Born to Run at 30 – August 25, 2005

The Born To Run Reviewers In Their Own Words, 30 Years Ago

During 1973 and 1974, fans who had been to Bruce Springsteen’s shows in the clubs and theaters, where he was building a solid cult following, snatched up Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. To the rest of the record buying world, he was largely unknown, and with Dark Side of the Moon, Houses of the Holy, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road ruling the charts, Bruce’s first two albums were commercial flops.

In the rock press, critics gave both albums a passing grade, some warily, others finding much to like. Creem critics Robert Christgau and Dave Marsh, for instance, thought enough of Greetings to publish favorable reviews in back-to-back issues.

Rolling Stone called The Wild, The Innocent “gritty and serious.” If none of this translated into significant sales, it did at least start a buzz that would resonate through the long months of 1974 and early 1975 as Springsteen struggled under intense pressure from his record label to produce his third album.

When Born to Run was finally released in late summer of 1975, the buzz transmuted into a firestorm of critical acclamation. “If I seem to OD on superlatives,” wrote Lester Bangs in Creem, “it’s only because Born to Run demands them.” Famed Philadelphia DJ Ed Sciaky wrote in Phonograph that Born to Run was “a magnificent album, lyrically and musically.” From the French journal Extra Nouvelle: “This record is fabulous – let us not be afraid of the word.” There were doubters then, as now, but as the following reviews excerpted from publications in The Bruce Springsteen Special Collection amply demonstrate, Born to Run simultaneously hit the most of the critical press and public consciousness with supernova megawatts that continue to illuminate the way, 30 years down the road.

THE REVIEWS

“[His] lyrical approach is perfectly relayed through music that is, to say the least, stunning. The eight songs on Born To Run are all striking with Springsteen’s powerful, expressive voice providing a punch unlike that of any other singer … It’s useless to say that one song is better than the next, as each is potent in some way. After several listenings, the subtle beauty of the vocals, the instrumentation and the arrangements, combined as a unit, become profound .”

– Bill Scott, Now, Sept. 5, 1975

Born To Run is aimed right. It just doesn’t go off … Though considerable attention has been paid to the arrangements, many of the tracks amount to an attempt to evolve an impression of artificial verite as Springsteen sweats through his urban rock-renewal programme … Many of the melodies, riffs, rhythms, and hooks sound as if they floated straight off the car-radio and into Springsteen’s subconscious … The title cut is a distillation of Spector without the charisma, ‘She’s The One’ is Bo Diddley, ‘Jungleland’ starts off by sounding like The Who (‘Baba O’Riley’), cops a few licks from Reed and Rundgren, and finished off keeping the listener entertained until the next Laura Nyro album.”

– Roy Carr, New Musical Express (UK), Sept. 6, 1975

“Three tracks, ‘Night,’ ‘Jungleland’ and the beautiful reflective ‘Meeting Across The River’ are a model of structure composition. But elsewhere the band fails to convey the variation of mood that Springsteen’s songs demand … This is not an essential album to have in the way that the previous two were, and yet my initial mixed feelings of surprise and slight disappointment have abated. Springsteen’s new musicians have got the chops alright while his own brilliance is now contained rather than allowed to run free. But the point is that it’s still there and it’s the distinction from the two previous efforts that makes this album so interesting. I have grown to love it but newcomers to Bruce’s music would be better advised to check out what the critics have been raving about in the past. Old fans will need to persevere.”

– Jerry Gilbert, Sounds, Sept. 13, 1975

“Springsteen’s new songs are no longer rooted solely in images from his scuffling boardwalk youth: he’s now taken the emotional gruel of those narratives and put them into overdrive by adding his overwhelming fear of entrapment. Literally every song is touched with that drive to escape, from the desperately romantic ‘Thunder Road’ to the screaming realizations of ‘Backstreets.’ The more I listen the more I think that Born To Run is Springsteen’s most intensely personal album, with the musical components from his favorite period, early sixties Spector-sound power-drive, and the emotional meat from both his struggling days and the here-and-now.”

