With a newly found international audience waiting for nearly three years for Blues Traveler to release a follow-up to their breakthrough album, the group ultimately found a mixed reception for their 1997 album Straight On Till Morning. While this album continues along the same basic sonic path as the the group’s 1994 blockbuster, Four, Straight On Till Morning differs in the sense that it contains no big radio hits and the group experiments with differing sub genres.
Four was fueled by the Grammy winning single “Run-Around” and the catchy, quasi-ballad “Hook”, which introduced a more mainstream audience to the formerly jam-band oriented group. This popularity only grew when Blues Traveler appeared at Woodstock ’94, toured with The Rolling Stones and were featured prominently on the popular television shows Roseanne and Saturday Night Live. In addition, several of the group’s tracks were included on film soundtracks as their modern interpretation of classic, Chicago-style blues had become chic in the middle 1990s. In 1996, Live from the Fall, a double live album featuring recordings from the band’s 1995 was released and achieved platinum status in sales.
Straight on Till Morning was produced by Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero, the same team that produced Four. The objective with this album was to continue the commercial success of its predecessor while trying not to alienate the group’s core fan base which desired more of their jam band output. On that note, an over
20-minute piece, called ‘Traveler’s Suite”, was composed but ultimately left off the album.
Straight On Till Morningby Blues Traveler
Released: July 1, 1997 (A&M) Produced by:Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero
Justify the Thrill
Business As Usual
Great Big World
Battle of Someone
Last Night I Dreamed
Make My Way
John Popper – Lead Vocals, Harmonica, Guitar Chan Kinchla – Guitars Bobby Sheehan – Bass Brendan Hill – Drums, Percussion
A moderate but infectious slide riff by guitarist Chan Kinchla introduces the opening track, “Carolina Blues”. Here, the verses have a growling, bluesy melody and the bridge section builds to a crescendo before settling into final verse section. This song was also the first single released from Straight On Till Morning. “Felicia” follows as a track built on cool, slightly funky bass riff by Bobby Sheehan and the song is performed just a bit more rapidly than it should but this works on a kind of spastic groove level. “Justify the Thrill” is another funk screed, which seems a bit underdone melodically but is worthwhile due to the extended harp solo by front man John Popper. Compared to previous albums, Popper does less of his signature harmonica playing on this album but he certainly makes due with his opportunities.
A penny-whistle intro aptly introduces the light, candy store rocker “Canadian Rose”, a song Popper wrote about a fictional character when he realized he had not spent any real time in Canada. On “Business as Usual”, the guitar, bass and harmonica form a really tight funk jam to introduce a quasi-rap song, while “Yours” is delivered as a tradition love song. This latter song starts as low-fi solo-acoustic-folk diddy before softly reaching a richer arrangement complete with a string section with a later highlight being Kinchla’s souring, feedback-laden guitar lead. “Psycho Joe” was co-written by Sheehan and is one of the more straight-out pop oriented tunes on the album, with a slightly reggae rhythm. In contrast, “Great Big World” was co-written by drummer Brendan Hill and finds the band back in the familiar territory of a heavy blues jam vibe.
Hidden away later on the album are some musical gems, which probably get lost in the album’s excess running time. “Battle of Someone” is probably the most interesting song of the latter part of the album due to its atypical, jazzy rhythm which gives all the band members plenty of room to embellish throughout its six minute duration. “Most Precarious” is a bright acoustic, pop-oriented track with a “La Bamba”-like shuffle throughout, while “The Gunfighter” returns to some well tread territory and lacks in any real originality. “Last Night I Dreamed” was composed solely by Kinchla and features a rapid mariachi, three-chord jam with Hill’s cool drum beat and some excess percussion throughout. “Make My Way” concludes the album and unfolds like a Southern R&B / Gospel track, complete with electric piano, funky organ and a chorus of female backing vocals.
By the end of the 1990s, Blues Traveler met with some personal hardship when Popper had emergency heart surgery followed by the tragic death of Sheehan due to a drug overdose. Although the band decided to carry on into the new millennium, they would not again achieve the high level of success like they did in their nineties heyday.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of 1997 albums.
The 1966 self-titled debut by The Young Rascals is made mostly of cover songs. However, this in no way implies that the album is unoriginal as the quartet’s original blend of rock and soul brands each song with a distinctive quality. In total, The Young Rascals expertly captures the sound of this fun and energetic new band with an advanced talent for escalating the emerging sound of mid sixties music.
The Young Rascals were formed in Garfield, New Jersey in early 1965. Keyboardist/vocalist Felix Cavaliere and vocalist Eddie Brigati, who were previously members of Joey Dee and the Starliters and, with the addition of guitarist Gene Cornish and drummer Dino Danelli, the band originally chose the name “The Rascals” (a name they would eventually adopt in later years). However, upon signing with Atlantic Records, discovered that it clashed with another group called “Harmonica Rascals”.
Just months after their formation, the group recorded and released their first single “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore”, co-written by lyricist Pam Sawyer and singer Laurie Burton. This fun and unique folk track with much range musically from the rich, Phil Spector-like vocal arrangements to the quasi-psychedelic guitar lead. The single and the group’s subsequent national television appearance set the stage for the recording of the group’s debut album.
The Young Rascalsby The Young Rascals
Released: March 28, 1966 (Atlantic) Produced by: The Young Rascals Recorded: September 1965 – March 1966
Baby Let’s Wait
Just a Little
Do You Feel It
Like a Rolling Stone
I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore
In the Midnight Hour
Felix Cavaliere – Keyboards, Vocals Eddie Brigati – Percussion, Vocals Gene Cornish – Guitars, Bass, Vocals Dino Danelli – Drums
The B-side of The Young Rascal’s lead single, “Slow Down” starts the album as an upbeat and fun jam with plenty of choppy rock elements in this Larry Williams composition from the late 1950s. “Baby Let’s Wait” is another song by Sawyer and Burton written for the group as a long drum roll by Danelli introduces this emotional, R&B-inspired ballad. On the cover “Just a Little”, the bass and acoustic guitar takes the musical forefront on a track which has a Latin overall feel which meshes well with the smooth lead vocals and rich harmonies.
“I Believe” features the most soulful feel yet, highlighted by the very dramatic performance vocally by Brigati and the Hammond organ by Cavaliere. The first and only track written by members of the band, “Do You Feel It” is a dance-oriented, call and response sixties rocker which acts as a good warm up for the album’s climatic centerpiece, “Good Lovin'”. Written by Arthur Resnick and Rudy Clark, this crisp, short and direct rock jam with just enough input by all group members to balance it at just the right level sonically. Highlighting it all is Cavaliere’s distinct, melodic organ solo which soars to a rare level that establishes the song as an all time classic.
