By Mark Guarino
In 1975, Bruce Springsteen became legendary by releasing a legendary album. “Born to Run” (Columbia) happened to be recorded in the era known as prog rock, where bands like Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis were widening rock’s three-minute rule by turning songs into suites and writing lyrics inspired by space odysseys and British mythology.
“Born to Run” had similar operatic designs, but in this case the palate was rooted more to the earth than up high. The eight songs were set at night and, in true “West Side Story” fashion, found heroic inspiration in the rivalries, young romances and larger-than-life characters populating Springsteen’s mythic New Jersey coastal towns. While other bands of his day were presenting cosmic visions fused with jazz and tribal rhythms, Springsteen went inward in his excess, heaping layer onto layer of straightforward rock and roll. Although “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” its follow-up in 1978 would be darker and have a more despondent view of the world, “Born to Run” is a dream that sounds more in flight, an escape to something than an escape from. It is also the album where the expanse of the E Street Band would, for the first time, be fully integrated into the blueprint of the songs. Roy Bittan’s plaintive piano introduces each song, Max Weinberg and Gary Tallent’s rhythm section lock down hard while the tenor sax of Clarence Clemons gives the music a spiritual release.
“Born to Run: 30th Anniversary Edition” (Columbia) is a new box set assembled to take a closer look at the album and the process that went into its making. The greatest benefit is the digital mastering. The revamped “Born to Run” is a spectacle that sounds even richer, with every sinew front and center. There is, at its very core, the sense of an entire band in the studio, working together but also listening between the spaces.
The most revealing addition is “Wings for Wheels,” a 90-minute DVD documentary recounting of what it took to make the album. According to those interviewed, it was an exhaustive process led by Springsteen who was meticulous with every detail, which included Clemons’ signature solo on “Jungeland,” which Springsteen choreographed note-by-note and later patched together by tape. Performing some songs by piano and talking about them at the wheel of a car, Springsteen reveals he still owns the Telecaster guitar he is pictured with on the cover (cost: $185), he still has no idea what “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” means, and that Bittan and Weinberg were strangers before joining the band. They made the cut through an audition of at least 60 people.
The entire band is interviewed, including newer members who hadn’t arrived on E Street just yet. Vintage footage shows Springsteen tirelessly working on his vocals in the studio as if he hadn’t slept for days. What is surprising is the participation of Mike Appel, Springsteen’s first manager and producer who helped get him the attention of Columbia Records and who also produced his first two albums. The documentary glazes over the rift Appel had with Jon Landau, the rock journalist who found his way into the “Born to Run” sessions and who ended up Springsteen’s new manager. Appel is interviewed, but the discussion keeps to the music, with no mention of the lawsuits that followed the album’s release. Landau also is the film’s producer.
The box set also includes a complete concert film from the same year, at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. With a stocking cap covering his head, Springsteen is a clown prince fully embodying his songs. Just weeks after his face made both covers of Time and Newsweek, he conveys the jitters and also confidence of a young gun on the start of his journey. “I was simultaneous excited and embarrassed,” he recalls in the film. “At the same time I would have never had it any other way”