Gimme a Reason takes classic albums celebrating major anniversaries and breaks down song by song the reasons we still love them so many years later. This time we shuffle along with Bruce Springsteen and Born to Run.
Ever since he emerged onto the scene in the early 1970s, New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen has been heralded as one of the most impactful, multifaceted, and successful voices in heartland rock. While artists like Tom Petty, Bob Seger, John Mellencamp and (eventually) Bon Jovi tapped into similar sentiments and styles, Springsteen’s captivating embodiments of blue-collar destitution and youthful romantic idealism — coupled with his knack for juxtaposing modest singer-songwriter treatments with the E Street Band’s bombastic arrangements — made his work distinctively poetic, exciting, and malleable.
With gems like “Lost in the Flood” and “For You”, his debut LP — 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ — was a fairly straightforward, yet full slice of impassioned storytelling that rightly earned him many comparisons to Bob Dylan and The Band. In contrast, follow-up The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle — released at the end of the same year — brought a more elaborate and jubilant rock ‘n’ roll fire to the fold via celebratory knockouts such as “The E Street Shuffle”, “Kitty’s Back”, and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”. Thus, he and his crew had already cemented themselves as masters of both subdued slice-of-life observations and exhilaratingly ambitious jams by the end of their first studio year. Despite receiving mostly positive professional reviews, however, neither collection earned the financial success and wider attention they warranted.
As the saying goes, though, the third time is the charm, and Born to Run is easily among the best examples of that in the genre. Released on August 25th, 1975, it was recorded at two studios in New York City, produced once again by Mike Appel (and Jon Landau), and fleshed out by many of the same musicians (with the addition of many other players, including new mainstays like Max Weinberg, Roy Bittan, and Steven Van Zandt). Commercially, the record greatly outdid its predecessors, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, selling millions of copies, and having virtually all of its tracks become mainstream hits in one way or another. Really, that’s no surprise given how maturely and precisely the sequence builds upon the attributes of those first two outings to deliver a fresher, tighter, and more cinematic statement.
Over the subsequent decades, Born to Run has continuously been considered Springsteen’s most eminent release, with myriad retrospective critical appraisals and an expansive 30th Anniversary Edition box set attesting to its creative and cultural significance. Now, almost a half-century after it first ignited the career of its mastermind, it’s lost none of that narrative poignancy, triumphant electricity, or cumulative power.
Here are 45 reasons why we still love it.
01. Springsteen got the song’s name from a 1958 Robert Mitchum film that he hadn’t even seen (he just liked the poster).
02. The gracefully modest, down-home opening combination of piano chords and harmonica accompaniment. It wonderfully captures the warmth of a new beginning (such as the one aimed for by the two protagonists).
03. The earnestness in Springsteen’s singing and lyricism, both of which perfectly represent the idealized risk and reward of the track’s central romantic proposition.
04. Specifically, the line “You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright/ Oh, and that’s alright with me.” Like Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130”, it comes across as both moderately insulting and endearingly truthful and blunt. It’s like Springsteen is rejecting the hyperbolic notions of love seen in popular culture (and Hallmark cards) to say, “You’ve got flaws because you’re human, and that is why I want you.” Plus, Julia Roberts once said that it’s the lyric that best describes her, so she must see it that way, too.
05. The gradual instrumental build-up immediately after that moment, culminating in a thrilling hodgepodge of decorative timbres, ardent harmonies, and of course, Clemons’ scorching — if rudimentary — solo.
06. How the closing line — “It’s a town full of losers / I’m pulling out of here to win” — melodically foreshadows the chorus of “Born to Run”.
07. This fan-made video of Springsteen performing “Thunder Road” live over the past 40+ years. It really encapsulates not only how he’s changed the tune over the decades, but also how beloved it’s always been.
08. The amount of cover versions that have come out, including ones by Tori Amos, Badly Drawn Boy, and Kevin Rowland. It proves how universal and changeable the tune is.
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”
09. It hearkens back to the festive vibe of The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, but with more ragtime playfulness and a slightly more dramatic edge (especially with the motif that kicks it off). Not only is the music equally punchy and sunny, but Springsteen’s voice possesses charming inebriation that makes it carefree yet rowdy, too.
