Of all the albums throughout Bruce Springsteen’s illustrious career, Born to Run may be his most defining. It was the album that launched Springsteen into rock icon status, aided partly by the time period in which the album was released. When Born to Run was released in August 1975, there was a lack of leading stylistic direction in popular music. It was a period of indecisiveness, where genres like disco, psychedelia, and punk began to slowly dissipate and audiences began to look for a new hero to latch onto. With Born to Run it was easy to admire Springsteen, who on his previous two albums sang about highway heroes and young love on the beach. He was a folkie with a gripping and universally relatable narrative, but also a rocker with a sense for charisma and exceptional hooks. Springsteen was effectively a mixture of everything that was great about American music up to that point. There couldn’t have been a better choice to lead the next decade of music.
Springsteen’s first two albums (Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle) were no different than many indie successes today; it was hailed by critics as exceptional, but there was no commercial sticking point that made Springsteen a household name. Less than a year after the 1973 release of The Wild, the Innocent, Springsteen mixed up his band, adding some of the E Street Band’s biggest names today. Former Conan drummer Max Weinberg joined in 1974, and longtime songwriting partner Stevie Van Zandt (Silvio from The Sopranos) re-joined in 1975. This lineup revitalized Springsteen’s live persona, helping mold what he is known as today: one of the best live acts in rock history. By the time Born to Run was released in the late summer of 1975, buzz from his live shows grew into a plethora of eyes on the release of Born to Run. It was Springsteen’s chance to make it big, and Columbia Records knew it. To say he capitalized on the opportunity is an understatement. Born to Run was only the beginning of Springsteen’s status as a rock icon, but it’s also an apt representation of why he’s one of the greatest American songwriters to ever live.
In addition to writing the eight classic tracks that appear on Born to Run, it was a learning process for Springsteen to adapt to the big-budget recording practices Columbia provided for the album. Springsteen’s previous two releases were recorded on a minimal budget, and it became part of his charm as a result. Compared to the quick sessions on those releases, Born to Run took 14 months to record, and many more meticulous studio sessions than Springsteen was accustomed to. Trying to replicate Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” made the process extra daunting. Plus, it was difficult dealing with the amount of hype Columbia was generating. The label, desperate for a hit album, launched a $250,000 campaign for Born to Run, spearheaded by the alleged words of producer Jon Landau: “I saw rock ‘n’ roll’s future—and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” The low-key Springsteen detested the hype, and demanded any posters with similar verbosity be taken down. He wanted listeners to focus on the music, which was entirely easy to do. From the powerful first track, “Thunder Road”, Thunder Road is exhilarating.
With roaring guitars, dancing keys, and clamoring percussion, the anthemic and grandiose sound of Born to Run is immediate. “Thunder Road” sounds anything but solemn and lonely, a stark contrast from lyrics depicting those very sentiments: “Roy Orbison singin’ for the lonely / hey that’s me and I want you only / Don’t turn me home again / I just can’t face myself alone again.” Springsteen’s words and music is always interconnected, and themes of overcoming despair, achieving redemption and friendship, and overall prevailing in American society are not as resounding if one analyzes solely the lyrics or music. “I’m a songwriter, I’m not a poetry man,” Springsteen said aptly of the album. American identity, as conflicted and foggy as it would be now or in the ‘70s, is something Springsteen touches on constantly – and no one does it better. Born to Run is a stunning example of that.
Born to Run wasn’t Springsteen’s consummate entry into stardom. He had already built a reputation as an outstanding live performer before the album’s release, and his first two albums remain classics to this day. His songwriting was never in doubt either, even prior to Born to Run. But this was the album where Springsteen advanced his persona, whose stirring presence makes such transitions so valuable in graphing Springsteen’s ascent. Stories of heading out on the town for one-night stands and causing mischief are captured in a different, more expansive light. Efforts like “Jungleland” and “Born to Run” show a quest for a more eternal and hard-fought relationship, marked by the sacrifice and commitment that makes it all worthwhile. Springsteen called Born to Run “the album where I left behind my adolescent definitions of love and freedom. It was the dividing line.” It certainly drew a solid line than separated Springsteen from his peers, who admired him upon the album’s release and still do to this day.