Bruce Springsteen in 1975
Photo: Fin Costello/Redferns
It's The One: 45 Years Of Bruce Springsteen's 'Born To Run'
With their first two LPs—Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, both from 1973—Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band cemented themselves as masters of both contemplative singer/songwriter elegance and triumphant orchestral rowdiness. Despite the mostly positive critical praise they garnered, however, neither record reaped the financial success and mainstream devotion the group deserved. Understandably, this led to a lot of internal and external frustrations and doubts, so all parties involved knew that—as the saying goes—the third time had to be the charm.
Luckily, 1975's Born to Run proved to be precisely that, launching Springsteen and company into the hearts and minds of virtually the entire world. All of its songs became beloved radio/concert/pop culture staples—thanks in part to a $250,000 marketing campaign by Columbia Records—and it ended up not only reaching the #3 spot on the Billboard 200, but earning praise from Rolling Stone, the New York Times and The Village Voice. Since then, its ability to bring new levels of poetic phrasing, symphonic instrumentation and heartfelt slice-of-life narratives (regarding blue-collar struggles, youthful romantic idealism and urban rebellion) to heartland rock has led many to deem it one of the greatest albums of all time.
Given the immense pressure everyone felt for Born to Run to be a hit, it's no surprise that it took the band 14 months to complete (with almost half of that time spent just on its iconic title track). It would be the last album co-produced by Mike Appel, as well as the first co-produced by music critic turned manager Jon Landau (who, in 1974, famously stated that Springsteen was the future of rock and roll in the midst of others aptly, if reductively, calling him the "new" or "next" Bob Dylan). Many of the same musicians stayed on, with the most significant additions being drummer Max Weinberg, pianist Roy Bittan, and guitarist/arranger Steven Van Zandt (who'd played with Springsteen in prior bands and got the gig after doing the horn arrangements for "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out").
Together, they created a succinct yet exploratory sequence whose Phil Spector-esque "wall of sound" approach built upon everything its two predecessors did so exceptionally (humble yet piercing odes like "Lost in the Flood" and full-bodied celebrations like "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)"). That achievement, coupled with a more established conceptual throughline involving separate but similar characters existing around the same places and striving similar types of freedom, makes it clear why Born to Run is still so revered and idiosyncratic.
Each of its eight songs feels like a cinematic musical adaption of a resonant short story, and Springsteen designed each side to begin hopefully and end sorrowfully. Case in point: "Thunder Road," an exhilarating opener in which the unnamed speaker makes a final plea to his girlfriend, Mary, to run away with him. The instantly comforting blend of Springsteen's harmonica and Bittan's piano makes it seem like the story is set in a Steinbeck novel, and Springsteen’s backhanded compliment—"You ain’t a beauty / But hey, you're alright"—actually conjures Shakespeare's "Sonnet 130" in its blunt but realistic testament to authentic attraction. Obviously, its robust and catchy evolution is mesmerizing, foreshadowing the motif of invigorating better life daydreaming that spans the whole album (especially the title track).
Afterward, the origin of the E Street Band is explored in the sleekly nuanced, intricate, and fun—though also subtly mournful—"Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," which evokes the rock 'n’'roll vibe of Springsteen's sophomore effort. In contrast, "Night" recalls the poignant urgency of his debut collection, with its tale of a disheartened blue-collar worker seeking the nighttime joys of drag racing and female companionship resulting in one of Springsteen's most infectiously encouraging choruses. Then, "Backstreets" concludes Side One as a downer, with Bittan's pianowork hinting at the measured misfortune he'd bring to "Jungleland." Springsteen's reflection on the downfall of a plutonic friendship with a woman named Terry is full of coarse, almost inebriated wildness; meanwhile, the band punctuates each emotion with luscious accompaniment (including an imperfect yet earnest guitar solo).
Of course, Side Two explodes with “Born to Run,” which connects to “Thunder Road” not only in its exuberance, but even in its melodies and sentiments. Interestingly, it’s the only track that Weinberg and Bittan didn’t play on since it was recorded before drummer Earnest Carter and pianist David Sancious left the band. Every element is hypnotic, blissful, and legendary; from its sparkly timbres and wholly impassioned serenading, to saxophonist Clarence Clemons' solo and the subsequent deceptively complex breakdown, "Born to Run" is pretty much perfect.
Luckily, the LP maintains that magic, with the dynamic yet relatively straightforward "She's the One" exposing an irresistible femme fatal before the penultimate "Meeting Across the River" acts as a decorative and lowkey tale of a low-level criminal unsuccessfully going for one last score. Cleverly, it also moves us from New Jersey to New York, where the record's closing masterpiece, "Jungleland," takes place. Combining Dylan-esque ponderings with early Chicago-esque arrangements, its like Springsteen's three-act take on West Side Story. It moves from a gorgeously intense chronicle of gang violence to a devastatingly serene aftermath, wherein bittersweet tapestries and appropriately timed escalations guide Springsteen’s wise but disenfranchised commentary. It’s incredibly tasteful and believable, with the line “And the poets down here / Don't write nothing at all / They just stand back and let it all be” standing out as particularly profound and hard-hitting.
From the huge concerts that surrounded it, to the multitude of album cover parodies/homages and industry honors that followed, Born to Run is rightly considered a benchmark for its creator, decade and genre overall. Expectedly, its winning formula inspired an even more mature and downtrodden follow-up, 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, as well as the aesthetics of countless proteges. It set new standards for how lyrical, multifaceted, and thematic rock music could be, and although it's nearly half a century old, it truly hasn't aged a day.