“Born to Run” at 40
Re-evaluating Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 masterpiece 40 years on
You name it – the X factor, the wow appeal, the sound that stops you in your tracks – and the title track of Bruce Springsteen’s third album has it. “Born to Run” is still a song which commands and demands attention. Those drums, that guitar, the saxaphone rushing in, those lines about “runaway American dream” and, of course, “the highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive” (a line which made it into an episode of The Sopranos) make it a classic.
But you name it and the album itself still has it too. Released 40 years ago today, “Born to Run” stands tall as one of the finest, greatest rock’n’roll albums of all time. It was Bruce Springsteen’s third album and provided him with the commercial and critical breakthrough to the mainstream the New Jersey dreamer and striver was after.
After two albums where he followed the guideropes set out by others, “Born to Run” was where Springsteen packed everything he had in terms of music, myths, ideas and ideals into a stunning set of songs and followed his own star. Even today for all the album’s over-familiarity, it’s hard not to be blown away by what’s in those eight tracks as Springsteen howls into the night and articulates an epic, romantic vision of the wild and the innocent on the mean streets of rundown Jersey Shore towns.
Some of the die was cast for “Born the Run” the previous year. In May 1974, a music reviewer named Jon Landau went to see Springsteen support Bonnie Raitt at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Landau has seen Springsteen before and had reviewed his second album, but the review he wrote of that show for Boston’s Real Paper contains a line which is quoted again and again. It’s one which, in fairness, is actually misquoted again and again. The line is “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”
What Landau highlighted was that here was someone who was bringing so many different things together in one show and doing so superbly with a cracking band to hand. Springsteen liked the review but he was more interested in Landau’s note about the thin production on his previous albums. He called the writer to get advice on how to get the sounds he heard in his head onto tape for his new album.
Although Landau’s studio track record was no great shakes at this stage, he nevertheless understood the process of making records better than Springsteen and his then manager-producer, Mike Appel. Landau sat in on the sessions, became a valuable sounding board for the album and ended up as co-producer. By May 1977 – after a protracted legal battle between the singer and Appel – Landau was Springsteen’s manager and producer. All these years later, Landau is still in the frame, presenting music writers everywhere with a possible alternative career to dream about.
Naturally, Columbia Records did the dog with the “I saw rock and roll future” line when it came to plugging “Born to Run”. For once, though, the hype was justified. It was an evocative, powerful, imaginative thriller, a heavyweight rock album where every single track pulsated and throbbed with muscular intent as Springsteen distilled decades of rock’s past into something new, something vital, something visceral, something quite unprecedented.
Lyrically, “Born to Run” did what all the best works of art do and created an intriguing world. The landscape reflected life in those hard-chaw, hard-scrabble, out-of-season, down-at-heel resort towns like Asbury Park which were Springsteen and co’s natural hinterland. But Springsteen elevated what was going on in those streets and the margins at the edge of town into the stuff of great art and myth. At a time when acts as diverse as The Who and Meat Loaf were working out their own outlandish rock operas, Springsteen took the ordinary lives, dreams, aspirations and desperations of his peers and created something worthy of Puccini or Verdi. The star-crossed lovers trying to leave the back streets in “Thunder Road” (title borrowed from a 1958 Robert Mitchum movie) and “Born to Run” are the stuff of any great opera. It’s also the old American tale of the heroic underdog in a tough world, putting it all on the line to escape and find his place in the sun.
Musically, it was a return to basics in many ways, but done with much panache. At a time when it seemed that rock was heading for the highbrow ground with prog-rock (Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer) and the glam rock influence on Elton John and David Bowie, Springsteen went back to rock’n’roll’s scrappy roots. “Born to Run” was working-class blue-collar rock, with Phil Spector-esque Wall-of-Sound production, honking saxes and more car references than The Beach Boys could ever get away with.
But it’s also worth remembering that “Born to Run” was in many ways Springsteen’s last throw of the dice. Signed by Bob Dylan’s A&R man John Hammond (and thus initially pitched as “the new Dylan”), Springsteen’s first two albums “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ” and “The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle” hadn’t done as well as the singer or his label had expected. Springsteen had to put eveything he had into the album and those close to the recording sessions remember how obsessive he was over every little detail.
The title track took nearly six months to complete with Springsteen and the band — bassist Garry Tallent, organist Danny Federici, pianist David Sancious, saxophonist Clarence Clemons and drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter — working overtime to create an anthem. “My shot at the title,” the singer said years later of the song. “A 24-year-old kid aiming at the ‘greatest rock ’n’ roll record ever’.” Engineer Jimmy Iovine, who went on to co-found Interscope Records and is now at Apple Music, remembers Clarence Clemons woeking 16 hours on the sax solo for “Jungleland” to ensure it was what Springsteen wanted.
“Born to Run” was celebrated and praised to the sky on release and, 40 years on, it remains one of the cornerstones of Springsteen’s catalogue. It was the first stirring of the all-on-the-line rock star who would go on to create captivating albums like “Darkness On the Edge of Town”, “The River” and “Nebraska” and enjoy the huge commercial success of “Born In the USA”. Many others have had a go at emulating that anthemic, powerful, epic sweep but very few have come close to matching its sheer majesty.
Springsteen himself is still very much in the game and it’s telling that tracks from the album like “Jungleland”, “Thunder Road”, “She’s the One” and of course the title track still resonate at his live music shows today. Indeed, the album was played in full in Limerick and Kilkenny when he toured Ireland in 2013. An album which truly deserves its perch in the classic rock canon.