Springsteen’s Revives Mainstream Rock Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run catapulted the young rock star to national attention and introduced millions of rock fans to a figure who would decisively shape popular music for the next generation.

Summary of Event

By the middle of 1974, Bruce Springsteen’s fledgling music career had stalled. He had released two critically acclaimed albums for Columbia Records, but they had sold poorly. One more flop, and Springsteen might be discharged from the label altogether. Meanwhile, his notorious perfectionism was preventing him from finishing the record that could put his career back on track. Music;rock Rock and roll Music;rock Rock and roll Springsteen, Bruce Appel, Mike Clemons, Clarence Hammond, John Landau, Jon

Springsteen had come a long way, and he had no intention of turning back. Born and reared in the decaying industrial town of Freehold, New Jersey, he had led a working-class childhood marked by a frustrating relationship with his father, a bus driver, and by a joy of music he inherited from his mother, a secretary. He developed a passion for the guitar he received as a gift in 1963—drums were too expensive—and began emulating his idol, Elvis Presley.

His life soon revolved around music, and he played in a variety of bands during his adolescence. Remaining in New Jersey after his parents left for California, he lived an improvised, vagrant existence, dropping out of a local community college and evading the draft by intentionally filling out forms incorrectly. After a few years, he decided to try to make it on his own as a performer. In 1972, he met Mike Appel, a producer and songwriter who had enjoyed some success working with the Partridge Family, a television singing group. Appel wanted to move into managing artists, and he regarded Springsteen as a major discovery. Excited by the prospect of professional representation, Springsteen signed a contract—on the hood of a car in a parking lot. It was a move he would live to regret.

Its immediate results, however, proved fruitful. Appel arranged for Springsteen to audition for John Hammond, the legendary talent scout who had played a role in the success of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Bob Dylan, and Aretha Franklin. Hammond was deeply impressed by Springsteen and signed him to Columbia Records.

Springsteen’s first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (Springsteen) was released in 1973 to much fanfare. Because of his prolix lyrics, Columbia publicized Springsteen as the “new Dylan” in an effort to market him in the then-popular singer-songwriter mold of such performers as James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell. The comparison with Bob Dylan alienated critics, however, even including some who saw promise in Springsteen. Later the same year, he released The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, The (Springsteen) a more musically complex album that showcased the rhythm-and-blues influences in his work. Again, many critics were impressed, but Springsteen’s music still received little radio airplay or commercial attention.

Nevertheless, Springsteen’s following was growing in the major cities of the Northeast, thanks largely to his live shows, which would soon become legendary. His word-of-mouth reputation attracted the attention of Jon Landau, a highly influential editor for Rolling Stone Rolling Stone (magazine) magazine. Landau attended a Springsteen show in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in May of 1974 and experienced an epiphany. “I saw my rock ’n’ roll past flash before my eyes,” Landau wrote for Boston’s Real Paper in what became one of the most famous reviews in pop music history. “And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”

Columbia seized on Landau’s remark and began marketing Springsteen’s work with new interest. More important, Landau befriended Springsteen and began offering eagerly solicited advice on the stalled album. Under Landau’s guidance (to the chagrin of Appel), Springsteen moved forward, albeit slowly, on the project. Born to Run was released on August 25, 1975, and it created an immediate sensation. Critics hailed it as one of the most vibrant rock records to be released in years. Others grew increasingly skeptical of the hype surrounding the star. It was in this context that both Time and Newsweek put Springsteen on the covers of their October 27, 1975, issues. The former depicted him as an emerging artist; the latter focused on the machinery that had brought him fame. Either way, Springsteen had been transformed from an obscure rock singer into a national phenomenon.

The events that followed, however, threatened to plunge Springsteen back into obscurity. He found it difficult to focus on his work amid all the notoriety, and expectations for him were higher than ever. Meanwhile, tensions with Appel had reached the point of crisis. The contract Springsteen had signed on the hood of a car came back to haunt him; under the terms of the agreement, he did not even have the right to quote his own lyrics. It would be three years before Springsteen would untangle himself legally from Appel and release his next album, 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Darkness on the Edge of Town (Springsteen) By that point, the tone of his work had decisively changed from effusive excitement to grim uncertainty.

