Where To Start With... Bruce Springsteen
After a career spanning more than four decades and 18 studio albums, Bruce Springsteen is one of a handful of solo artists that could rightfully be described as a living legend, particularly in his native New Jersey where the man they call 'The Boss' enjoys a near God-like status.
Scratching out the beginnings of a career in various bands during the late 1960s, Springsteen got his first real break as a solo artist in the early 1970s, signing a record deal with Columbia and releasing his debut album Greetings from Ashbury Park, NJ in 1973. A second album followed later that year, but it wasn't until 1975 and his third album, Born to Run, that Springsteen really hit the big time, reaching No.3 on the Billboard charts and scoring hits with songs like the album's title track and 'Thunder Road'.
Backed by his E. Street Band, Springsteen continued to release a string of well-received albums throughout the rest of the 1970s and into the next decade, with all his albums selling strongly, but his career enjoyed a second wave of commercial success following the release of his 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. The title track was to become another of Springsteen's greatest hits and despite the song's politically-charged lyrics about a young man from a crumbling backwater town being sent off to war in Vietnam, the song was co-opted by a generation of Reagan-era politicians who seemed to take the chorus refrain at face value, apparently missing the anti-government sentiment in the song's lyrics; the song has continued to be wheeled out at political rallies ever since.
It's a testament to Springsteen's ability as a songwriter and performer that he's enjoyed hits in just about every decade since his debut album and in 1993 Springsteen won an Oscar for 'Streets of Philadelphia', written for Jonathan Demme's moving film starring Tom Hanks. In recent years it's Springsteen's live performances that have become the centre of attention, performing legendarily long sets crafted from his extensive back catalogue, as anyone witness to his Glastonbury performance in 20XX will testify.
His last studio album High Hopes arrived in 2014 and represented the first time Springsteen had released an album comprised entirely of cover versions, but this week he's back with something very different. Chapter and Verse is a career retrospective collection of tracks spanning some 40-odd years on the music business and along with some of his more established hits like 'Born to Run' and 'The Ghost of Tom Joad' and the album also includes five previously unreleased tracks, which include early recordings performed with his former band The Castilles.
As if that wasn't enough to excite his fans, the album will be followed a few days later by Born To Run, an autobiography written over the past seven years in which Springsteen chronicles his life and career that will arrive in hmv stores on October 27th.
You can preview and purchase Chapter and Verse at the top-right of this page, below we've picked out five of Bruce Springsteen's most essential tracks as a guide for the uninitiated...
'Born to Run'
At 24 years old and with his first two albums having landed at No.60 and No.59 respectively in the Billboard Top 100, Springsteen was worried that he was on the verge of losing his record deal; he needed a hit. He would later tell Rolling Stone about writing the song: "I wanted to make the greatest rock record that I'd ever heard. I wanted it to sound enormous, to grab you by your throat and insist that you take that ride, insist that you pay attention – not just to the music, but to life, to being alive." It's an ambitious statement, for sure, but as one of the most enduring and instantly recognisable songs in his catalogue, it's fair to say he achieved what he wanted. It did the job too, becoming the opener and title track for Springsteen's breakthrough album.
The title track of his 1980 album, this is classic Springsteen storytelling, in this case about a young man who gets a girl pregnant and has to adjust his hopes and dreams pretty quickly as a result. It's one of our favourite examples of Springsteen's knack for tapping into and expressing the disaffection of the working classes, spun out with his trademark rasp over a simple but memorable chord structure and a wistfull harmonica riff.
'Born in the U.S.A.'
We alluded to this earlier, but it's hard to think of a song whose message has been more widely misunderstood than the one embedded in the lyrics to what is perhaps Springsteen's best-known track. Originally written during the demo sessions for Nebraska, the title track to his 1984 album was adapted from an earlier composition that Springsteen never finished named 'Vietnam', eventually spilt into two with the song's b-side 'Shut Out The Light'. Producer Jon Landau was initially unimpressed with the acoustic version, calling it “one of the lesser songs” on the demo tape, but later Springsteen revived the track and with the help of Roy Bittan's iconic opening keyboard riff, the song became a very different beast and it remains one of the highlights of his legendary live sets.
'Streets of Philadelphia'
Even in an extensive catalogue that has a huge amount of range, 'Streets of Philadelphia' is unique. Asked by director Jonathan Demme to contribute a song to his film Philadelphia, Springsteen tried to put himself in the position of somebody on the receiving end of an A.I.D.S. diagnosis and, moved by the film's story, headed into the studio alone with a drum machine and no other musicians to back him up. The result is a song that sounds very different to what we're used to from The Boss; stark, atmospheric, haunting and utterly captivating. He's written some great songs over the years, but this one still has the capacity make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
'The Ghost of Tom Joad'
Our final pick is the title track from Springsteen's 1995 album of the same name and is based on the character featured in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, as well as an earlier Woody Guthrie song about the same subject. Having written a string of albums with very personal lyrics, this was Springsteen wanting to appeal to more common themes that affect everyone and it's another example of his highly-politicised lyrics on the state of his home country, as well as those running it. If you need an example of just how broad the appeal of these lyrics are, have a listen to the cover version by Rage Against The Machine. The two arrangements couldn't be more different, but the message shines through in both and proves what a great songwriter Springsteen really is.