'Born to Run,' covered: The ultimate cover versions of every track on Springsteen's masterpiece
Editor's note: Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" LP turns 45 on Aug. 25. This is the first in a series of posts about that classic album to mark the occasion.
The problem with covering Bruce Springsteen is that when it comes to his songs, literally, nobody does it better -- a sentiment that’s especially true of his 1975 masterpiece, which is inextricably tied to the man who made it. From the title track that would become his signature, to the “story of the band” told through “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” to the howling conclusion to the singular album-closing “Jungleland,” "Born to Run" is Springsteen at his his most Springsteenian, which makes covers a dicey proposition at best.
But they’re out there, and while even the best of them might not live up to the originals, it turns out that a collection of these takes make for an alternate-reality version of Springsteen’s classic LP that's intriguing, and ultimately even (somewhat) satisfying in its own right.
A few rules: I limited my choices to tracks officially released on Spotify in order to include a Spotify playlist (natch), but I do allude to a few missing tracks that would have definitely made the list had they not been relegated to YouTube limbo (or worse). And if you notice a preponderance of tracks (three, to be precise) from the 2019 Little Kids Rock charity album “Born to Uke,” that’s because they were the only ones with the guts to cover those particular tracks. Ukulele players are fierce.
Listen to the winners below, and scroll down to read the justifications (and check out the runners-up and other covers that didn’t make the list).
Winner: Nate Ruess, from “Live From Spotify, NYC.” My go-to “Thunder Road” cover had always been Frank Turner’s gravely acoustic take, but I recently came upon Ruess’s version, and it turns out the Fun lead singer’s quirky but powerful vocal chops are just what was needed to push this faithful and clearly reverent version over the finish line. (It doesn’t hurt that his old group, The Format, did a wild version of “For You” some years back.)
Runner-up: The aforementioned Frank Turner, from “The Second Three Years.”
Not on Spotify but worthy of mention: Tortoise & Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s off-kilter alternative take.
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”
Winner: F-Town Sound, from “Live From The Orpheum.” There aren’t a lot of people out there covering this track, and it’s so personally connected to the E Street Band and its storied history that you can see why. But this live take from the Flagstaff, Arizona-based outfit -- with its gruff, playful vocals from lead singer Dina Barnese, appropriately honky backing horns (by “Flagstaff's loudest horn section!,” according to their website) and funky guitar noodling by Sean Golightly -- does a great job capturing the original track’s playful vibe.
Runner-up: Bikini Robot Army’s pop-punk shouter, from “Dead Men Don’t Dance pt2 (Hannibal Rex)."
Winner: Svavar Kunutur, from “Born to Uke.” I’m pretty sure this is the only cover of “Night” out there, at least on Spotify, and it’s the bare-bones ukulele take you didn’t know you needed. Reimagined as a melancholy almost-lament, it’s a reminder that even Springsteen’s most bombastic songs tend to have a sad, hidden beauty.
Runner-up: None -- please school me if there’s one out there.
Winner: The Weepies, from “Born to Uke.” The heart-rending version by Lone Justice frontwoman Maria McKee would have gotten the nod if it was on Spotify, but The Weepies’ take, with its quiet resolve and tender vocal interplay between Steve Tannen and Deb Talan, is a fine, bittersweet substitute.
Not on Spotify but worthy of mention: Maria McKee (see above)
“Born to Run”
Winner: Suzi Quatro, from “The Very Best of Suzi Quatro.” Despite its iconic stature, there are no shortage of acts who’ve made an attempt at Bruce’s signature song, including the aforementioned Frank Turner and the Indigo Girls’ Emily Saliers. But as Readers of a Certain Age will recall, Quatro was Leather Tuscadero on “Happy Days,” which is enough for me to give her the edge. Besides, her full-out rocking take has convincing ‘70s/’80s-style girl-rocker grit to spare, like a long-lost Runaways track complete with a thoroughly straight-faced spoken-word take on the iconic “beyond the palace” verse.
Runner-up: Anne McCue’s fiddly Americana take.
Not on Spotify (or YouTube!) but worthy of mention: Melissa Etheridge's simply explosive solo version, from “Concert for New York City”
Also worthy of mention: No male act has ever convincingly covered “Born to Run.” (Sorry, Frankie Goes to Hollywood.)
“She’s The One”
Winner: John Flynn, from “The End of the Beginning.” Though this is another chronically under-covered song -- where’s Bo Diddley when you need him? -- I have a feeling this heartfelt strummer by the Philly folkie Flynn, buoyed by lively piano and a chugging harmonica, would be tops even among stiffer competition.
Runner-up: Keith Metzger, from “Born to Uke.”
Not on Spotify but worthy of mention: Rhonda’s I-think-it’s-disco version … You just have to listen to it to believe it.
“Meeting Across the River”
Winner: Randy Brecker, from “RandyPop!” There are a surprising number of covers of the album’s quietest track, probably because its smoky jazz-club vibe is hard to resist among, well, musicians who frequent smoky jazz clubs. This take by celebrated trumpeter Brecker, with sultry wee-hours vocals from his daughter Amanda, more than capture’s the song’s sad inevitability, and Brecker makes the most out of every note he blows.
Runner-up: Wendall Brunious and Tom Hook’s desperate, Tom Waits-ian take from “Where Do You Start”
Winner: Kai Welch, from “Born to Uke.” Another track you’d have to be kind of crazy to cover, Welch is pretty much on his own here, but acquits himself well -- his bemused take is reminiscent of how Paul Simon might have covered the song in 1976, if Paul Simon played the ukulele. Not sure about the spoken bullet-mic take on the song’s rocking center section, though.
Not on Spotify but worthy of mention: Duo Dedice (Karin Wiberg, violin and Hanna Bendz, cello), who class up the joint with their string version.
What’d I miss or get wrong? Let me know in the comments, and listen to all the winners, runners-up and also-rans in the playlist below.