Much of the rest of side two is comprised of covers of well-known contemporary songs. There is an apt cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, which sticks pretty close to the original from Highway 61 Revisited and works fine save for the over-the-top harmonized chorus sections and other minor parts where the group tries to be fancy. Next, The Young Rascals play an almost ridiculously slow version of “Mustang Sally”, with a sloshy rock n’ soul groove and vocals which are legitimately soulful throughout. The closer “In the Midnight Hour” is an almost direct copy of Wilson Pickett’s original, which is a pretty impressive feat in itself.
The Young Rascals reached the Top 20 on the album charts and sold well in the U.S. The group had continued success in subsequent years as Brigati and Cavaliere began composing original songs which would establish them as one of the top acts of the late 1960s.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 45th anniversary of 1966 albums.
Bruce Springsteen has described the songs on Born To Run as different scenes happening on the same summer night somewhere in New Jersey and New York City. This third album commenced as Springsteen’s admitted effort to break into the mainstream, with accessible songs, rich production methods and deliberative sequencing. The strategy worked as the album peaked in the Top 5 and received near universal critical acclaim, with many today considering this the best work of his career.
Springsteen’s first two albums, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle were both released in 1973. On those albums, Springsteen made several specific lyrical references to his hometown area near the Northern part of the Jersey Shore. Born To Run includes more general references to reach a wider audience, with Springsteen later calling the work a “dividing line” in the progression of his writing.
Impressed by his first Springsteen concert, music critic Jon Landau enlisted as Springsteen’s manager and co-producer of this upcoming album in 1974. Columbia records invested a sizeable budget in the album’s production, which led to Springsteen being entangled in the recording process for over a year while frustratingly trying to achieve the perfect sound. Like on his previous album, Springsteen enlisted the “E Street Band”, complete with new members, pianist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg, who each play a vital role on this album.
Born To Runby Bruce Springsteen
Released: August 25, 1975 (Columbia) Produced by: Bruce Springsteen, Mike Appel, & Jon Landau Recorded: Record Plant & 914 Sound Studios, New York, May 1974–July 1975
Tenth Avenue Freeze Out
Born To Run
She’s the One
Meeting Across the River
Bruce Springsteen – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Harmonica Roy Bittan – Piano, Keyboards, Vocals Clarence Clemons – Saxophone, Percussion, Vocals Garry W. Tallent – Bass Max Weinberg – Drums
While all songs were composed by Springsteen, it was Bittan’s piano, not Springsteen’s guitar which took the main musical role throughout Born To Run. “Thunder Road” starts things off with an odd harmonica and piano intro where Springsteen and Bittan struggle to reach the right tempo before the song launches and builds with fine lyrics and inspired music. Along with its folk-style lyrics, the music is like a journey into a night of adventure, which grows in intensity as the building musical arrangement perfectly matches the mood of this opening song. With horn arrangements by Steven Van Zandt, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” effectively adds this extra element that gives the upbeat sense of celebration on the song which tells of the formation of the E Street Band. Springsteen’s vocals are superb on this track as he hits the different chord changes with razor precision.
While a step lower in quality, “Night” is an apt and upbeat number with a rich arrangement and would become a concert favorite. The music features a heavy presence by bassist Gary Tallent. The album’s first side wraps with the extended track, “Backstreets”. This track patiently begins with a piano and bass intro that builds the tension as the listener awaits some explosion into the scene, which finally does arrive after about a minute. This track is the first where Springsteen’s guitar plays a significant role with strong rhythms throughout and a middle guitar lead, while the vocals are delivered with intensity throughout, often using repetition to great effect.
The strongest point of the album is the romanticized title song with majestic production. “Born To Run” may be the quintessential Springsteen song with such a unique and exquisite sound not paralleled anywhere else in his catalog or beyond. Each member of the musical ensemble is at their absolute best, from the insatiable bass of Tallent to the dry but bouncy drums of guest Ernest “Boom” Carter to the frenzied sax solo of Clarence Clemons, to the complementing orchestration of the piano of David Sancious, the organ of Danny Federici, and the harpsichord/glockenspiel of Bittan. And that brings us to Springsteen himself, who plays a sharp electric guitar with a strong tremolo effect and vocally delivers the best lyrics of his career. This song, which was the first recorded for the album of the same name, is the four and a half minutes where it all truly comes together.
“She’s the One” is a simple song which builds off a simple underlying rhythm, and never really changes much, just building on the established vibe and melody. “Meeting Across the River” follows with a unique arrangement and a dark, jazzy feel. Springsteen’s vocals are right up front in the mix with the rest of the arrangement, including a signature trumpet by Randy Brecker and double bass by Richard Davis, in the distance. The epic closer “Jungleland” starts with a violin part by Suki Laha which gives it a strong theatrical feel. Eventually, the full rock arrangement arrives and a middle lead guitar brings it to a crescendo. This is soon broken by Clemons’ slowly building sax solo, a true highlight which soon progresses into the most memorable part of the song before the suite dissolves into a very slow section with just piano chords. This ushers Springsteen’s vocals back in as he dramatically navigates through the final suspenseful moments of the song and album.
The album’s release was given a huge promotional budget, which led to Springsteen landing on the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week in October, 1975. Through the decades, Born To Run has reemerged several times onto the album charts, with the latest peak coming in 2005 when the 30th Anniversary edition reached the Top 20 in the US. In recent years, Springsteen has frequently performed the album in its entirety and in order for special concert ocassions.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of 1975 albums.
Bruce Springsteen‘s fifth studio album, The River, is a massive album in both length and scope. Released in late 1980, this double album includes tracks that originated during the early years of Springsteen’s career as well as a plethora of new material drawn from recent projects and recent tours. Some consider The River to be the closing act of a three album “trilogy”, starting with Born to Run in 1975 and moving through Darkness at the Edge of Town in 1978, as each of these follow Springsteen’s mythical characters during crucial periods of their lives.
This album was originally intended as a single album with the working title “The Ties That Bind”, intended to be released in late 1979. However, the composition of the title song, motivated Springsteen to add darker, folk-influenced material and compile a more sweeping collection of songs of diverse genres. In all the album’s recording took about 18 months with Jon Landau and Steven Van Zandt joining Springsteen as co-producers. Sonically, the album aimed for a cinematic-style “live” sound through most of the tracks. Lyrically, the songs range from hope to disillusionment, from the point of view of individuals to that of outside storytellers. As Springsteen stated at the time;
I finally got to the place where I realized life had paradoxes, a lot of them, and you’ve got to live with them…”
Much like with the previous album where he penned nearly eighty songs, Springsteen composed all the tracks and was very prolific in writing for this album. While The River contains a healthy twenty tracks, even more than that were excluded from the album. A handful of these, such as “Be True”, “Held Up Without a Gun”, and “Roulette” were issued as B-sides of singles, while a few tracks were given to other artists, such as Gary U.S. Bonds and Warren Zevon, to record. Several others landed on future Springsteen box sets, with several more yet to be released.
