Every decade has its gatekeepers. Icons and musical legends whose art serves to define the sound and feel of the decade, embedding itself in and sometimes leading the culture over the span of ten years. The sixties are married in conversation to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones because they were so much more than just music. They were a cultural phenomenon that demanded agency from a top-heavy music industry, speaking to the youth of 1960’s society, telling them this is different, but that’s ok. The Beatles arguably liberated every young person in the 60’s that took the time to buy their LP’s, creating a distinctive void between juvenile protection, and adult responsibility and birthed the rebellious “teenager”. The Seventies made even more juggernauts out of Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd, Elton John, David Bowie and more than I have time to mention. The 80’s simply cannot be separated from Prince and Michael Jackson, as to do to so would leave two halves of a picture, that without each other mean very little to anyone.
One artist though, seems to have crossed the decade line, not only with dignity, but unprecedented success: Bruce Springsteen. Don’t get me wrong, he isn’t the first to do this. Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan’s essential work can be found in both the sixties and the seventies, but the Stones and Led Zeppelin begin their classic run at the close of the sixties, and Dylan’s wavering popularity and quality at the turning of the decade removes him from the conversation I am attempting to have. Bruce was a chameleon that no one saw coming and was brilliant for two completely polarised decades. He delivered defining albums in both decades, without sacrificing a modicum of his personality or substance. It’s impossible to talk about the seventies and not mention Bruce, and he practically had a part to play in how we define the 1980’s. In those twenties years he didn’t deliver a bad album, but in the interest of time, this will focus on his most essential album run, from 1975-1984.
BORN TO RUN (1975) – A SOUND WELL FOUND.
Springsteen has been and will always be one of my favourite artists of all time. It’s difficult to vocalise why his music means so much to me, so I usually let this album just speak for itself. That’s the genius of his music, is it doesn’t need some internet blogger or armchair critic to explain to you the nuances of why “his music is incredible you just wouldn’t get it”, because it’s foundation is emotion. You feel his music instantly, and you understand. It’s a soothing sensation and evokes a personal connection which will only grow as you explore. “Born to Run” is his first, and most complete, masterpiece. Having been pegged as the “New Bob Dylan” in his first two studio albums, the critics were on board, but the masses were very much distracted and disinterested in the early seventies (understandably, Rolling Stones…Led Zeppelin…Pink Floyd…). His record label provided him with one last chance to create, a pressure which either cracks an artist, or turns them into diamonds. Soon-to-be founder of Interscope Jimmy Iovine describes the painstaking journey this album took him on as an engineer, stating that Springsteen’s relentless perfectionism nearly saw him turn his back on music all together.
And that’s what this album is. Springsteen and his E Street Band created mastery in their department of music. This album sounds like the liberation of a starving artist, a celebration of musical theatre whose sound refuses to be boxed into a singular genre. It’s instrumental richness creates an almost orchestral sound, a theatre of soulful rock which occasionally looks over it’s shoulder to jazz. The album rises from the static with an optimistic marriage of harmonica and piano keys, shortly followed up my Bruce’s unmistakeable voice. Emotional, weathered and comforting tones make up a voice whose imperfections lend themselves to it’s appeal, but the stories are Bruce’s stage. “Mary’s dress sways..” Character’s, usually in a decaying climate of industrial downfall and working-class torment, are Springsteen’s voice, and “Thunder Road” is well underway. Two minutes in and the entourage has been joined by Springsteen’s electric guitar, soft but assertive drums and he’s inviting you to “take his hand” into the album. It’s a gorgeous start to a career. “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” is a horn driven groove, detailing a young musician dancing across his riffs, engulfed with a dream to make it. The whole albums just screams epic. It’s bursting at the seams with character, personality and endearing stories of hometown hardship. Springsteen explained the title track as wanting to make a record that had everything, it needed to be the apocalypse. It’s this song, and then nothing. And it succeeds in every way. “Born to Run” comes thundering in with one of the most iconic guitar riffs in history, and an infectious energy that will awake parts of you that you weren’t aware were dormant. It’s a once in a career type of song, a song that comes dangerously close to perfection, whilst being allowed to keep it’s rough edges. The “tramp” couple freeing themselves, the implicit hopefulness, and Clarence Clemons saxophone solo culminate in an experience like no other out there.
