After early teenage forays with local bands The Castiles, Earth and the groundbreaking Steel Mill, Springsteen hit on the sound and style of The E Street Band in 1971, drawing on the travelling troupe ethic of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen, Dylan and Van Morrison with side orders of church gospel and soul, R&B and the rock’n’roll roots he absorbed watching Elvis Presley and The Beatles. It was a classic combination and Springsteen’s debut disc, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, nailed his young-man persona with ‘Blinded By The Light’ (a No.1 for Manfred Mann’s Earth Band), ‘Spirits In The Night’, ‘Mary Queen Of Arkansas’, ‘Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?’ and ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’, conjuring a cinematic scope whose musicality is an equivalent to the early films of Martin Scorsese.
The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle affirmed his early E Street Band credentials with players Clarence Clemons, David Sancious, Danny Federici, Garry Tallent and Vinny “Mad Dog” Lopez (who was also in Steel Mill) establishing s glorious rock and rhythm with the blue-collar soul and lyrical acuity of ‘4th Of July’, ‘Asbury Park (Sandy)’, ‘Incident On 57th Street’ and the pivotal ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’ standing as instant classics.
By 1975, the world was catching up with Springsteen, and his mainstream breakthrough came with the peerless Born To Run. This was full-tilt Bruce, all reserve dissipated by the certainty of his calling on the many key numbers within: ‘Thunder Road’, ‘Backstreets’, ‘Meeting Across the River’ and ‘Jungleland’. The title track thrilled with its visceral pent-up energy – and still does today.
Having survived co-producer Jon Landau’s hyperbolic assertions about seeing “rock’n’roll future”, Springsteen was about to step up and prove it. An accompanying tour, including his London debut at the Hammersmith Odeon, floored those lucky enough to have witnessed it. After that he squashed any hype with the deft and considered Darkness On The Edge Of Town, allowing himself some fresh air as he pursued the working-class heroes of ‘Badlands’, ‘Adam Raised A Cain’ and the harmonica- and sax-driven ‘The Promised Land’.
Springsteen was baptised in the American heartland for The River, a sprawling double-disc travelogue that many consider to frame his best song poetry. Listen to ‘Independence Day’ for evidence of that, and then immerse in the sheer rock drive of ‘The Ties That Bind’: epic stuff.
The raw and haunting solo album Nebraska – essentially a souped-up demo set – indicated that Springsteen was driven by the power of the song. Recorded in his bedroom in Colts Neck, New Jersey, the songwriter turned his gaze back to the folk and country tropes of dark hinterlands. Sparse and spare as all this was, there were still monumental pieces, such as ‘State Trooper’ and ‘Highway Patrolman’, that turned bleakness into a virtue.
There was no such lo-fi for Born In The USA, an undeniable commercial powerhouse blessed with massive sales, seven Top 10 hit singles and a worldwide tour that established Springsteen as the king of the heartland. The title cut, ‘I’m On Fire’, the chugging ‘Glory Days’ (a nod back to Born To Run) and the irresistible ‘Dancing In The Dark’ were all anthems that silenced the cynics.
Given his reputation and a pretty vast catalogue of goodies, the accompanying Live 1975-85 box set soared to No.1 on pre-orders alone and spawned further hits in ‘War’, ‘Fire’ and ‘Born To Run’, while versions of Tom Waits’ ‘Jersey Girl’, Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’ and ‘Because The Night’ (a collaboration with Patti Smith) fleshed out a spectacular set of hits and lesser-known gems.
For Tunnel Of Love, Bruce worked mostly on his own, using drum machines and synths, as well as the mandolin, various keyboards and vintage guitars. Tenuously described as a “pop album”, if only because The E Street band only made fleeting appearances, there were still plenty of considered ballads such as ‘Brilliant Disguise’ and the house-of-mirrors romance of the title track to elevate the album beyond the norm.
The solo albums Human Touch and Lucky Town were both released on 31 March 1992 as solo ventures and divided critical opinion, despite the excellence of some material, notably ‘Better Days’ and ‘Living Proof’. Still, it was true that Springsteen’s prolific nature got the better of him this time around. It was time to take stock on Greatest Hits, which was augmented with four new songs, including the excellent ‘Murder Incorporated’ and the unusual ‘Secret Garden’ (which appeared in the movie Jerry Maguire). Another all-encompassing commercial blockbuster, this hits set topped charts worldwide, though it’s not necessarily the most logical starting point for newcomers.
Taking an entirely different course, The Ghost Of Tom Joad featured deep folk ruminations that lived up to its title. The album appeased those fans that wanted to hear the “real” Bruce again, and, in a sign of things to come, also won the 1997 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
The demos and outtakes that appeared on Tracks were manna from heaven for the fanatics, though the formative recordings didn’t quite usurp the better-known versions. Many fans preferred the Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: Live in New York City film and accompanying album for raw power, as it documented the group’s 1999-2000 reunion tour – their first in 11 years.
