There are very few people we would let pick us a playlist for an imaginary lifelong stint on a deserted island but Bruce Springsteen, The Boss, is certainly one of them. One of the blue-collar champions and ultimate songwriters seems like the perfect choice to us as he picks eight songs he simply couldn’t live without. The list brought to light as part of the British institution and wonderful radio programme, Desert Island Discs, puts Springsteen firmly in the driving seat as your favourite desert island DJ. Springsteen selects some of the finest musicians the world has ever known to be a part of his island soundtrack.
It’s hard to think that any show could match up to Springsteen’s 20 Grammys, two Golden Globes, Academy Award and multi-million selling albums—but even The Boss must have had a pang of nervousness when he arrived at the BBC Radio 4 studios to speak to Desert Island Discs. The show has become a mainstay of British culture and rightly deserves the shudders of even a great artist like Springsteen when they approach the studio door.
It’s impossible for us to over-sell the importance BBC’s Desert Island Discs has had in the dense tapestry of British pop culture. It’s a time-honoured tradition that has seen Prime Ministers and rock stars alike walk through its studio doors. Created by Roy Plomley way back in 1942, the format is always the same, each week a guest is invited by the host to choose the eight records they would take with them to a desert island.
As well as their eight discs, a complimentary collection of the complete works of Shakespeare and bible, the star in question also gets to choose one luxury item and one book. When The Boss arrived at the studios he was ready to give the listener a peek into his record collection and the life which ran parallel to it. It’s part of what makes the show so impossibly brilliant, with the personality’s choices they always offer up a piece of their lives to go with it, working as a reminder that music can infiltrate every facet of living.
The New Jersey icon didn’t reserve his words for the music he selected, instead, he opened up to host Kirsty Young about the journey he took to get to the iconic status he has to this day, and how music saved him at multiple points during his chaotic life. “It’s songs that a lot of people are going to be familiar with and affected many others. But this was the music that electrified me and galvanised me into changing my life in some way,” says the star, perhaps worried about not picking too many deep cuts.
The first pick of eight songs that Bruce Springsteen couldn’t live without is, possibly quite naturally, an American hero. Elvis Presley’s iconic cover ‘Hound Dog’ was a pivotal moment in the young Springsteen’s life: “When I heard it, it just shot straight through to my brain,” he comments.
Springsteen continues: “I realised, suddenly, that there was more to life than what I’d been living. I was then in pursuit of something and there’d been a vision laid out before me. You were dealing with the pure thrust, the pure energy of the music itself. I was so very young but it still hit me like a thunderbolt.” His second choice was another track that resonated with a younger Bruce and, likely, the rest of the world who watched it.
The Beatles had an undeniable influence on music when they arrived to our airwaves back in the early sixties and Springsteen was another affected young soul whose eyes lit up when those four mop tops entered the screen. He picks the Fab Four’s ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. “This was another song that changed the course of my life. It was a very raucous sounding record when it came out of the radio. It really was the song that inspired me to play rock and roll music — to get a small band and start doing some small gigs around town. It was life-changing. It’s still a beautiful record.”
The Boss continues to pick out some of the sixties finest artists as his third choice of an essential song is The Rolling Stones’ ‘It’s All Over Now’. It’s a warm moment in the interview as Springsteen remembers a tribute to the band’s founding member, “I would use my mother’s hair clips to pin my hair down, then I would sleep on it exactly right, because I had Italian curly hair so I would pin it down until it was as straight as Brian Jones’.”
He’s still a Stones fan to this day but ‘It’s All Over Now’ had a more poignant role in Springsteen’s life, saying it “held a special place for me because when I got thrown out of my first band, I went home that night and I was pissed off, so I said ‘All right I’m going to be a lead guitar player’. And for some reason that solo felt like something I might be able to manage. I put the record on and I sat there all night until I was able to scrape up some relatively decent version of Keith’s solo. It was a very important record for me as it was the first solo I ever learned.”
Springsteen wasn’t all about tight jeans and getting down and dirty though,—well, not all the time. The singer soon found beauty in the softer moments of music too as the blue-collar rocker found a spot on his list of favourites for Van Morrison’s ‘Madame George’. Despite Morrison’s recent movement as the leading anti-lockdown poster boy, a few years prior, Springsteen’s love for the star is clear. “Astral Weeks was an extremely important record for me. It made me trust in beauty, it gave me a sense of the divine. The divine just seems to run through the veins of that entire album.”
It’s clear that the singer holds the medium of full-length albums in very high regards indeed. As he navigates personal questions and delves into the music, Springsteen nearly always mentions the album from which the song spawned. Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, his fourth selection, is another example: “This entire record, from start to finish, is a masterpiece. It was sultry and sexual while at the same time dealing with street level politics. That had a big influence on me.” The ability to deal with difficult issues without being stuck inside them would be something Springsteen would employ throughout his career.
Another mercurial artist who would inspire Springsteen would be the Godfather of Soul and the hardest working man in music, James Brown. Springsteen picks his 1964 hit ‘Out Of Sight’ as one of his most essential songs. He describes the track: “Pure excitement, pure electricity, pure ‘get out of your seat, move your ass’. Pure sweat-filled, gospel-filled raw, rock and roll, rhythm and blues. It’s like a taut rubber band.”
The soul connection doesn’t end there either. Springsteen also pays homage to the explosion of Motown as the singer connects with moments across musical history and picks The Four Tops ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’. “I had to have some Motown because Motown was an incredible part of my youth,” says the blue-collar rocker. “Motown was the school where you wanted to go to learn your craft.”
Springsteen’s final and most poignant choice is a kindred spirit. “This could be at the top of the list,” says Springsteen when selecting Bob Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. The star reflects, “The first time I heard it, it came out of the radio. I didn’t know anything about Dylan’s acoustic music. I was a creature of top 40, so the first time I really heard him with this song, it just instantly started to change my life.”
“‘Like a Rolling Stone’ feels like a torrent that comes rushing towards you. Floods your soul, floods your mind. Alerts and wakes you up instantaneously to other worlds, other lives. Other ways of being. It’s perhaps one of the most powerful records ever made, and it still means a great deal to me along with all of Dylan’s work.” There aren’t many artists who can elicit such a reaction from Springsteen but Bob Dylan is certainly one of them. The Boss even picks this track as his absolute favourite from the bunch and the one disc he’d rescue if tragedy struck.
With the selection of his trusty guitar as his luxury item to take to the desert island, naturally, Springsteen continues the musical theme as he picks Woody Guthrie: A Life by Joe Klein as his book of choice.
It completes one of the finest Desert Island Discs we’ve ever heard and marks out Springsteen as one of the most authentic men in rock and roll.
Bruce Springsteen’s favourite songs of all time:
- Elvis Presley – ‘Hound Dog’
- The Beatles – ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’
- The Rolling Stones – ‘It’s All Over Now’
- Van Morrison – ‘Madame George’
- Marvin Gaye – ‘What’s Going On’
- James Brown – ‘Out Of Sight’
- The Four Tops – ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’
- Bob Dylan – ‘Like A Rolling Stone’
BBC have made the episode, with slightly shortened musical pieces available on their website through the BBC Sounds channel and on Spotify. We’ve compiled his favourites songs into one perfect playlist.