The record did not do well commercially, partly because of minimal promotion by CBS and partly because of the unclassified nature of the new album’s sound and structure. However, the record was well received critically, and its reputation as a classic continues to grow four decades later.
In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked it as number 132 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Looking back at reviews over the years, critics continue to embrace the album; sales of the album increased and it went platinum (sales of the album are just shy of 3 million); and longtime fans crave a chance to hear one of its seven tracks in concert.
But selling the record was still a struggle a year after the album’s release. In a November 1974 article in Melody Maker, Michael Watts writes: “In those few months since the Bottom Line performances (in July 1974), his album sales have started to pick up in America, especially those of his second record, which has gone past the 80,000 mark. Still that isn’t too great; by big league standards, it’s even a failure.”
Despite its bleak commercial launch, the record has become a classic in the eyes of fans and critics. Dave Marsh writing in 1979 summed up most fans’ feelings about the album. “For Springsteen, the watershed came on his second album. If he has already written greater music, explored the possibilities of his ideas more completely, made better recordings, none of it can ever sound quite this fresh.”
Ken Emerson, in his Rolling Stone review in January of 1974, writes: “The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle takes itself more seriously (than Greetings). The songs are longer, more ambitious and more romantic; and yet, wonderfully, they lose little of Greetings’ rollicking rush. Having released two fine albums in less than a year, Springsteen is obviously a considerable new talent. Like Greetings, the new album is about the streets of New York and the tacky Jersey Shore, but the lyrics are no longer merely zany cut-ups. They’re striking amalgams of romance and gritty realism.”
Emerson goes on to rave about the still unnamed E Street Band, calling them “essentially an R&B outfit. About Bruce himself, Emerson writes: “Springsteen is growing as a writer of music as well as of words. The best of his new songs dart and swoop from tempo to tempo and from genre to genre, from hell-bent-for-leather rock to luscious schmaltz….” He goes on to call “Incident” “the album’s most stunning track.”
In an August 1974 interview with Robert Hilburn in Melody Maker, Springsteen himself says, “On the second album I started slowly to find out who I am and where I want to be. It was like coming out of the shadow of various influences and trying to be me … You have to let out more of yourself all the time. You strip off the first layer, then the second, then the third. It gets harder because it’s more personal.”
Bruce Pollack in the New York Times writes: “In an era of diminishing returns, false prophets and false bottoms, where the best of our instant pop-up superstars are either choked off, laid back, lame or laid out flat…. it is with a great sense of relief that I announce to disbelievers that Bruce Springsteen has delivered another stone, howling, joyous monster of a record…..”
Pollack ended his review with a prophetic “Can you imagine what his third album will be like?”
Many fans didn’t discover The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle until that third album emerged, and Born to Run caught their attention when it came on the radio and compelled them to buy a ticket to the next Springsteen show they could. They tracked down and bought his first two albums to learn where this third masterpiece had come from.
As Springsteen’s career grew, critics continued to praise the album as its place in his body of work was becoming clearer.
Parke Puterbaugh in the introduction to The Rolling Stones Files:BS writes: “For me, it’s the atmosphere of the album that will never be surpassed: the closely observed, carefree canvas it paints of a place and time when the fires of late adolescence and early adulthood still burned brightly … ultimately the album is more about a state of mind than the state of N.J. …”
Chris Roberts writing in Uncut magazine’s Ultimate Music Guide: Springsteen says: “Musically it’s an album that celebrates a broad carnival of American styles. From the mock-worthy tones of the organ, to the funk-based ‘wah wah’ guitar on the opening track, from Phil Spector echoes to James Brown rhythms and joyous choruses, Springsteen is still the storyteller aflame with missionary zeal. “
At the time of the album’s release, the critics mostly praised the sophomore effort, and Springsteen’s music and lyrics that had grown up a bit since Greetings from Asbury Park.
