September 23 – Billy’s Experiment In Nylon

The two of them might not love it, but many of us seem to lump today’s birthday boy, Bruce Springsteen (wishing him a happy 73 today!)  and Billy Joel together in the same sort of musical box. Here we like both so it doesn’t seem to be much of an insult to me, but I digress. Anyway, both singer/songwriters came to prominence in the mid-’70s, emerged from the greater New York area and were quintessential blue collar musical heroes, singing about the ordinary people they knew and respected. And by 1982 we thought we had them both pegged when they both took a hard left turn and came out with surprisingly downbeat and different-sounding records. On this day, Joel released his eighth studio album, The Nylon Curtain. A week later, Springsteen gave us his acoustic Nebraska.

Anyway, Joel’s The Nylon Curtain was something of a polarizing album. After delivering his most rock & roll-oriented, fun-loving Glass Houses in 1980, this one was a deeper but more challenging release. The short story – critics loved it, fans more or less panned it. But there’s more to it than that.

Joel was looking around America and wasn’t optimistic about what he was seeing. It was, after all, an era of inflation, unemployment, a growing chasm between the Wall Street rich and the ordinary workers in the companies they owned, fear about the Cold War… “It was during the Reagan years and… all of a sudden, you weren’t going to be able to inherit the (lifestyle) your old man had,” Joel remembers. Curiously, he was also listening to mid-era Beatles a lot at the time. Thus The Nylon Curtain came to be, an album Rolling Stone considered his most ambitious.

The album is a loosely thematic look at the U.S. in decline through the eyes of a blue collar Baby Boomer. Although the first single was the jarring “Pressure” and it contained a few missteps, like the “venomous” (in the words of Rolling Stone again) “Laura” about a guy who hates his girlfriend but realizes “living alone isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be” either, and perhaps the experimental “Scandinavian Skies” which he says was directly influenced by the sound of Beatles singles like “I Am the Walrus”, it contains some very good material and two of his best – and most under-rated – tunes: “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon”.

The former was actually inspired by a trip he paid tt Bethlehem, PA but that name didn’t fit the song structure as well. Regardless, it described any number of “Rust Belt” cities and the unfortunate workers caught in the changing times and closing factories. Rolling Stone applauded the “tune, language and singing are all brazenly direct” and felt it “could be a scene from The Deer Hunter set to music.” The mayor of Allentown, PA was impressed enough to give Joel the keys to the city next time he played there.

Goodnight Saigon” is a haunting, 7-minute epic complete with helicopter and cricket sounds (the Beatles experimentation rubbing off) that Rolling Stone called “the ultimate pop music epitaph to the Vietnam war”… “a stunner”. The piece about the band of brothers trained on Parris Island shipped out to the horrors of the Asian war with only their Doors tapes and Playboy who’d “All go down together” indeed is one of the most compelling musical takes on the reality of war and one of Billy’s best achievements.

People magazine approved, saying “Joel jackknifes (sic) into adulthood (with) a striking cycle of nine songs about the current plight of boomed babies” which are “vintage Joel with clever hooks.”

For all that, the public wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic. While by no means a flop, it was his least-successful release since 1976, selling less than even 1981’s compilation of live tunes and outtakes, Songs in the Attic. At home in the U.S. it charted to #7 and went double platinum; it topped out at #12 in Canada and only #27 across the sea in the UK. Somehow though, it did hit #1 in the Netherlands. The singles “Pressure” and “Allentown” both it the top 20 in the States, his 10th and 11th such hits, and “Allentown” although it never got higher than #17 on the weekly charts, had such enduring popularity that it was among the 50 biggest records of the year. “Goodnight Saigon” was released as a third single, but being 7 minutes, lacking a normal kind of verse/chorus structure and being about the horrors of war, was a tough sell in a time of happy synthesizers, safety dances and Duran Duran playing with bikini-clad models on yachts.

For it all, Joel says the album is “the recording I’m most proud of.” And he rebounded very nicely the next year with his more upbeat An Innocent Man which catapulted him back to the top. (Springsteen’s fate with his Nebraska similar and he too bounced back with the multi-million selling Born in the USA less than two years down the road.)

August 29 – The Statement Song That Made Starr A Star

Today we look at another angry anthem inspired by the Vietnam War, from 52 years ago. “War” by Edwin Starr hit #1 in the U.S. this day in 1970.

The song succinctly summed up the sentiments of many then, and to this day with it’s question asked and answered, “War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” The song was put out by Motown, but had a decidedly un-Motown-like vibe to it. That thanks to the writing duo of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, who also wrote “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” As British journalist David Hutter noted, Whitfield was probably the one person in the Motown organization who wanted to change their direction (away from happy, brief pop love songs) and had both the clout and nerve to take on Berry Gordy over it.

