Bruce Springsteen's 'Born to Run' Turns 40: Classic Track-by-Track Album Review

Bruce Springsteen performing on stage during his Born to Run Tour.
Fin Costello/Redferns

Bruce Springsteen performing on stage during his Born to Run Tour.

Although it’s a front-to-back masterpiece with a cool title and an iconic cover, Born to Run is not necessarily Bruce Springsteen’s best album. Darkness on the Edge of Town is meaner, Nebraska is starker, and Born In the USA is more anthemic. Recent triumphs The Rising and Magic say more about the times in which they were created. Born to Run is, however, Bruce Springsteen’s most Bruce Springsteen album -- the one that exemplifies the go-for-broke barrage of guitar, piano, sax, and glockenspiel that most people associate with the Boss.

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Released 40 years ago today (Aug. 25, 1975), Born to Run is also something of an outlier in Springsteen’s catalog: the exception that established all subsequent rules. Composed on piano in a tiny house in Long Branch, New Jersey, the record was Bruce’s third for Columbia, and after the disappointing sales of 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, the scruffy 24-year-old some had pegged as the “new Dylan” needed to make a statement -- and move some product.

Springsteen wound up doing both, though he nearly drove himself and his bandmates crazy in the process. The eight songs on Born to Run took 15 months to record, and the title track alone took a half a year. It’s the only song on the album to feature keyboardist David Sancious and drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter, who left the E Street Band in August 1974 and were replaced by Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg. Both left a mark on the recordings, as did saxophonist Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, bassist Gary W. Tallent, and Bruce’s old pal Steven Van Zandt, who kicked in some clutch ideas even before officially joining the group.

Other key players included producers Mike Appel and Jon Landau (men on their way in and out of Springsteen’s tight circle of trusted collaborators, respectively) and Jimmy Iovine -- now a famed producer known for co-founding Beats Electronics, then an engineer at the Record Plant in New York City, one of two studios used for the sessions.

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There were also various horn and string players, and together with the E Streeters and production crew, they toiled in service of Springsteen’s grand vision. He wanted to make a record of simple-yet-intricate cinematic rock songs about young dreamers facing passions and anxieties mirroring his own. As he meticulously wrote and rewrote lyrics, cribbing titles from old B movies and images from rock’s early days, Bruce fully grasped the ambitiousness of what he was doing, and the potential for disaster.

Fortunately, the hard work paid off, and Springsteen’s most over-the-top record finally did put him over the top. Born to Run broke through to the mainstream and reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200. In October 1975, Bruce appeared on the covers of both Time and Newsweek, and seemingly overnight, this East Coast club fixture was a global sensation. By the end of the year, the band had made its first trip to Europe.

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It didn’t matter that Springsteen was singing about Jersey wastoids chasing a “runaway American dream.” The songs made sense to people who’d never tasted salt-water taffy or even driven a Chevrolet. To paraphrase another poet of some renown, all the world’s a jungleland, and all the men and women are Bad Scooters and Barefoot Girls casing the promised land, trying to get to that place they really want to go and walk in the sun. Sometimes you bust the city in half, and sometimes, well, it busts you.

Read on for our track-by-track take on this must-own love letter to youth, New Jersey, classic automobiles, Roy Orbison, Phil Spector, and the idea that suffering can lead to transcendence (transcendence always sounds best with a sax solo, incidentally).

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“Thunder Road”: Even more than the title track, this five-minute pop opera captures the themes of the album and the very essence of Springsteen’s artistry. The opening line, seven words about a girl on a porch, presents Bruce the dramatist, while the last one -- “It’s a town full of losers / and I’m pulling out of here to win” -- speaks to his idealism. In between, Springsteen uses Dylanesque harmonica, vintage rock n’ roll guitar and sax, and cozy piano chords to tell the tale of two Jersey kids at a crossroads. At least one of them thinks there’s more to life than their cruddy little beach town, and by the sound of it, Bruce thinks he’s right.

“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”: Autobiography meets self-mythology on this brassy soul-rock jam, a non-single that would become a staple of Bruce’s live sets. It’s basically the E Street Band creation myth, and in the third verse, as we learn “the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band,” it’s meant to feel like a revelation. The line, of course, refers to Clemons, who honks along with four other horn players to a funky riff written on the spot by Steven Van Zandt.

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“Night”: Fast cars, cool chicks, mean bosses, the promise of escape: It’s all there in “Night,” a tougher, more urgent version of “Thunder Road.” At 3:02, it’s the shortest song on Born to Run, and from Mighty Max’s machine-gun drum intro to Clarence’s closing sax cries, it never lets up.

“Backstreets”: In the album’s most sophisticated piece of storytelling, Springsteen plays a guy looking back on a “soft, infested summer” he shared with someone named Terry. This companion may be a woman, though the song’s desperate outsider vibe and references to hiding out from society have led many to posit that Bruce is talking about homosexual lovers forced to live in the shadows. It could also just be about friendship. No matter the subject, Bittan’s organ, Bruce’s scraggly guitar, and Weinberg’s rolling drums make this gritty glimpse into two people’s lives feel like Midnight Cowboy recast on the Jersey Shore.

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“Born to Run”: Springsteen’s signature song explodes with hope and romance and classic rock n’ roll images of hot rods and motorcycles. It’s The Wild One meets Horatio Alger, told in four and a half minutes but took six months to record. It’s a song no one ever really needs to hear again, and yet it never gets old.

“She’s the One”: You can’t go wrong with a Bo Diddley beat or a lyric about love that scrambles your brains. Here, Bruce offers both. That he sings it like an overzealous Elvis impersonator and lets Clarence steal the show with a searing sax solo makes it all the better.

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“Meeting Across the River”: There’s probably some element of Springsteen’s own career drama in this noirish vignette about luckless Jersey hoods heading to big city for a big score. The blue-light cool of the trumpet and upright bass provides a sharp contrast to the urgency of the situation. If the narrator screws this one up, he and his buddy Eddie are cooked. (At least Bruce was never going to wind up swimming with the fishes.)

“Jungleland”: A mournful violin intro sets up an epic blurring “between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy,” as Bruce sings in the final stanza, which comes after eight minutes have passed and the story of Magic Rat and Barefoot girl has turned from gangland adventure to clubland battle-of-the-bands, then maybe back again. The details are secondary to the evocative language and the emotional arc -- hopefulness giving way to apathy and defeat -- and everything plays second fiddle to Clarence’s moving two-minute sax solo, which Springsteen painstakingly dreamed up note by note.