Rock and roll was already having a spectacular 1975 when Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run came along on August 25. We had so far been graced by Physical Graffiti, Toys in the Attic, and Katy Lied, albums so beloved they don’t even require the bands’ names to be attached.
While there were certainly moments of celebration, it was mostly a run marked by cynicism and double-entendres aimed squarely at horny middle-school boys. Not so with Born to Run.
For his breakthrough album, Springsteen wanted nothing less than to capture the life-altering impact that rock and roll had had on his life and the lives of millions worldwide. He wanted to capture its essential spirit thematically, musically, and sonically.
Springsteen spent two years working on the album, crafting a story of romantic longing, desperate hope, and precious escape, all of it mirrored by dense layers of music that reflected his love of Top 40 radio, his life’s blood. It was a pursuit that almost drove him and his band insane
But he did it, and 45 years later, Born to Run stands as a landmark album. Perhaps the greatest compliment that could be paid the record is that this homage to the music that had changed Springsteen’s life went on to change the lives of many others.
Rather than wax poetic over Born to Run for 1,500 words — just do yourself a solid and listen to the album — we thought it would be fun to take a look at a few bands and artists who likely wouldn’t have existed without Springsteen’s epic template.
John Cougar Mellencamp
Back when John Mellencamp was an impressionable Indiana punk looking to get into show business, Bruce Springsteen and Born to Run ruled throughout the Southeast and Midwest. It makes perfect sense that it appealed so much to Mellencamp.
The limited confines and inherently lower expectations of Springsteen’s hometown, Freehold, New Jersey, were echoed in Mellencamp’s landlocked Seymour, Indiana. Small towns and big dreams are a volatile mix, and few albums have explored that troubled dynamic as effectively as Born to Run.
It’s easy to imagine that Seymour must have felt like a straightjacket, and Mellencamp, who was tellingly also a fan of the shape-shifting David Bowie, was looking for a way out. He changed his name to Johnny Cougar and began writing songs cut from the same cloth as Springsteen’s urban melodramas.
Johnny Cougar’s first three albums are filled with songs that have a Springsteenian sweep: “Chestnut Street Revisited,” “Dream Killing Town,” “Taxi Dancer,” “Alley of the Angels,” “American Dream,” “I Need A Lover,” “Small Paradise.” Hell, even “Johnny Cougar” sounds like a guy who hangs out with Magic Rat.
Small-time losers with a craving for something bigger and better run rampant throughout both Born to Run and Mellencamp’s Chestnut Street Incident (1976), A Biography (1978), and John Cougar (1979) albums. It’s all about finding a path to those elusive dreams, and Mellencamp’s paths were all paved with the same kind of government asphalt used in Jersey.
The Gaslight Anthem
This New Jersey band has said that Springsteen is only one of many influences and that they don’t even sound like Springsteen. And they’re right, but sometimes influences run so deep that it isn’t a matter of sounding alike. That’s just surface noise, anyway.
The Gaslight Anthem’s similarities with Springsteen run deep because they grew up in New Jersey, sharing a host of experiences. Geographical culture is a real thing and it doesn’t matter that 40 years separate Springsteen and the Gaslight guys; they still share a certain outlook, a way of life, and even liked the same music, liked the same bands, and liked the same clothes.
The hyper-romantic themes that drive the songs on Born to Run run rampant throughout the Gaslight Anthem’s five albums. Their songs are fired by pure emotion and they see the industrial, blue-collar landscape around them with a poet’s eyes. That’s the formula that Springsteen popularized with Born to Run and continued to refine for the next decade, and it’s evident in all of Gaslight Anthem’s material.
The band’s EP called Señor and the Queen sounds like a couple of supporting cast members from “Jungleland,” and in the song “Blue Jeans & White T-Shirts” there’s a girl named Maria who is courted with promises to show her a better life, to rescue her (AKA “Thunder Road”).
