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Bruce Springsteen

Drawing a line through figureheads WOODY GUTHRIE, ELVIS PRESLEY, BOB DYLAN and VAN MORRISON, blue-collar roots-rock god BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN graduated from downtrodden Catholic boy to achieve multi-platinum status. Maybe he was just “born to run” with the mainstream rock pack, but the man whom his fans nicknamed “The Boss” also sank his proverbial size 10s into the Americana heart of the dust-bowl ballad, while keeping his feet firmly on the ground.
Born the son of a bus driver on September 23, 1949, Freehold, New Jersey, and inspired by the advent of Motown and The BEATLES, Bruce scraped up the price of a second-hand guitar to appease his need to be player among up the teenage combos around his hometown. Progressing steadily through the ranks of The Rogues, The Castiles and CREAM-like power-trio, Earth, SPRINGSTEEN’s first mini-break came courtesy of Child, who, by 1969, were to evolve into Steel Mill. Also comprising Danny “Phantom” Federici (on keys), Vini Lopez (drums) and later, Steve Van Zandt – aka LITTLE STEVEN – (bass, then guitar), the group stretched as far afield as California while drawing large crowds at major venues before coming to a close in 1971; all four would become part of Bruce’s short-lived 10-piece venture, Doctor Zoom & The Cosmic Boom.
In May ‘72, the solo singer-songwriter signed to Columbia Records and, with the help of managers Mike Appel and Jim Cretecos plus talent scout extraordinaire John Hammond, Sr. (who’d previously signed DYLAN to the same label a decade earlier), took the ensemble on the road, adding David Sancious (piano), Garry Tallent (bass) and horn section replacement Clarence Clemons (sax) along the way – The E-Street Shuffle were now born.
Released early 1973, GREETINGS FROM ASBURY PARK, N.J. {*8} originally sold in ineffectual numbers for a major-label artist, although the album itself, a slow-burner in many respects, found it had friends in faraway places; pop-rock procurers MANFRED MANN’S EARTH BAND would later take opening song `Blinded By The Light’ to No.1 four years later, while around the same period, future Berkeley “chartbuster” GREG KIHN conceived an indie smash with `For You’. In the midst of eerie dust-bowl tragi-ballads such as `Mary Queen Of Arkansas’ and `Lost In The Flood’, the husky tones of SPRINGSTEEN’s world-weary lyrical throwbacks were poignant and earnest. Acoustic-folk through the vision of a 50s-styled star-is-born pushed the envelope a little at the time, but Bruce was only just finding his feet; `Growin’ Up’, `Spirit In The Night’ and `It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’ secured his place among the elite, it’s just that nobody had noticed yet.
Developing a funkier, jazzier rhythm that let his backing band flesh out their inimitable nostalgic sound, quick-fire follow-up THE WILD, THE INNOCENT & THE E STREET SHUFFLE (1973) {*8} equalled its predecessor’s popularity. Forsaking the folk-rock ploy of becoming the next Bobby Zimmerman, most of the numbers here (bar `Wild Billy’s Circus Story’) mirrored the St Dominic’s Preview-aplomb of Van The Man. Showing signs that Bruce was passionate and profound by way of `4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)’, at least four tracks stretched beyond the 7-minute mark, including back-to-back street songs, the uptempo `Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’ and its tender, orchestral adversary `New York City Serenade’.
Following the latter set’s completion, SPRINGSTEEN concentrated on heavy touring with the newly re-vamped E Street Band (Roy Bittan for Sancious, Max Weinberg for Carter, plus Van Zandt re-instated as guitarist), the subsequent exposure resurrecting, to some degree, the commercial fortunes of his first two releases as they both spiralled into the US Top 60 by mid-‘75. It was with much anticipation, then, that a third album BORN TO RUN {*10} eventually hit the shelves later that year. Co-producer and future manager Jon Landau had steered the project towards a suitably grandiose sound, the starry-eyed romanticism of SPRINGSTEEN’s lyrical themes complementing the lavish arrangements. The hit title track best summed up the mood of the album, teenage rebels following their dreams on the open road; not exactly an original take on rock’n’roll, but one which the singer-guitarist would refine and subvert as his career unfolded. Reaching Top 3 in the US, the album gave SPRINGSTEEN his first real breakthrough, in the States at least, “The Boss” (as his kinsmen soon took to calling him) undertaking a full scale US tour. From the opening piano trickles of `Thunder Road’ to the joyous sprawling street echoes of `Jungleland’, Bruce pushes the melodrama up several notches and comes up from his musical subway, like some er… bat out of hell – yes, MEAT LOAF was a fan. SPRINGSTEEN’s E Street Shuffle played an integral part on creating a backdrop to the man’s modern take on Bernstein’s West Side Story, while tracks such as `She’s The One’ and the sublime `Meeting Across The River’ were just faultless.
