Box Set Special – Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen

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Released August 25, 1975

39 min, 26 sec

There’s a special class of albums that are so prestigious, so beloved, that they have been written about to the point of being impossible to follow up on.

Born to Run was released in 1975. It celebrates its fortieth anniversary next year. In 2014, there is not a single thing that anyone could say about it that has not already been said dozens, maybe even hundreds of times before. Born to Run is a timeless, iconic classic, American music wrapped up in a single 40-minute package. Eight songs paint a portrait of America in the 1970s from the street level, with characters that overflow with raw emotion and heart. Though Springsteen would not become an American icon until 1984’s Born in the U.S.A., Born to Run provided the springboard that Springsteen needed to become a major player in the music industry.

And all of that has been said before. We’re talking about one of the most iconic albums in American musical history here. But you know what? Fuck it. Let’s talk about it anyway.

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Springsteen released both his debut studio album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and its follow-up The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle in 1973, touring all throughout that year and much of 1974 in support of both records. However, Springsteen was having trouble making an impact with either album, and the view he had in his mind was that album number three would be the make-or-break point of his career. If it sold, he’d be fine; if it didn’t, he would likely be off Columbia Records and back to working worthless jobs to make ends meet. Born to Run was a rallying cry as much as it was a pleading for support, and the stress of making it big played a large factor in the album’s initial recording sessions.

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Born to Run‘s title track alone took months to make, and no progress was made on any other track that would end up on the album during those sessions. Greetings and E Street Shuffle featured long-winded, often nonsensical lyrics that portrayed a sense of whimsy throughout Springsteen’s songs, weaved in with more serious topics about life in and around New Jersey and New York. Springsteen’s early work was highly regional in this regard, and this regional focus continued through Born to Run, while also moving towards a less lighthearted, heavier lyrical subject matter. Life became less fun; the harder realities began to set in.

The E Street Band began to experience its first major line-up changes in the weeks prior to and following the recording of “Born to Run,” when drummer Vini Lopez was fired in early 1974 due to an increasingly erratic performance. He was replaced by Ernest “Boom” Carter, who only recorded a single song with the band – “Born to Run” – before departing alongside pianist David Sancious to form a new musical outfit. The two of them were replaced for the remainder of Born to Run‘s recording sessions – and, indeed, to this day – by drummer Max Weinberg and pianist Roy Bittan, essentially solidifying the band’s line-up for the next seven years following guitarist Steven Van Zandt’s permanent re-joining. The band would not change members again until 1984 with Van Zandt’s departure, replaced by guitarist Nils Lofgren and vocalist Patti Scialfa.

Ernest Carter brought a unique fusion of jazz and rock to the E Street Band, and his drumming became a defining characteristic of “Born to Run.” In particular, the song’s bridge features an iconic drum breakdown that Max Weinberg found himself completely unable to replicate. The song’s original instrumentation is present in live performances only during the performances after recording sessions for the song, where Carter performed with the band, something touched on during the documentary Wings for Wheels, which we’ll talk about a little later in this article.

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“Born to Run” was released as a single in late 1974, first as a glorified demo, and then again as a full-blown single in August 1975, the same day as Born to Run, the album. Immediately, radio disc jockeys knew they had something special on their hands, and the pre-release version began circulating widely among radio stations all over the country. The song’s success even led to earlier Springsteen cuts from Greetings and E Street Shuffle receiving airplay as listeners clamored for more. The group played some live shows in early 1975 as more Born to Run demos began to come together. Early, early versions of “Thunder Road,” “She’s the One,” and “Jungleland” all were previewed in early 1975, particularly during a concert at the Main Point widely regarded as one of the greatest and most iconic concerts of the era.

These concerts notably featured Suki Lahav, a violinist that had previously contributed (in a very small way) to Greetings, joining the band full-time for several months in 1975 and contributing to Born to Run. Her most notable contribution, in this regard, is the iconic opening of “Jungleland,” featuring her violin leading Roy Bittan’s piano line. The intro is more complex in its early form, before Springsteen chose to have it toned down on the commercial release. In concert, Lahav plays a part that Patti Scialfa would later step into; that of a lone female in the boys’ club, a foil to Springsteen, particularly in piano/violin-driven renditions of “Incident on 57th Street,” which opened the Main Point concert. Lahav left the band after the completion of Born to Run, choosing not to commit to a life of touring, and her violin would not be picked up again until Soozie Tyrell joined the reunited E Street Band in 2002.