Every song on this album is essential, but I have to choose favourites. I don’t know why, but I have always made a comparison in my head between “Jungleland” and “Bohemian Rapsody”. Perhaps it’s because they came out in the same year, or maybe it’s the layer incorporating build up that revels in its dramatism, but the nine-minute closer to this album is truly astonishing. It begins at walking pace with piano keys, strings and vocals. It’s pretty, almost like stopping to admire the view on an evening walk. Then there’s an organ which comes in perfectly as Bruce screams “churches”, and before you have time to register this, the electric guitar comes crashing in, colliding with drums and a piano descents as it falls into a high energy rock song (with an organ). The guitar solo is impressive, but to be expected, but where this song really set’s itself apart is with the saxophone. Saying music transports you somewhere isn’t worth the risk, it makes you sound like some sort of utter moron that tells you about his experience in Nicaragua, when really no one asked, and no one ever will. But this saxophone solo is just, something else. I won’t bother trying to explain it, but its nearly two minutes of musical therapy. Like someone pouring pure bliss into your ears, and you never ever want it to end. And when it does, its catharsis fades out into a sombre, and minimal instrumental as Bruce explains the ending of our protagonists’ story. This isn’t a concept album, but it feels like a true expression of a working-class boy from New Jersey, who finally found the perfect way to convey how he has been feeling his whole life.
QUINTESSENTIAL: Thunder Road, Born To Run, Jungleland.
DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN (1978): A REALITY
“Born To Run” as you can probably guess, did everything the label wanted it to, and was everything Bruce envisioned. It propelled him into stardom, but it was one that was tarnished incomprehensibly. There were no celebratory years of newfound fame and financial freedom, instead there was a three-year gruelling and nasty legal dispute with his label. Bruce spent almost all of his money fighting his label, and it was understandably a dark time for him. He had finally made his masterpiece, and now the realities of the music industry had come down on him like a fever, and it was three years of frustration. A successful artist taking a three-year break is incredibly common these days, but back then it was nearly unheard of, especially for a new artist who was expected to capitalise on his attention. Bruce didn’t stop creating music though, the “Darkness” era produced an extensive back catalogue, and when he was finally free from the court room he returned with “Darkness on the Edge of Town”.
For a long time this was my favourite Springsteen record, and it might still be. It’s a little darker, understandably, and again at no point does it falter. In many ways it’s quite a dramatic departure from the youthful vigour and hope of his previous album, and it deals with protagonists in a darker place, with the title suggesting something inescapable is looming. You wouldn’t necessarily get that from the iconic opener “Badlands”, which paints itself as a straightforward anthem dedicated to it’s namesake. It’s a classic track with all the ingredients for Bruce, a saxophone solo, guitar riffs, a catchy chorus. The Biblical anthem “Adam Raised a Cain” is a side to Springsteen we haven’t seen before, a tune dripping in swagger and snarl, driven completely by a heightened rock guitar and drums, and some tinkering piano keys which take a backseat. Vocally, he’s vicious on this track, swinging from a whisper in the verses, and eventually breaking free into a coarse scream in the chorus. This is where the darkness begins to take it’s course. “Something in the Night” feels utterly nocturnal, like it would be wrong to listen to it in the day. As it begins gently, Bruce moans with increasing presence and anticipation sets in, confirmed by the rolling drums. The track literally explodes, with the drums feeling as though they have kicked the door down from the back of our mind into the forefront, and Bruce singing as though he’s inebriated. But it’s powerful, and emotional.
The middle of the track list presents me with my favourite Springsteen song. I don’t have many artists where I can say that I have a favourite, but this song is just utterly, beautiful. “Racing in the Street” comes in at just below 7 minutes, and never outstays its welcome. It’s a song that no matter where I am, I can put it on and never tire from it, and I always feel something, I always get chills. It’s solely piano for the first verse and chorus. A nameless man details his car and the experience of liberation he gets from racing it, racing it away from the darkness on the edge of town. Him and his partner are bonded only by money and have no connection. The car is this man’s portal to escape the engulfing monotony of his life, the only way he can begin to feel again. As the second verse gets under way, the piano is joined by a tapping of a drum, and then a thumping bassline, culminating in a fully fledged verse rich with balladry and instrumentation. It waxes and wanes back down to its skeleton as Bruce deliver’s his heart-breaking final verse, then his character exits the room, and the track carries on without him, in a gorgeous closing instrumental which says so much without saying anything at all.
The rest of the track list depicts this town desperate to free themselves from the boundaries that work to confine them, all of them lost souls finding their voices, and “Prove it All Night” and “The Promised Land” are essential. But the closer title track, steals the show in the second half of the album. The iconic bassline, and rattle of the symbol, with its barebones verses that lie in wait for the eruptive choruses is a brilliant way to end this wonderful album.