The Riverby Bruce Springsteen
Released: October 17, 1980 (Columbia) Produced by: Jon Landau, Bruce Springsteen, & Steven Van Zandt Recorded: The Power Station, New York, March 1979–August 1980
The Ties That Bind
Out In the Street
Crush On You
You Can Look
I Wanna Marry You
I’m a Rocker
The Price You Pay
Drive All Night
Wreck On the Highway
Bruce Springsteen – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Harmonica, Percussion Steven Van Zandt – Guitars, Vocals Roy Bittan – Piano, Keyboards, Vocals Danny Federici – Organ, Glockenspiel Clarence Clemons – Saxophone, Percussion, Vocals Garry Tallent – Bass Max Weinberg – Drums, Percussion
The album starts with “The Ties That Bind”, which was originally slated as the title song. It has a jangly kind of sound which would be reverberated through the eighties and beyond, but the group still seems too force it just a bit to find an accessible hook. In all, Clarence Clemons‘s sax solo is the best part of this open track. On “Sherry Darling”, the producers added some “fake” live elements which really aren’t needed because this track is quite catchy enough on its own. Here, Springsteen’s lead vocals seem to mimic Elvis Costello while the backing vocals are meant to mimic a live barroom, right down to the point where they are slightly off-time and slightly off-key. While still upbeat and catchy, “Jackson Cage” seems to have a richer and more profound meaning than the preceding songs, once again displaying Springsteen’s commitment to directness and honesty in popular music. “Two Hearts” is driven by the rapid-fire drums of Max Weinberg, backing the multi-level lyrics;
I was living in a world of childish dreams, someday these childish dreams must end, to become a man and grow up to dream again…
The first side closes with “Independence Day” which is introduced by a calm acoustic and high whistle organ from Danny Federici. This father-and-son character sketch, where the son concludes that they will never agree and thus declares his “independence” unilaterally. This first side closer was, essentially a rewrite of “Adam Raised a Cain” on Darkness At the Edge of Town.
“Hungry Heart” adds an instant charge to the album, as Springsteen’s vocal seem much brighter than normal, matching the overall vibe of this catchy track. Led by the piano riffing of Roy Bittan throughout with great contributions by everyone else, like Clemens’s low sax bass notes, Federici’s choppy organ lead, and the rich vocal choruses backing up Springsteen. The song’s title was drawn from a line in Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” and the song was written at the request of Joey Ramone, with the intent to be recorded by The Ramones. However, Landau convinced Springsteen to keep it for himself and it went on to become his first Top Ten hit.
“Out In the Street” follows as another great, catchy tune led by Bittan’s piano. here, the arrangement is spectacular, maximizing the best elements of the E Street Band. This catchy number has some elements of sixties pop with contemporary sound that became timeless. The album unfortunately drops off a bit with the pure filler “Crush On You” and “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)”, with the latter at least using some slightly satirical lyrics to make it a bit more entertaining. “I Wanna Marry You” is weak lyrically but has a great vibe musically with just a hint of Caribbean vibe led by the bass pattern by Garry Tallent . The album’s title song closes the second side as the first true folk/Americana track in the sequence. The lyrics closely resemble the story of Springsteen’s own sister and brother-in-law and is cited as the source inspiration for future 1980s heartland rock.
Then I got Mary pregnant and man that was all she wrote, and for my 19th birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat…”
The jazzy “Point Blank” contains some great sonic textures on piano, guitar and bass. The theme works hand-in-hand with the title song and Springsteen gets really intense vocally and lyrically through last verse, before a long fade out to complete this six-minute tune. “Cadillac Ranch” is an upbeat jam backed by a cool, rockabilly guitar which is mocked by the vocal melody. Named after the makeshift automobile monument in Amarillo, Texas, the theme here is similar to the youthful missions on earlier Springsteen albums. “I’m a Rocker” has all the elements of a top-notch pop/rock song, with a choppy drum pattern by Weinberg, a good hook, and a cool call and response. Still, the track lacks something production-wise which keeps it from reaching its full potential.
The second song released from the album, “Fade Away” is pleasant and solid throughout. Great vocals and melody by Springsteen lead the fine musical blend of acoustic guitar, organ, and steady, seventies style bass. This desperate love song is a true classic which Van Zandt cited as one his all-time favorites. “Stolen Car” uses more texture than substance to achieve the dark mood, with plucked piano, distant drums with heavy reverb, and an almost church-like organ
The final side begins with “Ramrod”, an organ/synth led rocker with a growling sax lead by Clemens. While the song is entertaining enough, it doesn’t really go anywhere. “The Price You Pay” is a moderate ballad with a steady beat and dry vocals which tend to get monotonous vocally and lyrically. However, this track remains strong musically, especially with Bittan’s piano and the slight harmonica by Springsteen. The epic length “Drive All Night” starts with simple, heartbeat like bass by Tallent and moves along at a crawl, only to be salvaged by Clemens’ fine solo and Springsteen’s exceptional, passionate singing. This song works in concert with the closing “Wreck On the Highway”, a bright, almost Country ballad with a steady beat. The relaxed feel and vibe of the music betray the grim lyrics of death on this song, closing the album with the dark feel which would be picked up on Springsteen’s next solo album, Nebraska.
The River was Springsteen’s first number one album and was followed by a lengthy tour through 1980 and 1981. Springsteen called this album a “gateway” to a lot of his future writing, with Nebraska and Tunnel of Love directly picking up on stories and themes that originate on The River.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1980 albums.
Born in the USA marked the height of commercial success for Bruce Springsteen. It sold over 30 million copies worldwide and spawned seven Top 10 singles, a record met but not surpassed. The album also spent a record 84 consecutive weeks in the Billboard Top 10. But here at Classic Rock Review, commercial success is but a minor factor in which albums we cover and how we cover them. To us, it is all about the quality of the music, especially in naming our albums of the year. Born In the USA contains traditional story-driven songs with contemporary production and entertaining melody and hooks, making it, in our opinion, the best album of 1984.
Springsteen had experienced vast commercial success with the Top 5 double album The River in 1980. In 1981, Springsteen was asked to write music for a film originally called “Born In the U.S.A.” (but eventually released as Light of Day in 1987). While working on his solo, introspective, album Nebraska, Springsteen merged the melody for a song called “Vietnam” with the film’s title and originally wanted to include it on that 1982 album but eventually concluded that it was out of place.
