Bruce Springsteen plays the first of his two 2017 New Zealand concerts in Christchurch today. From a repertoire of hundreds of songs, Nick Bollinger picks ten that have been crucial to his career.
It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City
Hardly a hit, this song from Bruce’s debut album Greetings From Asbury Park is nevertheless important. It was the first song he played at his audition for A&R legend John Hammond – the man who signed Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan among others – prompting the response: “You’ve got to be on Columbia records.” Also covered by David Bowie at the height of his Young Americans phase.
Blinded By The Light
Believe it or not, it was a New Zealander that gave Bruce his first number one record. The British group Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, featuring Hamilton-raised singer Chris Thompson, introduced many people to Springsteen when they took their cover of the early classic 'Blinded By The Light' to No 1 on the American Billboard charts. They made a few changes. Where Bruce sings "cut loose like a deuce” Thompson sings "revved up like a deuce," often misheard as "wrapped up like a douche” - leading Springsteen to joke that it it was not until Manfred Mann rewrote the song to be about a female hygiene product that it became popular.
The song that opens his breakthrough album Born To Run, and sets the epic tone for the forty feverish minutes that follow.
Born To Run
Greil Marcus said it best when he described this song as “a 57 Chevy running on melted down Crystals records”.
Dancing In The Dark
The highest-ranking hit of his career (number 2 on Billboard) arrived at a moment when Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna ruled the airwaves. Coming from a white guy who can’t really dance (as the video proves), it certainly showed a lot of chutzpah.
Born In The USA
The title track from an album that produced no less than seven hit singles. With drums like cannons and keyboards like cathedral organs, this is the anthem that turned Springsteen from rock star to American icon. Frequently used at political rallies, its message – about America’s shoddy treatment of Vietnam veterans – has often been misunderstood as a pro-American battle-cry. Perhaps that’s because while the verses are sometimes hard to decipher, the choruses are impossible to miss.
Bruce called it “a breakthrough”. Inspired by the country songs of Hank Williams, it was the first of his great narrative songs. “I based the song on the crash of the construction industry in late-seventies New Jersey, the recession and hard times that fell on my sister Virginia and her family,” he wrote in his recent memoir. “When my sister first heard it, she came backstage, gave me a hug and said “That’s my life.” That’s still the best review I ever got.”
After ‘The River’, Springsteen dug deeper into the narrative ballad style for the Nebraska album, drawing on the influences of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Flannery O’Connor’s gothic short stories, the Terrence Malick film Badlands and Charles Laughton’s Night Of The Hunter. Home-recorded and only ever intended as demos, the bleak title song gave the album its dark heart.
Tunnel Of Love was the second album he made without the E Street Band and contained some of his most searching personal songs. This doubt-filled ballad in the Roy Orbison mode was the album’s biggest hit.
Bruce is arguably never better than when he takes up the cause of the working man. After a patchy decade (mostly without the E Street Band, who he had retired when he moved to LA) he got the band back together in the late 90s. The 2001 Twin Towers attacks galvanised him and produced this tribute to the New York City fire-fighters, the title song to his strongest album of the noughties.