The Temptations originally recorded the song on their Psychedelic Shack album. But not only did it not really have the edge and vitriol it really deserved, the band itself weren’t crazy about it and no one wanted to release it as a single, fearing the effect it would have on the band’s career, since they had been to that point fairly typical Motown artists building a nice career on harmonic love songs. So he recruited Starr for the job of re-recording it.

Edwin Starr was a relatively low-profile artist on their roster who’d begun his career singing doo-wop in Tennessee in the ’50s and had a minor hit or two of his own in the ’60s, as well as writing the song “Oh So Happy” for the Shades of Blue. He didn’t have a big reputation to risk, and as Robert Christgau notes, “Starr is more naturally strident than any of the Temptations.” Turns out that’s just what was called for. Whitfield brought in session rock artists to do the music and The Undisputed Truth (“Smiling Faces Sometimes”) to add background vocals and the song packed a wallop.

Typical of the era’s contrasts, it knocked Bread’s “Make it with You” off the top of the charts, and spent three weeks at #1, eventually being the fifth-biggest single of the year in the States. It also went to #1 to the north in Canada, and #3 in the UK. The song would live on as a popular rally cry for the peace movement and be resurrected later in the Cold War era. Brits Frankie Goes to Hollywood recorded a version of it for the b-side to their own anti-war hit “Two Tribes” and Bruce Springsteen began playing a version of it on his Born in the USA tour. A 1985 performance of it in L.A. was recorded and put on his multi-disc Live 1975/85; becoming a top 10 hit as a single.

June 18 – 80? Maybe We’re Amazed

One of rock music’s true living legends turns 80 today. Happy birthday Sir Paul McCartney! Few rock stars are household names even in houses that never listen to pop or rock, but Paul is one of those few. Knighted by the queen, first non-American to be awarded the Gershwin Prize for Popular Music by the Library of Congress, 21 #1 songs with The Beatles in the U.S. plus 9 more since as a solo artist or with Wings… there’s so much to be said about Paul but so little to add to the well-known bio. So instead, we’ll look at Paul in words – words of his own and those of others.

Paul Reflects:

* “I don’t work at being ordinary.”

* “I can’t deal with the press…I hate all those Beatles questions.”

* “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” (Paul is a well-known and outspoken vegetarian, as was his deceased wife Linda.)

* “We were pretty good mates, until the Beatles started to split up and Yoko came into it.” (Speaking about his relationship with John Lennon.)

I used to think anyone doing anything weird was weird. Now I know that it is the people that call others ‘weird’ that are weird.”

Others Talk Paul:*

* “Paul McCartney is a genius. Paul married rock and roll to beauty and forever raised the bar for composers, musicians and fans.” – actor Alec Baldwin

* “Within the confines of the studio, Paul was the one who sort of saved the situation always and the one who always went that little bit extra to perfect things.” – EMI Records’ engineer Geoff Emerick

* “I’d put Gershwin, Berlin and Hank Williams. I’d probably put Paul McCartney in there too.” Paul Simon answers who he thinks the greatest songwriters of all-time are.

* “Paul was the first love of my life. Yoko was the second.” – John Lennon

* “I’m in awe of McCartney. He’s about the only one that I am in awe of. He can do it all.” – folk singer & Nobel laureate Bob Dylan.

If you want to see the living legend, you’ll have your chance this summer… if you’re in Britain. He’s playing this year’s Glastonbury Festival next week. However, sadly us North Americans have missed out, it seems for this year as he just wrapped up a tour Thursday at Metlife Stadium outside of New York City. And he wrapped it up in style, doing a 40 song show (a bit longer than his usual , though the average for the tour which kicked off April 28 in Spokane was over 30 songs and two hours plus length), highlighted by Bruce Springsteen dropping by to wish him an early Happy Birthday and sing “Glory Days” with him, and Jon Bon Jovi also coming by to sing “Happy Birthday” to him. Among the songs he did were 16 Beatles songs in the main part of the concert including “Lady Madonna,” “Love Me Do” and “Hey Jude” , which ended the set. In addition he added in eight Wings songs including “Live and Let Die” and “Jet” plus some of his solo ones. Then he played an encore of “I’ve Got A Feeling,” “Birthday”, “Helter Skelter”, “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry that Weight” and “The End.” An Asbury Park news report said McCartney seemed to get more energetic as the night went by, despite it raining at times, and that “he kicked and skipped as he and his band were taking their bows with Springsteen.” Which gives one hope that maybe we will indeed do what he said before leaving the stage: “We’ll see you next time!”