An uncredited reviewer in the April 1, 1974 edition of Time magazine, described the album’s songs as “ambitious mini-operas populated by punch saints and Go-Kart Mozarts in scenarios laced with schmalz and violence. His territory: the streets of Harlem, tenements, the funky world of the boardwalk’s pinball way with its dusty arcades and machines. Bursting with words, images rush along in cinematic streams of consciousness.”
Lenny Kaye in the May 1974 Hit Parader says, “The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, his second album, is a step in a better direction, the past few months giving Springsteen the commitment and artistic security to tighten his vision. … His writing is now not so much verbal paroxysm as definitive image. Springsteen is at his best when writing of the the faded bungalow elegance of his seaside environment, its circusi and city-bred street scenes.”
Mark Jenkins writing in the Fall/Winter 1974 issue of Rock ‘N’ Roll Hype says: “Springsteen and the band have to win over people because they suffer from a familiar Columbia recording artists’ dilemma: They’ve been hyped to the point where few people believe they’re as good as the Columbia PR men and well-meaning rock crits say they are. They are, and they have a second album that proves it by having few weaknesses of the first. Springsteen is the singer, songwriter and lead guitarist, but he sounds best as a bandleader rather than a solo star.”
But there were some who didn’t offer praise. In a review titled, “Howls of derisive laughter, Bruce,” in the January 1974 New Musical Express, Nick Kent wrote “Springsteen’s new album is marginally better than the first if only because his band is more together and the arrangements are often pretty neat. I really like the track “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” simply because it had an accordion featured on it — until Springsteen goes and ruins it all by growling a self-conscious ‘Sandy, that waitress I was seeing lost her desire for me.’ No two ways about it, the boy just cannot step back to avoid that kind of roccoco overkill. He thrusts as much imagery as he can into one song until it all gets so bloated you don’t even want to know what’s going on. Sad really, because under it all you figure the guy might just have something to say.”
Dave Downing in the May 1974 edition of Let It Rock writes: “He’s not Dylan and this isn’t Astral Weeks, but truisms aside, this record shows an ability to grab reality and either rock or simmer it. … A sci-fi story introduced a race of aliens who only heard in colors. … I can tell you this music is deep orange and dark grey … like a burning city.”
Here’s what Springsteen himself had to say about the album in his book SONGS:
“Heading into The Wild & the Innocent, I was intent on taking control of the recording process. Greetings was primarily an acoustic record with a rhythm section. That was fine the first time out, but I made my living primarily as a rock musician. Now I wanted to continue the lyrical content of my first album, but add to it the physicality my music always had coming up through the clubs. For this record, I was determined to call on my songwriting ability and my bar band experience. …I was determined to take the reins and go in the creative direction I wanted. “
It appears Springsteen got what he wanted. Hilburn writes in his Melody Maker article: “His second album made enormous strides toward giving Springsteen that separate identity. Without sacrificing the surrealistic lyrics, both his themes – normally reflecting the innocence, wonder, frustrations urgency of youth – were more disciplined and his musical backing bolder than in the first album. … What Springsteen does is compress a broad collection of scenes into song, leaving the listener to draw his own truths, realities. He thus provides a puzzle for his audience to assemble. Clues rather than answers. …”
Hilburn quotes Springsteen in the same article as saying: “Songs have to have possibilities. You have to let the audience search it out for themselves. You can’t say, ‘Here it is. This is exactly what I mean,’ and give it to them. You have to let them search.”
The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle received some air play on FM stations when it was first released, however it was not until Springsteen achieved popularity with Born To Run, that many FM stations went back to his second record and started playing some of the tracks more frequently. There were some exceptions. Richard Neer of WNEW-FM in New York consistently played Side 2 uninterrupted.
The album’s seven tracks are a little less than 47 minutes long. They were recorded between May and September 1973 at 914 Sound Studios in Blauvelt, N.Y. The album’s title is supposedly based upon an Audie Murphy movie from the late 1950s titled The Wild & the Innocent.