– John Milward, Chicago Reader, Sept. 19, 1975

Born To Run is a magnificent album, lyrically and musically. If it seems enigmatically produced, give it time. Springsteen’s visions combined simple elements into an intrinsically complex blend of sounds, producing rich and most powerful rewards. While this is not live Springsteen, it is Bruce’s effort at letting us hear these songs as he hears them, at recreating on record what’s in his head…Springsteen deals primarily in emotions, using his story-songs not so much to tell a story as create, piece by piece, character by character, a fantasy world, an opera of images rich in feeling. The songs hold-up individually and totaled become a vision of the violence and tenderness, of life on the street.”

– Ed Sciaky, Phonograph, October 1975

“The biggest American revelation of 1975 will without doubt be Bruce Springsteen, whose shows at the Bottom Line in New York in August triggered a veritable glowing hysteria in the press and in the public. Bluntly called “the savior of rock” etc etc, for the last two years, he was immediately labeled as ‘the new Dylan,’ (but) has presently freed himself up from this heavy load and offers a rock alloy that is very funky and extremely poetic which captivates both small and large. One will quickly be able to judge with his third album, Born to Run, recently released amid the highest honors on the charts. It’s a beautiful collective hysteria.”

Best (France), October 1975

“Musically, the album is built around the rhythm section, the piano, and varying lead instruments. Each performs a function, both in the sound and the development of the lyric themes. A number of the songs begin in the same way as ‘Backstreets,’ building slowly around an intensifying piano rhythm, above which Springsteen first speaks, second sings, and third howls the words of a world without escape. Through the first verses the lead instrument cuts across the rhythm, then takes off in a mid-song solo, finally returning to echo the words on the run-in. It’s the oldest trick in the book – counterpointing an endless piano with sharp cutting leads – but it’s rarely been done better, and it’s essential to the overall vision … The two main lead instruments are Clarence Clemons’ saxophone, which adds a touch of sleaziness to the images, and Bruce’s guitar. As is apparent from the cover, he wears it low on the hip, and he uses it throughout like a weapon: a Bo Diddleyish hammer in ‘She’s The One’, a B-movie ‘strangler-in-the-fog’ in ‘Backstreets’, a scythe slashing Who riffs across fast-flowing piano in ‘Jungleland’. If there’s one criticism of this album it’s that he doesn’t use the guitar often enough. Whenever it appears it’s mesmerizingly violent, the perfect foil to Roy Bittan’s rolling keyboard work.”

– Dave Downing, Let It Rock (UK), October 1975

“Bruce Springsteen, at the time wrongly launched as another Dylan-imitator, is finally going to make it, in spite of the ‘CBS sales talk’ and the, after all, very unprofessional sounding Greetings from Asbury Park record …[H]is third record should be seen as a new beginning. Springsteen is making very grown-up music nowadays. He’s no longer trying to sing about his frustrations like some mediaeval minstrel, but he’s busy creating his own sound, which goes further than Dylan’s electronic inventions by the time of Blonde on Blonde … It’s a new episode in the great American tradition from Seeds, Dylan and Doors. All that aggression, which was temporarily put into the Vietnam war, is now being put into music again.”

Veronica (The Netherlands) Oct. 4, 1975

“It is a magnificent album that pays off on every bet ever placed on him — a ’57 Chevy running on melted down Crystals records that shuts down every claim that has been made. And it should crack his future wide open …Born to Run is the motto that speaks for the album’s tales, just as the guitar figure that runs through the title song — the finest compression of rock & roll thrill since the opening riffs of ‘Layla’ — speaks for its music … The songs, the best of them, are adventures in the dark, incidents of wasted fury. Tales of kids born to run who lose anyway, the songs can, as with ‘Backstreets,’ hit so hard and fast that it is almost impossible to sit through them without weeping. And yet the music is exhilarating. You may find yourself shaking your head in wonder, smiling through tears at the beauty of it all … It is a measure of Springsteen’s ability to make his music bleed that ‘Backstreets,’ which is about friendship and betrayal between a boy and a girl, is far more deathly than ‘Jungleland,’ which is about a gang war. The music isn’t ‘better,’ nor is the singing — but it is more passionate, more deathly and, necessarily, more alive. That, if anything, might be the key to this music: As a ride through terror, it resolves itself finally as a ride into delight.”

