Running with the Boss sound

Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen’s third album, serves as both the final movement of his early career and the beginning of the legend he’s become. The 30th Anniversary Edition is handsomely boxed and features a completely remastered CD version of the album, a 48-page booklet of previously unpublished photographs, and two DVDs of archival footage: a 1975 Hammersmith Odeon concert and a new 90-minute documentary, Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run, with an additional three tracks of 1973 live performances from Los Angeles thrown in for extra archival fun. Recorded with an ear toward Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, Born to Run remastered sounds punchier and more immediate — it’s probably the best this record can sound sonically without a DVD or SACD version. There will never be a hi-def Born to Run.

At first, it’s a wonder why so much footage remained unreleased. But as Springsteen’s old songs tangle with odd meters and lyrical excess, and his band flirts with fashions that suggest a gypsy-cum-pimp brigade, it’s clear that while Born to Run is a timeless wonder, many other aspects of the group’s mission were still in transition.

Bearded, gaunt with an oversized wool hat, the young Springsteen slowly recites “Thunder Road” while newly recruited pianist Roy Bittan scurries through the song’s trills and arpeggios. The song is a sign that this Hammersmith show will not be just a rock concert, but more like a movie with plotlines thickening and pacing that will slow down and speed up at a moment’s notice. By the time the band marks its spot with “Tenth Avenue Freezeout,” it’s as a tightly calibrated soul revue. The current E Street Band never swings like this.

The E Street’s rhythm section doesn’t completely survive the 16 tunes they attempt this night. Watching drummer Max Weinberg over Springsteen’s shoulder counting to himself as he hangs on for dear life for “Born to Run,” it’s not clear whether he’ll have the drumstool job much longer. By the time the band soldiers through “The E Street Shuffle,” “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” “Backstreets” and “Kitty’s Back,” it’s rewarded with the nine minutes of “Jungleland.” The physical — and psychic — energy takes its toll and while the band bangs out its “Detroit Medley” and “Quarter to Three” with a strong, reckless vibe, they seem mostly relieved to finally be playing something that’s primarily three chords. Watching this footage, it’s apparent that Springsteen would have to streamline his material in the future. They couldn’t survive adding another eight to 10 songs of this complexity without suffering a nervous breakdown.

The band virtually did suffer a breakdown while recording Born to Run, as Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run suggests. The documentary features Springsteen and his co-producer/manager Jon Landau sitting together (current day) listening to the alternate takes and mixes, showing us how many different song and recording paths were attempted. Springsteen had so many options at his disposal that he ended up finishing the album just hours before his 1975 tour was scheduled to begin. It’s hard to believe so much work and obsession went into the making of these eight songs — and even harder to fathom that it was 30 years ago. It stands to reason that he never tried anything like this again.

Rob O'Connor writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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