Suitably fired up and raring to go again in the 21st Century, Sprinsgteen delivered The Rising, a humane and political affair with a universal message and specific laments concerning the events of 9/11. Devils & Dust followed: Springsteen’s 13th studio album and a faultless combination of folk-rock and protest, with the title track winning another Grammy, this time for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance.
Then a look backward – at his own past, and the history of folks music. The long-awaited Hammersmith Odeon London ’75, recorded on 18 November 1975, is an oddity, since most fans agree that his second show at that venue, held on 24 November, was the superior performance (with an extended nine-song encore). Making much more sense was We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. Inspired by activist and folk legend Pete Seeger, the collection gave a rock twist to the Americana icon’s protest hallmarks, while a follow-up, Bruce Springsteen With The Sessions Band: Live In Dublin, tapped into folk music’s Celtic roots.
Those who were more enamoured with full-tilt Bruce were probably more taken by Magic, for which he reunited with The E Street Band and gave us his most overtly pop song ever in the glorious ‘Girls In Their Summer Clothes’, one of Springsteen’s warmest small-town vignettes. 2009’s Working On A Dream benefitted from what’s become a long-term collaboration with producer Brendan O’Brien, who added a 60s pop flourish to the material, with the title cut echoing The Beatles’ 1966 song ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’.
Wrecking Ball went back to the heartland in 2012: another home recording of considerable panache, with a grim undercurrent in ‘Death To My Hometown’ and ‘We Take Care Of Our Own’, showing that Springsteen hadn’t lost his darker touch. The non-linear collection High Hopes included archival material featuring the now deceased Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, with Rage Against The Machine (and now Prophets Of Rage) guitarist Tom Morello to the fore on choice songs such as ‘Hunter Of Invisible Game’ and a cover of Suicide’s ‘Dream Baby Dream’.
Since 2014, and starting with Apollo Theatre 03/09/12, the BruceSpringsteen.net outlet has issued a sequence of live discs designed to combat the many bootlegs surrounding this extraordinary artist. Of these, The Agora, Cleveland, 1978 and Tower Theatre, Philadelphia, 1975 recordings are particularly recommended. As time goes by, Springsteen continues to revisit his back catalogue on stage, knowing full well that his audience will adore hearing the wild and innocent material from the old days, as well as takes on Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ or Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’. He is also quite prepared to revisit albums such as his debut and to perform them in their entirety, while further dips into his past include the career-spanning Chapter And Verse collection, which stretches from The Castiles to Wrecking Ball.
Springsteen also delighted everyone with his 2016 autobiography, Born To Run, which brought to the page the same honesty, humour, and originality found in his songs. The man is now his own legacy. He has described Dylan, à la Johnny Cash by Kris Kristofferson, as “the father of our country” – in which case Springsteen may well be the first-born son.
Bruce Springsteen's debut album found him squarely in the tradition of Bob Dylan: folk-based tunes arranged for an electric band featuring piano and organ (plus, in Springsteen's case, 1950s-style rock & roll tenor saxophone breaks), topped by acoustic guitar and a husky voice singing lyrics full of elaborate, even exaggerated imagery. But where Dylan had taken a world-weary, cynical tone, Springsteen was exuberant. His street scenes could be haunted and tragic, as they were in "Lost in the Flood," but they were still imbued with romanticism and a youthful energy. Asbury Park painted a portrait of teenagers cocksure of themselves, yet bowled over by their discovery of the world. It was saved from pretentiousness (if not preciousness) by its sense of humor and by the careful eye for detail that kept even the most high-flown language rooted. Like the lyrics, the arrangements were busy, but the melodies were well developed and the rhythms, pushed by drummer Vincent Lopez, were breakneck. Words: William Ruhlmann
Bruce Springsteen expanded the folk-rock approach of his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., to strains of jazz, among other styles, on its ambitious follow-up, released only eight months later. His chief musical lieutenant was keyboard player David Sancious, who lived on the E Street that gave the album and Springsteen's backup group its name. With his help, Springsteen created a street-life mosaic of suburban society that owed much in its outlook to Van Morrison's romanticization of Belfast in Astral Weeks. Though Springsteen expressed endless affection and much nostalgia, his message was clear: this was a goodbye-to-all-that from a man who was moving on. The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle represented an astonishing advance even from the remarkable promise of Greetings; the unbanded three-song second side in particular was a flawless piece of music. Musically and lyrically, Springsteen had brought an unruly muse under control and used it to make a mature statement that synthesized popular musical styles into complicated, well-executed arrangements and absorbing suites; it evoked a world precisely even as that world seemed to disappear. Following the personnel changes in the E Street Band in 1974, there is a conventional wisdom that this album is marred by production lapses and performance problems, specifically the drumming of Vini Lopez. None of that is true. Lopez's busy Keith Moon style is appropriate to the arrangements in a way his replacement, Max Weinberg, never could have been. The production is fine. And the album's songs contain the best realization of Springsteen's poetic vision, which soon enough would be tarnished by disillusionment. He would later make different albums, but he never made a better one. The truth is, The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle is one of the greatest albums in the history of rock & roll. Words: William Ruhlmann