June 9 – The Boss Needs To Circle Day Twice On Calendar

It should be a big day on Bruce Springsteen‘s calendar, for it represents two big anniversaries for him. Fifty years ago to the day, he signed his first recording contract, with Columbia Records. And then 31 years back he married Patti Scialfa, his backup singer who’s proven herself to be much more than that.

Springsteen drew comparisons to Bob Dylan early on (more on that later) but it was really the even bigger icons of the ’60s who inspired him – The Beatles. “Four guys, playing and singing, writing their own material…rock’n’roll came to my house when there seemed to be no way out!”

His live sets around New Jersey drew a following early on, and eventually led him to Columbia Records in New York, where John Hammond (an exec and scout largely responsible for getting Bob Dylan to sign there) had an interest. However, Springsteen’s first manager Mike Appel, nearly blew it. Columbia boss Clive Davis recalls Appel “insisted that Bruce, who had not played a note yet, was ‘better than Dylan’”. This didn’t amuse Hammond nor Davis, but after listening to a demo of acoustic tracks and seeing a club performance by him, Clive said “I love Bruce Springsteen. He’s an original in every way.” They signed him to Columbia “immediately”; remarkably he’s still with that label five decades later.

Springsteen went to work right away, with his first album Greetings From Asbury Park coming out a mere six months later, to good reviews but poor sales. Davis notes “the ‘New Dylan’ curse descended on Bruce, often at the hands of his greatest admirers. In trying to compliment Bruce, they were limiting him, setting him up to fail.”

Eventually of course, he succeeded in ways Bob Dylan could only dream of. That was more true than ever in 1984, with Born in the U.S.A., his 20-million+ seller that elevated him to a stadium-selling superstar. He decided to add a few faces to the E Street Band for the lengthy tour for it, including Patti Scialfa as a backing singer and occasional keyboardist.

Scialfa was a struggling New Jersey singer/songwriter at the time, playing clubs she sometimes waitressed at, despite her songwriting talent and degree in music. She toured with Bruce and they got along OK, but it took awhile for sparks to fly it seems. She dated Tom Cruise briefly and he fell for model Julianne Phillips, who appeared on his “Glory Days” video. They soon married. However, their age difference (she being 11 years younger than him) and the amount of time he spent away from home wore on the relationship and in 1988 they filed for divorce because of “irreconcilable differences.” Scialfa had rejoined Bruce for some backing vocals on Tunnel of Love (heard most clearly on “One Step Up”) and again toured with him; this time they hit it off. She moved in with him as soon as the divorce to Phillips went through, and soon had their first child, son Evan. This caused some amount of criticism, to which Springsteen notes “it’s a strange society that assumes it has the right to tell people whom they should love and shouldn’t.”

The pair married in a small, private ceremony at his L.A. house. They’re still together and have had a couple more kids since. Patti still often works with his E Street Band (she’s played guitar and keyboards at various times besides singing) and has put out three solo records. They’ve been well-received, but commercial failures. Her debut, Rumble Doll in 1993, won kudos from critics like allmusic which said it proved “Patti Scialfa is more than just a beautiful redhead with good connections,” calling the record “low-key” but adding “there’s not a bad song in the bunch.” Despite that, and being co-produced by The Boss and Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers (who brought in Belmont Trench of that band and John Mellencamp’s drummer Kenny Aronoff to work on it) it failed to catch on at all. Perhaps someone compared her to the ‘next Aretha!”

June 2 – Bruce Was Running To The Musical Heartland

Whether it was “miserablist” (a term we’d only heard before in describing Morrissey’s music) or “perfecting the heartland rock genre,” – different critics have used both for it – by 1978 Bruce Springsteen was a big enough deal for an album of his to draw instant attention. And that’s what Darkness on the Edge of Town did when it came out 44 years ago today.

For “The Boss”, it was his fourth album, and came a full three years after his third, the revered Born to Run. In the ’70s, that was a long time to go between releases! Part of that was because he’d had disputes with his label, Columbia, and especially an old manager, but part was that Bruce was already getting to be a perfectionist. Perhaps not so much in the playing, but in getting the mood, the lyrics, the atmosphere just right. It’s said he wrote 70 songs for this one and recorded 52 in full. No wonder it took about nine months to bring to completion. He generally recorded them with the whole E Street Band playing rather than using a lot of different takes or overdubs. Of the 52, ten made the final cut; a few others like “Independence Day” would surface on later albums, and a couple got snagged to be hits for others – “Fire” by the Pointer Sisters and “Because the Night” by Patti Smith. Surprisingly, none of the ten songs became big hit singles, though several of them have since risen to the status of Classic Rock, well, classics – “Promised Land,’ “Badlands,” “Candy’s Room,” and the under-rated “Prove it All Night” (which was the only one to break into the U.S. top 40).

