'Born to Run' at 45: Here's why it may be Bruce Springsteen's greatest album
Editor's note: Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" LP turns 45 today, Tuesday, Aug. 25. This is the fourth in a series of posts about that classic album to mark the occasion. Also check out our "Born to Run" covers playlist, our 45 years of concert videos, and poll results of your favorite BTR tracks at the links.
Anyone who bought Born to Run when it came out on this date 45 years ago is probably feeling a little bit old right now. But if the passage of time since that fateful day has you feeling your age, I have the perfect remedy: Listen to Born to Run.
As you know if you read my book Glory Days: Springsteen's Greatest Albums, Bruce's breakthrough album --as fresh and alive today as it was in 1975 -- is absolutely in the running for the greatest Springsteen album of all time. Below is the chapter that explains why.
BORN TO RUN
Released: August 25, 1975
Highest Chart Position: US 3 / UK 36
1. Thunder Road
2. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
5. Born to Run
6. She’s the One
7. Meeting Across the River
For Bruce Springsteen, this was the one that really started it all.
Today an artist whose first two albums tanked as badly as Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle would not only be denied another one, he’d be back busking on his regular street corner before the last track faded out. Fortunately, record companies had more patience in the mid-’70s – although not much more. All parties involved understood that Born To Run was basically Springsteen’s last chance to make good on the promise that legendary producer John Hammond saw when he auditioned the scraggly singer in 1972.
Columbia wanted a hit – so naturally, Springsteen took to crafting an ambitious song cycle whose sprawling tales of hard-luck protagonists owed more to Phil Spector’s early ’60s Wall of Sound than to anything moving up the charts in the summer of 1975. (Apologies to B.J. Thomas, Melissa Manchester and Olivia Newton John.) You can almost imagine the label’s A&R man groaning at the idea – even before he knew about the saxophones and glockenspiels.
Even then, Springsteen wanted success on his own terms, and his ambition led to the now-legendary months-long recording sessions where he tried, often unsuccessfully, to capture the sounds he heard in his head. But his efforts paid off for Columbia – the album, finally released Aug. 25, 1975, reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200 charts, and would eventually sell more than 6 million copies.
Critics were no less effusive than the fans. “Boredom appears to be a foreign concept to [Springsteen] – he reminds us what it’s like to love rock ’n’ roll like you just discovered it, and then seize it and make it your own with certainty and precision,” wrote Lester Bangs in Creem. “If I seem to OD on superlatives, it’s only because Born To Run demands them.”
But does this classic album, recorded when Springsteen was just 24, deserve to be thought of as his greatest? Listen to the first track, “Thunder Road,” and it’s hard to argue against it.
With its cinematic imagery and sonic energy – kicking off with Springsteen’s mournful harmonica set against Roy Bittan’s plaintive piano, and building spectacularly through Clarence Clemons’ towering closing saxophone solo – it was and remains one of the most perfectly recorded tracks of the rock era. There may be more iconic images than Mary dancing across her porch with her dress swaying, but I can’t think of a more evocative one.
But one song doesn’t a career or even a greatest album make: Fortunately, the rest of Born to Run is almost equally as impressive, anchored in particular by two ambitious efforts with a depth that belied Springsteen’s young age: “Backstreets” and “Jungleland.”
“Backstreets” at 6 1/2 minutes and “Jungleland” at 9 1/2 are impressive in length, certainly, but anybody can record a long song – just ask Iron Butterfly. In this case, it’s their scope that makes them such crucial centerpieces of Born To Run.
“Backstreets,” which again owes much to Bittan’s theatrical piano parts, is practically suffused with the sweat and promise of a “soft infested summer.” Its heroes (friends? more than friends?) are allies against an oppressive world, until they’re not – and all the pain, hatred and betrayal that youth can hold is captured in Springsteen’s howling groan and frantic guitar. It’s telling of Springsteen’s outlook at the time that the worst possible fate the narrator can imagine is to find out you’re “just like all the rest.”
And with “Jungleland,” Springsteen magnifies the sprawling nature of “Backstreets” even further, producing a cross between a tragic epic poem and a sad, astonishing aria. In doing so, he unleashes some of the most striking tableaus ever concocted by a rock artist: The image of a “barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge, drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain,” a line that’s more literary than lyrical, is beautiful in its simplicity and succinctness – it’s practically an entire novel in 17 words.
“Jungleland” is full of those moments, with its poets who don’t write and doomed rats who can’t even manage to die, and all the while the song bucks and rolls among mournful violins, Springsteen’s rock-operatic guitar and Clemons’ meticulous, tender 2 1/2-minute sax solo. That Springsteen even attempted it all seems audacious, even today. That he succeeded is actually kind of miraculous.
Some of the other songs, though slighter, lay the groundwork for important future themes in Springsteen’s work, among them attempts to escape the numbing effect of oppressive labor (the explosive, rollicking “Night”) and the salvation to be found in the bonds of friendship (“Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”). The soul-infused horns and vocal delivery of the latter song speak as much as anything to Springsteen’s influences, and his desire to transcend the limitations of what defined rock music in the mid-’70s.
Elsewhere on the album, “Meeting Across the River,” the moody tale of a would-be low-level criminal, stands out for its melancholy quiet among the boisterousness of the rest of the record, and could be a blueprint for much of what would later become Nebraska. And “She’s The One,” with its Bo Diddley beat, is pure and simple rock ’n’ roll.
But in the end, it’s the driving title track – No. 21 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest all-time songs – that most continues to stun and soar, despite its near-constant airplay over the last 35 years. There’s a reason it’s still one of the only numbers you’ll hear at almost every Springsteen show – it’s simply explosive, both its music and lyrics encompassing the joy and fear of escaping the familiar and embracing whatever it is that comes next.
Taken as a whole – and despite its individual glories, Born To Run is most definitely designed to be heard beginning to end – the album stands alone in its era for its grand theatricality, its anthemic melodies, its tough yet tender lyrics and universal themes. In fact, many still associate this album with the “Springsteen sound,” even though he abandoned much of it almost immediately afterward: its combination of power and beauty proved stunningly, remarkably resonant.
Ultimately, unlike so much “classic rock,” Born to Run still sounds fresh; in reaching into the past for his inspiration, Springsteen actually crafted an album equipped to engage audiences far into the future.
The 2019 edition of Glory Days: Springsteen's Greatest Albums is available from Amazon in paperback for $5.99 and ebook for $3.99.