Bruce Springsteen's make-or-break third album represented a sonic leap from his first two, which had been made for modest sums at a suburban studio; Born to Run was cut on a superstar budget, mostly at the Record Plant in New York. Springsteen's backup band had changed, with his two virtuoso players, keyboardist David Sancious and drummer Vini Lopez, replaced by the professional but less flashy Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg. The result was a full, highly produced sound that contained elements of Phil Spector's melodramatic work of the 1960s. Layers of guitar, layers of echo on the vocals, lots of keyboards, thunderous drums -- Born to Run had a big sound, and Springsteen wrote big songs to match it. The overall theme of the album was similar to that of The E Street Shuffle; Springsteen was describing, and saying farewell to, a romanticized teenage street life. But where he had been affectionate, even humorous before, he was becoming increasingly bitter. If Springsteen had celebrated his dead-end kids on his first album and viewed them nostalgically on his second, on his third he seemed to despise their failure, perhaps because he was beginning to fear he was trapped himself. Nevertheless, he now felt removed, composing an updated West Side Story with spectacular music that owed more to Bernstein than to Berry. To call Born to Run overblown is to miss the point; Springsteen's precise intention is to blow things up, both in the sense of expanding them to gargantuan size and of exploding them. If The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle was an accidental miracle, Born to Run was an intentional masterpiece. It declared its own greatness with songs and a sound that lived up to Springsteen's promise, and though some thought it took itself too seriously, many found that exalting. Words: William Ruhlmann
Coming three years, and one extended court battle, after the commercial breakthrough of Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town was highly anticipated. Some attributed the album's embattled tone to Springsteen's legal troubles, but it carried on from Born to Run, in which Springsteen had first begun to view his colorful cast of characters as "losers." On Darkness, he began to see them as the working class. One song was called "Factory," and in another, "Badlands," "you" work "'neath the wheel / Till you get your facts learned." Those "facts" are that "Poor man wanna be rich / Rich man wanna be king / And a king ain't satisfied / Till he rules everything." But Springsteen's characters, some of whom he inhabited and sang for in the first person, had little and were in danger of losing even that. Their only hope for redemption lay in working harder -- "You gotta live it everyday," he sang in "Badlands," but you also, as another song noted, have to "Prove It All Night." And their only escape lay in driving. Springsteen presented these hard truths in hard rock settings, the tracks paced by powerful drumming and searing guitar solos. Though not as heavily produced as Born to Run, Darkness was given a full-bodied sound, with prominent keyboards and double-tracked vocals. Springsteen's stories were becoming less heroic, but his musical style remained grand. Yet the sound, and the conviction in his singing, added weight to songs like "Racing in the Street" and the title track, transforming the pathetic into the tragic. But despite the rock & roll fervor, Darkness was no easy listen, and it served notice that Springsteen was already willing to risk his popularity for his principles. Indeed, Darkness was not as big a seller as Born to Run. And it presaged even starker efforts, such as Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad. Words: William Ruhlmann
After taking his early urban folk tales of cars and girls as far as he could on Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen took a long, hard look at the lives of those same Jersey street kids a few years down the line, now saddled with adult responsibilities and realizing that the American Dream was increasingly out of their grasp, on 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town, an album that dramatically broadened Springsteen's musical range and lyrical scope. With 1980's The River, Springsteen sought to expand on those themes while also offering more of the tough, bar-band rock that was his trademark (and often conspicuous in its absence on Darkness), and by the time it was released it had swelled into Springsteen's first two-LP set. The River was Springsteen's most ambitious work to date, even as the music sounded leaner and more strongly rooted in rock & roll tradition than anything on Darkness or Born to Run, and though the album wasn't the least bit short on good times, the fun in songs like "Two Hearts," "Out in the Street," and "Cadillac Ranch" is rarely without some weightier subtext. As the romantic rush of "Two Hearts" fades into the final break with family on "Independence Day" and the sentimentality of "I Wanna Marry You" is followed by the grim truths of the title tune, nothing is easy or without consequence in Springsteen's world, and the album's themes of youthful ideals buckling under the weight of crushing reality are neatly summed up as Springsteen asks the essential question of his career, "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true?" Like many double albums, The River doesn't always balance well, and while the first half is consistently strong, part two is full of songs that work individually but don't cohere into a satisfying whole (and "Wreck on the Highway" is beautiful but fails to resolve the album's essential themes). But if the sequencing is somewhat flawed, Springsteen rises to his own challenges as a songwriter, penning a set of tunes that are heartfelt and literate but unpretentious while rocking hard, and the E Street Band were never used to better advantage, capturing the taut, swaggering force of their live shows in the studio with superb accuracy (and if the very '80s snare crack dates this album, Neil Dorfsman's engineering makes this one of Springsteen's best-sounding works). The River wasn't Springsteen's first attempt to make a truly adult rock & roll album, but it's certainly a major step forward from Darkness on the Edge of Town, and he rarely made an album as compelling as this, or one that rewards repeat listening as well. Words: Mark Deming