10. Van Zandt — who’d previously played with Springsteen in miscellaneous groups — was asked to direct the horn players for “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”. He did such a great job that, as told in Bruce Springsteen: Two Hearts: The Definitive Biography, 1972–2003 by Dave Marsh, Springsteen insisted that Van Zandt join the E Street Band officially, telling Appel: “It’s time to put the boy on the payroll. I’ve been meaning to tell you — he’s the new guitar player.”
11. Although it revolves around the formation of the E Street Band (with “Bad Scooter” and “the big man” referring to Springsteen and Clemons, respectively), Springsteen concludes that while he doesn’t know what the title itself refers to, he knows “it’s important.”
12. After Clemons passed away in June 2011, Springsteen played it in concert as a tribute to him (and founding glockenspiel/organ/accordion player Daniel Federici, who died in 2008). Springsteen would even stop the song during its final verse (after the “big man” line, where Clemons’ short lead goes) to show a video of them playing.
13. Like many introductions on Born to Run, this one sucks you in instantly with its glorious horns, steadfast percussion, ornate background tones, and layered vocals. As a result, it finds Springsteen succeeding at his goal of replicating Phil Spector’s famous “wall of sound” approach to recording and production.
14. Similarly, Springsteen’s perpetual talent for tapping into the soul of workingman frustration and fantasy at once. Here, he contrasts the annoyances of a thankless 9 to 5 job with the promises of nighttime freedom (specifically, drag racing, glory, and amorousness).
15. It undoubtedly packs one of the LP’s most enthralling choruses, not only in terms of melody but also feelings (“And the world is busting at its seams/ And you’re just a prisoner of your dreams”). It’s moments like this that personify Springsteen’s subtle storytelling brilliance, as he expresses common hopes and hardships with laudably elegiac phrasing.
16. Bittan’s dense and downtrodden commencement, which uses reflective piano and organ chords — alongside considerate bass lines and tribal drumming — to instill the forlorn weight of a soliloquy in a stage play.
17. Springsteen’s incensed crooner approach to singing it; his delivery is faintly slurred and rambunctious, mixing the regret and rage that such a tale would elicit.
18. The guitar solo. It evokes Neil Young’s style of exuding unbridled emotion in its clumsiness.
19. In general, how open to interpretation it is. Although Springsteen has confirmed that it’s about a shattered platonic friendship between a man and a woman, listeners have also seen homoeroticism in its use of a gender-neutral name and allusions to hiding (“Terry, you swore we’d live forever/ Taking it on them backstreets together”).
20. The fact that Springsteen would add a somewhat improvised “Sad Eyes” spoken-word section during subsequent tours that allowed him to elaborate on the inspiration behind the tune.
Click ahead for more reasons we love Born to Run…
“Born to Run”
21. They spent over a year working on Born to Run, and almost half of that — six months — went just to the title track. Clearly, Springsteen knew it was meant to be a game-changing anthem, and it was.
22. Obviously, the main guitar part! It’s easily among the most explosively life-affirming riffs in all of rock music (naturally, it’s enhanced by all of the dreamily robust accompaniment, too); in fact, in the Wings for Wheels documentary that came with the 30th Anniversary Edition, Springsteen called it “arguably Steve’s [Van Zandt] greatest contribution to my music.”
23. Yet again, Springsteen’s words and performance radiantly seize the sense of idealized, wrong-side-of-the-tracks boyhood destiny and courtship. Virtually every line is equally vivid, heartfelt, and grimily sensual, and he truly acts out each verse.
24. How the already white-knuckle excitement becomes overwhelming once Clemons bursts in with two of the most quintessential and fitting solos in the genre (regardless of instrument).
25. Ex-drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter’s corresponding syncopation; it riles up Clemons as he goes, leading to an awesome — and surprisingly tricky — breakdown before everyone comes back and fires on all cylinders as Springsteen belts out perhaps his pinnacle line: “The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive!”
26. The official music video. Sure, it took about 12 years to come out, but it does a great job of showing how much the band loved playing it. Also, the closing “Thanks to All Our Fans!” message on the screen makes it feel like a celebration of their whole career instead of just one song.
27. The amount of critical acclaim it’s gotten over the years, such as being ranked at No. 16 in Pitchfork’s “The 200 Best Songs of the 1970s” list; placing at No. 21 in Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” compendium; and being included in the “NPR 100” (NPR’s assessment of the most important 20th century American musical pieces).
