Bruce Springsteen really had his work cut out for him when he started working on what was to become his breakthrough, the album Born to Run. His two previous albums Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, although critically well-received, had failed to sell as well as the record company had hoped. Born to Run took about 18 months to record.
In the Born To Run documentary Wings For Wheels that was included with the 30th Anniversary Edition of the album, Springsteen says about the song: “This particular single took us a long time. I recollect us spending almost 6 months at intervals making it.” Basically a third of the entire recording time was spent working on the title track. Bruce’s vision with the whole album was to achieve a sound similar to that of Phil Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound.” “If this record didn’t make it, it seemed obvious that it was going to be the end of the recording career,” said E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt in the same documentary. The pressure was definitely on.
“Born to Run” was recorded before drummer Max Weinberg, and pianist Roy Bittan joined the band. David Sancious handles the piano part, and the drums were recorded by Ernest “Boom” Carter. Sancious and Carter left the E Street Band shortly after recording the song, to join a jazz band. Because of Carter’s jazz influences, the drum sound on “Born to Run” is very different from the rest of the tracks on the album. Most noticeable is the syncopated drum fill in the song. In Wings For Wheels, Weinberg explains that he struggled to capture the feel of Ernie’s fill: “This one little lick that he played in the middle, that’s on the record. I tried to play it. A very syncopated kind of jazz-fusion part. Finally, it just never came off right, so I eliminated it, and I’ve never played it.” Weinberg’s playing works great though, since his straight up rock groove is more in line with Springsteen’s material.
“Born to Run” also has the distinction of being the only song on the album to be partially written on guitar. Springsteen wrote the main riff on guitar, before finishing the song on piano. The song was written in a little house in Long Branch, New Jersey, as was the rest of the album, according to Springsteen. Whenever the house has come up for sale over the years, it has gained quite a bit of attention, even on an international level, because of its importance in the early career of Bruce Springsteen.
The driving force in “Born to Run” is the main guitar riff, which is played in the song’s intro and the chorus. While not technically advanced, the melodic nature of it makes fans “sing along” to the riff at concerts. To the casual listener Bruce Springsteen might not seem like more than an average guitarist, but anyone who has seen him live would beg to differ. During concert performances of “Born to Run,” The Boss directs the entire band with the help of his guitar. Bruce has explained in interviews that he once held the ambition to be the fastest guitar player in Asbury Park, and while that style of playing doesn’t exactly lend itself to the type of music he plays, he still busts out blazing solos when playing live, like for example “Prove it All Night.”
“Born to Run” was written long before the album came out. Springsteen started playing it live as early as May 1974, which resulted in Allan Clarke of The Hollies’ cover of the song almost being released before Bruce’s own version.
Lyrics are very important to Bruce Springsteen, and at the time of making Born to Run, he would obsess just as much over the lyrics as he would the music. “The music was composed very, very meticulously. So where the words. The amount of time spent honing the lyrics was enormous. The notebook that I wrote ‘Born to Run’ in, you would take the first page and you would see a line or two. Fifty pages later you’d get something close to the finished song,” said Bruce in Wings For Wheels. In its essence, “Born to Run” is really a love song. Bruce, or whoever he imagines the song’s protagonist to be, wants to pick up his girlfriend and get out of New Jersey. The song also feature cars, and street racing, a favorite subject of Bruce’s at the time. Racing and muscle cars are at the heart of songs like “Jungleland,” and “Racing in the Street.”
“I worked very very long on the lyrics to ‘Born To Run’ because I was very aware that I was messing with classic rock n’ roll. The images that easily turns into clichés. I worked really hard on getting the soul of the song, the spiritual side of the song right,” said Springsteen. The hard work paid off. “Born to Run” is still a staple in Bruce’s live show, and will continue to be so for the rest of his career.