There is an adage in the record business that a recording artist's demos of new songs often come off better than the more polished versions later worked up in a studio. But Bruce Springsteen was the first person to act on that theory, when he opted to release the demo versions of his latest songs, recorded with only acoustic or electric guitar, harmonica, and vocals, as his sixth album, Nebraska. It was really the content that dictated the approach, however. Nebraska's ten songs marked a departure for Springsteen, even as they took him farther down a road he had been traveling previously. Gradually, his songs had become darker and more pessimistic, and those on Nebraska marked a new low. They also found him branching out into better developed stories. The title track was a first-person account of the killing spree of mass murderer Charlie Starkweather. (It can't have been coincidental that the same story was told in director Terrence Malick's 1973 film Badlands, also used as a Springsteen song title.) That song set the tone for a series of portraits of small-time criminals, desperate people, and those who loved them. Just as the recordings were unpolished, the songs themselves didn't seem quite finished; sometimes the same line turned up in two songs. But that only served to unify the album. Within the difficult times, however, there was hope, especially as the album went on. "Open All Night" was a Chuck Berry-style rocker, and the album closed with "Reason to Believe," a song whose hard-luck verses were belied by the chorus -- even if the singer couldn't understand what it was, "people find some reason to believe." Still, Nebraska was one of the most challenging albums ever released by a major star on a major record label. Words: William Ruhlmann
Bruce Springsteen had become increasingly downcast as a songwriter during his recording career, and his pessimism bottomed out with Nebraska. But Born in the U.S.A., his popular triumph, which threw off seven Top Ten hits and became one of the best-selling albums of all time, trafficked in much the same struggle, albeit set to galloping rhythms and set off by chiming guitars. That the witless wonders of the Reagan regime attempted to co-opt the title track as an election-year campaign song wasn't so surprising: the verses described the disenfranchisement of a lower-class Vietnam vet, and the chorus was intended to be angry, but it came off as anthemic. Then, too, Springsteen had softened his message with nostalgia and sentimentality, and those are always crowd-pleasers. "Glory Days" may have employed Springsteen's trademark disaffection, yet it came across as a couch potato's drunken lament. But more than anything else, Born in the U.S.A. marked the first time that Springsteen's characters really seemed to relish the fight and to have something to fight for. They were not defeated ("No Surrender"), and they had friendship ("Bobby Jean") and family ("My Hometown") to defend. The restless hero of "Dancing in the Dark" even pledged himself in the face of futility, and for Springsteen, that was a step. The "romantic young boys" of his first two albums, chastened by "the working life" encountered on his third, fourth, and fifth albums and having faced the despair of his sixth, were still alive on this, his seventh, with their sense of humor and their determination intact. Born in the U.S.A. was their apotheosis, the place where they renewed their commitment and where Springsteen remembered that he was a rock & roll star, which is how a vastly increased public was happy to treat him. Words: William Ruhlmann
Just as he had followed his 1980 commercial breakthrough The River with the challenging Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen followed the most popular album of his career, Born in the U.S.A., with another low-key, anguished effort, Tunnel of Love. Especially in their sound, several of the songs, "Cautious Man" and "Two Faces," for example, could have fit seamlessly onto Nebraska, though the arrangements overall were not as stripped-down and acoustic as on the earlier album. While Nebraska was filled with songs of economic desperation, however, Tunnel of Love, as its title suggested, was an album of romantic exploration. But the lovers were just as desperate in their way as Nebraska's small-time criminals. In song after song, Springsteen questioned the trust and honesty on both sides in a romantic relationship, specifically a married relationship. Since Springsteen sounded more autobiographical than ever before ("Ain't Got You" referred to his popular success, while "Walk Like a Man" seemed another explicit message to his father), it was hard not to wonder about the state of his own two-and-a-half-year marriage, and it wasn't surprising when that marriage collapsed the following year. Tunnel of Love was not the album that the ten million fans who had bought Born in the U.S.A. as of 1987 were waiting for, and though it topped the charts, sold three million copies, and spawned three Top 40 hits, much of this was on career momentum. Springsteen was as much at a crossroads with his audience as he seemed to be in his work and in his personal life, though this was not immediately apparent. Words: William Ruhlmann