Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tramps like us: the 40th anniversary of Born To Run

My shot at the title, a 24-year-old kid aimin'
at "the greatest rock'n'roll record ever."

Being feted as "the new" anything is often more curse than blessing. And so this was proving to be so when, 40 years ago today, Bruce Springsteen released Born To Run, the album he hoped would be "the greatest rock ’n’ roll record ever”.

In 1972 Springsteen signed a deal with Columbia Records, the same stable as Bob Dylan. The man who'd signed him, John Hammond, had also been responsible for discovering Dylan (not to mention Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin), and clearly saw something of the former Robert Zimmerman in the scruffy-looking singer-songwriter from Freehold, New Jersey, who'd auditioned alone with just an acoustic guitar.

"The kid absolutely knocked me out," Hammond told Newsweek in October 1975. "I only hear somebody really good once every ten years. Not only was Bruce the best, he was a lot better than Dylan when I first heard him.”

Inevitably, this led to Springsteen being cast as "the new Dylan", not helped by early CBS ads even comparing the two. Lyrically, they were clearly cut from similar cloth, neither caring much for trite pop, but instead telling intricate, character-driven stories that reflected the human condition.

The marked difference was that Springsteen’s music was a layering of influences: the restrained emotion of Roy Orbison, the cinematic, Saturday night melodrama of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, the rawness of Presley's rock’n’roll, the R'n'B of Solomon Burke. This was married to noirish storytelling, with Springsteen drawing on his beat - the seaside towns of the Jersey Shore and the bars of Greenwich Village where he'd honed his songwriting.

The first two Columbia albums - Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle - presented characters like Crazy Janey, Go-Kart Mozart, Spanish Johnny and the Magic Rat, Through them, Springsteen cast himself as balladeer, animating a landscape of cars, diners, leather jackets and girls named Mary, located somewhere between Rebel Without A Cause and the reality of working class New Jersey in the early 1970s.

The albums were received reasonably well but failed to match sales expectations. The Dylan reference may not have helped, either: "I never needed another Bob Dylan, not having had much time for the first one," wrote Sandy Robertson in Sounds a few years later. "So when I started copping eyefuls of all these Zimmerman comparisons, circa '73 when Greetings From Asbury Park N.J. was released, I was more than a little dubious about Bruce Springsteen."

In truth, many were dubious about Springsteen, including Springsteen himself. Such self-doubt would be part of the go-for-broke attitude that made Born To Run such a labour of love for all concerned. It took 14 months to record, with Springsteen obsessing over every detail, such was his paranoia that delivering a dud album would see the end of his recording career.

"Bruce was obsessive,” producer Mike Appel recently told the New York Post. "He tried everything because he was frightened of not living up to everything he could live up to. We just had to do it, because we had nothing to fall back on. Sometimes that’s the best thing in life."

The pressure on the project wasn't helped by John Hammond retiring midway through the album's recording, leaving Springsteen with new Columbia suits to impress.

Relief of a kind came from Boston music critic Jon Landau - who would, a whole year later play an even bigger part in Springsteen's life and Born To Run's release - when he declared, after seeing Springsteen live: "I saw my rock ‘n’ roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen."

It's a much-repeated quote, and while there's no doubting its earnestness and impact, it may have also heaped further expection on its subject.

Not that Springsteen himself at the time, minded: "I was trying to find that spotlight, to be noticed, to be talked about," Springsteen explained in the documentary Wings For Wheels, "That's what I felt inside of me and what I wanted to communicate. I had a lot of ambition."

Ambitious, he may have been, but work on Born To Run went on and on, putting strain on long-standing friendships between Springsteen and the core members of his E Street Band - pianist David Sancious, Roy Bittan (who replaced Sancious during recording), saxophonist Clarence Clemons, organist Danny Federici, bass player Garry Tallent, drummer Ernest Carter and his replacement, Max Weinberg.

Just the album's title track took half a year to record, as Springsteen built it up from a relatively simple arrangement based on a guitar riff he'd come up with in his bedroom to something epicly Spectorish, with strings, multiple guitars, keyboards and even a glockenspiel. Springsteen's fastidiousness had no bounds as he obsessed about everything - even making endless changes of amplifiers just to get 'that' sound. On Jungleland, the album's closing song, Clemons spent 16 hours recording the sax solo to ensure that it rigidly met his boss's exact prescription.

"We had a lot of fun...when we weren't suffering!”, Springsteen says in Wings For Wheels, although Steve Van Zandt - who came in at a later stage of production - half jokingly said: "Fun is not a word I'd use. If you spend six months on one song something's not going right."