Recording sessions for Born In the USA date back to January 1982, nearly two and a half years before the album’s release. These sessions predate the release of Nebraska, as Springsteen was composing and recording a number of songs specifically intended for an album besides that dark folk album. In fact, by mid-1982 most of Born In the USA was already recorded with a few more tracks added in 1983 and a final track added in early 1984. In total, Springsteen wrote an estimated 70 songs for the album, with 12 making the final cut and several more used for B-sides such as “Shut Out the Light”, “Johnny Bye-Bye”, “Stand On It”, “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart”, and “Pink Cadillac”, which became a minor radio hit on its own.
After a new CD manufacturing plant was opened in Indiana, Born In the USA was the first compact disc manufactured in the United States (actually “born in the USA”!) All previous CDs had been manufactured in Japan.
Born In the U.S.A.by Bruce Springsteen
Released: June 4, 1984 (Columbia) Produced by: Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin, Bruce Springsteen, & Steven Van Zandt Recorded: The Power Station and The Hit Factory, New York, January 1982–March 1984
Born In the U.S.A.
Workin’ On the Highway
I’m On Fire
I’m Goin’ Down
Dancing In the Dark
Bruce Springsteen – Lead Vocals, Guitars Roy Bittan – Piano, Synths, Vocals Steven Van Zandt – Guitars, Mandolin, Vocals Clarence Clemons – Sax, Percussion Garry Tallent – Bass, Vocals Max Weinberg – Drums, Vocals
The title track kicks off the album with spacey synths by Roy Bittan and a sanitized drum snare by Max Weinberg, world’s away from the folk of the past album. These intro sounds are nicely contrasted by Springsteen’s rough and strained rock vocals which belt out lyrics that deal with the cruel mistreatment of Vietnam veterans on their arrival back home. “Cover Me” is a bright pop song , albeit warmer than the opener and with some real bass presence by Garry Tallent. Springsteen originally wrote the song for Donna Summer but was urged by his manager, Jon Landau, to include it on the album and it peaked at #7 on the pop charts as a result.
“Darlington County” is a down-home track which seems to be slightly influenced by Creedence Clearwater Revival. It was recorded in the spring of 1982 and gets its title from an actual county in South Carolina. “Working on the Highway” is the weakest song on the first side, almost a cheap attempt at rockabilly. In contrast, “Downbound Train” is an excellent dark, folk song with the added bonus of an eerie synth organ in the background. One of the more legitimate Springsteen songs on the first side, the song is a melancholy lament to a lost spouse with vivid imagery throughout.
“I’m On Fire” is a short but potent ballad with great production techniques on the voice, synths, picked guitar, and brushed drums, making it an overall masterpiece of arrangement. One of the earliest songs recorded for the album, the song came together in an impromptu jam between Springsteen, Bittan, and Weinberg. The second side is more solid throughout than the first and starts with a couple of songs which would’ve fit perfectly on Springsteen’s late seventies albums. “No Surrender” is an upbeat song of youth that was originally cut from the album but was reinstated at the insistence of guitarist Steven Van Zandt, who was very keen of the song. “Bobby Jean” is the most underrated Springsteen song, well constructed with a piano riff, a driving bass, great melody and romantic lyrics. The vocals are delivered masterfully with lyrics that are pure Jersey and the bonus of being the first song to include a sax solo by Clarence Clemens. Some have interpreted the lyrics to be a goodbye tribute to Van Zandt, who had decided to leave the E Street Band by the time of its recording. “I’m Goin’ Down” contains Clemons’ second sax solo and, like “Working on the Highway”, this is totally retro (but done much better here).
The album’s stretch run has three of its most popular hits. “Glory Days” is an infectious pop song with a great hook and story-telling lyrics. There is a cool mandolin track buried deep in the mix and a unique, improvised ending that helped fuel interest in this otherwise simple song. “Dancing In the Dark” was the last song recorded for the album and the first released as a single. This is a pure 80’s synth pop song, but so unlike anything Springsteen had done before, that it has got to be respected. The melody and arrangement is masterful (with the possible exception of the mind-numbing drums), making this experiment deep into the realm of radio-friendly an overall success. The album concludes with the folk ballad “My Hometown”, which is a darker look at the scenes and characters in “Born to Run”, a decade earlier. While talking about riots and unemployment in a very Wood-Guthrie-like approach, the serene backing vocal chorus through the final verse gives a sense of hope through the despair. This last song was also the last Top 10 single from the album, reaching #6 in late 1985.
Born In the USA was nominated for three Grammy Awards and won one for Best Rock Vocal Performance. With this unprecedented level of success, Springsteen went on a major tour which helped spawn a five-record box set called Live/1975–85. Springsteen has continued to record and tour through the present day, but has not again reached the level of success or overall quality in the intervening three decades.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1984 albums.
Labeled as a “jam band” since their inception in the late 1980s, many have contended that Blues Traveler does not translate well on standard studio recordings. Their 4th album, Four seems to dispute this assertion as it strikes a nice balance of sonic aptitude, classic sounding blues rock and compositional originality. The album was also the New Jersey group’s commercial breakthrough, fueled by the radio appeal of a couple well-record simple pop songs. But the truly rewarding material on four are the more complex works where songwriting genius meets inspired performance to reach that higher level of indelible entertainment. It is for this reason, that Classic Rock Review has chosen Four as best among all the great works of 1994 and our Album of the Year.
The four members of Blues Traveler started together while still in high school in Princeton, New Jersey in 1987. John Popper was a multi-instrumentalist who aspired to be a stand up up comedian but found his calling on harmonica after an in-class solo performance. Guitarist Chan Kinchla was a promising football player who committed to playing music after a knee injury. Rounding out the quartet was bassist Bobby Sheehan and drummer Brendan Hill. The group was originally called Blues Band but changed their name to Blues Traveler when they moved to Brooklyn, New York following their collective graduation from high school.
While in New York, Blues Traveler began playing gigs and shared resources with Spin Doctors, another group that Popper originally founded. By the end of the decade, the group signed to A&M Records and Blues Traveler released their self-titled debut in 1990. This was followed by Travelers and Thieves, a live EP tribute to Bill Graham called On Tour Forever and their critically acclaimed third album Save His Soul. Blues Traveler also got some national exposure through their appearances on the David Letterman show and their initiative in founding of the H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) festival in 1992.
The production team of Michael Barbiero and Steve Thompson, who first worked with Blues Traveler on Save His Soul in 1993, stayed on for the production of Four in early 1994. This time, the crew got the full benefit of a public relations campaign by A&M Records, starting with the release of the lead single “Run-Around” and the accompanying Wizard-of-Oz-man-behind-the-curtain themed video, which introduced the group to the MTV crowd for the first time. A long bass slide by Sheehan introduces the album and its most popular song, which is no doubt catchy and entertaining although it never relents from its four chords.
