Born to Run at 40

Born to Run Marks 40th Anniversary

By Jane Murphy, Board Member – Friends of the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection

Forty years ago, the release of Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen’s third studio album, changed the course of a career that was on the line, bringing his music to legions of new fans and setting the themes that would define his life’s work.

Springsteen himself said, “‘Born to Run was the dividing line.” In his book, “Songs,” he wrote, “It was the album where I left behind my adolescent definitions of love and freedom.”

“For me, the primary questions I’d be writing about for the rest of my work life first took form in the songs on Born to Run (‘I want to know if love is real.’),” he wrote.

At the time of its release, Springsteen described the album as “one endless summer night,” with its songs progressing from picking up Mary for “a ride that ain’t free” to the “real death waltz” where they “try to make an honest stand.”

Forty years later, he calls the album “the beginning of the conversation” he’s gone on to have with his audience. For many in that audience, Born to Run was the first Springsteen record they went to the store to buy after hearing the single on the radio. The song became a Top 40 hit, reaching No. 23 on the Billboard 100. The album peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200.

The album took Springsteen from the cult buzz of a loyal band of followers and reviewers to an explosion of critical acclaim with hundreds publishing reviews and profiles in the months after the album’s release. Most famously, two national magazines, Time and Newsweek, featured Springsteen as their cover story the same week in issues simultaneously published on Oct. 27, 1975. Excerpted below are some of the reviews contained in The Bruce Springsteen Special Collection. (See additional reviews, in the Collection’s 30th anniversary article here.)

“As far as I’m concerned, Bruce Springsteen’s success is a blow for quality rock and roll, a victory for music that has both imagery and energy, that talks to our common experiences with the beat of the street,” wrote Mitchell S. Cohen in Good Times (Aug. 26 to Sept. 8, 1975). “All right now: everybody form a line. This is it.”

And the rock critics did just that, writing glowing review after even more glowing review. Cynically, many observed this was the result of the intense promotional campaign Columbia Records threw behind the record’s release. Others turned a blind eye to the hype, extolling the homages to old-time rock ‘n’ roll that echo in Springsteen’s music.

“First there’s Springsteen’s immaculate taste when it comes to choosing influences,” wrote Jean-Charles Costa, Gig, Sept. 1975. “Working together, they strive for an ambitious mix and overall texture – big, dense “tough” sound with lots of echo and delicate effects like chimes, harpsichord and glockenspiel on top – taking seminal Sixties concepts and pushing them to their logical Seventies extreme.”

He continued, “The brilliant juxtaposition of horn lines, hypnotic keyboard figures, soaring, metallic rhythm and lead guitar and a throbbing bottom sound creates an excitement and tension that has been missing in rock for a long time.”

Costa also noted, “His vocal ‘rave-up’ toward the end of “Jungleland” is absolutely shattering” and “His ‘camera-eye’ scans a wide area, zooming in close to single out particularly dramatic series of events and colorful ‘local’ characters.”

Ray Coleman in a review in the September issue of Melody Maker said, “The album is a spine-chiller and two spins of Born to Run should clinch it, a blinding urgent piece of poetry which rocks like early Chuck Berry. … Bruce’s vocals on this album are more resonant, more experienced than before, occasionally with the gravelly charm of a James Cagney.”

He concluded, “With this album, he’s no longer on the horizon but upfront; get it now because in five years, it will be a collector’s item.”

David Fandray in Exit, Sept. 10, 1975, describes a dinner meeting between Springsteen and record company promotional executives. “Meanwhile, Springsteen works on an ear of corn. He maintains some distance between him and these men who plan his future. Although he likes them and appreciates their concern, he seems to be more than a little amused by the attention they focus on him. … The only time he jumps into the discussion of the upcoming album promotions is to laughingly ask (John) Kostick if he has arranged to have airplanes flying over Cleveland that weekend playing the album over giant loudspeakers.”

John Rockwell writing in the New York Times on Dec. 26, 1975 recounted the top 10 albums of the year. “1. Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run. So maybe Columbia tried too crassly to sell some records. So maybe some critics jumped on a bandwagon they didn’t really believe in. So maybe Mr. Springsteen isn’t guaranteed to put out indisputable masterpieces for the rest of his days. So what? Born to Run was the best record of 1975.”

In his earlier review on Aug. 29, 1975, Rockwell wrote, “Born to Run gets us closer still to what BS is all about. … Sometimes his lyrics still lapse too close to self-conscious myth-making but generally they epitomize urban folk poetry at its best — overflowing with pungent detail and evocative metaphors … poetry that attains universality through the very sureness of its concrete imagery. … Hearing these songs is like hearing your own life in music even if you never lived in New Jersey or made love under the boardwalk in Asbury Park.”

