We continue to explore the career of “The Boss”-Bruce Springsteen.
In September 1973 his second album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, was released, again to critical acclaim but no commercial success. Springsteen’s songs became grander in form and scope, with the E Street Band providing a less folky, more R&B vibe and the lyrics often romanticized teenage street life. “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” and “Incident on 57th Street” would become fan favorites, and the long, rousing “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” continues to rank among Springsteen’s most beloved concert numbers.
In the May 22, 1974, issue of Boston’s The Real Paper, music critic Jon Landau wrote after seeing a performance at the Harvard Square Theater, “I saw rock and roll’s future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.” Landau subsequently became Springsteen’s manager and producer, helping to finish the epic new album, Born to Run. Given an enormous budget in a last-ditch effort at a commercially viable record, Springsteen became bogged down in the recording process while striving for a wall of sound production. But, fed by the release of an early mix of “Born to Run” to progressive rock radio, anticipation built toward the album’s release. All in all the album took more than 14 months to record, with six months alone spent on the song “Born To Run”. During this time Springsteen battled with anger and frustration over the album, saying he heard “sounds in [his] head” that he could not explain to the others in the studio. It was during these recording sessions that “Miami” Steve Van Zandt would stumble into the studio just in time to help Springsteen organize the horn section on “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” (it is his only written contribution to the album), and eventually led to his joining the E Street Band. Van Zandt had been a long-time friend of Springsteen, as well as a collaborator on earlier musical projects, and understood where he was coming from, which helped him to translate some of the sounds Springsteen was hearing. Still, by the end of the grueling recording sessions, Springsteen was not satisfied, and, upon first hearing the finished album, threw the record into the alley and told Jon Landau he would rather just cut the album live at The Bottom Line, a place he often played.
On August 13, 1975, Springsteen and the E Street Band began a five-night, 10-show stand at New York’s Bottom Line club. The engagement attracted major media attention, was broadcast live on WNEW-FM, and convinced many skeptics[who?] that Springsteen was for real. (Decades later, Rolling Stone magazine would name the stand as one of the 50 Moments That Changed Rock and Roll.) Oklahoma City rock radio station WKY, in association with Carson Attractions, staged an experimental promotional event that resulted in a sold out house at the (6000 seat) Civic Center Music Hall. With the release of Born to Run on August 25, 1975, Springsteen finally found success. The album peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, and while reception at U.S. top 40 radio outlets for the album’s two singles were not overwhelming (“Born to Run” reached a modest No. 23 on the Billboard charts, and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” only hit #83), almost every track on the album received album-oriented rock airplay, especially “Born to Run”, “Thunder Road”, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “Jungleland”, all of which remain perennial favorites on many classic rock stations. With its panoramic imagery, thundering production and desperate optimism, Born to Run is considered by some fans to be among the best rock and roll albums of all time and Springsteen’s finest work. Springsteen appeared on the covers of both Time and Newsweek in the same week, on October 27 of that year. So great did the wave of publicity become that Springsteen eventually rebelled against it during his first venture overseas, tearing down promotional posters before a concert appearance in London.
A legal battle with former manager Mike Appel kept Springsteen out of the studio for nearly a year, during which time he kept the E Street Band together through extensive touring across the U.S. Despite the optimistic fervor with which he often performed, his new songs had taken a more somber tone than much of his previous work. Reaching settlement with Appel in 1977, Springsteen returned to the studio, and the subsequent sessions produced Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978). Musically, this album was a turning point in Springsteen’s career. Gone were the raw, rapid-fire lyrics, outsized characters and long, multi-part musical compositions of the first two albums; now the songs were leaner and more carefully drawn and began to reflect Springsteen’s growing intellectual and political awareness. The cross-country 1978 tour to promote the album would become legendary for the intensity and length of its shows.
Springsteen at Félix Houphouët-Boigny International Airport in Ivory Coast during Amnesty International’s 1988 Human Rights Now! Tour.
By the late 1970s, Bruce Springsteen had earned a reputation in the pop world as a songwriter whose material could provide hits for other bands. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band had achieved a U.S. No. 1 pop hit with a heavily rearranged version of Greetings’ “Blinded by the Light” in early 1977. Patti Smith reached No. 13 with her take on Springsteen’s unreleased “Because the Night” (with revised lyrics by Smith) in 1978, while The Pointer Sisters hit No. 2 in 1979 with Springsteen’s also unreleased “Fire”.
In September 1979, Springsteen and the E Street Band joined the Musicians United for Safe Energy anti-nuclear power collective at Madison Square Garden for two nights, playing an abbreviated set while premiering two songs from his upcoming album. The subsequent No Nukes live album, as well as the following summer’s No Nukes documentary film, represented the first official recordings and footage of Springsteen’s fabled live act, as well as Springsteen’s first tentative dip into political involvement.
Springsteen continued to consolidate his thematic focus on working-class life with the 20-song double album The River in 1980, which included an intentionally paradoxical range of material from good-time party rockers to emotionally intense ballads, and finally yielded his first hit Top Ten single as a performer, “Hungry Heart”. This album marked a shift in Springsteen’s music toward a pop-rock sound that was all but missing from any of his earlier work. This is apparent in the stylistic adoption of certain eighties pop-rock hallmarks like the reverberating-tenor drums, very basic percussion/guitar and repetitive lyrics apparent in many of the tracks. The title song pointed to Springsteen’s intellectual direction, while a couple of the lesser-known tracks presaged his musical direction. The album sold well, becoming his first topper on the Billboard Pop Albums chart, and a long tour in 1980 and 1981 followed, featuring Springsteen’s first extended playing of Europe and ending with a series of multi-night arena stands in major cities in the U.S.
The River was followed in 1982 by the stark solo acoustic Nebraska. Recording sessions had been held to expand on a demo tape Springsteen had made at his home on a simple, low-tech four-track tape deck. However during the recording process Springsteen and producer Landau realized the songs worked better as solo acoustic numbers than full band renditions and the original demo tape was released as the album. Although the recordings of the E Street Band were shelved, other songs from these sessions would later be released, including “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Glory Days”. According to the Marsh biographies, Springsteen was in a depressed state when he wrote this material, and the result is a brutal depiction of American life. While Nebraska did not sell as well as Springsteen’s two previous albums, it garnered widespread critical praise (including being named “Album of the Year” by Rolling Stone magazine’s critics) and influenced later significant works by other major artists, including U2’s album The Joshua Tree. It helped inspire the musical genre known as lo-fi music, becoming a cult favorite among indie-rockers. Springsteen did not tour in conjunction with Nebraska’s release.