Fourby Blues Traveler
Released: September 13, 1994 (A&M) Produced by: Michael Barbiero & Steve Thompson Recorded: A&M Studios, Hollywood, February-June 1994
The Mountains Win Again
Price To Pay
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
John Popper – Lead Vocals, Harmonica Chan Kinchla – Guitars, Mandolin, Vocals Bobby Sheehan – Bass Vocals Brendan Hill – Drums, Percussion
“Stand” is a funk/rap track which features a harmonica and guitar in sync post chorus and Popper’s first great harmonica solo on the record. The bridge is backed by Kinchla’s drenched guitar chords while Sheehan and Hill bring up the speed with clever use of rhythm, adding a progressive rock jam element to the otherwise standard funk rhythm. The ballad “Look Around” could not be more different as a soft rock piano ballad, featuring guest Chuck Leavell on piano. Solidifying the effect is the eighties style power guitar by Kinchla and slow tom fills by Hill. “Fallible” starts with a crazed harmonica solo before it breaks into a rock oriented groove with a distorted to wah-wah guitar. The lyrics speak of taking ownership with the limited life you have;
In the name of all the power that’s centered in your hand
If you crave some revolution take possession of your stand
It’s the only one you’ll get to make, in a moment come and gone
So do your best to stay awake and own the path you’re on…”
Sheehan’s sole composition on the album is the calm, acoustic tune, “The Mountains Win Again”, with moderate bass pattern which is mimicked by vocal melody. Some of the best sounding guitars on this record are in the subtle deep blues riffs by guest Warren Haynes, who sustains absolutely every note and makes it count to the max. Everything else in this song is measured perfectly, even the reprise of the intro harmonica riff, which only lasts a single line to set up the single guitar chord which closes the song beautifully. After an odd and awkward bass intro, “Freedom” breaks into full-fledged rap/rock ala Red Hot Chili Peppers. Lyrically, the song tackles the slippery slope of statism in lieu of freedom;
I’ll defend what’s mine cause what’s mine will be all mine
It’s what I’d fight for it’s for what I’d bleed
I roll the dice on the grand experiment, while I am strong I will get what I need
You take it for granted, I guess that’s what it’s for
But before you demand it take a look out your back door…”
The next three songs on the album are its best sequence, solidifying Four as a bonafide classic. “Crash Burn” is a short and fantastic, riff-driven jam showcase. Starting with a harmonized guitar/harmonica riff, then followed by the frenzied, rhythm-driven verses and then a lead section where each musician takes his moment to shine. Although largely unheralded, “Price to Pay” is the best song on this best overall album from 1994. It starts with a moody harmonica, picked guitar and bass notes and then kicks into a catchy rock/funk for effect and tactfully alternates between the two. Driven by Popper’s potent story-telling, the middle part of the song builds emotionally into very intense rock sections which eventually give way back to the soft melody.
The popular song ,”Hook” is a song that is quite cynically (and brilliantly) baited to prove the psychological point of falling for the frivolous “hook”. With lyrical lines such as “I’ve said nothing so far and I can keep it up for as long as it takes” and “I don’t mean any of this, still my confession draws you near”, the song is lyrically an intentional farce. Yet, it is a performance masterpiece for the group led by Popper’s vocals and harmonica over the chord pattern and tempo similar to the classical Canon in D” by Pachelbel. Solidifying this instant classic is the rapid-fire lyrical rant through the final verse, which makes the song indelible.
“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” is an odd and short instrumental, which really seems out of place in this late sequence on the album. This is followed by “Just Wait”, where Popperplays a 12-string acoustic in a folk song of hope and encouragement, almost religious in its sense of redemption. the album closes with
“Brother John”, a group collaboration in the tradition of Southern Gospel. The song features a wild classic bass riff by Sheehan and many rudimentary shifts, almost like Blues Traveler goes Blues Brothers. There is a middle vocal section over drums with all band members provide backing vocals in the call and response to the soulful vocals of guest Jono Manson.
Four reached the Top Ten on the U.S. album charts and has sold over 6 million copies worldwide. Blues Traveler continued their rise through popular culture, with songs appearing on several television shows and movies in subsequent years. Beyond this commercial success, the album has held up beautifully over the past two decades and has earned its place in the pantheon of classic rock albums.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of 1994 albums and our album of the year.
Bruce Springsteen set out to make a rural influenced album with Darkness On the Edge of Town, the long awaited follow-up to his 1975 breakthrough, Born to Run. The album’s delay was caused mainly by a legal battle with former manager, Mike Appel, over song rights and control, during which Springsteen toured extensively with the E Street Band, building group chemistry which carried over into the recordings. The album was produced by Springsteen, John Landau and guitarist Steve Van Zandt, with Landau being more a “formalist”, Van Zandt preferring more of a “garage” sound and Springsteen acting as arbitrator.
The songwriting sessions for Darkness On the Edge of Town were the most prolific of Springsteen’s career. He composed at least 70 songs and recorded a whopping 52 of those, either fully or partially. Some of the unused material became hits for other artists, such as “Because the Night” for Patti Smith, “Fire” for The Pointer Sisters, “Rendezvous” for Greg Kihn, and “This Little Girl” for Gary U.S. Bonds, while several others were held over for Springsteen’s next album, the double LP The River in 1980. Adding to Springsteen’s reputation for providing hits for other bands was Manfred Mann’s Earth Band #1 pop hit with a rearranged version of “Blinded by the Light” from his debut, Greetings from Asbury park, NJ.
Springsteen’s songs were inspired by such diverse influences as the new punk sound and his recent embrace of traditional country music. He later called this album an honest “reckoning with the adult world” and a reaction to his own good fortune. Unlike the escapism themes of Born To Run, the album pays tribute to the stability of small time life, through good times and bad. Musically and sonically, the album features the dynamic of the many players fighting for space within the limited sonic domain of this record, making it interesting and entertaining from end to end.
Darkness at the Edge of Townby Bruce Springsteen
Released: June 2, 1978 (Columbia) Produced by: Bruce Springsteen, Jon Landau, & Steve Van Zandt Recorded: The Record Plant, New York, October 1977 – March 1978
Adam Raised a Cain
Something In the Night
Racing In the Street
The Promised Land
Streets of Fire
Prove It All Night
Darkness On the Edge of Town
E Street Band
Bruce Springsteen – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Harmonica Steve Van Zandt – Guitars, Vocals Clarence Clemans – Saxophone, Vocals Roy Bittan – Piano, Vocals Danny Federici – Keyboards Garry Tallent – Bass Max Weinberg – Drums
Starting strong with “Badlands” which, aside from “Born to Run”, may be the quintessential Springsteen song, the album roars in full frenzy. The carnival-like, twinkly piano of Roy Bittan meshes nicely with the warm toned organ sounds of his counterpart Danny Federici, all beneath the stark and straight-forward chants of lyrics chronicling the revolving blue-collar life. Springsteen provides just enough hard rock guitar to make it respectable and Clarence Clemens plays a mean sax solo, although it does sound a little out of place with the mesh of the band vibe.