“No doubt he will make still greater studio albums than this someday. But in the meantime, you owe it to yourself to buy this record,” Rockwell advised.

Jeff Sorenson, in The Michigan Daily review, Sept. 23, 1975, wrote, “Springsteen shows he was destined to become the first new artist to make a significant contribution to ‘70s rock.”

But he’s not all complimentary: “If a listener expects to be stunned by the brilliance of Springsteen’s lyrics, he will almost certainly be disappointed. … While Dylan’s music focuses on the words, Springsteen’s power comes from his vibrant singing and, above all, from the production and sound of his records. In the grand tradition of much of the best of rock, most of his lyrics simply accompany the music in a tasteful manner and don’t really say that much — the message is in the music.”

He explains, “Springsteen appears to be one of the few rock artists today capable of using all the resources of the modern studio and multi-track recording to their full extent.”

“The instruments seem to wash over the listener in waves, almost enveloping you in a wall of sound like the Beach Boys’   ”God Only Knows” or the Crystals’ ” He’s a Rebel,” (produced by Spector),” he wrote of “Born to Run,” the song. “Its lyrics serve as the best introduction to Springsteen’s special universe.”

“But most of all, it is Springsteen’s use of the studio to orchestrate his city landscape that makes this the finest rock album since Blood on the Tracks,” he states.

“In Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen has taken material that seems inconsequential — the unglamorous aspect of growing up in the American middle class — and crafted musical wings on it and made it soar,” he concluded.

Christine Brown of the Knight News Service published in Sept. 21 1975 edition of the Boston Sunday Globe said Springsteen looks like a punk “but he isn’t. Bruce Springsteen instead is the latest serious candidate for the next king of rock ‘n’ roll.”

BTR “entered Billboard magazine’s Top 200 Albums chart at 83 last week, proving that somebody knows about Bruce Springsteen,” she wrote. “It’s the first album to capture a measure of the excitement he generates in live performance.”

“And why do people in the media and at his record company get goose bumps just thinking about him?” she asked. ”Singing that has Dylanesque overtones but is calculatingly original; the surprising emotional impact of lyrics about love, cars and tough punkiness, music that is fresh but carries history in every other note, and a charismatic energetic two-hour-plus live act with an unusually good band.”

“Lots of performers have one or the other or several of those talents,” she wrote. “But Springsteen’s mastery of them all and the way he combines them make him an original.”

Matt Damsker in The Sunday Bulletin on Sept. 7 1985 wrote, “It’s a truly magnificent LP filled with some of the most exultant diamond-brilliant rock romanticism of recent years, and an epic blossoming of Springsteen’s song-painted vision.”

“The vision as expected remains true to the thematic concerns of Springsteen’s first two albums — unforgettable if uneven renderings of the urgent macho street life of lower middle class urban youth — but for the first time Springsteen’s in-concert excitement and maturing theatricality have been captured on vinyl.”

Cinnie Morgan in The Daily Planet, Sept. 9 1975, wrote of “Jungleland,” “The instrumental breaks in this piece are rocked out in all the right places, but turn bluesy and jazzy about three-quarters of the way through the track. The big surprise comes with the introduction of strings arranged and conducted by Charles Calello after which ‘Jungleland’ softens out again. Listening to ‘Jungleland,’ if you have any imagination at all, is as much a visual as an aural experience.”

“More indicative however is the new power that attaches to Springsteen’s singing; his raspy tough-talking delivery is a wonderful constant, but his vocal style has broadened to include a more theatrical at times almost stentorian quality that hints at the influence of David Bowie with its dramatic accentuations.”

“The eight compositions — four per side and narratively cohesive without seeming at all contrived — constitute a sort of audial, thunder-rocking, 1975 version of ‘West Side Story,’ and the imagery concurs,” Morgan wrote.

In The UD Flyer News, its music reviewer Tom Cunningham wrote, “Bruce Springsteen finally has been hurled into the rock spotlight he deserves …”

“The album’s title cut is the moment of truth. Mary is long forgotten as Bruce and Wendy take off because ‘tramps like us baby we were born to run.’ The E Street Band featuring David Sancious, who has since left for a solo career, has never sounded better on this song that has been receiving much local play,” Cunningham wrote.