Springsteen would eventually fulfill many of the hopes that were pinned on him, however. His appearances at a series of 1978 concerts against nuclear power (captured in the 1980 documentary film No Nukes) consolidated his position as the premier performer of his generation. The River, River, The (Springsteen) released in 1980, resulted in his first top-ten single, “Hungry Heart.” He detoured from mass appeal with the extraordinarily powerful Nebraska Nebraska (Springsteen) in 1982 before achieving towering success with 1984’s Born in the U.S.A., Born in the U.S.A. (Springsteen) which spawned seven hit singles and established Springsteen as an American icon of integrity amid the glitter of the Ronald Reagan era. At long last, rock’s future had arrived.

Significance

Born to Run was one of the great rock-and-roll records of the 1970’s. It reaffirmed some of rock’s early traditions, but it did so in a way that was relevant to American society in the post-Watergate era. As such, the album maintained a vital center at a time when it seemed that center was dwindling.

Bruce Springsteen performs in 1979.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

As many historians of popular music have noted, the 1970’s were not good years in the history of rock. The diverse wave of music that crested in the late 1960’s broke with the collapse of the Beatles, the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, the corporate consolidation of the music industry, and the fragmentation of rock by race and genre. Moreover, even some of the most widely hailed music of the 1960’s would soon seem badly dated, attenuated from its blues roots and marred by fuzzy sentiment. The most interesting music of the decade would come from society’s margins; the seductive appeal of disco emanated from black and gay nightclubs, and the visceral power of punk rock was produced by Great Britain’s angry, disenfranchised youth.

Growing up on the New Jersey shore, Bruce Springsteen was relatively isolated from these influences. His musical style derived largely from the classic rock of the 1950’s: the seemingly effortless grace of Elvis Presley, the buoyant rhythm and blues of Gary U.S. Bonds, and the momentary pleasures of countless one-hit wonders that Springsteen would later include in his expansive live repertoire. Eschewing the watery psychedelia of the late 1960’s San Francisco music scene, Springsteen’s songs were imbued with a powerful proletarian sensibility that depicted the joys of working-class life as well as its frustrations. All of these elements are present on Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.

Born to Run, however, represented a quantum leap forward. Springsteen displayed increased confidence in the studio, and Jon Landau’s contributions helped to polish the record. Moreover, the album showcased Springsteen’s encyclopedic ability to evoke rock traditions, whether in a lyrical reference to Roy Orbison in “Thunder Road” or in the use of the Bo Diddley beat that underlay “She’s the One.” Springsteen was also able to take rock fundamentals (raspy vocals, prominent guitars, and the big, booming saxophone of sidekick Clarence Clemons) and augment them with novel elements such as a glockenspiel, layered keyboards, and even a violin for the elegiac “Jungleland.”

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The greatest source of Born to Run’s appeal, however, was the album’s sense of urgency. Whereas Springsteen’s first two albums had largely focused on the careless joys of life on the boardwalk, Born to Run showed an awareness of the threats to that lifestyle, of the likelihood that the characters who embraced it would land in dead-end jobs and see their dreams go unrealized. Nevertheless, there remained the confidence that Springsteen asserted in the title song: “Someday girl, I don’t know when/ We’re gonna get to that place where we really wanna go/ And we’ll walk in the sun.” This confidence, asserted amid vividly depicted frustrations—emblematic of those of economically weakened, politically exhausted young people in the United States—gave Born to Run its ongoing vitality.

In the years that followed, Springsteen would pay ever greater attention to these frustrated dreamers. Born to Run depicted their anxiety; Darkness on the Edge of Town captured their anger. The River suggested the joys that could coexist with failure; Nebraska chronicled the tragedy of resignation. By the time of Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen was effectively integrating all of these elements into individual songs such as “Dancing in the Dark,” “Glory Days,” and the title track, a chilling portrait of a Vietnam veteran betrayed by his country but determined to carry on.

Springsteen’s unwavering commitment to representing such characters, and the continuing intensity (and generosity) of his live shows, won him the admiration of Americans across the political spectrum. Both Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald and Walter Mondale Mondale, Walter invoked Springsteen’s name during the 1984 presidential campaign, but Springsteen refused to make political endorsements. This changed in 2004, when he openly campaigned for John Kerry’s Kerry, John unsuccessful presidential bid. Springsteen gave considerable credibility to the USA for Africa (United Support of Artists for Africa) USA for Africa antihunger effort by singing a duet with Stevie Wonder as part of the international hit “We Are the World.” "We Are the World" (Jackson and Richie)[We Are the World] Springsteen also made charitable contributions in every city of his Born in the U.S.A. tour, and he headlined a series of benefit concerts for Amnesty International. Amnesty International By the end of the 1980’s, he had become rock’s premier figure and was widely viewed as its conscience.

