Becoming The Boss: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”

June 10


Pre-Born to Run: 1973-1974

Given his popularity for the last four-plus decades, it’s strange to think that there was a time when Bruce Springsteen wasn’t The Boss.

But rewind to 1974, and this was precisely the case.

He had just released two albums (Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle) the year prior, and despite being generally liked by the critics, both had underperformed in terms of radio play and sales.

With his label, Colombia Records, losing confidence, things had entered make-or-break territory – Springsteen needed to deliver with his third album, and in a big way.

“Springsteen needed to deliver with his third album, and in a big way.”

But, before he could get to work, there was a hurdle to get over first when, as a way of testing the waters, Columbia decided that they’d only fund a single, rather than an album.

Get on the radio, and they’d put up the money for the new record. If not, Bruce was on the first Greyhound bus back to New Jersey.

Good thing, so, that the song he came up with was “Born to Run”.

The career-saving anthem didn’t come quickly or easily – recording sessions dragged on for six months – but when the dust settled, Springsteen would have his first big hit, and, crucially, a label that was now on-board.

Next up – the album of the same name.

Line-up Changes and Recording Problems

Proceedings got off to a rocky start when keyboardist David Sancious, and drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter, decided to leave the E-Street Band.

Both excellent musicians whose playing was central to “Born to Run”‘s frenzied sound, it was an unwelcome and untimely blow.

The search for replacements wasn’t without its difficulties, as Springsteen memorably describes in his 2016 memoir:

Guys brought double-bass and tried to Ginger Baker their way through “Spirit in the Night”. An avante-garde violinist came in with fingernails-on-the-blackboard atonal voicings and tortured us for half an hour.

Eventually, Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan joined on drums and keyboard.

As replacements go, he couldn’t have chosen better – both veterans of the Broadway circuit, they’d imbue the music with solidity and finesse, and would become longstanding members (both are still in the band to this day).

Geared up and ready to go, Bruce and his gang decamped to The Record Plant to get to work on the do-or-die album.

The sessions were, understandably given the circumstances, long, stressful and intense.

Springsteen, despite labouring over every individual note and tempo change, was chronically dissatisfied and, as the days became weeks and the weeks became months, some started to question if the album would ever get completed.

“Some started to question if the album would ever get completed.”

But fast-approaching tour dates would force his hand. Scheduled to coincide with the album’s release, they provided a much-needed deadline – now Springsteen, for better or worse, needed to finish the job.

So, a few more hurried sessions later, he decided to cut (what he thought were) his losses – Born to Run was released on August 25th, 1975.

The Album Drops

He needn’t have been so worried.

Born to Run quickly became a monster hit and would, in time, be recognised as one of the best rock albums of all time.

Thunder Road” kicks it all off. Following a gentle intro of piano and harmonica, Bruce enters with one of his most iconic verses:

Screen door slams
Mary’s dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays

The song gradually builds in intensity, until a Clarence Clemons’ sax solo, played over a deep half-time feel, brings things to a very theatrical, and very powerful, crescendo. Setting the mood in both theme and sound, it’s the perfect opener.

“Thunder Road is the perfect opener.”

The Motown-esque “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” follows, and gives us time to catch our breath.

Underpinned by Weinberg’s in-the-pocket backbeat and complemented by sometimes Springsteen guitarist, sometimes Tony Soprano consigliere Steve van Zandt’s horn arrangement, it’s Bruce at his most fun, laidback and charming.

Check out this performance from 1975, and you’ll see what I mean:

Night” is overlooked. A blur-collar anthem about frustration and escape, it’s energetic and catchy, and leads us nicely into the fantastic “Backstreets“.

The first of the album’s two epics, this is the discerning fan’s favourite. And with good reason – there’s a lot to love here, not least the raw and intense vocal. The impressionistic lyrics are excellent, too:

Catching rides to the outskirts
Tying faith between our teeth
Sleeping in that old abandoned beach house
Getting wasted in the heat

And then comes the one everyone knows, the one that made it all happen – the title track. It’s so familiar, but still so good: the opening drum fill; the tremolo guitar line; Garry Tallent’s driving and melodic bass; and of course, that hook:

‘Cause tramps like us
Baby, we were born to run

It’s his signature song for a reason.

Heavily influenced by Springsteen’s love of ’50’s rhythm and blues, “She’s the One“, is catchy and fun. Relative to the high-quality of the rest of the album though, it’s the least essential song here – but that’s not to say it’s still not great (which it is).

Tom Waits once said that he wished he wrote “Meeting Across the River” – and it’s easy to understand why.

Over a sparse arrangement of piano, horn and upright bass, Springsteen spins an evocative tale about two down-on-their-luck characters looking to score a deal. A haunting deep cut that, being more jazz than rock, also highlights his (somewhat underappreciated) ability to bounce seamlessly between genres.

“Tom Waits once said that he wished he wrote Meeting Across the River.”

And then, last but certainly not least, we have “Jungleland” – the best track on the album and, some would say, of the songwriter’s entire career (I’d say “Racing in the Street” personally, but it’s a pretty close thing).

Opening with a cinematic violin line courtesy of Suki Laha, this nine-plus minute saga weaves through several movements before culminating with Clemons’ “greatest recorded moment” (Bruce’s words – not mine).

Then, the song drawing to a close, The Boss just howls – a stunning moment that encapsulates all the album’s hope, sorrow, rage and joy.

Becoming The Boss

It might have taken a good deal of time and no small amount of pain, but Springsteen had pulled it off – the album was a success on all fronts.

It was extremely well-received critically and, commercially, exceeded everyone’s expectations: it peaked at number three in the Billboard charts; went triple platinum in 1986; and is a reliable catalogue seller for Colombia to this day.

“The album was a success on all fronts.”

It was also the moment he was launched onto the national stage – by the end of 1975, he had made history by making the cover of Time and Newsweek in the same week.

Born to Run was, ultimately, the album that made, and saved, Bruce Springsteen.

Gone was the struggling songwriter who couldn’t get on radio, and who was this close to being dropped – and in his place stood The Boss.

His life, and rock ‘n’ roll, haven’t been the same since.

Written by Conor Regan, Senior Content Acquisitions Executive.

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