NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I’ve got an extra hour to work on this show, right?
Remember to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, (ow) How Good It Is Pod.
Ooh, I’ve got some cool trivia for ye, right here, which I think may come as a neat surprise. I don’t usually talk about The Beatles on this show because they’re just SO well-documented that I can’t often bring you anything new, but this one I learned very recently, and I thought you’d appreciate it. What Beatles song lyric was directly inspired by something Shakespeare did regularly? As a hint, I’ll tell you that it’s on the Abbey Road album.
I’ll have the answer to that at the end of the show.
By the end of 1974, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band had released two albums which received a ton of critical acclaim, but didn’t do a whole lot from a sales standpoint. But that was about to change.
In May of 1974, the band went back into the studio, and Springsteen began to be a little more conscious of making his lyrics a little more accessible to listeners. Part of that was a shift away from references to locations in New Jersey. I mean, it’s cool if you live in that area and you recognize what he’s talking about, but stuff like that can alienate people if it infuses the entire album. There was also a general maturation away from teenage love songs and overly-clever lyrics. Again, it’s fun to sing stuff like “go-kart Mozart/Was checking out the weather chart/To see if it was safe outside”, but ultimately it’s inaccessible and often leads to unfavorable comparisons to Bob Dylan, I think. So in general, Springsteen took more care with the writing, but he also took a lot more time on the individual tracks on the album, so that the entire thing took 14 months to put together. And the title track, “Born to Run,” took the better part of six months to lay down the way Springsteen wanted it.
According to writer Bob Kilpatrick, the sequencing of the album was also pretty specific, with the opening songs on each side being these big odes to escape, while the closing tracks were songs of loss or betrayal. “Thunder Road”, which opens Side One, was the original title of the album, but ultimately they went with the Side Two opener as the album title. And incidentally, if your copy of the album has Springsteen’s name and the title written in what looks like a fountain pen rather than a more typical print font, you may have an album that’s worth over a thousand dollars.
Bruce Springsteen himself once wrote that he was working out some song ideas when the phrase “born to run” came to him. At first he thought it was the name of a movie or something similar, or maybe he’d seen it on a car spinning around the circuit. He said he liked the phrase because it suggested a cinematic drama that might work well with the music he had running in his head.
One of the problems that they had with getting the song recorded had to do with Springsteen overthinking every step of the process. The story goes that only one member of the band could read and write notated music, so he came up with a horn arrangement, but while the horn players were all pros, the sheet music still didn’t provide the feel that he was looking for. So Steven Van Zandt, a long-time friend of Springsteen who was only visiting the recording session because he wasn’t a member of the band yet, figured something out and SANG it to the horn section so that it sounded the way it was supposed to. In addition, Van Zandt was partially responsible for the song’s guitar line. In an interview with Uncut Magazine, Van Zandt said that he was listening to an early version of the song and he complimented Springsteen on what he thought was a minor riff. But Springsteen didn’t know what he was talking about, so Van Zandt explained that Springsteen appeared to be doing a Duane Eddy kind of things, with a lot of echo on it, and he was bending up to the last note. However, the echo didn’t allow you to hear the bending. So they wound up re-doing the guitar part and then the entire mix.
But basically the entire process went like this, with the band going down a lot of blind alleys and starting over until everything sounded the way Springsteen had it in his head.
Ultimately, rehearsals started for “Born to Run” in the second week of January, 1974, and the recording was completed in August. But all that meant was that the recording was done. At that point they had 72 tracks of music which had to be mixed down to the 16 that were available at the studio. There were a dozen guitar tracks, there was sax, drums, bass, several keyboards, a bunch of vocals, strings, and of course that glockenspiel. Springsteen and co-producer Mike Appel put together a few different arrangements with the assistance of Louis Lahav as chief engineer on the song.
So somewhere between August and September of 1974. The song was basically done, and in November Appel took a slightly different mix to WMMR in Philadelphia, where DJ Ed Sciaky played it as part of an interview with Springsteen. Before long, this version was in the hands of WNEW in New York, WMMS in Cleveland, WBCN in Boston and WVBR in Ithaca, NY. Have a listen to the opening, and I want you to pay attention to a couple of things. First, the drums are a little different, and they’re VERY stareo. The other thing, I’ll call your attention to as the song gets to it..
[Radio Mix 1, at “Oh”]
Now, listen closely to the vocals…
Huh? How about that, with the backup singers? You can hear that the whole thing is a little more sparse, maybe not as deeply layered as the version we all know and love. Plus, the background singers come in again later on, plus it seems to me that the strings are just a little more prominent:
[Radio Mix 2]
There’s also a tiny flourish of keyboard at the very end—beyond the fade—that I’m not going to play here, but if you’re curious you can find the song on YouTube.
[BORN TO RUN]
So leaking the song—even if it was a different mix—to those stations was a pretty cagey move, especially since Springsteen had local popularity, and it led those stations to start playing more of his back catalog. So that by the time the album and the single were simultaneously released at the end of August, there was a whole world of anticipation for it, and by then it had spread beyond the Northeast corner of the United States. That early mix had been played enough that when Springsteen played the song at a Pennsylvania concert in February—long before the finished single came out—the crowd was able to sing along with it.