The dark but upbeat bluesy “Adam Raised a Cain” contains music with a simple drive while the vocal melodies are dynamic and interesting. Perhaps Springsteen’s strongest showing as a performer on Darkness On the Edge of Town, he displays much vocal range – from the laid back verses to the intense choruses to the screaming final verse. It also contains his most impressive guitar work with a fiery guitar lead. “Something In the Night” follows with a very interesting intro build-up to a song that is an anthem and a ballad all wrapped into one, with adventurous vocals and an infectious piano riff.
“Candy’s Room” sounds like it was influenced by Lou Reed, although Springsteen does actually sing a bit in this song. It is a real showcase for drummer Max Weinberg , who shows his enormous talent with a big drum sound. Lyrically, the song details a young man’s naïve love of the damaged Candy. The first side ends with “Racing In the Street”, a somber sequel to “Born to Run” influenced by the California sound of Jackson Browne. This much acclaimed, dirge-like ballad speaks of a man with dead end job with his only joy coming from driving his custom wheels.
The second side brings the mood back up with “The Promised Land”, returning to the pop formula. Clemens returns with another short sax solo, this time interrupted by Springsteen’s harmonica solo and there are even some backing “oohs” and “ahhs” during the third verse. The song’s title was inspired by a Chuck Berry song of the same title and the lyrics link to other songs on the album. The short but potent “Factory” depicts a numbing sort of working life, inspired by Springsteen’s own father who worked in a noisy factory which affected his hearing. “Streets of Fire” is very intense and melodramatic (almost too melodramatic) with Federici’s church-like organ setting the mood.
With a sax lead right off the top, “Prove It All Night” brings the mood right back, scoring the only Top 40 hit from Darkness On the Edge of Town. Bassist Garry Tallent adds the perfect counterpart to the melodic keyboards and new-fangled guitar lead by Springsteen. Building with drive and excitement to the climatic outro with wails of love and the surrendering of a women’s virtue. The album concludes with the powerful title song, which starts with a Motown inspired soul beat before it breaks into a full arrangement. “Darkness On the Edge of Town” serves as an inspired conclusion to the album of the same name, especially as it refrains from being whiny as some of Springsteen’s other “working class” songs.
Although not exactly a commercial hit, Darkness On the Edge of Town did remain on the charts for 97 weeks and has sold steadily enough over 35 years to reach triple-platinum status. The 1978 tour which followed has been considered one of legendary status for the intensity and length of its shows. In 2010, a triple CD box set The Promise featured 22 previously unreleased tracks from the Darkness sessions with some added production. But this still only scratches the surface of the incredible proliferation of Springsteen in 1977/78, as scores of those songs have yet to be officially released.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1978 albums.
Bruce Springsteen started off his recording career with two albums in 1973, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, released in January, and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, released in September. Both albums were produced by the team of Mike Appel & Jim Cretecos and both were well-received critically but had little commercial success at the time. Both albums also used musicians that would be later make up the E Street Band (at the time known as the “Bruce Springsteen Band”), however Springsteen’s best friend guitarist Steve Van Zandt was all but shut out from the sessions due to budgetary constraints. The pair would not perform again together for several years.
Springsteen had been playing acoustic guitar, in the tradition of early Bob Dylan style folk, for more than half a decade before his management signed a record deal with Columbia Records in June 1972. When planning began for the debut album, Springsteen had advocated for a band arrangement but the label’s A&R man John Hammond wanted a more solo-dominated album, reflecting the live sound. Eventually a compromise was reached where the album would consist of five “band” recordings and five solo recordings. However, when then-CBS President Clive Davis listened to the ten tracks he commented that not he strongly preferred the band tracks, and also felt that the album lacked a potential hit single. Springsteen composed two more commercial-sounding songs (“Blinded By the Light” and “Spirit In the Night”) and reached out to saxophonist Clarence Clemons of a rival North Jersey band to add a new element to these new songs. Three Springsteen solo tracks were omitted from Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ bringing the total track count to nine, seven band and two solo tracks. Despite this effort to further “commercialize” the album is was a major flop sales-wise upon its release. According to a local Freehold, NJ record store owner, the Partridge Family far outsold the hometown Springsteen during the very first week that the album was released and it wouldn’t be until years later when Springsteen became nationally famous that anyone would even hear of this album.
Recording sessions for The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle took place exactly a year later, during the summer of 1973. On every level (critically, commercially, and sonically), this sophomore album is superior to the debut, although together they form a fine evolution in advancement. Still, initial sales were still slow and, like its predecessor, this album would not get widespread listens until after the huge breakthrough of Springsteen’s third album, Born to Run. Expanding on the basic approach of his debut album, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle offers multi-strains of other musical styles, and is much more a “band” effort, with keyboard player David Sancious (whose home on the E Street gave the album and group its name) stepping in to play a major role in musical arrangements. Lyrically, this may have been Springsteen’s nod of nostalgia and final goodbye to the small-town street life as he was moving on to higher ground. It was also a signature album for drummer Vini Lopez, who offered a busy Keith Moon style approach for his final album with the that was lacking in later E Street material.
Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ
Released: January 5, 1973 (Columbia) Produced by: Mike Appel & Jim Cretecos Recorded: 914 Sound Studios, Blauvelt, NY, July-September 1972
Blinded By the Light
Mary, Queen of Arkansas
Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?
Lost In the Flood
Spirit In the Night
It’s Hard To Be a Saint In the City
The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle
Released: September 11, 1973 (Columbia) Produced by: Mike Appel & Jim Cretecos Recorded: 914 Sound Studios, Blauvelt, NY, May-September 1973
The E Street Shuffle
4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)
Wild Billy’s Circus Story
Incident On 57th Street
New York City Serenade
Primary Musicians (Both Albums)
Bruce Springsteen – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Bass, Keyboards, Harmonica David Sancious – Piano, Keyboards Clarence Clemons – Saxophone, Vocals Garry Tallent – Bass Vini Lopez – Drums, Vocals
Springsteen’s debut album started with a song written intentionally to provide it with a radio-friendly hit. “Blinded by the Light” contains a barrage of words above a loose, almost lost musical jam. The song is almost all verse until it finally reaches the distant breaks of the chorus hook. Session piano man Harold Wheeler joins in on piano along with Clemons, Lopez, and Springsteen playing the remainder of instruments. Like the album, the single didn’t make many waves upon release, but three years later a re-arranged version of the song was recorded by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and it reached #1 in both the US and Canada, ironically becoming the highest charting song of all that Springsteen wrote through his long career.