“After an unevenly astounding debut album, Springsteen’s almost entirely successful second shot somehow adds up to much more than the sum of its parts: not a conceptual album, but a complete one,” Greg Mitchell writes in the January 1974 Stereo Review. “For The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, Springsteen has taken some of the craziness but none of the tension out of the kind of lyrics that made Greetings From Asbury Park a frantic rush of manic intensity.”
“Asbury Park was Springsteen’s ‘growing up’ album,” Mitchell continues. “On E Street, Bruce is not so wild and decidedly less innocent – apparently with one of the characters on the album, he’s ‘left the corner, thrown away all his switchblade knives.’”
“E Street nevertheless emerges as a stronger album, complete unto itself as a presentation of an artist and his milieu,” Mitchell concludes.
In an interview with Jerry Gilbert of ZigZag in 1974, Springsteen said, “I see these situations happening when I sing them and I know the characters well. I use them in different songs and see them in shadows — They’re probably based on people I know or else they’re flashes, that just appear there. There’s a lot of activity, a whole mess of people … it’s like if you’re walking down the street, my songs are what you see, only distorted. A lot of songs were written without any music at all, it’s just that I do like to sing the words.” Gilbert writes, “Springsteen’s picture book of city street life is a nightmare vision.”
In the Harvard Crimson, April 24, 1974, Mickey Kaus writes, “For one thing, he does not seem to think this his own life as a performer is all that interesting. … Springsteen is more confused about his role, and as a result seems to be living in the same world as the rest of us. … Unlike his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, where the descriptions bristled with enough Dylanesque alliteration to make them look like typing exercises, on E Street, Springsteen works with an easy, economical sense of concreteness and colloquial ambience. He talks normal, only we should talk so good.”
Side 1: “The E Street Shuffle”; “The 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)”; “Kitty’s Back”; “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.”
“The themes of side one deal with escape,” Dave Marsh writes. “The first side of The Wild & The Innocent is characterized by a remarkable exuberance. Even the slower songs have a quality of release, a delight in the simple joy of existence. “
Here’s Bruce’s take on the opening track: “The opening cut, “The E Street Shuffle”, is a reflection of a community that was partly imagined and partly real. It was the early ‘70s: blues, R&B, and soul were still heavily influential and heard often along the Jersey Shore. Musically I based the song on Major Lance’s ‘60s hit “Monkey Time” … a dance song. The cast of characters came vaguely from Asbury Park at the turn of the decade. I wanted to describe a neighborhood, a way of life, and I wanted to invent a dance with no exact steps. It was just the dance you did every day and every night to get by.”
The second track on side one, “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)”, was written as a goodbye to Bruce’s adopted hometown, as it started to fall on hard times, and the life he lived before he recorded.
Chris Roberts in Uncut magazine wrote about the song: “”4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” for many fans is his best written song prior to “Born To Run”. It displays an extraordinary early grasp of how to balance expressions of yearning with artistic restraint. The chorus is a heart tugger, while the anti-hero’s confessions seem as much designed to get himself into action as to woo the titular small town goddess.”
Author Robert Santelli described the song as “…the perfect musical study of the Jersey Shore boardwalk culture.”
Dave Marsh called the song “a nearly perfect ballad. The arrangement is built around the acoustic guitar and accordion which are haunting in their simplicity.”
In Springsteen’s own words: “”Sandy” was a composite of some of the girls I’d known along the shore. I used the boardwalk and the closing down of the town as a metaphor for the end of a summer romance and the changes I was experiencing in my own life.”
Marc Dolan in his book, Bruce Springsteen and The Promise of Rock ‘N’ Roll, makes an interesting observation: “On its surface, the song is about the end of a summer romance, but few of Springsteen’s fans have noticed how oddly timed this valediction is. Usually the end of summer, not to mention summer romances, comes somewhere around Labor Day, not Independence Day. Who but the most pessimistic and lethargic of lovers sees the end of the affair coming almost two months in advance.”
