To understand the hullabaloo many people make about Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s Born to Run album (1975), you really need to understand the context. It’s a very good rock record but there are a lot of very good rock records that have been made over the years, some we’ve heard about and many we haven’t. So why Born to Run?
In 1975 pop music had a generally bland sound. There were a lot of good songs and a lot of dross, as there always is, and when you strung them all together, played them repetitively as radio stations do, it came across as an extended yawn. There was a somnolent quality to the sound. Look at the top songs around that time:
In other words, a lot of rock music didn’t make it to the mainstream. There were rock stations but the MOR (Middle-of-the-Road) stations were the dominant ones and for most people the songs they played on them made up the soundtrack of the period.
Rock music at that time had evolved, rather like a biological organism: growth followed by decay. It had become decadent (for lack of a better word). Much of it had become self-indulgent, excessive, and generally pretentious. This was the period of such things as glam rock and progressive rock: David Bowie, Sweet, Roxy Music, Gary Glitter, Genesis, Yes and so on. Some of that music was very good but a lot of emphasis was being put on appearance, theatrics and obscure lyrics that made little sense but sounded like they might be profound. (They weren’t.)
Then this guy named Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band appeared. Springsteen wore jeans and a t-shirt. (Compare that to what Peter Gabriel was doing at the time with Genesis, or what Elton John was doing.)
His concerts went on forever with encore after encore after encore. (I saw Alice Cooper around the same period and the show lasted 45 minutes, if that. His big thing at the time was a routine with a guillotine on stage.) Springsteen and the band seemed to be having so much fun they didn’t want to go home. At the time many bands – the progressive ones – were stultifyingly serious. Fun didn’t play a big part in the equation.
Punk rock had already begun but most people were unaware of it or, if aware, knew of it as something loud and cacophonous played by angry, disagreeable people who were overly vulgar. Like most music, at first blush it wasn’t easy to distinguish the good stuff from the crap or to see (much less get) the essence of it. That would take some time.
So Springsteen came along with Born to Run and a kind of rock music that was firmly rooted in traditional rock and roll (tinted with some R&B), had an angry edge to it, was as self-reflective (even narcissistic) as most rock music tends to be, and had what most rock bands lacked at the time – romance, drama, and even joy. Hell, the songs told stories.
The shows had an energy that few, if any bands had. The songs were understandable (compare them to Yes and Genesis of the period). And it wasn’t disco, which people either loved or hated.
I remember reading an interview with Peter Gabriel some years back talking about that period. He left Genesis in 1975. At the time, their shows were very theatrical. In the interview he referred to what he was doing at that time and said something similar to, “Then I saw Springsteen and everything changed.”
In a sense, Springsteen was the antithesis of what Gabriel was back then. It wasn’t about music and whether one was good and one wasn’t (both were very good). It was about the approach to performance. I think Gabriel was saying that he had gone so far into the theatrics of it that he had lost his way. Maybe. That’s just a guess.
Anyway … the point is this. Springsteen’s Born to Run was and is a great album but what elevated it was that it was also the right album at the right time and Springsteen and the E Street band were the right band at the right time doing the right shows at the right time.
There were probably a lot of bands around at the time doing something similar but it was Springsteen and Born to Run that broke through and changed what audiences were open to. It reinvigorated a music that had become torpid. It put passion back into rock music.
And it was one great, kick-ass album.