28. Likewise, its prevalence in popular culture. For example, it’s been featured in The Office, Guitar Hero World Tour, Futurama, The Sopranos, and even at the 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards (in the form of a Glee-esque tribute featuring Jimmy Fallon, Joel McHale, Tina Fey, Jon Hamm, Jane Lynch, and Lea Michele, among others).
“She’s the One”
29. The contrast of moody, muted guitar chords and starry piano arpeggios that set it off.
30. The dynamic shift 75 seconds in, when other instruments appear and the whole arrangement becomes more hot-blooded. It embodies the steamy angst of the subject matter. On that note…
31. The role reversal. Whereas a few other songs see the male leading things and trying to be persuasive toward his female lover/partner (in affectionate ways, obviously), here it’s the man who’s ensnared. He’s singing about a femme fatale who’s sure to hurt him, but he doesn’t care because what they can share on “them long summer nights” is too tempting. It’s interesting that Springsteen includes such vulnerability within that power swing.
“Meeting Across the River”
32. Immediately, Randy Brecker’s trumpet and Richard Davis’ double bass set it apart from the rest of Born to Run. In particular, its jazzy sparseness gives it a low-key film-noir vibe, making it feel like it’s from a different era than the rest of the LP.
33. Its role as a transition from “She’s the One” to “Jungleland”, not only as a soft respite in-between two more-powerful compositions, but also geographically since it moves us from New Jersey to New York (through “the tunnel”) for Born to Run’s finale.
34. How it maintains the overarching theme of the record — laying it all on the line for a chance at a better life — but adds a new lens via the petty crime aspect. It makes “Meeting Across the River” one of the more plot-driven tales here.
35. Suki Lahav’s violin preface alongside the central piano melody. It sets up a fable-esque Aether, like it’s going to be a utopic story of triumph and prosperity.
36. Of course, that’s not what it becomes. Rather, it quickly reveals itself as the story of gang violence, murder, and ill-fated love (which is a bold way to end a record built upon the prospect of ultimate romance). In that way, it evokes films like The Warriors and Rumble Fish.
37. The lyrics are arguably the best on the whole record, with rich descriptions and relatable feelings overflowing at every turn. If one must stand out, it’s “And the poets down here don’t write nothing at all/ They just stand back and let it all be.” In less than two-dozen words, Springsteen speaks volumes about urban hopelessness, apathy, and fatalism. It’s so poignant and universal that Stephen King quotes the larger stanza from which it comes at the start of his apocalyptic opus The Stand.
38.. The ambition and scope of the music. There are too many exceptional moments to pick out, but suffice it to say that outside of progressive subgenres, “Jungleland” is one of the most cinematic and chameleonic rock songs of its decade, taking you through several styles and feelings by the end.
39. Nevertheless, the miraculously downtrodden piano motif four minutes in deserves a nod; it appears out of an exhilarating jam and sax solo (that fit right in with the preceding material) to fill your ears with gorgeously restrained sorrow.
40. Similarly, Springsteen is at the top of his game throughout, packing each line with the necessary performance (be it raspy fervor or defeated contemplation) to suit the shifting sounds and sentiments. Combined with the instrumentation, his commitment and eloquence turn “Jungleland” into a work of art.
41. The idea of starting both sides of the album optimistically (“Thunder Road” and “Born to Run”) and ending them pessimistically (“Backstreets” and “Jungleland”). Likewise, the idea that the whole album was envisioned as “a series of vignettes taking place during one long summer day and night,” following the same main characters.
42. Speaking of live recordings, the influence of the band’s corresponding tour. Specifically, the impact of their mid-August stint at New York’s Bottom Line Club, where they played 10 shows across five nights and earned the attention of several major media outlets. In 2003, Rolling Stone named it among the “50 Moments that Changed Rock and Roll.”
43. Similarly, Born to Run led to Springsteen becoming the first rock musician to grace the covers of Newsweek and Time during the same week (in October 1975). Both magazines also featured markedly different interviews with him, lending more humanity, mystery, and popularity to his rising star.
44. The overarching theatrical tone (including purposeful song starters to figuratively draw the curtains), which allows each tune to feel like a mini-movie in ways that the material on the first two records didn’t.
45. How iconic the cover art became. Springsteen and saxophonist Clarence Clemons would occasionally redo their beloved pose on stage to enliven concertgoers and symbolize their bond. Plus, it was subsequently imitated by the likes of Los Secretos, Sesame Street, Mai Kuraki, Cheap Trick, Kevin and Kell, and even [unofficially] Star Wars.