Born to Run
1975 • ROCK • COLUMBIA
Today at The Soundx we are going to take a deep and critical look at Bruce Springsteen’s third studio album. Born to Run is not only an excellent record and Springsteen’s breakthrough, but also one of the most important albums in music history.
Back in the early 1970s, Bruce Springsteen wasn’t even close to the big star that he would become from half to the end of that decade. His first two studio albums, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, despite receiving great acclaim from critics, was a major commercial flop. At that time, he was just a dreamy boy who had just started. He was still in his mid-20s while other artists at the time seemed to do better than he did at all. While the memory and brilliance of The Beatles and Elvis Presley were still fresh in everyone’s mind, Bob Dylan was at his artistic peak. For many, it seemed like a difficult time to be a novice artist since big names were already established and the best artists in history had just passed by. But it didn’t shake or scare Springsteen.
Indeed, that period between the late ’60s and the first 4 years of the ’70s was complicated for Springsteen, but, in a way, his whole life was a kind of battle that always put him to the test of his dreams. In 1964, he saw a The Beatles performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, which inspired him to buy his first guitar for just over $18. A little later that year, Springsteen’s mother, after seeing that he had potential after seeing him play in venues, decided to took out a loan to buy him a $60 Kent guitar. Springsteen continued playing in several locations until 1965, when he visited Tex and Marion Vinyard, who sponsored and helped young and newly formed bands back then, and was placed as the main guitarist and, later, one of the main vocalists of Castiles. At the time, Springsteen had told Marion that he would be successful and she undoubtedly believed him.
If these early years of Springsteen’s career already seemed complicated — but at least carried a certain objective — the next ones would seem even more confused and uncertain. Castiles did not last long. In 1968, Springsteen left and formed another musical group, Earth, which followed a band format known as Power trio. At that time, Springsteen, at some point within his young creative head, must have wondered if this was an unstable and perhaps unreachable dream. If that happened? We do not know, however, one of the reasons that probably triggered this was the fact that Earth, his second band, ended up with just one year of activity. Then, in 1969 until 1971, Bruce played with the Steel Mill, where he started to gain followers, and when he was praised by critic Philip Elwood, who wrote, “I have never been so overwhelmed by a totally unknown talent.”
If Springsteen really ever thought about giving up or considered that dream of becoming a singer to be impossible, he never demonstrated that. After participating in the Steel Mill, Bruce jumped from a band to other, including Dr. Zoom & the Sonic Boom, the Sundance Blues Band, and the Bruce Springsteen Band. For some, it seemed like pointless insistence. It was only in 1972, after attracting the attention of Mike Appel and Jim Cretecos — who ended up taking Bruce to the eyes of Columbia Records, where he signed his first contract — that Springsteen settled with a group of men who would, ironically, accompany him until today. For the first time, perhaps, more than ever, his dreams were coming true.
Springsteen signed with Columbia Records a decade after Bob Dylan signed it. Bruce’s first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., as already mentioned, was a great critical success, with tracks like “Blinded by the Light” being the highlight of praise, but still a commercial failure. It was also at that time that Springsteen began to be compared to Dylan thanks to the lyric poetry that the lyrics of both artists had, which made him change his compositions a little, something that decades later would be seen as a regret by him. And, just like the debut, Bruce’s second album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, was also a commercial failure. For a moment, the initial luck he had seemed to wane and the feelings of the time he was jumping from a band to another seemed to return.
But if at no time of the past 10 years Springsteen gave up, he would not give up now. As a last attempt by the record company — and probably an ultimatum at the time — to make a commercially viable record, Columbia provided a large budget for Bruce to make his third album. Then he started working on new techniques, like the production on Wall of Sound, in addition to improving his writing, making it more identifiable than ever. All these efforts and the 10 years of struggle were worth it because in August 1975, alongside the E Street Band, Springsteen released Born to Run, which is not only his great breakthrough but also one of the most important albums in rock history.
One of the best elements of Born to Run is Springsteen’s lyrics that now took on a much more important role than before. While his first two albums were rarely able to establish a connection with his target audience, in Born to Run, Springsteen changes that entirely. His lyrics are now part of the universe where New Jersey is the most interesting and profitable point, creatively speaking. Imagine for a second the context of Jersey in the 1970s: the Vietnam War was still rolling on the other side of the world while a B&W depression dominated the state by a fog. Just by Springsteen’s words and a little imagination, you could picture this perfect setting for a 1940s Noir film. On the album’s title track, for example, he sings, “The amusement park rises bold and stark/Kids are huddled on the beach in a mist.” At the time, this must-have sounded insignificant, perhaps only as a phrase of lyrical cinematic enrichment. Years later, it sounds sharper and can witness the history of forgotten people better than any history book.
