How Bruce Springsteen Finally Became a Star With ‘Born to Run’
“We got once last chance to make it real,” Bruce Springsteen sang nearly two minutes into “Thunder Road,” the opening cut on Born to Run. He wasn’t kidding.
After the commercial failures of his first two albums, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, Springsteen had to deliver on his third – released on Aug. 25, 1975. Although they believed in his talent, Columbia Records didn’t have much more patience for an artist who had great standing among the critics, but couldn’t get a song on the radio. But momentum had been building since mid-1974, when the label built a marketing campaign around a quote from a review in Boston’s Real Paper. “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Those words were written by Jon Landau, who met Springsteen outside the theater before the show and would soon become a very important part of his career.
“That got people’s attention,” Ron McCarrell of CBS said in Peter Ames Carlin’s Bruce. “We’d been hanging by our thumbs, hoping we were right. That bolstered our feelings. … I remember turning the quote into a poster for record shops, and that was kind of the beginning of what led into the massive campaign for Born to Run.”
The tour that summer helped create a buzz around Springsteen, and in August he returned to 914 Sound Studios in Blauvelt, N.Y., to record a a song he wrote earlier that year in his home in Long Branch, N.J.
"One day I was playing my guitar on the edge of the bed, working on some song ideas,” Springsteen wrote, “and the words 'born to run' came to me. At first I thought it was the name of a movie or something I'd seen on a car spinning around the circuit. I liked the phrase because it suggested a cinematic drama that I thought would work with the music that I'd been hearing in my head.”
After cutting the song and an early version of “Jungleland,” Bruce Springsteen was dealt a blow. Keyboardist David Sancious, whose residence on E Street in Belmar, N.J., gave the band its name, was offered a deal with Epic for his jazz fusion group, Tone. And he was taking drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter, who had only come on board that February, with him. The search for replacements turned up Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg, both of whom brought with them experience in Broadway pits that would suit the grand nature of the new songs Springsteen was writing.
By mid-September, the retooled band was back on the road, working clubs up and down the Northeast corridor, with the exception of a few gigs in Texas and one in Cleveland, until March 1975. This included a Feb. 5 stop at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, Penn. Broadcast on WMMR, the concert gave fans their first glimpse at the new material – which included rough, unfinished versions of “She’s the One,” “Jungleland” and something called “Wings for Wheels,” that would later be renamed “Thunder Road.”
Meanwhile, Appel took the rough mix of “Born to Run” and leaked it to some friendly radio stations. The response was enough to convince Columbia that their faith in Springsteen could finally pay off this time.
Listen to Bruce Springsteen Perform 'Born to Run'
Springsteen continued to lean on his new friend Landau for advice on the direction of the new record. Landau had expressed his dissatisfaction with the sound of Springsteen’s first two efforts, which were also recorded at 914. In order to bring Springsteen’s vision to fruition, they needed a proper studio. Sessions began at Manhattan’s Record Plant in March, with Landau installed as co-producer along with manager Mike Appel.
They worked through the summer poring over every bar of music. As Carlin put it, “Bruce could take rich advantage of his partners’ strength, turning to Landau for structural and narrative advice, while relying on Appel’s mastery of detail to make certain every note sounded right.” But the tendency to overthink things often bogged the recording down, and on one occasion it took a burst of spontaneity from a guest to kick things back into gear.
Steven Van Zandt had been one of Springsteen’s closest friends since 1965. And while they were in some early bands together, once Springsteen got signed he handled all the guitar chores, both on record and on stage. Van Zandt stopped by the Record Plant on the day they were recording “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” with a horn section that saw Clarence Clemons’ saxophone augmented by first-call jazz session players Michael and Randy Brecker, David Sanborn and Wayne Andre. Springsteen had asked Roy Bittan, the only member of the group who could read and write notated music, to come up with a horn arrangement, but his chart didn’t provide the feel they were looking for. Van Zandt, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of soul music, figured out something on the spot, sang it to the pros and gave the song the southern soul vibe they were looking for.
But the pianist proved his worth in other ways. Springsteen wrote most of the songs on the piano, but his limited technical ability could only take him so far. Bittan’s versatility — the ad he answered called for him to be able to play everything from “classical to Jerry Lee Lewis” — paid off, giving an early rock stomp to “She’s the One” and a romanticism to the two side-closing epics, “Backstreets” and “Jungleland.”
Still, the sessions slogged on for hours at a time. In the Wings for Wheels documentary that accompanied a 2005 reissue boxed set, Engineer Jimmy Iovine recalled chewing on the foil from Wrigley’s spearmint gum so that he could stay awake. It didn’t help that the man whose name was on the title had great difficulty communicating his vision, largely because he was unsure of what it was.
“My concern was this: I have these abilities,” Bruce Springsteen said in Wings for Wheels. “I don’t know what they are. But I know that they’re there, and I don’t know where they’re gonna lead me. But wherever that is, I have to go, even if it’s down a bunch of blind alleys until I find the one that I do want to go down.
A perfect example of this was “Jungleland.” The version heard on the Main Point concert had a guitar-and-violin midsection that pierced eardrums, and one early mix featured a mariachi introduction that bordered on spaghetti-western parody. At some point, they decided to turn that middle instrumental portion over to Clarence Clemons, who spent hours on the final day of recording perfecting the two-minute-and-20-second solo that would become the defining moment of his career.