Paul Nelson, Village Voice Aug. 25, 1975, wrote, “In the long run, the stamina and purity of personal vision should be applauded to be tenaciously naive is far preferred to following the safest downhill path which leads straight into the formulaic nowhere of much of today’s music business. Small wonder he wants to keep clear of that and case the promised land on his own. … the smart money is betting there’ll be a new star in rock ‘n’ roll heaven when ‘Born to Run’ is released.”

“I wouldn’t doubt it. For me, it’s his best record. … BTR lists three producers … but Landau freely acknowledges that Bruce made every important artistic decision on the LP. ‘The biggest thing I learned from him was the ability to concentrate on the big picture. … he would say. “The release date is just one day, but the record is forever.”

Chuck Bauerlein, writing in the States-Item, Sept. 13, 1975, interviewed Springsteen after “a 160-minute concert in New Orleans.”

“Some of the songs I noted were performed in concert much differently than on his records.

‘Yeah, well, you see each album song is like a picture frame for us. On any given night we are gonna paint the picture a little differently. But we need that frame to guide us. Some moves we do each night, but most of the time we play them like we feel like playing them.”

“Springsteen says he likes the new album ‘best of all.’ He says that Jon Landau was a great help. ‘He was invaluable to me,’ he says, ‘I was stuck in the studio. I needed direction and Landau gave that to me. There wouldn’t have been an album with him.’

Steve Lake writing in Melody Maker, Aug. 23, 1975, said, “But if we focus overmuch on Springsteen as stage personality, we’ll miss what I feel is his trump card: his arranging talent. … In one sense, Bruce has never completed a song, every last one is in a state of flux, changing into a new form, with new verses added, tempo changed, bridges burned.”

Reflecting on Springsteen’s earlier albums, Lake concludes, “Springsteen was a writer in need of an editor, and he found the best there is, the E Street Band. As his lyrics became more entwined with the music of his band, their excesses dropped away and what was left was an organic whole.”

“Where Springsteen has the advantage over Dylan, of course, is in his music’s presentation. Dylan has never been concerned with creating records whose musical power equals their poetic excellence – he has set the artistic burden on his compositions and performances rather than on his bands. Springsteen is as much a bandleader as a writer, and his evolution over three albums has shown a desire to weld his music and his band into a power-flash that hits you like the first snowball of winter.”

Born to Run is a cherry bomb of an album and one that begins to resonate with more clarity after repeated listening,” Lake wrote.

Robert Christgau, in the Village Voice, Sept. 22, 1975, gave Born to Run an “A.”

“Springsteen needs to learn that operatic pomposity insults the Ronettes and that pseudo-tragic beautiful loser fatalism insults us all. And around now I’d better add that the man avoids these quibbles at his best and simply runs them over the rest of the time. … Springsteen may well turn out to be one of those rare self-conscious primitives who get away with it.”

Robert Hilburn in the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 28, 1975 referred to the fragmentation of rock, its “dilution” into subcategories and wrote, “But now we have someone with the ambition, instincts and vision to put some of the pieces back together. That’s where Bruce Springsteen comes in. He is the purest glimpse of the passion and power of rock ‘n’ roll in nearly a decade.

It’s also possible to hear in the songs some references that might well be aligned with the salvation of rock and roll itself: ‘We’ve got one last chance to make it real,’ he says at one point. Part of the strength of Springsteen’s work is it lends itself to multiple interpretation.”

After the most important fall of his life, Springsteen spoke to Ron Sachs for an interview published in the Miami Herald, Nov. 12, 1975. Sachs notes that around the motel pool, “bathers virtually ignore the Jersey kid.”

“‘I haven’t really got a face that’s gonna carry a career for me,’ Springsteen mused tugging on a gold hoop earring that adorns his left lobe. ‘I’m not really trying to do anything other than what I’ve wanted to do since I was about 13 — when I got my first guitar. … I don’t really feel any different,” he said lightly patting sun blister on his face delivered by a weekend of Miami weather as he awaited an evening performance Tuesday.” (A show, Sachs later notes, which “only 3.500 people paid the $6.50 ticket price for the performance in the 5,500 seat Miami Jai-alai Fronton. Not all who attended knew who Springsteen is.”)

“‘I carry a touring group of 23 people and a lot of equipment, and that costs money,’ Springsteen said. ‘What I’m looking for is to just be able to do what I want — write and perform music — with no boss telling me what to do and that’s about where I am now.’”

“‘Music is the thing that really turns me on. — I don’t try to worry about all the promotional crap. … ‘In the end, it’s my music that’s gonna get to people — not some critic’s opinion of what I sound like.’”