“Growin’ Up” is a true early classic by Springsteen, a bit sharper and better organized than the opening track. The song that doesn’t quite receive the production quality it deserves on this recording but still resonates through the years. “Mary Queen of Arkansas” is one of the two “solo” songs on the debut album, along with the side two opener “The Angel”. Both are a bit melodramatic for the sophisticated listener with Springsteen’s naked voice wearing a little thin, but “Mary Queen of Arkansas” does have a bit of charm and spontaneity. “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” is a linear story told in a furious stream of advice lines, all fed out in a brief but entertaining musical blitz. The bouncy bass by Garry Tallent is particularly entertaining in this slight-but-fun romp. “Lost In the Flood” finishes side one of Greetings as slow piano ballad that builds tension before eventually breaking into a full arrangement about two minutes into the song. It is also notable as the only track on these first two albums to feature Steven Van Zandt, who dubbed in sound effects for the song.
The debut album ends strong with three upbeat songs which forecast the approach expanded upon on the second album. “For You” is upbeat and romantic, driven by the bouncy organ by Sancious and the heartfelt melodies of Springsteen. “Spirit in the Night” is a fun and adventurous song with the the strongest early presence by Clemons, who provides saxophone, hand claps, and backing vocals on this track. The closer, “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” is the most Dylan-esque of all songs on this album with a nice mixture of acoustic guitar and piano providing a fine bedding to the frantic, poetic lyrics in a very entertaining way, making for a great way to end the album.
Springsteen’s second album, The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, begins with the de facto title song “The E Street Shuffle”, which was allegedly inspired by a snowy night when the band’s rented truck broke down after a gig in New York City and they decided to walk the short distance to Sancious’ mother’s home in the vicinity. It begins with some off-tune horns before breaking into a very funky guitar and clavinet riff, which makes it clear right away that the sound is more refined on this album. It has a definitive 1970s sound with some baritone added by Albany “Al” Tellone.
“4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” continues the Jersey shore scenery promised in the debut’s title. Romantic lyrics line this mostly pleasant and enjoyable song with the slight exception of the over-exaggerated “breath-y” vocals by Springsteen in the opening verses. Beyond that, Springsteen’s acoustic and electric guitar mixes are excellent with some accordion added by future E Street Band member Danny Federici. “Kitty’s Back” is an extended, multi-part song which opens with a slow moving bluesy guitar lead which abruptly morphs to a more upbeat, jazzy verse with boogie bass by Tallent and some great horns. Later, there is a wild, almost psychedelic jam section in the middle which includes a great organ solo by Sancious.
“Wild Billy’s Circus Story” is a cool song which really strikes a chord to end the first side. It evolved from a previous song called “Circus Town”, which was recorded for the Greetings album but never released. Flipping the original LP over, is the side two opener “Incident on 57th Street”. A distorted piano kicks off this absolutely brilliant song, perhaps the most polished and melodic song on the album. Lyrically, “Incident” tells a romantic story set against a New York street fight, in the spirit of “West Side Story”, with fully developed characters and setting, something Springsteen would revisit often in the future.
Speaking of characters, one of Springsteen’s most enduring is “Rosalita”, a song which elaborately tells of a love forbidden because the girl’s parents don’t approve of the boy’s rock and roll lifestyle. Although never released as a single, it was Springsteen’s first song to receive significant airplay, especially on FM radio as anticipation grew for the release of Born to Run two years later. This was in spite of its over seven-minute running length. The song also received a second popular life during the 1980s when a vintage video of the song became one of the most played videos on MTV. The ten-minute “New York City Serenade” completes the album with a bit of subtle melodrama but nice use of instrumentation, especially the acoustic guitar. The song never gets lost or mundane over its extended length.
By the end of 1973 and the release of Springsteen’s second album, critics were starting to take note of his approach of absurdist energy and heart-on-sleeve pretension, and would soon be crawling over each other the sing his praises. Much of this praise was well-deserved but some was down-right overblown. Still, the was little doubt that Springsteen was just getting started and would be around for years to come.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of 1973 albums.
Following the multi-year, top of the pop world success of the studio album Born In the USA and the live compilation Live / 1975-85, Bruce Springsteen surprised a lot of listeners with the 1987 follow-up Tunnel of Love. This was Springsteen’s eighth studio album overall by Bruce Springsteen and the third (non-sequentially) to not feature his backing E Street Band, although several members did make cameos throughout this album and drummer Max Weinberg did play on most of the tracks. Thematically, the album turns inward especially when dealing the subject of relationships and love gone wrong, as it was written around the time that Springsteen’s first marriage was deteriorating. However, what makes this theme unique to this album is Springsteen’s ability to honesty examine both sides of the romantic relationship, and in the process implicate himself for his own infidelities.
The decision to follow-up a highly produced, blockbuster hit with something more subdued was a repeat of what Springsteen did earlier in the decade when he followed The River in 1980 with Nebraska in 1982. However, Tunnel of Love is not nearly as sparse as co-producers Jon Landau and Chuck Plotkin worked with Springsteen and using some synthesized soundscapes, electronic drums, backing vocalists, along with some E Street musicians, albeit in a a very subtle and understated way throughout.
Although the album topped the charts after its release and contained three Top 20 hits, it was not the album that the legions of crossover pop fans expected from Springsteen. Ultimately, Tunnel of Love would sell less than a third of the copies as Born In the USA.
Tunnel of Loveby Bruce Springsteen
Released: October 9, 1987 (Columbia) Produced by: Bruce Springsteen, Jon Landau, & Chuck Plotkin Recorded: January – July 1987
Ain’t Got You
Tougher Than the Rest
All That Heaven Will Allow
Walk Like a Man
Tunnel of Love
One Step Up
When You’re Alone
Bruce Sprinsteen – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Bass, Keyboards, Harmonica Danny Federici – Organ | Max Weinberg – Drums & Percussion
The album starts off a Capella with “Ain’t Got You”, which breaks into a rockabilly beat with deadened acoustic strings and laid back harmonica. This short diddy speaks to the hollowness of popular success when it can’t be shared with the one you love. “Tougher Than the Rest” follows with a great contrast to the opener, using electronic drums, synths, and heavily-reverbed vocals. The diversity of the material is further highlighted by “All That Heaven Will Allow”, an upbeat acoustic with a some surprising fine bass guitar by Springsteen. With a great melody and catchy hook make this an underrated classic and the best song on the first side of the album.
