This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #12: Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
“Born To Run” is the song that announced Bruce Springsteen’s arrival as a music star to be reckoned with. It is the song that caused both, Time and Newsweek Magazines to post his photo on the cover of their issues at the same time; with Time declaring that Springsteen was “the future of rock n’ roll”. Looking back forty years from now to when “Born To Run”, the album, was released, it seems hard to believe that Bruce Springsteen was ever anybody other than the poet and wordsmith that we know him as today. But, in fact, “Born To Run”, the song, not only launched his career into the mainstream, it actually saved his career. So, before discussing the song, itself, let’s go back a bit and put things in historical context because the story of “Born To Run”, the song, is reflective of the times in which is was written. Here is that story.
“Born To Run” was Springsteen’s third album. His first two albums did not sell well and, in the eyes of his record company, it was going to be three failures and you were out! So, there was a lot riding on the songs written for this album. But, it also matters that the album, “Born To Run” was written in the 1970s. The pendulum swings of History are such that bad times often follow good and then back to bad again. The 1960s, as we know, was a time of Hope and Optimism. The whole “Summer of Love” vibe was real while it lasted. But, when everything came crashing down in Vietnam, with Watergate, with the murder at Altamont Speedway, the mood in America soured. Not only that but, economic performance mirrored that mood and a recession took hold. This caused many towns and cities that revolved around the performance of manufacturing factories to suffer. With sales down across the board, factories laid off thousands of workers. Those factory jobs once were lifetime appointments and were a key to stabilizing the American Middle Class. But, when the downturn struck, the Middle Class lifestyle felt great pressure. Consequently, the economies of small towns and cities all across America went into a period of decline. This was especially true in the town of Freehold, New Jersey, where Bruce Springsteen grew up.
In Freehold, high school students did one of three things: they graduated and moved away to pursue opportunities elsewhere…..they stayed and were lucky enough to find work in one of the manufacturing plants located there or else, they stayed and didn’t work at all. That was the bleak future that stared Springsteen in the eye as he passed through his teenage years. What was he going to do for a living? Many of his HS classmates recall Springsteen as being introverted and almost someone who faded into the background because of how low he kept his profile. It was only when he started playing in small, local bands that he began to feel any sort of calling. At the time, the Jersey shore was home to a hardscrabble music scene that saw musicians such as Southside Johnny and His Ashbury Jukes, Clarence Clemons, Steven Van Zandt, Danny Frederico and others playing in small bars up and down the coast. As time went on, Springsteen began to gather likeminded bandmates around him. Together, they began to carve out a reputation for the intensity of their live shows, which often lasted for three or four hours at a stretch. It was at this time, after HS graduation, that Springsteen and his friends, now known as The E Street Band, were signed to a contract. As mentioned already, his first two albums were commercial flops. Despite this, he and the E Street Band continued to hone their craft with live performances. Then came the album, “Born To Run”.
“Born To Run” is filled with songs such as “Thunder Road”, “Jungleland” and “Born To Run” which are all constructed around the idea of escaping the life that is laid out before them. The vehicle of escape is, literally and figuratively, cars; with engines and wheels being the dreams that fuel the escape from the drudgery of small town American life in the 1970s, toward a place where pursuing The American Dream may be possible. Just like “Thunder Road” *(which you can read about here), “Born To Run” involves a guy and his girl and his car. But, what separates this song and elevates it up into the realm of a classic is in the poetry of the lyrics and in the ferocity of the band’s live performances.
First, the lyrics. Here is how Springsteen describes life, as it exists, in his small town:
“In the day we sweat it out on the streets
of a runaway American dream.
At night we ride through the mansions of glory
in suicide machines.
Sprung from cages on Highway 9
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin’ out over the line
Oh Baby, this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap……it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
’cause tramps like us, Baby, we were born to run!“
Music critics fell in love with the majesty of these lyrics and dubbed Springsteen as the new Bob Dylan. That such poetic lyrics were paired with a wall of musical sound that would have made Phil Spector proud, helped push “Born To Run” over the top in the minds of many music writers. But, what really brought Springsteen to the next level was when the rest of America, that existed beyond the rusting promenades of the Jersey Shore, finally got to witness Springsteen and the E Street band perform the song live. Those who had watched Bruce Springsteen play as a teen in those small bars were not surprised when “Born To Run” was released as a single. That was the Springsteen they had come to know. But, to everyone else, he and the band were a powerful force that blasted away the malaise that had fallen over America, including the music scene as well. “Born To Run” was powerful and manly and filled with energy and sound that appeared to be coming from everywhere, all at once. For many Americans who were suffering during the economic downturn in their own factory towns, “Born To Run” became an anthem that offered the Hope that better days were coming; in their towns or elsewhere but, those better times were possible. It was a song that spoke to the idea of “Freedom”, as it is viewed as an integral part of the fabric of the nation…..and it did so without ever using that word in the song.
The success of the album, “Born To Run” allowed Springsteen the creative freedom to more closely flow his own muse, rather than fall into the trap of having to produce more radio-friendly “hits”. What followed next for the band were the highly acclaimed albums, “Nebraska” and “The River”. “Born in the USA” waited down the pike but, it would never have happened, either, if not for a song about escaping hard times, with the one you love by your side and a fast car to get you there, called, “Born To Run”.
So, without further delay, here is Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, with the song that really started it all for them, “Born To Run”. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Born To Run” by Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.