecessor.

Springsteen wouldn’t reach his commercial zenith for another nine years, when Born in the USA catapulted him to superstar status. But Born To Run is arguably the album by which his legacy is measured. Perhaps it is in the larger context of his work that its brilliance is most evident. It’s the moment he truly becomes Bruce Springsteen, the embodiment of the classic American rock & roll hero. In 1975, he had the balance of naivety and sophistication that an artist can only capture for a fleeting moment.