– Greil Marcus, Rolling Stone, Oct. 9, 1975

“Springsteen joined the pantheon with the release of Born To Run. The music is urgent, full of abrupt stops and startling changes of tempo; the lyrics tell powerful stories of characters on the edge, living out rock and roll dreams … Springsteen’s characters are ‘tramps … born to run’ whose glory lies in a moment, not in a lifetime. Their dream is to flash just once; to chance everything in hopes of grabbing some onto something they can call their own. These are the dreams that dissolve into lives of quiet desperation.”

– David McGee, Record World, Oct. 25, 1975

Born To Run is a bridge between Springsteen the raffish rocker and the more ragged, introverted street poet of the first two albums. Although he maintains that he ‘hit the right spot’ on Born To Run, it is the second album, The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, that seems to go deepest. A sort of free-association autobiography, it comes closest to the wild fun-house refractions of Springsteen’s imagination.”

– Jay Cocks, Time, Oct. 27, 1975

“This record is fabulous – let us not be afraid of the word. Lyrics and composer are remarkable, and Bruce also has a personality that will not leave his listener indifferent …One thinks a bit of Roger McGuinn, of the Band and of Dylan but always from now on we’ll have to get used to thinking of Bruce Springsteen as a personality and an original creator because this is one of the best records of all time.”

Extra Nouvelle (France), November 1975

“‘Thunder Road’ opens with harmonica; then the first sounds of the voice grab you throughout the body. As if Dylan had a son who sings harder than he, but not Dylan, there will never be another Dylan, the old Bob did nicely, and Springsteen is well there, [with his] infuriating words, sentences and phrases to place himself abruptly bitching toward the black sky … The band sounds ruthlessly fat, but the organ and piano parts alternate with subtlety, and the magnificent chorus of black sax knows how to gush so truly, at the precise instant, just when one needs the haughty splendor of a saxophone … Springsteen croaks out his images or his passions in a terrifying manner, like a tightrope walker too drunk and then a little too amorous, but so strong that he can outdo you with a monstrous riff and prop you up with his grin … .[F]or all those who climb the walls at night, be happy, Bruce Springsteen is for you. The rest [i.e. the rock and roll alternatives] is nothing but junk made of shit.”

– François Ducray, Rock & Folk (France), November 1975

“Springsteen’s landscapes of urban desolation are all heightened, on fire, alive. His characters act in symbolic gestures, bigger than life. Furthermore, there’s absolutely nothing in his music that’s null, detached, or perverse and even his occasional world-weariness carries a redemptive sense of lost battles passionately fought. Boredom appears to be a foreign concept to him – he reminds us what it’s like to love rock ‘n’ roll like you just discovered it, and then seize it and make it your own with certainty and precision … If I seem to OD on superlatives, it’s only because Born To Run demands them; the music races in a flurry of Dylan and Morrison and Phil Spector and a little of both Lou Reed and Roy Orbison, luxuriating in them and an American moment caught at last, again, and bursting with pride … In a time of squalor and belittled desire, Springsteen’s music is majestic and passionate with no apologies.”

– Lester Bangs, Creem, November 1975

“What we have is high quality, tense, often tearing, thriving, sometimes irritating to the point of flipping-out, heavy but not physical, sensual and mind-blowing, skillful, and with each note, each line, a new feeling. Born To Run is a mature record from a hyper-sensible poet and musician … The American rock magazine, Crawdaddy still refers to Bruce Springsteen as “Bruce Dylan”, but since the release of his second album Springsteen has proved his worth over his idols to the people who didn’t believe in him. His own material is far away from the folk-rock concept of Dylan and compared to him, Bruce deals better with foreign influences … If anything, Born To Run is a little like Astral Weeks was for Van Morrison, the final and logical step for a musical past … where comparisons don’t work anymore, where he would simply be someone who sings his own songs … Sometimes Springsteen is just a little over the top, his energy is just out of control, but it’s this energy, the continuous pulsation, that makes this record alive and compelling.”

– Van Jiirgen Legath, Sounds (Germany) November 1975

“The forced internal rhymes of the earlier song lyrics have given way to a brash, long-lined lyricism in which focal images of cars and motorcycles, thunder, neon signs, clashing gangs, and the throbbing, sexy beat of Jersey Shore, honky-tonk fleshpots merge into as powerful a metaphor for urban America as any rock poet has yet supplied … [W]hat is finally most impressive about Born To Run are the song lyrics, which communicate a street-life experience that is both personal and mythic. With this accomplishment, Springsteen embodies the myth of rock & roll as an urban, proletarian outburst. By personifying the poet-hoot, boy-man, rebel-hero of American mass culture from Brando, Dean, and Presley through Dylan, Springsteen reminds us that rock & roll came from the streets as a cultural necessity, an instinctual urge toward self-transcendence and self-definition.”