“Spare Parts” is almost “Outlaw Country” and therefore lacks much of the subtlety that is present on the much of the rest of the album. It even contains some explicitly “dirty” lyrics with,
Bobby says he’ll pull out, Bobby stays in / Janey had a baby, wasn’t any sin…”
“Cautious Man” is the closest nod back to the style the Nebraska album, as a sparse and haunting acoustic folk song, with the side-closing “Walk Like a Man” returns to childhood, with relative stories above a cool, laid back synth arrangement and strumming acoustic. Lyrically, it appears to be Springsteen speaking directly to his father. While the first side of the album is interesting, the second side is much more sonically enjoyable.
“Brilliant Disguise” is the best song on the album, with a great chord structure and melody throughout. This song kind of sums up the underlying theme of the entire album, deep thoughts and reflections about simple moments lone within the frenzied bubble of great fame and commercial success. Musically, the song contains some nice piano by Roy Bittan, accenting the subtle acoustic folk strumming and simple but elegant vocals.
The title track “Tunnel of Love” starts weirdly with an almost-dance beat before giving way to another calm synth riff that acts as canvas for descriptive, slightly poetic, and highly allegorical lyrics. It is about as pure a pop song as Springsteen even wrote and is highlighted by some excellent lead guitar by Nils Lofgren, who later replicates Springsteen’s howling towards the end. “Two Faces” is an adequate but typical pop song with a nice organ lead towards the end by Danny Federici, while “When You’re Alone” features some backing vocals by Springsteen’s saxophone player from the E Street Band, Clarence Clemons.
“One Step Up” is another gem on the second side with a good guitar riff and great vocal hook. This song is very understated with the barest of arrangement, but still had enough radio appeal to make it a pop hit. The closing song “Valentine’s Day” sums up the album nicely as a melancholy and confessional number, which compares heartbreak and fear of loss with death itself,
…they say that if die in your dreams, you die in your bed / but honey, last night I dreamed my eyes rolled back in my head…”
In one way, Tunnel of Love marked a return to the simple folk/Americana form that predated the phenomenal success of Born In the U.S.A.. In a contrasting other way, it also marked a severing point from the most musically lucrative years for Springsteen. Although he did tour in 1988 with the E Street Band to promote this album, he would not make another studio album with his backing band until 2002’s The Rising.
Bruce Springsteen‘s 1982 solo album Nebraska was an original “demo” that found unexpected life as a major label recording by a major label artist. The tracks for this sparsely-recorded album were recorded on a cassette 4-track recorder in Springsteen’s home as demos intended to be recorded with the E Street Band. The band did start recording the full-production versions of the songs in the studio but Springsteen and his engineers later decided that the “haunting folk” essence of the original demos best suited the dark themes of the compositions. So the original demos themselves were used on the album Nebraska. This was not an easy task, as the original demos were not recorded at optimal volume or with optimal noise reduction, and it was extremely difficult to transfer such recordings to vinyl, But with the help of newer mastering technologies, the finished product found the right balance of raw legitimacy and sonic competency that would ultimately become one of Springsteen’s highest regarded efforts.
According to Springsteen, he wanted to approach his next album differently by having many songs written and arranged previously, rather than working the writing process out in the studio;
I decided that what always took me so long in the studio was the writing. I would get in there, and I just wouldn’t have the material written, or it wasn’t written well enough, and so I’d record for a month, get a couple of things, go home write some more, record for another month — it wasn’t very efficient. So this time, I got a little Teac four-track cassette machine, and I said, I’m gonna record these songs, and if they sound good with just me doin’ ’em, then I’ll teach ’em to the band…”
During these same demo sessions, Springsteen recorded tracks that would be held over for his 1984 blockbuster Born In the U.S.A., including the title track, “Downbound Train”, and “Working On the Highway”. Fans have long speculated whether Springsteen’s full-band recording of the album (nicknamed “Electric Nebraska”) will ever surface, as these recordings have been held in tight confinement for 30 years.
Nebraskaby Bruce Springsteen
Released: September 30, 1982 (Warner Brothers) Produced by: Bruce Springsteen Recorded: at Springsteen’s Colts Neck, NJ bedroom, January 3, 1982
Mansion On the Hill
Open All Night
My Father’s House
Reason to Believe
Bruce Springsteen – Vocals, Guitars, Harmonica, Mandolin, Organ, Percussion
Some of the songs were inspired by left-wing historian Howard Zinn and his book A People’s History of the United States. The influence could be heard in “Mansion On the Hill”, a metaphor for the life of the wealthy that is unattainable by the working class who are locked out by the “hardened steel gates”, and “Johnny 99”, the story of a man who lost his job and then went crazy with a gun. This latter song with a nice boogie guitar has lyrics which explain the desperation of a man with debts no honest man could pay.
Nebraska got its title from a 1950s killing spree in and around Lincoln, Nebraska, by 19-year-old Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. The opening title song contains dark lyrics, telling a story from the point of view of a murderer in a matter of fact way – not an emotional plea but simply a statement of facts. This makes the song all the more stark, bleak, and chilling in that we are always searching for reasons why people do bad things, but in this case, the criminal says there is just meanness in this world. The writing style for this track in particular was influenced by Flannery O’Connor, who Springsteen had been recently reading.
“Atlantic City” is the best track on this album (as well as its most popular). It tells the story of a young couple relocating because the young man grew tired of trying unsuccessfully to make an honest living and is taking a job with the mob in Atlantic City. It was written right around the time when the city was looking towards big-time gaming to save the city in the early eighties. Springsteen incorporated some real-life figures into this fictional song, the “chicken man” was mafia boss Philip Testa, who was killed by a bomb planted at his Philadelphia house in March 1981.
“Highway Patrolman” continues the themes of crimes and conscience in the story of brothers – one a lawman, one a criminal. The story is once again told in the first person with the lawman constantly struggling to keep his brother out of trouble and in the end letting him escape after he kills a man in a barroom fight. Musically and melodically, this is one of the most entertaining compositions on the album.
I’ve found that the songs “State Trooper” and “Open All Night”, yet more stories of desperation are linked in a way. “State Trooper” contains a guitar pattern which emulates the recurring sound of the road. The protagonist doesn’t have a license or registration, but he is driving late at night on a deserted highway just saying a prayer that his problems don’t get bigger by being stopped by a cop. “Open All Night” contains a similar beat, with the guitar a little more jangly in the fashion of of old time rock and roll. With nearly the same scenario of a guy driving alone through Jersey, but with more optimistic anticipation of seeing the girl he just recently met. The closing song “Reason To Believe”, finishes the album with a more upbeat note.
Bruce Springsteen would try to recreate the dark simplicity of Nebraska in 1995 when he released The Ghost of Tom Joad, album very similar musically and lyrically. However, it was impossible to recreate the happy accident that brought this simple casette demo, recorded in a New Jersey bedroom on a Sunday afternoon in January 1982, to the ears of millions.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1982 albums.