In early 1974, Bruce Springsteen was listening to Duane Eddy’s 1960 hit “Because They’re Young” when a similarly twangy, dramatic guitar riff came into his head. It soon became the intro for the “exhilarating, orgasmic” new song the struggling twenty-four-year-old singer-songwriter was trying to create: He called it “Born to Run.” “I had these enormous ambitions for it,” says Springsteen, now fifty-six. “I wanted to make the greatest rock record that I’d ever heard, I wanted it to sound enormous, to grab you by your throat and insist that you take that ride, insist that you pay attention – not just to the music, but to life, to being alive.”
“Born to Run” ended up as the title track of Springsteen’s third album, released on August 25th, 1975. In celebration of its thirtieth anniversary, a newly remastered CD hits stores on November 15th, in a box set that also includes a concert DVD and a new ninety–minute documentary.
Born to Run – eight songs and thirty-nine minutes of some of the most powerful and romantic rock music ever made – landed Springsteen on the covers of both Time and Newsweek in the same week, and transformed him from a regional favorite into a superstar. “It felt like a masterpiece then,” says Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau, who co-produced the album. “Thirty years later, I’m sure of it.”
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When Springsteen began working on Born to Run, his deal with Columbia Records was in jeopardy. His first two albums – 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle – had flopped, and his champion at Columbia, president Clive Davis, had left the company. “Bruce was over, man,” says longtime Springsteen buddy “Little” Steven Van Zandt, who joined the E Street Band in 1975. “His own record company was going to radio stations, taking Bruce’s records out and putting records in by this new guy, Billy Joel.” Springsteen remembers Columbia execs walking out on a show in Boston: “That night, I told the band. They may think we’re going away – but we have no place to go!'”
In that spirit, Springsteen and then-manager and producer Mike Appel spent six months on the title track alone, trying endless variations and laying down overdub upon overdub in the Wall of Sound style of Phil Specter glockenspiel, organ, synthesizer, electric piano, strings, horns, female backup singers and even car noises. “We would leave, go on the road and do shows, and then come back and record some more, all on that one song,” says former E Street Band drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter, who left the band with keyboardist David Sancious soon after finishing the track (Max Weinberg was Carter’s replacement). “I became a pretty good dart player and pool player, hanging out in that studio,” says Carter. “Now I’m a part of rock history – and I wasn’t even trying.”
Springsteen wrote the rest of the songs on piano, creating a lyrical, major-key keyboard style that – as played on record by Sancious successor Roy Bittan – became a signature sound. “I was interested in songs with a variety of movements, which you can trace back to the way Roy Orbison records were composed,” says Springsteen, currently playing piano every night on a solo tour. “There is something about the [piano] melody of Thunder Road’ that suggests a new day – which is why that song ended up first on the record, instead of ‘Born to Run.'”
Recording and arranging the other seven songs continued to be an agonizing process, even after former Rolling Stone editor Landau came on as co-producer and helped edit down some of the more rambling tunes. “‘Jungleland’ was tough,” Landau says of the multipart album closer. “Bruce had these different intros and slightly different melodies, and that elaborate sax solo took a great deal of time.” Springsteen stepped into a vocal booth and improvised the song’s conclusion – his wordless howls – at the last minute. “When I heard that,” Landau says, “I just said, ‘That certainly has to be the last thing you hear on the record.'”
Van Zandt’s favorite track is the jazzy “Meeting Across the River,” which tells the tale of a would-be gangster. “We had Richard Davis, who played bass on [Van Morrison’s] Astral Weeks, come in for that one – and Astral Weeks, was like a religion to us,” Van Zandt says. For Springsteen, the song’s tale of a Jersey guy risking it all for a big score in the city hit close to home. “By that time we’d been counted out, and it probably had something to do with that – a feeling I had about myself,” he says. “It was that New York/New Jersey, big-time/small-time thing.”
“Born to Run” is still a centerpiece of every Springsteen show with the E Street Band. “It was a record of enormous longing, and those emotions and desires never leave you,” Springsteen says. “You’re dead when that leaves you. The song transcends your age and continues to speak to that part of you that is both exhilarated and frightened about what tomorrow brings. It will always do that – that’s how it was built.”
This story is from the November 17th, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.