“But “4th of July, Asbury Park” isn’t just about summer lovers or boardwalk attractions, of course. It’s about how lovely it is to look back on the romantic past, even to see the present as past while one is living it, ‘the aurora rising behind us’ as the song’s lyric famously puts it,” Dolan concludes.
Danny Federici’s organ fills were a key component in the E Street sound, as were his use of the electronic glockenspiel. But it’s Federici’s accordion playing on “Sandy“, that makes it the song most associated with him.
The third track on Side One is “Kitty’s Back“. Legend has it that the title came from a neon sign promoting the return of popular stripper’s show to a local Shore-area club.
Chris Roberts writes: “If “Sandy” was a quiet storm, “Kitty’s Back” revved up the engines again and allowed the band to roar free. … As the epic track crescendos, Springsteen hollers ‘Kitty’s Back in Town’ with the vigor of Otis Redding.”
Here’s Springsteen’s take on the song: “”Kitty’s Back” was a remnant of some of the jazz-tinged rock I occasionally played with a few of my earlier bands. It was a swing-time shuffle, a distorted piece of big band music. In ’74, I had to have songs that could capture audiences that had no idea who I was. As an opening act, I didn’t have much time to make an impact. I wrote several long pieces … “Thundercrack”, “Kitty’s Back”, “Rosalita” … that were arranged to leave the band and the audience exhausted and gasping for breath. Just when you thought the song was over, you’d be surprised by another section taking the music higher. It was in spirit what I had taken from the finales of the great soul revues. When you left the stage after performing one of these, you’d worked to be remembered.”
The final track on side one of the album is “Wild Billy’s Circus Story”, a song originally written as “Circus Town” for Greetings in 1972.
Chris Roberts in Uncut magazine writes: “”Wild Billy’s Circus Story” is a loopy slice of oompah-oompah waltz. … Springsteen’s use of a traveling circus as a metaphor for rock and roll life on the road as one of a team of dysfunctional players cleverly conveys both its thrills and bouts of loneliness.”
Here’s what Bruce had to say about the song: “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” was a black comedy based upon my memories of the fairs and the Clyde Beatty/Cole Bros. Circus that visited Freehold every summer when I was a kid. They’d set up a midway and pitch their tents in a field across from the racetrack not far from my house. It was also a song about the seduction and the loneliness of a life outside the margins of everyday life. At twenty four, already having spent a good deal of time on the road for better or worse that was the life I wanted to live. ”
Side Two: “Incident on 57th Street” into “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” into “New York City Serenade”
In today’s digital music world, the concept of album sides is only familiar to those older fans who actually listened to The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle on vinyl or those younger fans who have actually discovered the joys of owning and playing a vinyl album. The second side of the album contains only three songs, but it is considered a perfect album side and one of the greatest album sides of all time.
Chris Roberts writes: “The three songs can be viewed as a connected suite, almost a rock opera.”
Dave Marsh agreed: “In a way, the album’s two sides seem like separate records. The first, E Street side, is something of a holdover from Greetings, full of energetic songs, whose potential has not always been fully exploited. But Side 2 contains Springsteen’s first fully realized thematic concepts – a three-song suite of tales about wild and innocent kids on the loose. Side 2 is much darker – while it is never defeatist, it is certainly more raw.”
Marsh also makes this observation about “Incident on 57th Street”: “The story itself is as old as Romeo & Juliet, but it is told with the passion of someone who must, sometimes in the dark of night, wish that he had lived it – or fear that he might. This is rock not just on the edge, but over it.”
George Pelecanos called “Incident on 57th Street”: “One of the great primal rock and roll performances, and as close to a perfect song as anyone’s ever recorded.”
Stephen Nathans writes, in his paper “Bruce Springsteen’s “Incident on 57th Street”: The Wild, the Innocent, and The Boss’s Becoming,” “Bruce’s chapter and verse location recitation epitomize that suburban kid’s passionate connection to the city, a romantic yearning for the every-moment-matters feverishness of city life, where 57th Street at any moment may take on the epochral eminence of Troy or Trieste.”