Recording sessions for the album went much faster than “Born to Run,” producing nine additional fully-formed songs for the album. Only two of those would not make it on to the final album, being “So Young and in Love” and “Linda Let Me Be the One.” As the album stands, neither of the tracks fits nicely in – “Love” is too fast-paced and upbeat, more in line with Springsteen’s pre-Born to Run output, while “Linda” is the opposite – too slow and plodding, and honstly rather boring. So we’re left with the iconic eight-track album that finally saw released on August 25, 1975.

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Springsteen chose to go with a “four corners” approach to tracking the album – the first and last tracks of Side A and Side B are the cornerstones and most important tracks of the album, those being “Thunder Road,” “Backstreets,” “Born to Run,” and “Jungleland.” It’s easy to see why this occurred – though nearly all of Born to Run‘s tracks are regarded as classics, these four are the biggest ones by far, “Born to Run” and “Jungleland” in particular. Springsteen toyed with other track listings, reportedly including one that opened with a piano-only “Thunder Road” and closed with the full-band version. But this would knock “Jungleland” out of the closing spot, which is frankly unacceptable.

All eight of these tracks are instrumentally tight while also having huge, wide-open sounds. Mike Appel and Jon Landau used a “wall of sound”-esque approach to producing the album, giving the songs a big, important feel to them while using otherwise limited instrumentation. This is most evident on “Born to Run,” which bombards the listener with sound the whole way through. “Night” also does this, though in a more compact package.

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Let me just take a minute to talk about “Jungleland” in particular, though. This song, this song, this nine-minute masterpiece, is easily one of the greatest stories Springsteen has ever told, or at the very least, the greatest one he told in the 1970s. “Jungleland” packs so much character into its verses, painting a picture of a grand street war in the slums, using its music to manipulate the emotional impact of each event as the song continues, right up until the grand climax of Clemons’s saxophone, cutting through the story itself, symbolizing the fall of the song’s protagonist. When the solo is finally over, every bit of heart and emotion launched outward, squeezed out, there is nothing left but Springsteen’s beaten, desolate voice, as he details the aftermath, in a no-win situation. The protagonist is taken away with no witnesses, “not even dead.” The song ends on a series of howls from Springsteen, some of his most emotive, powerful vocalizations, closing out the album on a quiet series of piano notes and a single, sustained string of a violin. That’s power. That’s music.

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Indeed, central to the album’s sound is Clarence Clemons’s saxophone, present on six of the eight tracks, only absent from “Backstreets” in regards to the big four of the album. Clemons had been an indispensable member of the band since he joined in 1973, but it was on Born to Run where his instrument truly found its place, from the high-energy breakdown of “Born to Run” to the transcendent, soaring, three-minute centerpiece of “Jungleland.” The saxophone adds color to every track it is present on, and forms part of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”’s iconic horn riff that works as the song’s backbone. Clemons’s clear, crisp tone and musical dexterity made him one of the most recognizable parts of Springsteen’s 70s and 80s output, just behind Springsteen’s own voice, and he built a legacy for himself that will likely last forever.

Born to Run became a media sensation upon its release, culminating in the often-lauded coincidence of Springsteen being featured on the covers of both Time and Newsweek in the same week. This media frenzy soon became a backlash, as reviewers began to question if Springsteen was “genuine,” or just a product of the Columbia music machine. This wasn’t helped by the obnoxious marketing campaign Columbia cooked up, which presented him as the “future of rock music,” far beyond the “New Dylan” labels he’d endured with his debut album. They even had the audacity to use Jon Landau’s own quote, from which the “future” claim was sourced. Springsteen hated the campaign, as he felt it overshadowed his own music and overemphasized his persona, something he never wanted to happen in his career. One of the most notable events stemming from Springsteen’s resentment of the campaign was when he had a bit of a nervous breakdown in London prior to his first international concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, tearing down numerous posters with his face plastered all over them, featuring Columbia’s marketing campaign. The concert itself, however, is a spectacle to behold, and we’ll touch on it a little later.

Born to Run became a cultural icon on its own merits, but was aided by Springsteen’s iconic blast to the top of American pop culture in 1984 with Born in the U.S.A., solidifying the working-man legacy Springsteen had been building since Born to Run. The album is widely regarded to be his magnum opus, which, of course, opens it up to reissue upon reissue. The one we’ve got here, with the original vinyl pressing with it for comparison, is the 30th Anniversary box set, released in 2005. That’s right, 1700 words in, we’re getting to the title aspect of this article, even though there have been a few photos of it already, because I’ve written way too many words.

But first, the vinyl.

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Records released during the format’s heyday weren’t big on extravagant packaging, just as CDs didn’t have extravagant packaging when they became the dominant medium for music, or how cassettes have never been extravagant because they’ve always been shit.

I hate cassettes.