Furthermore, the way Springsteen treats everything that happened in his lyrics is phenomenal — perhaps, no one has ever reached his level. For him, love is wild and fast like a Chevrolet. Youth is a unique opportunity that should never be denied. Life, in turn, is an irreplaceable experience. In the opener, “Thunder Road,” he demonstrates all these characteristics in a poetry that manages to transform simple teenage dreams into a classic movie. The track starts with a high-pitched harmonica and then a soft piano appears in the background when Springsteen appears singing. He starts, “The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves/Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.” Springsteen’s loving statement, which here looks like a 20-year-old who just bought his first car and doesn’t want to end up like the other losers, is not pretty (“You ain’t a beauty, but, hey, you’re alright”) but it is honest. As the track progresses, the young man’s desire gets stronger and stronger. At the end of the song, he sings before a saxophone solo explodes, “It’s a town full of losers/And I’m pulling out of here to win.” He won.
Throughout his career, Bruce has always been known as one of the greatest Work-Class Heroes. His peak in this was just almost a decade after Born to Run, in Nebraska and Born In the U.S.A., but by that time he already demonstrated his desire to bring justice to those who are generally forgotten. In “Night,” the shortest song on the album, Springsteen tells the story of a man who works all day and yet manages to live his dreams and enjoy his freedom at night. The track starts with an electric guitar solo that dissolves into a homogeneous mix of strings, drums, harmonica, and saxophone. He starts on the first line of the track, “You get up every morning at the sound of the bell/You get to work late and the boss man’s giving you hell,” and concludes almost at the end, “You work nine to five and somehow you survive ’til the night.” Although the track is short and probably the opaquest piece on the album, it still manages to be an incredible song, with flawless writing and impeccable production. Years later, “Night” could be seen as the seed that was planted in Springsteen’s head that would bear fruits like “Atlantic City” and “Glory Days.”
Another incredible factor about the album is the production, which is breathtaking. Born to Run has a sound that can be complex and simple, clean and turbulent at the same time. While in a moment you can distinguish each aspect of each instrument, quickly, you get lost in this sea of sounds that collide in the creation of a voracious, visceral, and energetic sound. “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” is one of the most different and visual songs that Springsteen has ever made. The track starts with several horns and then evolves into an intelligent mix of saxophones, trumpets, trombones, pianos, and guitars. Also, the song features a synthetic demonic male voice on the bridge that sounds contemporary, as well as cautious details — when Springsteen sings, “Big Man joined the band,” Clarence Clemons does a little solo.
However, the highlight of the entire album is the title track, which took approximately six months to complete. It has already been mentioned here that Springsteen always had a creative head. According to him, the track took so long to be completed because he had sounds in his head that he couldn’t even explain. This can be confirmed by the wild sound of the music that inexplicably carries that unique feeling of youth. The track features guitar solos, horns, basses, and drums while Bruce sings about living life to the fullest no matter what happens. He sings while the instruments sound timeless on the background:
Everybody’s out on the run tonight
But there’s no place left to hide
Together, Wendy, we can live with the sadness
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul
Oh, someday girl, I don’t know when
We’re gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go, and we’ll walk in the sun
But till then, tramps like us
Baby, we were born to run
In addition to all this, the album features music that is simply incredible because it is a product of a true desire. “She’s the One” is one of the most captivating of the entire record. Although Bruce doesn’t know how to describe a person very well (“With her killer graces/And her secret places/That no boy can fill”) the song is still great with its euphoric solos and incredible Springsteen’s vocals. “Backstreets,” in turn, can be seen as one of the singer’s most interesting and thought-provoking songs. In this track, he tells his story with Terry, a friend he promised to be friends with forever, however, he ended up being abandoned by him. The most curious thing about the track is not the instrumentation or how sophisticated and refined Springsteen’s vocals sound, but rather the duality of the senses that each line carries. In general, Springsteen’s words sometimes indicate that he and Terry are friends, but the feelings of pain can indicate a certain romance between the two. “Me and Terry became friends/Trying in vain to breathe/The fire we were born in,” and “I hated you when you went away” are examples of this, in addition to the song’s own hook, “Hiding on the backstreets.” At this point, we can only imagine.
In the final stretch of the album, we also have impeccable songs. “Meeting Across the River” is the most sophisticated of the album with a total focus on piano and saxophones. In the lyrics, which can also be seen as another seed for Springsteen’s later work, we see him incarnating a man who will meet a dangerous man, probably a criminal. The lyrics make music become that kind of 1970s crime movie. “Jungleland,” which closes the album, is this epic, almost 10 minutes long. The lyrics paints images of everyday life, from rock battles in the city’s underworld to girls eating ice cream on top of cars. At the same time that Springsteen manages to trace a certain romanticization of these scenes, he got the criticism, almost showing that this is not suitable for people but even so they still see a certain beauty in it. Over time, the track gets more and more intense, reaching an instrumental bridge of a three-minute saxophone solo, which Clarence Clemons took sixteen hours to record. This is much more than just a song.
Finally, it is worth mentioning all the experience that Born to Run provides for those who hear it. In tracks like “Thunder Road,” you will feel the hope of a future while in “Born to Run” you will feel the wildest you have ever felt. It is an energy that is almost inexplicable. It makes you laugh, cry, feel better than ever, and feel nostalgic for something you never even witnessed. I truly believe that every young person should be lucky to have Born to Run as their soundtrack for their youth. Whoever had it, is forever grateful for that.