And while Springsteen was moving away from specific Jersey locales in his song, he still managed to sneak in a couple. Highway Nine refers to US Highway 9, prominent road that runs from Champlain, New York to Laurel, Delaware, and it’s a major road down the eastern Jersey shore line. But you just say “Highway Nine” and it’s generic enough for the general public while still being something that the locals can enjoy. And, of course, Highway Nine runs through Springsteen’s hometown of Freehold, New Jersey. So make no mistake: the song is about escaping from Freehold. At least, it was in 1974. Over the years, Springsteen has changed his views of the song, and of the couple in the song. He introduces the song in some concerts by saying that when he wrote the song, he was writing about a guy and girl who wanted to run and just keep on running. But eventually he realized that all of these people he put in cars had to go somewhere. Basically, individual freedom without a connection to community is kind of meaningless. So in some concert performances, the lyrics are changed so that the boy and his girl Wendy are now married.
So who is this girl Wendy, anyway? There’s one theory that Springsteen had a poster over his bed of Peter Pan, leading Wendy out of the window. But Springsteen was 24 when he wrote the song, so I’m not biting on that one. Another one suggests that she was a childhood friend of his named Wendy Cook, who was once married to Peter McDermott, another childhood friend who’s mentioned in his autobiography. But if you go back to the original source, the lyrics that Springsteen originally wrote down when he was first inspired, Wendy is completely absent. The “everlasting kiss” line was originally written as “I was heading for the place where wild angels die in an everlasting or neverending kiss.” That doesn’t quite scan, so it appears that Springsteen hadn’t quite figured out which kiss he was going to use, but clearly there’s no Wendy there. Plus the song isn’t even in the second person there. And the line about living together with the sadness was also added later on. And how do we know all of this? Because in 2014, a copy of the handwritten lyrics were sold at auction for $197,000, to a retired software marketer named Floyd Bradley. Oddly enough, Bradley does have some connection to Bruce Springsteen: His mother and Springsteen’s mother were neighbors for a bit, and when his mother sold her house, Springsteen bought it for his own mother-in-law. In addition, Bradley’s daughter and Springsteen’s daughter both attended Duke University, with both of them graduating as part of the class of 2014. And Bradley did meet Springsteen once, when he was visiting his mother and she asked him to bring something to their next-door neighbor. While he was over there, Adele Springsteen invited him to meet her son, who was visiting at the time.
Oddly enough, the song was covered before Springsteen was able to release it, but the cover wasn’t released until after Springsteen’s version came out. That cover was by Allan Clarke of the Hollies. It’s not awful, I guess, but it’s interesting to note that the label on the 45 has Springsteen’s name misspelled as “Springstein”.
[FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD]
Another notable cover of the song was done by the 80s band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, on their 1984 debut album Welcome to the Pleasuredome. In November of that year, they played the song on Saturday Night Live. It was the same day that the album hit Number One in the UK, though unfortunately their US airplay was mostly limited to alternative and college radio, and in the dance clubs.
Here’s a fun version: in 1991 a band called Big Daddy, which specializes in recording modern songs using older arrangements, put this version together.
Oh—and I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t bring this version to your attention:
[BORN TO ADD]
That’s from Sesame Street, featuring Bruce Stringbean and the S Street Band. And while to my ear it sounds a little more like “Jungleland” than “”Born to Run,” you still haven’t lived until you’ve seen Muppets bopping about to a Springsteen song.
There are a couple of others, but none of these have seen any chart action.
Speaking of which, Springsteen’s version peaked at Number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it got a ton of airplay on the album-oriented stations and the progressive stations. It had very little success outside the United States, though it did finally make the charts in the UK in 1987, when a live version recorded in—go figure—New Jersey made it to Number 16 there.
Finally: awhile back, way back, in Episode 8 I talked about the opening snare shot of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” and it bears repeating here. This is a clip from Episode 8 of this show:
…and if you read the website you know that shortly after that episode dropped I learned about a quote that Springsteen said regarding the first time he heard that snare, as though a door in his head had been kicked open. I think I felt much the same way about the opening of “Born to Run,” when I was about the same age as Springsteen was when he heard Dylan. In fact, I mentioned specifically that the opening drum riff on “Born to Run” was a signal that things were going to be different. Here it is in the finished version:
Incidentally, that’s not Max Weinberg on the drums. Ernest “Boom” Carter was the drummer for the E Street Band at the time the song was recorded. He and piano player David Sancious worked on the song and then left the band, so Roy Bittan and Weinberg took over, so they’re on the album, but they’re not on this song.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you to name the song lyric from the Beatles which is based on something that Shakespeare did on a regular basis. And the hint I gave is that it’s on the Abbey Road album.
Well: William Shakespeare had a habit of ending scenes with a rhyming couplet. For instance, at the end of Romeo and Juliet,
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo..
Similarly, at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck addresses the audience by saying,
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
So Paul McCartney took a page from Shakespeare and ended the album with a couplet:
They didn’t really know for sure that it would be their last album, but there was certainly a sense that they were reaching the end of the line, and it certainly put a nice cap on their recording career.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when they call you Deacon Blues.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.