September 30 – Bruce Gets Bleak As A Plains Snowstorm

Flying in the face of a sagging record industry” requires either a little stupidity, a touch of contrariness or a lot of belief in one’s work. In the case of Bruce Springsteen, all three might have been true in 1982…but mostly the latter. On this day that year he released his sixth album, Nebraska. The opening sentence was part of Rolling Stone‘s review of that album.

Nebraska was a very different album for The Boss, arriving about two years after his commercial-breakthrough The River. That one had helped him become a major presence on rock and Top 40 radio and one of the hottest live performers in the country. So, while many (including one would bet, Columbia Records) expected him to zig and produce another up-tempo, blue-collar rock record with his E Street Band, Bruce zagged. He put out essentially some downbeat demo tapes, and unlike his previous efforts, didn’t bother bringing in the E Street Band. The result was an album unlike anything he’d done, and quite unlike almost anything on radio in the glossy, early-’80s.

It hadn’t started out that way. Springsteen had initially planned to make this The River, Part II, so to speak. He had planned to use the band and make them more upbeat and rocking tracks. But he felt he previously had wasted a lot of time in the studio, writing and re-writing tunes so he wanted a batch of songs ready to go, ready to show the band more or less fully-formed. So he set up a four-track recorder in his New Jersey home, and recorded the demos of dozens of songs over a two-week period during the Christmas/New Year’s season of ’81-82. It’s said he recorded 15 in one night alone! And he did it himself, playing the guitar, mandolin, organ, even synthesizer (on “My Father’s House”) as needed. He didn’t play drums, expecting Max Weinberg to do his bit with those later. However, when he listened to the tapes, he began to feel that the sparse, dark, very analog sound fit the subject matter well. He did get together with the band in New York City that spring, and they recorded many of the songs “electric” style, including eight that would later go on to be re-recorded for Born in the U.S.A., including that title track. But most who heard it still felt the original demos were better, so that was what Columbia finally agreed to put out.

The ten songs are not very uplifting, but are rivoting. It kicks off with the opening title track, which is about Charles Starkweather, a teen who went on a killing spree in Nebraska and Wyoming in the ’50s before being caught and executed. There were songs about conflicted cops (“Highway Patrolman”) and street-level mobsters in a decaying city (“Atlantic City”). If much of his early work celebrated the rough-and-ready blue collar guys and girls having fun and looking for a better life, Nebraska shone a harsh spotlight on those with little prospect of that.

This took the public by surprise. Critics, by and large, loved the sombre release. The Village Voice, not one beholden to The Boss normally, graded it “A-” and ranked it as the third best record of the year. Rolling Stone graded it 4.5-stars, noting that he risked alienating radio with the record, but thoroughly enjoying the end product. In years later, that magazine would repeatedly place it among the top half of their “500 greatest albums of all-time”, suggesting it “established Springsteen as more than a mere rock star…a true heir apparent to Bob Dylan.” Q over in the UK voiced a dissenting opinion though, giving it just 2-stars when it came out, saying it “would simply have been a better record with the benefit of the E Street Band and a few months in the studio.” Even with that, they later ranked it as the 13th best album of the decade!

Some fans were indeed alienated, but enough stuck around to appreciate Bruce’s earnestness and different approach. The single “Atlantic City” failed to sell well, but did hit the top 10 in mainstream rock airplay and just cracked the top 50 singles list in Canada. And the album itself rose to #3 in the U.S., as well as Canada, the UK and New Zealand. It ended up going platinum at home and gold Canada, but sold only about a quarter of the amount of The River. But Nebraska showed a different side to Springsteen… and set the stage for his thundering return to stadium-pleaser two years later with Born in the U.S.A


20 thoughts on “September 30 – Bruce Gets Bleak As A Plains Snowstorm

  1. badfinger20 (Max)

    I really love this album. The songs are deep and interesting. Altantic City is one of my favorite Springsteen songs. His version and The Band version get equal play with me.

    I think I’ve read where the E Street Band was questioning this for a while…everyone was wondering if he was going to do a Nebraska II album instead of Born in the USA…

    if Paul is reading…he would know.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Paul

      Yup I’m here 😀 yes I believe band and others weren’t sure what was next but I think his manager Landau discussed with him advantages of not doing another album in same vein.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. badfinger20 (Max)

        I took a chance and won! Yes he could have proceeded and made a great living doing acoustic albums but of course Bruce is more about the art…always has been.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. well, true about him being about the art. I think first and foremost he is a rock musician, and would’ve gotten tired of doing solo, acoustic basement-tapes (so to speak) , maybe even before his fans would have.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. badfinger20 (Max)

        That is probably true but we would have gotten one more at least. Like Paul said his manager talked to him and said…yea Bruce you can…but the band is probably gone…

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I liked ‘Atlantic City’ when it came out, but it sure was a surprise in sound. I remember hearing a lot of people say they hated the album, but I don’t think I knew anyone back then who actually owned it! Looking back, it seemed a good change of pace for him… a different sounding album, and probably a good new way of going about putting songs together that might have continued on later.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. badfinger20 (Max)

        If it were just him…we probably WOULD have had Nebraska II and III… it had to be great making an album that way. He tried to reproduce that same sound in the studio and could not get it….you can hear the chair squeaking in some takes.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This gave him the balance and depth and the poles that he could move between in his career. You can’t be a one trick pony or stick (pun here could not be more apt name-wise) to the Status Quo.
    Since I’m here, Status Quo wise, RIP Alan Lancaster.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Paul

    Great write up! The studio electric versions of the Nebraska songs have never seen the light of day (no pun intended) and are like the holy grail for Springsteen collectors – hopefully at some point he will release them

    Liked by 1 person

    1. for sure… I wasn’t sure if some of them were out or not. I know I have the ‘Born in the USA’ demo on a compilation of his but then again, that wasn’t a Nebraska song in the end.


  4. Paul

    Also I read where the original tape of the songs Bruce had been carrying around in his back pocket for awhile so when they decided to go with it the production guys had a heart attack about what it would sound like a f what they could do with it

    Liked by 1 person

    1. as a fan, but far less of a diehard one than you or Max, I wouldn’t put it near the top of my list of favorites…BUT I would say it stands out and was his ‘bravest’ if you will. Unplugged a decade before MTV thought of it basically.

      Liked by 1 person

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