Listen to Bruce Springsteen Perform ‘Wings for Wheels’
They literally had no time left. As the E Street Band left a 19-hour session at the Record Plant, they loaded up the van and headed to Providence, R.I., to begin their tour. The band's only rehearsal, according to Weinberg, was at 6AM in a spare room of the studio.
And even with the album in the can, Springsteen still wasn’t satisfied. After a master was made, a copy was brought out to Springsteen on the road so that he could finally sign off on it. “He took it outside and he threw it into the pool,” Iovine said, with Appel recalling that Springsteen’s words were, “'Maybe I might just scrap the whole thing. How about that?'”
Part of it was the poor quality of the record player on which he listened to it, but most of it was all the pressure he was feeling, both from the label and that he was putting on himself. “I couldn’t let it go, and I was just basically frightened,” he said. “I just had to spend more time beating myself with it before I was gonna let it go.”
Landau was able to convince him otherwise, that it was as good as it could get and that he should save his ideas for the next album.
His label began a massive hype campaign in June that, at long last, drew some attention to the first two records. But their words would mean nothing if he wasn’t capable on delivering on its promise.
In the week leading up to Born to Run’s release, they booked Springsteen into the Bottom Line, a 400-seat club in New York’s Greenwich Village, for five nights, playing two shows a night, with nearly one-fourth of the tickets going to members of the media. The early show of the third night, Aug. 15, was broadcast live on WNEW – one of the most influential FM rock stations in the country. The morning DJ Dave Herman, who had boasted on-air that he wasn’t buying into the hysteria, was in attendance and came away transfixed. The next day, he admitted his mistake to his listeners. "I saw Springsteen for the first time last night," he said. "It's the most exciting rock 'n' roll show I've ever seen."
With Eric Meola’s black-and-white photo of Springsteen leaning on Clemons’ shoulder gracing the cover, Born to Run was critically praised for coalescing much of the best rock n’ roll of the previous 20 years — Bob Dylan, Phil Spector, Roy Orbison, soul — into a fresh context. In Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus (who, like Herman, had been previously unconvinced) called it, “a magnificent album that pays off on every bet ever placed on him — a '57 Chevy running on melted-down Crystals records that shuts down every claim that has been made. … Springsteen took what he found and made something better himself. This album is it.”
Listen to Bruce Springsteen Perform ‘Jungleland’
Born to Run shot to No. 3, but the title track single bogged down at No. 23, which was still the highest placement for him to date. Even with a hit on their hands, however, the hype continued. On Oct. 27, Springsteen made the covers of Time and Newsweek. Time’s piece, called “Rock’s New Sensation,” was pure fan-written fluff, but Newsweek’s “The Making of a Rock Star” acknowledged the importance of marketing in his new-found success while still finding plenty of room to praise Springsteen’s skills as a songwriter and live performer.
A month after the magazines hit the stands, Springsteen embarked on his first overseas tour. It wasn’t long, only a week comprised of two shows in London with nights in Stockholm and Amsterdam in between. But that first night, at the Hammersmith Odeon on Nov. 18, 1975, Springsteen got a first-hand glimpse of what was being done to sell him. The venue’s marquee read, “Finally. London is ready for Bruce Springsteen,” with posters saying the same adorning the walls. Springsteen, who was so against the idea of self-promotion early in his career that he didn’t want t-shirts or stickers made, tore down the posters that day.
In Wings for Wheels, Weinberg said, “I can recall hitting the stage at Hammersmith Odeon and the whole front was filled with what looked like journalists and photographers siting there like this [leans back with his arms folded],” with bassist Garry Tallent continuing, “We were convinced that we were just going to die right there onstage, but by the end we had a great show.” Van Zandt punctuated it with, “They all went away saying, ‘Wow. What was that?’ All of a sudden the Time and Newsweek thing didn’t seem quite so silly.”
The concert not only impressed the critics, but united both progressive rockers and soon-to-be punks. Peter Gabriel, who had just left Genesis a few months before, was in attendance. “That blew me away,” he told Rolling Stone. "Second only in my favorite gig list to Otis Redding in 1967.” As told in Chris Salewicz’s Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, the future Clash frontman was quoted as saying, “That’s the way to do it!” with Salewicz noting, “The fact that Springsteen plays a Telecaster was significant for Joe, who saw it as a sign. Joe even bought an excessively long guitar lead, allowing him to wander at will about the stage and even into the audience — just like Springsteen.”
They returned home for a month of dates in the Northeast and their first Canadain shows. The tour ended with a New Year’s Eve performance at Philadelphia’s Tower Theater. The triumph was short-lived. Springsteen would soon find out that his contract with Appel’s Laurel Canyon Productions was heavily weighted in his manager’s favor. His attempt to sue to have his deal terminated prompted an injunction from Appel that prevented Springsteen from recording until it was resolved. A year later, in May 1977, the case was settled and Landau, who had played such a huge role in Springsteen’s success, was installed as his new manager.
The importance of Born to Run in saving Springsteen’s career has not been lost on the star. “When I hear the record,” he said, “I hear my friends, and I hear my hopes and my dreams and what I thought my life was going to be like as a 25-year old kid. I see it as the start of some of the most important and fundamental relationships of my life. … I think today it provides on stage for us a great communion between myself and the band members. Without sounding too hokey … it is a bit sacramental when we play it, and it falls like that in the course of the evening. And it’s just a lovely feeling.”