It would be almost three years before another album as SPRINGSTEEN became embroiled in a legal battle with his former manager, Mike Appel. The latter had attempted to prevent his client working with Landau, an out of court settlement eventually bringing matters to a close and allowing the beleaguered singer to begin recording DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN (1978) {*8}.
As the title suggested, the album was an altogether more bleak affair, no doubt inspired by the legal traumas of the preceding few years. Yet it remains one of SPRINGSTEEN’s most enduring efforts, establishing him as a sympathetic and cuttingly accurate observer of the gritty realities, hopes and dreams facing ordinary Americans. The Spartan echoes of tracks like `Adam Raised A Cain’ would resonate through the singer’s more introspective work throughout his subsequent career. Though the record again made the Top 5, consolidating SPRINGSTEEN’s position as a firm critics’ favourite, a harder edge was realised on working class anthems, `Badlands’, `The Promised Land’ and `Prove It All Night’. Meanwhile, new wave poetess PATTI SMITH was firing up the charts with a SPRINGSTEEN composition, `Because The Night’, while hot on its heels was The POINTER SISTERS smoothed-out smash, `Fire’.
Bruce only really made a substantial breakthrough with THE RIVER (1980) {*7}, his first chart-topper. A double set featuring hits `Hungry Heart’ and `Fade Away’, the record could easily have been trimmed down to a single album, brimming as it was with work-a-day rockers centring on cars, girls, cars and, erm… more cars (example `Cadillac Ranch’, `Ramrod’, `Crush On You’, the 8-minute `Drive All Night’, etc.). One of the record’s few redeeming factors was the title track, an aching ode to doomed love which indicated the direction of SPRINGSTEEN’s next solo effort. The Boss then co-produced/sessioned on two early 80s albums by the rejuvenated 60s hit-maker GARY “U.S.” BONDS (`Dedication’ and `On The Line’), both featuring a raft of extracurricular songs including `This Little Girl Is Mine’.
NEBRASKA (1982) {*9} was arguably one of the most darkly powerful modern folk albums of the past twenty years, the record’s stark, sublime beauty stood in glaring contrast to the banal excess of its predecessor and could’ve conceivably been recorded by a different man. Accompanied by a lone acoustic guitar and occasional wailing harmonica, SPRINGSTEEN explored the boundaries between good and evil, right and wrong, through a series of deeply affecting character studies, his whiskey-throated voice wracked with doubt, frustration and pain. Although the record was a transatlantic Top 3 hit, it somewhat predictably failed to spawn any successful singles; `Atlantic City’ and `Open All Night’ were released in Britain but not America. Nevertheless, any readers basing their opinion of “The Boss” solely on his stars-n-stripes follow-up (and suchlike) are urged to give this folk LP a spin.
BORN IN THE U.S.A. (1984) {*9} saw SPRINGSTEEN’s career finally go stratospheric, a record that came to define 80s America as much as it came to define the singer’s stadium sound and blue collar image. Though Bruce had simplified his dark musings on the American dream for a wider audience, the message still wasn’t clear enough for some people –
Ronald Reagan included. Following the latter’s attempt to hijack the supposed patriotic sentiments of the record, SPRINGSTEEN made his political allegiances public by supporting environmental and civil right groups. He’d also previously played a number of benefit gigs for Vietnam war veterans, a subject he addressed in the album’s raging title track. Elsewhere, songs like `Downbound Train’ and `I’m On Fire’ centred on familiar SPRINGSTEEN themes of human suffering while `Dancing In The Dark’ gave him his biggest US hit to date. Despite the lyrical content, however, the bulk of the album was upbeat, infectious and highly commercial, a multi-million seller which precipitated the most extensive touring of SPRINGSTEEN’s career; from `Glory Days’ to `My Hometown’ to yet another LP hit `Cover Me’, titles such as these were poignant as they were prophetic. His group underwent major personnel surgery when solo star NILS LOFGREN superseded Van Zandt, who was duly treading the boards as LITTLE STEVEN.
The massive selling live boxed set, LIVE/1975-85 (1985) {*7} – featuring a Top 10 rendition of EDWIN STARR’s `War’ – neatly chalked out the end of an era, a markedly different SPRINGSTEEN surfacing in 1987 with TUNNEL OF LOVE {*7}. With his marriage under strain, the album was a more personal affair exploring the vagaries of romance. While the likes of `Tougher Than The Rest’ were touchingly direct, overall the almost autobiographical album lacked the fire of old. Rather downbeat as suggested, it nevertheless boasted three Top 20 breakers, `Brilliant Disguise’, the title track and `One Step Up’.
