“I am The President; he is The Boss.” Remarked then-President Obama to Bruce Springsteen before awarding him the Medal of Freedom in 2016. This fine praise from the highest of echelons is more than deserved for one of the most iconic rock legends to have ever lived. Bruce Springsteen’s extraordinary life is one of many ups and downs, as is well documented.
This extraordinary life has led to a lyrical density that is unmatched. His musical stories depict every aspect of working-class American life through his natural, candid lyricism and stirring musicianship. His blue-collared, everyman nature is exemplified in how he honestly reflects on battles with depression, politics and fatherhood. In interviews, he endears himself to fans from every walk of life, generating his legendary status as a voice of the people and earning the nickname ‘The Boss’.
Today marks the 46th birthday of the release that truly cemented him as a legend and propelled him on his trajectory to stadium-filling superstardom and widespread respect. Released on 25th August 1975, Springsteen’s third album, Born to Run, captured the hearts and minds of ordinary Americans. Despite promotion from his label, Columbia, his first two albums, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, were commercial flops. However, this trend was about to change.
Due to a last-ditch attempt at commercial success with a big budget from the label and a tweak in his writing style, Springsteen would find his magic formula, which would change his life forevermore. Instead of concentrating on his immediate surroundings of New Jersey, as his previous two offerings contained many references to his home state, Born to Run features only a handful of nods to the Garden State and concentrates on the myths surrounding the ‘American Dream’. In short, Springsteen matured, and so had his lyrics. He would later recall of Born to Run that it was: “the album where I left behind my adolescent definitions of love and freedom—it was the dividing line.”
The recording process was long and arduous. It took 14 months in total to get Springsteen’s ideas onto wax. He would become angry and frustrated at many points along the way, and the main point of contention, the lead single and title track took six months to record. A perfectionist, ‘The Boss’ had “sounds in his head” that he couldn’t explain properly to his band or producers.
The album was also a departure as it marked the beginning of the end of the partnership between Springsteen and producer/manager Mike Appel. This is significant as it was with Appel, whom Springsteen recorded the first iteration of now-legendary single ‘Born to Run‘ in 1974. This version, a pre-release mix, got people keenly interested in the upcoming album as it was played on local radio stations across the east coast of the USA.
The song was then sat on as the rest of the album was recorded and re-released as a single the following year, the same day as the album, just with the huge mix we all know today.
Production for the album commenced on 13th April 1975, and the iconic Jon Landau was brought in to assist with production duties and Beats Electronics founder Jimmy Iovine as an engineer. Kicking off at The Record Plant, New York City, the tough sessions would end up with Appel departing as Springsteen’s manager soon after and Landau assuming the role. The album was also the first to feature longstanding E Street Band member Roy Bittan on the keys and drummer Max Weinberg. Side note, the latter is the father of Slipknot’s own rhythmic genius, Jay.
The album is not only the standout in Springsteen’s vast back catalogue, but in music in general, as its use of introductions to set the tone of each song was brilliant. This stemmed from the fact that all of the records were written on the piano and not the guitar, rather than some conceptual forethought. However, this was aided by Springsteen’s desire on achieving a huge Phil Spector-like ‘Wall of Sound’ through production and composition. He even said he wanted the album to sound like “Roy Orbison singing Bob Dylan, produced by Spector.”
He also achieved this through the sequencing of the original LP’s format. He adopted the classic “four corners” approach. The songs at the exposition of each side, ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Born to Run’, were uplifting anthems denoting hedonistic escape from the mundanity of everyday life, whereas the songs at the ending of each side presented a stark juxtaposition to this. ‘Backstreets’ and ‘Jungleland’ are not only two of the album’s most affecting pieces, but they are melancholic epics discussing betrayal, defeat and loss.
As we know now, the album was a huge hit. Columbia embarked upon a $250,000 promotional campaign, directed at both consumers and the music industry; the label started running with a quote that Landau had said in the studio, “I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Although this was a clever piece of advertising when taken in conjunction with the album’s massive, modern sound, Springsteen was furious with it. True to the average everyman he is, he said in 1976, “future of rock was a very big mistake, and I would like to strangle the guy who thought that up.”
Regardless of whether Springsteen liked it or not, he was here to stay. Born to Run became an overnight hit, featuring the iconic album cover with 26-year-old, guitar-toting Springsteen leaning on the back of his saxophonist. Possibly owing to the slow burn cult following the original pre-release of the title track had gained, Springsteen’s third album would spend 29 weeks on the American album charts. It would also re-renter the charts in the ’80s after the release of the albums The River and Born in the USA.
A brilliant drama that re-packaged Springsteen’s modus operandi, Born to Run, offered audiences an optimistic sonic way out of their monotonous day-to-day lives. It became the US record industry’s first-ever record to be certified platinum, selling over 1 million copies, and, in the same week, Springsteen appeared on the front covers of Time and Newsweek.
A musically diverse take on the steadfast rock ‘n’ roll path that Springsteen had paved for himself on his first two albums, Born to Run truly marked the start of Springsteen becoming ‘The Boss’ throughout the rest of the ’70s, ’80s and beyond. With this career-defining release, he built a devoted fanbase who are still with him today. Furthermore, the riches and acclaim that the album brought would change his life in other ways, giving him security and comfort that a working-class man from New Jersey rarely found amongst the post-industrial mire.
So on its birthday, why not revisit this masterpiece? Listen to ‘Born to Run’ below.