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The vinyl is a gatefold package, designed like this to allow for the lyrics to be printed on the interior, eliminating the need for an insert. There’s a pocket for the record itself, and credits on the back. And, in Clarence Clemons’s own words, “[he’s] on the back,” in a wraparound image completing Springsteen’s iconic front cover pose. This image was picked out of dozens of others sourced from a single photo shoot, where Springsteen and Clemons (who Springsteen insisted on being part of the cover this time around) tried out various poses and outfits. A book of all of these photos was released a few years ago, in a limited print run. The photos themselves are fascinating to look at.

It’s a simple package, but it’s striking, and the gatefold is always a nice touch, even if it doesn’t hold up all that well now, being nearly 40 years old. The 2005 box, interestingly, matches up exactly in size with regards to the cover image, when the two are set next to each other, though the box obviously has a much better-quality print of the image, allowing some of the finer details to shine through.

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Inside is a replica of the vinyl packaging, as well as two bonus DVDs, and a photo book of hundreds of images from the Born to Run era. Best Buy, infuriatingly, carried an exclusive version of the set, that featured a replica of the original “Born to Run” single, something that I have coveted ever since I discovered its existence, but have never been able to find. It’s like the version of Nine Inch Nails’s Broken with a mini-disc instead of bonus tracks tacked onto the end, or the first run of DualDiscs released into test markets in 2002; so, so hard to find, and so easy to get scammed by. I can’t ever pull the trigger on a second copy of this box unless I know for sure it has the “Born to Run” single, and that’s dumb as fuck. I hate you, Best Buy. You don’t have good prices and your exclusives mock me. Fuck you.

Anyway.

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Born to Run is properly remastered here, and it sounds great, as expected. I especially liked the very nice touch of the CD itself being black on the data side, with touches of vinyl ridging on the front, to emulate the feel of a record. Not that you should be dragging your gross-ass fingers across the playable side of a record, kids.

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The two DVDs are intended as the main selling points of the box set, however. Wings for Wheels is a documentary put together around 2004 or 2005 that delves into the Born to Run sessions in great detail, featuring interviews from everyone who performed on the album (except for Suki Lahav, as far as I remember). It’s a good, strong insight into Born to Run and Springsteen’s often-neurotic recording process, and one also gets to hear bits and pieces of versions of the album’s tracks that didn’t make the cut, in particular a version of Jungleland where the solo instead features Springsteen’s guitar, Lahav’s violin, and Clemons’s saxophone all intertwined.

In some ways, it’s a sad DVD to watch – Danny Federici and Clemons are both deceased, and they both look fairly old here, while Springsteen, even ten years ago, looked so much younger than he does today. Thankfully, he is still in fantastic health.

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The hidden gem, though, is the live DVD, Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75. The very first performance for Springsteen and the E Street Band outside of the United States, the group is in absolute top form here, even with Springsteen’s nerves threatening to infringe on his performance. The 1975 Born to Run tours have never been well-documented by official sources; prior to this release, the ostensibly “all-inclusive” box set Live/1975-85 featured a grand total of one track dating to these tours, that of opening track “Thunder Road.” London ’75 presents a full, unedited concert, with a surprisingly high quality of video considering the time it was recorded, with the band illuminated with thick red and blue lights throughout the concert, performing the usual Born to Run standards alongside a smattering of pre-BTR tracks, as well as a few choice covers, most notably Gary U.S. Bonds’s “Quarter to Three” to close out the show.

London ’75 is a separate entry to cover for iTunes A to Z, so I won’t go too deep into it here, but it is worth noting as an important historical artifact for a large segment of Springsteen’s career that is otherwise ignored by his official output. Springsteen announced a live recordings website this month, noting that archival recordings can and will be posted to the service for purchase in due time. We can only hope that select shows from these tours will be posted, to allow the official documentation of the Born to Run tours to grow.

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Born to Run, for a great many people, is the definitive Bruce Springsteen album. Filled to the brim with heart, held in an eight-track album that somehow manages the perfect length, not feeling too long or too short, the album was the first real cornerstone in Springsteen’s legacy, building on the foundation of Greetings and E Street Shuffle and allowing for Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, and Nebraska to build upon it, before finally reaching the pinnacle with Born in the U.S.A.. This is the album that put Springsteen on the map, that saved his career, that finally got people paying attention, and this will be an album that will forever be remembered as a standard in American music.

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(2800+ words.  Take that, Yoncé.)

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One thought on “Box Set Special – Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen

  1. Reblogged this on iTunes, A to Z and commented:

    iTunes, A to Z is still in a holding pattern while I sort out my future, so apologies for the false start back in May. Today, however, is the 40th anniversary of the release of Springsteen’s classic Born to Run, so here’s the post I made for that album back in November. Give the album a spin and give this a read.

    Like

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