“Perhaps the height of Bruce’s early romanticism is the warm and wandering “Incident on 57th Street”. It not altogether clear what the incident is, or why it has to happen at 57th Street, but our hero Spanish Johnny and the other characters are wonderfully vivid, and Bruce’s over-the-top depictions reveal a man overflowing with feeling for these ill-fated kids. The song teems with unforgettable lines, from the Dylan-derived but utterly Springsteenian ‘bruised arms and broken rhythm’ to Bruce’s first mission statement as modern urban street-bard: ‘I wanna drive you down to the other side of town, Where paradise ain’t so crowded, There’ll be action going down on shanty lane tonight, All the golden-heeled fairies in a real bitch fight, Pull 38s and kiss the girls goodnight.’ Here Bruce declares his commitment to being the poet, the celebrant of urban street youth. … It’s a world he can see with astonishing clarity — Probably the kind of clarity only poets can have, since they can feel things without muddling that feeling with actual experience. … As a poet’s vision, “57th Street” doesn’t so much celebrate the grace and majesty of street fighting as the invigoration of vividly imagining how life much feel on the edge of love and violence and danger. It is the joy of the true poet and the true Romantic to have to talent to give such vitality its due.”
In his 1974 interview with ZigZag’s Gilbert, Springsteen said, “I mean I’ve stood around carnivals at nights when they’re clearing up and I was scared. … As for Spanish Johnny’s situation, well I’d never get into that kind of situation but I know people who have lived that life.”
Mickey Kaus writing in the Harvard Crimson on April 24, 1974 had this to say about Side 2’s next song, “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).”
“”Rosalita” is a juicy, scat-sun Van Morrison-type song in which Springsteen wants to steal away his girlfriend from her parents to spend what seem to be a lifelong communal orgy in the hangouts of New York. The song builds up to a seeming final crescendo with terrific fast loud chorus. Where can he go from here? But the music keeps on — you feel like shouting. Then all of a sudden it is happening, the entire band is standing up there in the studio, chanting, “HEY, HEY, HEY, HEY, HEY” — it is like the Ohio State football team has just charged onto the record — “HEY, HEY, HEY” — rather than end it Springsteen is dragging it out, on a level plane, at its moment of ultimate climax, of absolute ecstasy — “HEY, HEY, HEY” — the saxophone basting higher and higher in Latin swoops, faster and faster — and then it is over in a final blast. You want more, but not really, since it is not clear that there could be any more.”
Here’s Bruce take on Side 2’s three songs:
“”Incident on 57th Street” and “NYC Serenade” were my romantic stories of NYC … a place that had been my getaway from small-town New Jersey since I was 16. Incident particularly featured a theme I’d return to often in the future: the search for redemption. Over the next 20 years, I’d work this one like only a good Catholic boy could.
“Rosalita” was my musical autobiography. It was my getting out of town preview for Born To Run with more humor. I wrote it as a kiss-off to everybody who counted you out, put you down, or decided you weren’t good enough. The lyrics also took a peek into the future – someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny. Not that it would be funny, but it would all seem funny. Probably one of the most useful lines I’ve ever written.”
The last track on the album is “New York City Serenade”, a song that Bruce has played live only eight times since 1975. “New York City Serenade” actually evolved from two other songs Bruce had written, “New York Song” and “Vibes Man.”
Dave Marsh in his book Born To Run has this to say about “NYC Serenade”:
“There’s great delicacy in this song, with its acoustic guitar and light piano, rumbling bass, and crying strings. But in the guitar, there’s an edge like a knife, and Bruce’s voice aches with desire. At the very end of the song’s 10 minutes, the music glides and soars with a singsong celebration of a junkman whose ‘singing, singing’ becomes a triumph of life itself. For in this place, beauty is everywhere balanced by something sinister.”
The evocative piano intro on this song was composed by the David Sancious, who also is credited with the string arrangement.
