“The Perfect Beat” is The Flyover’s ongoing series discussing our favorite moments in the history of recorded music.
In May 1974, Bruce Springsteen entered 914 Studios in New York to begin recording songs for his pivotal third album. Despite gaining success as a regional hero, largely on the acclaim of his legendary live performances, Springsteen’s first two albums for Columbia Records were commercial flops. The songs on “Greetings from Asbury Park” and “The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle” were expansive stories ranging from hushed folk to wild jazz, as if the lyrics of Bob Dylan and the music of Van Morrison were put in a blender. Songs like “Spirit in the Night,” “Growin’ Up,” and “Rosalita” were already becoming concert staples, but the albums weren’t finding an audience. Springsteen knew, as he would soon sing in “Meeting Across the River,” that album number three was very likely his last chance.
With that in mind, Springsteen turned to whittling down his lyrics and focusing on more universal themes that weren’t as steeped in the Asbury Park boardwalk. The music was still expressive and exciting, but the artist that was once described as putting more thought into a single song than most do in an entire album was intent on making the greatest rock and roll album ever made.
It all started with one song.
Before recording began, Springsteen had been working on early versions of songs like “Thunder Road” and “Jungleland” for nearly a year, performing wild versions that were more reminiscent of his second album. But, it were three words Springsteen had written in a notebook that launched the sessions for his third album. Maybe he saw them on a hot rod cruising around “the circuit” on Kingsley Avenue. Maybe it was just something that came to him. Either way, he knew he had a great title for a rock and roll song: “Born to Run.”
Springsteen, ever the rock and roll historian, knew he was dealing in classic rock themes, and wanted to write something that avoided cliche as much as possible while also communicating more mature “definitions of love and freedom.” The music had to be big and exciting, conveying movement and innocence as well as contemplation and doubt. These were the themes that would run through this song and the rest of the record: how do you survive and keep the best parts of yourself when you feel trapped; what do you do when your dreams come true; what do you do when they don’t?
In “Born to Run,” Springsteen attempted to create the perfect anthem for his perfect album. He would employ the “Wall of Sound” made famous by Phil Spector, eschew his Van Morrison impression for a sort of street punk Roy Orbison, and create an iconic, Beatles-esque riff on top of a band firing on all cylinders.
It may have taken six months to fully complete, but it worked. Armed with his own masterful guitar work and stunning vocals, Clarence Clemons’ soulful sax, Danny Federici’s organ and glockenspiel keeping alive the spirit of the boardwalk, Garry Tallent’s brilliant bass, and the dynamic jazz-rock fusion duo of David Sancious on piano and Boom Carter on drums (both of whom would leave the band following the completion of this track), “Born to Run” was the promise of Bruce Springsteen fully realized. It anchored the album that would first define him, launching him into stardom, the cover of “Time” and “Newsweek,” and sending him and his band to Europe for the very first time.
While “Born to Run” may be one of the few songs in Springsteen’s pre-2000s catalog that is a true studio creation (just listen to it: even the best live versions never quite stack up to the expert “Wall of Sound” production on the record), its music and themes are actually quite simple and relatable.
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get our while we’re young
Tramps like us, baby we were born to run
There’s nothing truly revelatory about the subject matter; this is the stuff rock and roll was built on: Chuck Berry in “No Particular Place to Go;” the Rolling Stones in “Street Fighting Man;” The Animals in “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” Instead, it’s the performance that feels like nothing you’ve ever heard, the desperate, operatic vocals powered by the best bar band in the country. Unlike the plodding rhythm of “Street Fighting Man,” there’s something very urgent about “Born To Run.” The main character and Wendy don’t just have to get out, they’ve got to get out now!
Together we could break this trap
We’ll run till we drop, baby we’ll never go back
Will you walk with me out on the wire?
Cause baby I’m just a scared and lonely rider
I gotta find out how it feels
I wanna know if love is wild
I wanna know if love is real
This may not fully capture the themes of adulthood that Bruce would later explore on “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “The River,” but they capture that feeling of “maybe we ain’t that young anymore.” Gone are the days of chasing Sandy under the boardwalk. Gone, too, are the days of making love in the dirt with Crazy Janey. Now, there is an awareness of time, of adulthood. Make no mistake: this is a last chance power drive.
Enter Clarence Clemons’ iconic saxophone solo, and we’re in the car with the narrator and Wendy – it feels very much like love is real.
After nearly two minutes of four-on-the-floor rock and roll, reality sets in, as it has to. Clemons’ saxophone fades out, and the music becomes more stark than at any other point in the song. The narrator and his faithful companion take a moment for one last look around the boardwalk town they’ve always known: cars racing along the circuit; kids playing on the beach. This is the life they’ve enjoyed, but one without meaning or consequence. The suspense in the music slowly builds, as the narrator turns to his partner:
I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight
In an ever-lasting kiss
With a primal, and oft-parodied, grunt, Bruce emphatically stakes his claim. The snare drum hits at the exact same time, and we’re off, a dizzying orchestra of Duane Eddy guitar, strings, horns, glockenspiel, a Fender Rhodes, and God knows what else, catapulting us down the highway toward something that feels a lot like escape, freedom, love, and hope.
Why It’s Perfect
All of that desperation, hope, and yearning, screams out in that perfect moment when Bruce’s grunt and Carter’s drum meet. The release is what comes next, a wild guitar solo buried underneath swirling sounds of nearly every instrument imaginable. It’s that blissful moment when it feels like you’ve got it all figured out, when the roads are all yours and anything seems possible.
And it sounds incredible! “Born to Run,” while stealing liberally from nearly 20 years of rock and roll, sounds like nothing that came before or after it. The music perfectly matches the mood, allowing us to lose ourselves in this capricious fantasy of youth. We know that’s not how love or the real world works, but it doesn’t matter: we want it to. We need it to. If only to reignite our own broken dreams and belief in true love.
And just as we feel like we’ve made it, and the auspicious cacophony of sound halts as if it suddenly got stuck in traffic, Bruce shouts out his signature “1, 2, 3, 4” and we learn the truth.
The highway’s jammed with broken heroes
On a last chance power drive
Everybody’s out on the run tonight
There’s no place left to hide
This is everybody at 23, at 24, at 25, as we lose our illusions of youth and are forced to deal with something a little closer to adulthood. Our heroes see this first hand: they think they’ve got something figured out, yet everyone else is out there on that road. They’re not alone, yet they’re even further from “that place [they] really wanna go.”
By the time we get to “Darkness on the Edge of Town” two years later, hope is in short supply. But, in “Born to Run,” there’s still some hanging around inside that car. Maybe it’s the bliss of fading youth. Maybe it’s something else.
Somebody girl, I don’t know when
We’re gonna get to that place
We really wanna go
And we’ll walk in the sun
But till then, tramps like us
Baby we were born to run
Desperation. The ever-lasting now. Rock and roll perfection.