To be sure, he continued to have his skeptics, and to some extent his very success enhanced that skepticism(similar doubts dogged Springsteen’s biggest mid-1980’s commercial rival, Michael Jackson). Moreover, Springsteen’s subsequent albums such as Tunnel of Love (1987), Tunnel of Love (Springsteen) Human Touch Human Touch (Springsteen) (1992), and Lucky Town Lucky Town (Springsteen) (1992) indicated a clear retreat from the class-based concerns that had long been a cornerstone of his art, although the working-class concerns continued to reappear in his later work.

Springsteen’s career rebounded in 1993, when “Streets of Philadelphia” became a hit single and earned him an Academy Award for Best Song. Academy Awards;Best Song Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band in 1995 to record new songs for his Greatest Hits album, and the group toured extensively in 1999, the year Springsteen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Other albums, such as The Rising (2002), Rising, The (Springsteen) inspired by the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and Devils and Dust (2005), Devils and Dust (Springsteen) met with success. For the millions of fans who had been provoked, moved, and inspired by Springsteen’s body of work, these and other records seemed likely to become valued landmarks in an ongoing journey that began with Born to Run. Music;rock Rock and roll

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cross, Charles, ed. Backstreets: Springsteen, the Man and his Music. New York: Harmony Books, 1989. This book, a collection of articles, photos, and Springsteen trivia from the Springsteen fanzine Backstreets, is an excellent source for diehard fans. Cross approaches his project with unusual intelligence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cullen, Jim. “Bruce Springsteen’s Ambiguous Musical Politics in the 1980’s.” Popular Music and Society 16 (Summer, 1992): 1-22. An iconoclastic reading of Springsteen’s career that emphasizes the degree to which he left himself vulnerable to appropriation by the political right. Analyzes how the free agents of his early music seem to become powerless victims in his more recent work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frith, Simon. “The Real Thing: Bruce Springsteen.” In Music for Pleasure: Essays in the Sociology of Pop. New York: Routledge, 1988. Using the multirecord set Live 1975-85 (1986) as a point of departure, Frith looks at the performer skeptically, arguing that Springsteen’s appeal stems from a series of misleading perceptions. A bracing alternative to the idolatry of much Springsteen commentary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harron, Mary. “McRock: Pop as Commodity.” In Facing the Music, edited by Simon Frith. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988. An interesting use of Springsteen (vis-à-vis Madonna) to argue for the frank commercial appeal of rock music. Harron argues that publicity and hype are central to artistic value.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hilburn, Robert. Springsteen. New York: Scribner’s, 1985. A handsomely illustrated critical biography. Perhaps the best brief treatment of Springsteen’s life and work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marsh, Dave. Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story. 2 vols. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1996. Mannered and fawning, Marsh’s biography covers Springsteen’s career until the time of The River. Nevertheless useful as the definitive record of Springsteen’s life and for the author’s access to his normally reticent subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Bruce Springsteen: Two Hearts—The Definitive Biography, 1972-2003. New York: Routledge, 2003. A great overview of the songwriter’s career, though the book is lacking in material after 1986.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Glory Days: Bruce Springsteen in the 1980’s. New York: Pantheon Books, 1987. The sequel to Born to Run, the book has many of its predecessor’s weaknesses—and its strengths. The bibliography is a useful source for further investigation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Santelli, Robert. Greetings from E Street: The Story of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2006. Fully illustrated informal biography tracing the band’s history, from Asbury Park to international tours. Includes rare photographs and memorabilia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Winner, Langdon. “Bruce Springsteen.” In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ’n’ Roll, edited by James Henke, Holly George-Warren, Anthony DeCurtis, and Jim Miller. 3d ed. New York: Random House, 1992. Though dated, Winner’s article is nevertheless revealing for suggesting the hope—and skepticism—surrounding Springsteen in the 1970’s.

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