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…