QUINTESSENTIAL – Something in the Night, Racing in the Street, Darkness on the Edge of Town
THE RIVER (1980) – THE TEST
The new decade had arrived. Punk was the new biggest thing, and the sound of The Clash had destined the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and The Stones as dinosaurs, relics of a long-lost past. Bruce had to prove that he was around to stay, and that he did with his double album “The River”. The double album is every artist’s rite of passage. They all come to them at one point or another, either with phenomenal success (The Beatles, Dylan, Stones, Led Zeppelin, Prince, Biggie), mediocrity (Jay Z), or just a mess (Drake). Although not the first iconic sixties double album (Blonde on Blonde takes that one), the Beatle’s “White Album” for me will always be a blueprint that artists have strived to follow, whether they are aware of it or not. Tangent inbound. “The White Album” is by no means concise, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and its all over the place. But critics and fans alike adore it. To me, that because it’s the purest distillation of artistic expression. Double albums are supposed to sprawl, almost acting as a portfolio, demonstrating all the different faces and abilities of an artist in their finest form. They aren’t meant to be concise, and it’s the most difficult line to walk, because get it wrong and you have a snooze fest, get it right and you have an exciting rollercoaster ride.
“The River” is the most excited Springsteen album, and although its slightly less revered than the other albums mentioned in this article, it passes the double album test with flying colours. The first half is a joyous and bombastic occasion. Massive, propellant drums, horns and slinky guitar takes the stage from the endlessly busy “The Ties That Bind” and onwards. The first three songs are as celebratory as Springsteen gets, with Sherry Darling having a dance appeal to it, pretty much unheard of in the catalogue so far. Things calm down with “Independence Day”, the acoustic folkish song, but pick right back up again with the smash single “Hungry Heart”. If you were to ask me which song I would put on when I was just in the best mood, its this song. This song sonically, is as simple as happiness, I can’t describe it in any better detail than that. The lyrics are often misleading though, about a man who “Got a wife in Kids in Baltimore Jack / I went out for a ride and I never went back”. It’s a brilliant conflict because on it’s own it sounds like an awful abandonment, but with the song it sounds like an unshackling. The song is a heavenly hit, and did wonders for Bruce’s commercial success, and in his words bought him over finally to the female fan base.
The title track is one of my favourite songs ever, and see’s Springsteen fully dedicating himself to the pledge of the working-class story. It’s a beautiful and devastating tale that details a young construction worker’s struggle to wed and satisfy his partner, who escape to the River to die. A courthouse instructs their romance, and for them there’s “No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisles / no flowers, no wedding dress”. It’s a poignant, emotive piece of music. Being a double album, there really is no room for me to go into the track list to much but the final standout for me, is a less well-known track on the tail end of the album, “Drive all Night”. The core is comprised of a heavy bassline, and keys, as a heartfelt Springsteen delivers a performance that’s as self-indulgent as it is beautiful as the nearly 10 minute track exposes him in a vulnerable light, overcome with longing for a partner lost, accompanied by a late night saxophone in a misty sky.
QUINTESSENTIAL – The River, Hungry Heart, Drive All Night
NEBRASKA (1982) – THE ANTI ALBUM
This album is the biggest chess move of his entire career; I can’t think of many careers that can match this. “Nebraska” is a cult of an album. The famous story around this project was that Bruce took a recording device, a guitar and a harmonica and wrote numerous songs, all linked thematically in their tales of left behind people and criminals all suspended in suffering. When he approached the E Street Band as he usually did to flesh out the songs to make them studio ready, they couldn’t get it right. Everything that was added somehow seemed to take away from the rawness, and the purity of the songs he had created. So at the height of his commercial career, the year “Thriller” was holding every household hostage in Quincy Jone’s groove, and Prince was celebrating the apocalypse with hard funk on “1999”, Bruce Springsteen released an album compromised of a guitar, and a harmonica, in demo – form. And it was critical dynamite.
I ignored this album for so long, assuming it was a “dud” in an otherwise brilliant career. It was so understated I just didn’t see the appeal. Then I saw that people were ranking it as his best work, and I was bewildered, and a little ashamed so I came to it finally, and what came was in equal parts disturbing, depressing and mesmerising. I didn’t love it at first listen, but the more I listened the more I appreciated it’s brilliance, and it’s unassuming audacity. I think you would be hard pressed to find an album by such a star in the eighties, that is so outrageously out of place with the times.
The first track “Nebraska” croons in with a sinister harmonica and a gentle acoustic guitar rolling along, a staple that doesn’t leave the album until you shut it off. Sung from the perspective of a man in Lincoln Nebraska, he seems to be interested in girls and likes driving around, then the line comes in.. “Me and her we went for a ride, Sir, and ten innocent people died”. At first you think maybe you misheard, or there was a tragic event, then he moans “Through the Badlands of Wyoming I killed everything in my path”. Chilling is the only word that can describe it, the far-off acoustic guitar becoming ever so slightly more urgent as the story progresses and he is strapped into the death chair. The authorities are desperate to try and find some sort of mad reasoning as to why he does the things he does to which he just replies, “well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”. Its cold to it’s bones, but everything in the song lends itself to that feeling. Its so stark that you really feel like you are in the mind of this serial killer, in the passenger seat as he “had us some fun” killing everything in sight, you forget its Bruce Springsteen entirely as it sounds too personal, too different. That’s the genius of this album. It explores the psyche of criminals, petty to serious, and people living under the veil of small-town depression, desperate to break free from their cultural and financial restraints, but there is very little hope for them.