Production on the album had begun in May 1974 at 914 Sound Studios in Blauvelt, a small commuter town north of New York City. With the album still far from complete, towards the end of the year Springsteen and the E Street Band went out on the road to try out a few of the new songs live. This resulted in even more ideas for new arrangements of existing songs, as well as drawing the dismissal of the song Born To Run by a CBS suit who referred to it as as "born to crawl".

With no sign of a finished album, recording resumed in early 1975 at The Record Plant in New York City. Landua was drafted in - and onto Mike Appel's turf - to assist in producing and creativity. Van Zandt was also brought in to assist with guitar work (although his major contribution was his expert brass arrangements on the R&B stomper, Tenth Avenue Freeze-out).

Still, studio time continued to be arduous. Jimmy Iovine, then an engineer at The Record Plant (now known as co-creator with Dr. Dre of Apple's Beats business), recalls resorting to desperate measures to survive, especially Clemons' marathon session for the Jungleland sax solo: "I had a piece of Wrigley’s spearmint gum, took the gum out of the wrapper and I chewed on the aluminium foil," Iovine reveals in Wings For Wheels. "The pain was so severe that I knew it would wake me up!".

Even when everyone thought they had a final album, there was still more strife to come: in July 1975, Springsteen, listening to the master tape in a Pennsylvania hotel room decided that the album wasn't fit for muster and threatened to throw it into the hotel swimming pool in disgust. Mike Appel convinced him otherwise.

And so, on August 25, 1975, one of the greatest albums of the rock era was released. Whatever blood, sweat and tears, not to mention personnel and friendships, Springsteen went through to deliver it, it stands up as a remarkable piece of work.

Released in a year that, in mainstream rock and pop terms had little going for it - bloated, cocaine-fuelled West Coast career filler and the unsatisfying early stirrings of punk - Born To Run was a concept album in all but name. In post-Vietnam America, with an approaching fuel crisis and the shadow of urban riots in the early '70s still evident, the album gave Springsteen an outlet to explore opportunity, freedom and escape - "We've got to get out while we can". Even its cover - with Eric Meola's iconic photograph of Springsteen draped on Clemons' shoulder - suggested that music and camarderie offered an escape tunnel for ambitions.

"As a songwriter," Springsteen wrote in the book Songs. "I always felt one of my jobs was to face the questions that evolve out of my music and search for the answers as best as I could find. For me, the primary questions I’d be writing about for the rest of my work life to form in the songs on Born To Run ('I want to know if love is real'). It was the album where I left behind my adolescent definitions of love and freedom."

He explains: "Thunder Road [with a title borrowed from a 1958 Robert Mitchum movie] opens the album, introducing its characters and its central proposition: Do you want to take a chance? On us? On life? You’re then led though the band bio and block party of Tenth Avenue Freeze-out, the broken friendships of Backstreets, out into the open with Born To Run, and into the dark city and spiritual battlefield of Jungleland."

After such a long development time, to everyone's relief, Born To Run was released to instant acclaim, becoming Springsteen's first Top 10 Billboard album (with a little help from Appel leaking a copy of the album to radio stations to create buzz).

Columbia Records put the entire might of their publicity machine into selling it, which saw Springsteen appearing on the front cover of both Time and Newsweek magazines in the same week in October 1975, the first major rock artist to achieve such a double, and the first entertainer since Liza Minelli in her Cabaret days.
Arriving in London that same month for a seminal show at the-then Hammersmith Odeon, Springsteen encountered record company posters declaring "London’s Finally Ready for Bruce Springsteen!". Ambition may have fired Springsteen from the beginning, and perfectionism and obsessiveness played their part, too, in making Born To Run happen, but now it had happened, the now-26-year-old from Freehold still succumbed to his modest roots, the product of being of a generation that saw only vulgarity in self-promotion.

Be that as it was, Bruce Springsteen - The Boss - had arrived, not only in his native land but on foreign soil, too. Ambition carried Springsteen through, but there was something more than this that those around him in the early days knew made his ultimate success inevitable. "I remember thinking that what he had was unstoppable," David Sancious, the original E Street piano player. "It was going to happen, one way or another."

Although it would be another entire decade before Springsteen would establish himself as a global superstar, thanks to another 'born' album, Born In The USA, Born To Run was the propellant of an unstoppable career which, 40 years later, is still as creative and commercially vibrant as ever.

It may have undergone a difficult, some might say recklessly long gestation, but Born To Run established Bruce Springsteen as a unique artist in the rock and pop world. Commercial, without selling out; edgy, without scaring old ladies; respectful of the pop culture of his youth without being anachronistic. 40 years on, he's still doing all of that, and uniquely, amongst his peers, with the very same earnestness that brought Born To Run to fruition in the first place.

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