– Stephen Holden, Circus Raves, December 1975

“This was one of those LPs awaited in Spain … (because of) the entire range of commentary which we have read in the American press about the Springsteen “boom” … Born To Run is one of the best albums which I have seen this year, of absolute quality, extraordinary rhythms and a series of fantastic themes, all dominated by Bruce’s talent and primarily his voice. There is nothing wasted in the album in any sense. The central theme is a display of energy, but ‘Night’, ‘Jungleland’, ‘Backstreets’, and ‘Thunder Road’ don’t take a back seat. And it is not only Bruce, but his group, the production, the depth of all the work put together by a great artist at this time … Springsteen is a ‘boom’ in flesh and blood, an authentic hero of the rock scene of 1975 and the 1970s.”

Disco Express (Spain) Dec. 5, 1975

TRACK BY TRACK

‘Thunder Road’

“The images … touch us down in our core. In ‘Thunder Road,’ there is the line ‘Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet’; given the symbolic importance attached to the graduation gown, it is one of rock’s most powerful images. ‘What else can we do now,’ Springsteen asks, ‘except to roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair.’ In essence, your future’s nil, but at least you’re free, so … take a chance.”

– David McGee, Record World, Oct. 25, 1975

‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’

” … a delighted R&B song about how Springsteen formed his band, introduced by the type of prologue that rings up the curtain on Shakespearean productions.”

– Stephen Holden, Circus Raves, December 1975

‘Night’

“The title cut, a rock standard by any definition, builds an incredible energy with wall-to-wall sound. I can’t remember a more thrilling song of the road. ‘Night,’ a less ambitious number, suffers only by comparison.”

– Stephen Holden, Circus Raves, December 1975

‘Backstreets’

“… begins with music so stately, so heartbreaking, that it might be the prelude to a rock & roll version of The Iliad.”

– Greil Marcus, Rolling Stone, Oct. 9, 1975

‘Born To Run’

“Springsteen’s characters ‘sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream,’ skating for a longshot in automobiles and beds with the omnipresent roar of the radio driving them on to connect anew, as even in the failure of their striving they are redeemed by Springsteen’s vision: ‘Tramps like us – baby, we was born to run.’”

– Lester Bangs, Creem, November 1975

‘She’s The One’

“… an extraordinary song where all the gestures are of suffering.”

– François Ducray, Rock & Folk (France), November 1975

‘Meeting Across The River’

” … a real surprise, a dramatic monologue/song, featuring the sultry trumpet of Randy Brecker.”

– Ed Sciaky, Phonograph, October 1975

‘Jungleland’

“A great hooligan tide washing through New York dusky nights, playing guitars and clawing their way toward love.”

– Dave Downing, Let It Rock (UK) October 1975

(Special thanks to Maggie Powell, Ed Toskaner, Roy van Rees, Klaus Boettger and Deborah Robinson for translations; Dan Toskaner and the staff of the Asbury Park Public Library for research assistance; and Christopher Phillips of Backstreets for editing and encouragement. Compiled by Bob Crane.)

The Collection on The New York Times website

As part of their Born To Run anniversary coverage, The New
York Times’ website featured a video about the Collection entitled “The Archive.” The video was produced by Craig Duff and Erik Olsen and linked from the Arts section of The Times.

BTR Reading List

Among the hundreds of Born To Run-era articles over the years, a true stand-out for anyone wanting to plunge back into the emotions of 1975 is ‘The Runaway American Dream,’ published in the November 2005 issue of Uncut magazine from the UK. The article traces the making of Born To Run with revealing discussions of the doubts and despair that surrounded the epic recording sessions. As a companion, we recommend Uncut‘s December 2000, reexamination of the legendary Hammersmith Odeon concert. Eyewitness interviews with UK reporters who were there come down fairly heavily on the side of “hype versus reality,” but the photos alone make this issue worth reading.