Towards the late 80s (1988, in fact), SPRINGSTEEN sat alongside some of the greatest names in roots music (PETE SEEGER, BOB DYLAN, ARLO GUTHRIE and er… U2) in a benefit covers video/LP, `Folkways: A Vision Shared – A Tribute To Woody Guthrie And Leadbelly’; Bruce contributed two readings: `I Ain’t Got No Home’ and `Vigilante Man’.
Despite finally parting ways with the E Street Band, 1992 saw The Boss back in action by way of concurrently released HUMAN TOUCH {*4} and LUCKY TOWN {*6}. Recorded a year apart, each disc failed to satisfy critics or fans with their formulaic material. Coming across like a modern-day GORDON LIGHTFOOT or JOHN STEWART, the former’s only redeeming factors were the title track hit and the rather retro `57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)’. The latter was more in line to the SPRINGSTEEN one’d grown to associate with: infectious anthems reflecting pastimes from an imaginary time or town; example `Better Days’, the title track and `Souls Of The Departed’. More endearing was the poignant, non-LP song `Streets Of Philadelphia’, a platter which SPRINGSTEEN contributed to the AIDS-related movie, Philadelphia, a subsequent Grammy award winner and the singer’s biggest hit single for over a decade. Issued only for Brit listeners, IN CONCERT/MTV UNPLUGGED (1993) {*5} was just as it said on the sleeve, albeit with a few rarities including `Light Of Day’, a song shelved from a 1987 movie of the same name starring JOAN JETT.
Album number eleven, THE GHOST OF TOM JOAD (1995) {*6}, was SPRINGSTEEN back doing what he does best, strumming desolate tales of America’s lost underclass. With a title referencing Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath novel, WOODY GUTHRIE was mentioned in more than one review. It’s a comparison not too far off the mark, Bruce never giving up the ghost on documenting the trials of the downtrodden. Many rank the stripped-down, one-man shows that accompanied the album’s release as among the best of his career, the singer achieving a newfound authority and maturity, albeit at the price of a Top 10 placing. Many wondered if Bruce’s star was fading.
LIVE IN NEW YORK CITY (2001) {*6} was a wholly different proposition, a document of SPRINGSTEEN’s much lauded millennial reunion with The E Street Band the previous June and July. Rather than relying on the big hits, the album featured a clutch of more obscure classics from the late 70s and early 80s such as `Badlands’ and `Mansion On The Hill’, songs that sound as vital today as they did back then.
Of all the American artists who undertook some serious soul-searching after 9/11 – and there were many – it was perhaps SPRINGSTEEN who emerged with the most cohesive, honest and perceptive set of songs. Unlikely as this may have seemed to some, the man’s ability to tap into the substrata of American culture and consciousness has been ably demonstrated in the past. Nor did the fact that THE RISING (2002) {*7} marked a reunion with The E Street Band, detract from the depth and simplicity of the writing. While the ensemble have rarely sounded so powerfully unfettered, it was the hushed grace and spiritual intensity of tracks such as `My City Of Ruins’ which lent the album its root sense of painful catharsis. Weinberg, Bittan, Federici, Clemons, et al, are equal to Brendan O’Brien’s constructive production work, exampled with true feeling and flying colours on `Into The Fire’, `Paradise’, `Waitin’ On A Sunny Day’ and Mary’s Place’.
SPRINGSTEEN subsequently retreated to make his once-a-decade folk record: that DEVILS & DUST (2005) {*7} traced its lineage back through the closely observed desperadoes and down and outs of “Tom Joad” and “Nebraska” hardly needs reiterating, but the most revelatory aspect of the album was Bruce’s falsetto, a thing of fleet-sinewed wonder; why has he been hiding it under a stubble-chinned bushel all these years? In the wider horn stakes, `Maria’s Bed’ and `All I’m Thinkin’ About’ weren’t exactly MARVIN GAYE/TIM BUCKLEY, but they were arguably the most pleasurable moments on an album which topped the charts in both the UK and US. With its fiddle arrangement and ensemble feel, `Long Time Comin’’ was perhaps a pointer to the man’s next project… his first trad-covers set, WE SHALL OVERCOME: THE SEEGER SESSIONS (2006) {*7}. The full-tilt immersion into the world of folk rang true, not just because of the relevance of the spirit of SEEGER’s songs to contemporary ills, but because it was recorded straight over two days with a raggle-taggle band (so raggle-taggle they could hardly all fit on the same stage when they hit UK shores) and no rehearsals. While tempering SEEGER’s earnestness with an irreverent spirit, the album also put the work of one of America’s most famous folk singers back into the Top 3 both in his homeland and in Britain.