It’s fertile ground, and no one has farmed it better in recent years than Gaslight Anthem. No, they don’t sound like Springsteen. They simply are Springsteen.
In an interview last year with Forbes, Melissa Etheridge talked about getting her first Springsteen album as a 14-year-old. It was Born to Run.
“That just changed the whole game,” she says. “I got it from the Columbia House, order 10, get 10 free. And mine were 8-track, so I had Born to Run on 8-track. From the very beginning when I heard that, to the end, it affected me so greatly. ‘Jungleland’ is still my favorite song of all time. But that just set the bar for me in what I wanted to do in my life, the kind of artist I wanted to be was right there. I don’t have the 8-track anymore, but I got to sing with him.”
As with The Gaslight Anthem, Etheridge doesn’t sound like Springsteen. Her music doesn’t even seem to reference the same influences that shaped her idol. What she seems to have primarily absorbed from Born to Run, and she got herself an adult portion, is Springsteen’s love of melodrama.
Every song in Etheridge’s extensive catalog is the most desperate you’ve ever heard until you hear the next one. The open-wound ache at the heart of Springsteen’s “Backstreets” — summed up by the line, “Well, I hated him and I hated you when you went away” — is the same ache that Etheridge has nurtured for 32 years.
Long story short: It sucks to be 14.
The Hold Steady
The Hold Steady has gone on the record many times about its love for Springsteen’s streetwise theatricality, which was perhaps at its peak on Born to Run (although The Wild, the Innocent & the E-Street Shuffle is clearly a contender).
Tracks such as “Jungleland,” “Backstreets,” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” galvanized Hold Steady lyricist Craig Finn with their all-star casts of characters: the Duke Street Kings, Scooter, Terry, the Big Man, and Magic Rat, all of them dreamers, losers, and mythical figures.
Finn’s trademark style of talk-singing isn’t that far removed from Springsteen’s approach on “Backstreets” and, if anything, Finn has come up with an even more indelible set of characters to fill his songs about doomed lovers, drunks, lapsed Catholics, and well-meaning addicts.
Time and again, Finn returns to the story of Holly and Charlemagne, with appearances by Mary, Sapphire, Gideon, the Cityscape Skins, Freddy (aka Freddy Knuckles, Freddy Mercury, Drop Dead Fred, etc.), and Hard Corey. Finn makes the characters come alive while the band provides a symphony of celebration and cathartic release not unlike what the E Street Band so effortlessly gives Springsteen.
“The hungry and the hunted / Explode into rock ’n’ roll bands / That face off against each other out in the street / Down in Jungleland.” That may as well be the Hold Steady’s origin story because the band’s catalog is spilling over with the hungry and the hunted while Finn and company serve as those who’ve survived to tell the stories.
Meat Loaf or, more accurately, Jim Steinman and Bat Out of Hell
There’s also no question that it’s a gold-standard tribute to Born to Run, but in an alternate reality where it’s been reimagined by a 12-year-old musical prodigy with a hard-on for Broadway and vintage Heavy Metal magazines.
That brassy adolescence is exactly why producer Todd Rundgren was initially convinced that Bat Out of Hell was actually a parody of Born to Run, but Steinman isn’t that smart. It’s clear, however, that the epic romantic sweep of Born to Run, which itself could easily be considered a modern update of West Side Story, was wildly inspiring to Steinman. He even hired two members of Springsteen’s band, Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg, to capture a similar vibe anchored in early rock and roll.
But where Springsteen’s album could possibly be criticized for its youthful naivety — he was only 25, after all — Steinman’s is aimed directly at the hearts and crotches of teenage boys. The end result is the same in that the boy kinda, sorta gets the girl at the end, but they take very different paths.
There’s a shoddy charm to Steinman’s album that can’t be denied, and Meat Loaf’s performance is breathtaking throughout. It’s a totally appropriate response to Born to Run, as valid as any other, and a whole lot more fun at karaoke.