Marc Dolan writes: “The first minute of the final studio version on “NYC Serenade” is electrifying. Sancious’ opening quasi-classical run seems to take in the whole keyboard of a grand piano. … Shifting fluidly from one musical mode to another, Sancious tries out a series of possible openings – with echoes of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, ‘30s boogie woogie, ‘50s Erroll Garner, and more – and finally settles on a gentle, almost rippling figure that serves as an undulating backdrop against which the song’s narrator can begin to tell his stories. Sancious’s part in this recording cannot be adequately characterized as mere accompaniment. His virtuosic opening sets the pace and ground rules for what will follow. His piano part provides the structure within or against which the other instruments and vocals will have to emerge. It may technically be Springsteen’s song, but in this recording at least it is Sancious’ number.”
Springsteen and the band actually recorded 10 additional tracks in the making of this album, according to BruceBase. Five of these were eventually released on Tracks and 18 Tracks. However, the other five including “Evacuation of the West” have never been released.
These songs were sacrificed, according to Peter Ames Carlin, author of Bruce, because they didn’t fit into the movie Bruce imagined himself writing and directing.
Here’s what Springsteen has said about this: “Things didn’t get on because there wasn’t enough room, or you didn’t think you sang that one well or the band didn’t play that one well or you wanted to mess around with the writing some more.”
The album cover was designed by Teresa Alfieri and John Berg and features a pensive Springsteen on the cover and the full band hanging out in a storefront in West Long Branch on the back. The photographs were taken by David Gahr, a well-known rock photographer.
Marc Dolan describes the cover: “The front cover of the album showed Springsteen as his label perceived him: in close-up, with his hand to his bearded chin as if he were musing over some eternal mystery or another.”
Peter Ames Carlin describes the back of the album: ”The photograph on the
album’s back cover revealed Bruce as a street corner poet, wonderfully bedraggled in black Converse sneakers, a wrinkled green tank top, bracelet on his wrist, and leather belt tight around his whippet waist, surrounded by other scroungy but intriguing characters. The height and breadth of Clemons, barefoot in shorts, shirt open, floppy cap on his head, and kerchief knotted around his neck; Lopez, looming above everyone with Hawaiian shirt agape and stone and gristle midsection in clear view. Sancious, also barefoot, sports a black dashiki, while Tallent, all long hair and thick beard, stands next to the angelically tressed Federici, whose smile has the sparkle of a man who really, really wants you to buy his duck.”
The album also marked the beginning of Bruce’s relationship with Jon Landau. Reports from early shows and repeated listenings to WIESS caught the attention of the then young writer from Rolling Stone. Landau in his review of The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle in the Boston-based Real Paper, said “it was the most under-rated album thus far this year, an impassioned and inspired street fantasy that’s as much fun as deep”. But it was Landau’s critique of the album’s production that actually caught Bruce’s eye. Shortly after writing that review, Landau wrote the famous line “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”
Springsteen’s thoughts as he completed his second album: “At the time of The Wild & the Innocent, I had no success so I had no real concerns about where I was going. I was going up, I hoped, or at least out. With a record contract and a touring band, I was better off than most of my friends. I felt lucky to be doing what I loved most. With the opening chords of Rosie, I geared up my band and hit the road without dread.”
Mark Dolan writes in his Springsteen book: “Wild & Innocent is a fantasy, a romanticization of New York and New Jersey in an exceptionally dirty and dangerous era, and yet it is also an act of observed self revelation. Once again, Bruce Springsteen turned his album into a personal statement – a more unified personal statement, in fact, than his first album had been.”
Michael Watts in an Oct. 12, 1974 article in Melody Maker writes: “So we’re waiting now for Bruce Springsteen to collect on his artistry. He needs a hit single, and maybe his albums requires a more commercial touch, but the day can’t be far off. There’s no way he can be turned back now.”
Acknowledgements: Kevin Farrell and Jane Murphy, both Friends of the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection board members, contributed research and writing to this article. Friends Executive Director Melanie Paggioli selected articles from the Special Collection’s holdings to be used in their research.