The next song “Atlantic City” is the most popular and successful off the album, giving the album a more up tempo section as Bruce details how a man falls in with a gang as he “has debts no honest man can pay”, again it’s layers of guitars, harmonicas, and a howling delivered by Bruce over the top. So simple, but so effective. If nothing stays with you from this album the chorus “Everything dies baby that’s a fact” will. “Highway Patrolman” is perhaps the most stripped-down song on the project, and brings the listener into a town sergeant’s life, as he struggles with turning a blind eye to the criminal ordeals of his brother Frankie. He’s wrapped up in a horrible conflict between the state, and the family, and ultimately gives in, letting his brother escape across the border. One thing I always feel is missing from music today, is storytelling, I sometimes come back to this album just to bask in it’s ability to feel like an episode of “The Wire”, telling the story of Nebraska. “State Trooper” is implicitly creepy, and feels like an episode of the Sopranos (which it does actually feature in), as the plucky guitar backs the scene of a man driving in his car, begging not be stopped by the state trooper, we are never told why, but considering his lack of registration, it can’t be good.
Nebraska is the anti-80’s album, and demonstrated that Springsteen was a fearless genius, who could break every rule in the book, and still give us a classic.
QUINTESSENTIAL – Nebraska, Atlantic City, Highway Patrolman
BORN IN THE U.S.A (1984) – SUPERSTARDOM
Here it is, the most famous Springsteen record, and the third best selling record of the 1980’s, this is truly an album that helped culturally define the 1980’s. Interestingly, this album actually carries on many of the themes of Nebraska, but fleshes them out in a maze of drums, hard guitars and synthesizers: true eighties style. Although I place many of his albums above this album, I do still love it, and respect it for sounding very different to much of his other work. One thing that does frustrate me to no end is the misinterpretation of the title track and therefore the entire album all together. At a glance, this album’s cover and title looks as though its going to be sickening affair of blind patriotism and lots of “Merica!”’s, but that’s almost the irony Springsteen was going for with this record. The iconic, epic title track (which isn’t an all-time favourite of mine) is actually detailing the horrors and futilities of the Vietnam War in a very visceral criticism of American culture. Its brash, synthesised, and high energy and so you will see people blasting this out of speakers at patriotic rallies, those people are morons, but Bruce knew that would happen. “Cover Me” is a silky, well produced rock song which lets its guitar run wild, and it’s a great listen. However, where for me the album begins to take off is with “Downbound Train”. This is a song from the Nebraska sessions, which they managed to make electric with enough success that they put it on this album, but it still has the same message. It’s a devastating track about a man spiralling on a rapid decline in life, and there is no hope for him, his American dream is merely that: a dream.
Next is the unlikely hit “I’m On Fire”, a tense song that never quite boils over, but rides that line between creepy obsession and romance, once again you aren’t supposed to know. The second half is far superior for me, getting off to an explosive start with “No Surrender” which charges in with a drum breakdown, piano crescendos, and harmonised backing singing. It perfectly demonstrates why this album is so impressive. Bruce was able to bring rock into the eighties, but merging it with pop trends at the time, meaning he could still tell the stories of small America whilst gaining astronomical airtime and record sales.
When they finished recording, they had everything, but producer Jon Landau needed a single, and Springsteen’s resentment exploded into a conflict. He was enraged at the prospect of having to meet the single requirement, and a bitter artist entered the studio, without an intention of taking anything seriously and made the final song to be added to the track list, “Dancing in the Dark”. The song would come to propel him into levels of stardom he wasn’t ready for, and it’s easy to see why. It’s just irresistible. It’s the perfect 80’s pop rock song, it’s energy is begging you to get up and dance with Bruce (and a very young Courtney Cox), whilst it’s lyrics probably related to every single person who wasn’t perfection, inciting them to take control of their life, even if it means “Dancing in the Dark”. Anyone out there who wants to “change my clothes, my hair, my face”, stuck in a mundane world whose persistence knows no bounds, has lived this song.
What came after Born in the U.S.A was the critically acclaimed “Tunnel of Love”, which was the last great album before he entered his mostly regrettable nineties phase, but it doesn’t have quite the same classic feel. All the albums I have mentioned are bookended by brilliant albums, but they aren’t a part of the classic run that defines his career. Springsteen has the ability to create culturally and personally relevant music that captivated the world from 1973-1987. That feat multiplies in grandeur when you listen to albums that came out in ’73 and then ’87 and stun yourself by the difference in direction. Yet one thing remained in a constant state of evolution, Bruce Springsteen.
QUINTESSENTIAL – Bobby Jean, I’m On Fire, Dancing in the Dark