Featuring songs credited with “The Sessions Band”, the obligatory LIVE IN DUBLIN (2007) {*6} double-disc, heralded yet another dip into his freewheeling retrospections. Tempered with several of his own rearranged cues, Bruce and his team (including wife Patti Scialfa) treat his audience to a raft of rousing gospels, Dixieland dirges and a potpourri of America’s roots.
Reuniting with his patient backing combo, The E Street Band, his return to ragged rock’n’roll through MAGIC (2007) {*6} was welcome for the most part. Basically a collection of unfettered originals with O’Brien back at the helm, there are moments of Motown-esque R&B via `Livin’ In The Future’, melancholy melody through `My Own Worst Enemy’, heartland-rock by way of `Nowhere Radio’ and the odd picture-postcard in `Girls In Their Summer Clothes’. Sadly, it was the last appearance of E Street stalwart Danny Federici, who succumbed to melanoma the following April; now an accomplished actor (The Sopranos, et al), Van Zandt would was brought back full-time for subsequent tours having appeared on “Magic”.
Now back in the saddle as contemporary/mainstream rock god, WORKING ON A DREAM (2009) {*6} shuffled its way to the top of the charts – again! Spurred on the well-timed inauguration of his buddy Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, the album was just the belt-and-braces-type recording one’d come to expect – portraits of middle-America harking back to better days and the hope just around the corner!? From the 8-minute `Outlaw Pete’ to his bookend piece tribute to Danny, `The Last Carnival’, SPRINGSTEEN knew how to push the right buttons without breaking into any “Born In The USA” sweat.
With stage-foil saxophone giant Clarence Clemons entering the Pearly Gates on June 18, 2011 (of stroke complications), trusty troubadour Bruce would fight the good fight again on his 16th studio set proper, WRECKING BALL (2012) {*6}. For the first time combining all aspects of his hard-times rootsy sojourns, the transatlantic chart-topper was notable for SPRINGSTEEN’s best song in ages, `We Take Care Of Our Own’, and the appearances of former RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE guitarist Tom Morello and CC’s curtain-call on the poignant, `Land Of Hope And Dreams’.
Sprinkled with a few choice covers (from Tim Scott McConnell’s title track, to The SAINTS’ `Just Like Fire Would’ and SUICIDE’s `Dream Baby Dream’!), The Boss kicked off 2014 with yet another multi-platinum seller in HIGH HOPES {*7}. Augmented and inspired in part by Morello, Bruce re-invested time in golden nuggets, `The Ghost Of Tom Joad’ and `American Skin (41 Shots)’ – the latter now bringing poignancy after the shooting of Trayvon Martin a few years back, while the singer peaked on The Sopranos-esque `Harry’s Place’. For collectors of deluxe editions, there’s a DVD of his most recent “Born In The U.S.A.” live in London.
Following on from an autobiography (entitled Born To Run) and a part-commentary Netflix-endorsed double-CD/DVD live show, SPRINGSTEEN ON BROADWAY (2018) {*6}, the soul-searching singer-songwriter found his nostalgic niche through WESTERN STARS (2019) {*7}. The record’s timbre revisited the heartland heyday of JIMMY WEBB, LEE HAZLEWOOD and DANNY O’KEEFE, under their opulent orchestral hue that shone out from the country-tinged late 60s and early 70s. As close to his own “Nebraska” set, Bruce – just months off his 70th birthday – would’ve celebrated yet another home-soil chart-topping album, had it not been for a certain “Madame X”. Songs such as `Tucson Train’, `Hello Sunshine’, `Hitch Hikin’’, `Sleepy Joe’s Café’ and the lush-tastic `There Goes My Miracle’ might not please the Boss’s “rock” element, but the sweet ’n’ sour set showed he’d another feather to his boa.
Released a few months later to accompany an album he did not play live, the ill-conceived WESTERN STARS: SONGS FROM THE FILM {*6}, was basically Bruce’s track-for-track soundtrack document; with a reading of the GLEN CAMPBELL hit, `Rhinestone Cowboy’ saddled on. This orchestrated version rightly fell short of its pulling power chart-wise; at least on home-soil, however UK fans were undaunted enough to spin it into the Top 20; Patti Sciaffa was again on hand to provide the occasional harmony.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG/MCS // rev-up Apr2012-Nov2019

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