His focus on the album was “to write about the stress and tensions of my father’s and my mother’s life that came with the struggles of trying to make ends meet.” Or, as one of his several biographers put it, “Springsteen drives away from the beach and boardwalk into the ethos of the American heartland.” The result was an album less exuberant than Born to Run; one which set the template for his ascent to the Bard of the Blue Collar Worker. Even the cover photo was decidedly low-key, presenting Bruce as the Everyman. “That’s the guy in the songs,” Springsteen said of it. “Frank (the photographer) stripped away all (my) celebrity and left you with your essence.”

At the time it came out, Rolling Stone suggested he “fulfilled the hype that previously surrounded” him. They’d later grade it a perfect 5-stars and rank it as the 91st greatest album of all-time in their most recent ranking of such. The NME called it the “album of the year” in ’78 and would like Rolling Stone, put it high on their all-time list later; in their case #109. The Quietus suggest looking back, some of the album, especially “Candy’s Room” had a real punk rock ethos to them but The Boss delivered them “with a tenderness and adoration that punk would have struggled with.” Allmusic though give it 4.5-stars…seemingly a great score. However, it notably is the only Springsteen album before the ’90s they didn’t give a perfect score to and although they liked how the “tracks (were) paced by powerful drumming and soaring guitar solos” they seemed to not really like the songs themselves, and suggest it’s “no easy listen.”

With songs like those as well as the title track, “Racing in the Street” and “Adam Raised A Cane” it’s no surprise it stayed on the album charts for a full 97 weeks despite lacking a huge AM radio hit (that would come on his next album, with “Hungry Heart.”) It got to #5 at home – not quite as good as Born to Run – and #7 in Canada, #14 in the UK, #9 in Australia, his best showing to that point in those lands. Currently it’s triple-platinum in the U.S. , so while in terms of commercial showing, it is among the middle efforts of his catalog, few would disagree that it remains one of his best albums and the one which perhaps paved the way for his superstardom of the ’80s.

March 6 – The Boss’s Growing Anger Was Born In The USA

He didn’t ride a swinging metal orb naked for the video, but a year before Miley Cyrus attained pop culture immortality doing so, Bruce Springsteen delivered a Wrecking Ball of his own. That was the name of his 17th studio album, which came out this day in 2012.

The album had been long in the works, with some of the songs actually dating back to the late-’90s canon of his, and recording of the album actually being spread out over a year, mainly at his New Jersey home. As such there’s a vast array of sounds and musicians helping out, but the one constant was the feeling of disenchantment with the then present-day U.S.A.

The Boss found a new producer to work with on Wrecking Ball, Ron Aniello. Aniello had been a successful and respected producer for about a decade by this time, but had largely worked with Christian rock crossover acts like Jars of Clay and Lifehouse (actually producing their rock hit “Hanging by a Moment”). He’d won three Dove Awards – the Christian music ones – before, but this one would get him a nomination for a Grammy for his work. Bruce utilized his E Street Band for some tracks; his own wife Patti Scialfa added backing vocals, Little Steven appears and played mandolin and added backing vocals, Max Weinberg drummed on three tracks and Clarence Clemons gave his final sax performances (he actually died before the record came out). But Bruce also called in all sorts of other talented musical friends including Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello for guitars on “Jack of All Trades” and “This Depression”, talented sax man Stan Harrison (who’d played with everyone from Diana Ross to Duran Duran) and drummer Steve Jordan, who currently has the enviable/unenviable job of filling Charlie Watts’ shoes behind the kit for the Rolling Stones. And for good measure, he invited Bob Clearmountain back to the studio, this time to do the final mix. Clearmountain had worked his magic similarly on several other Bruce albums, notably including Born in the U.S.A.

The result was an 11 song (expanded to 13 on a few “special edition” versions) tome released on CD, digitally or as a double-LP. One of the bonus tracks was “American Land” which featured producer Aniello playing the hurdy gurdy, one of the decidedly least common rock album instruments! Despite having quite a range of sounds, touching on Gospel, Irish jig and hip hop in various places, there was a uniformity in the solemn feel, as even the titles might suggest: “Rocky Ground,” “This Depression,” the title track and an apparent sequel to the slow song on Born in the U.S.A. , “Death to My Hometown.” Springsteen had by then, as allmusic put it, “shouldered the burden of telling the stories of the downtrodden” for his generation and that was “a class whose numbers increase” prior to the release. It was written largely in the shadow of the Wall Street meltdown of 2008-09, although a couple of songs that fit the mood preceded that financial event. “Land of Hope and Dreams” was a song he’d first recorded in 1998 but not released and the title track had been one he’d played frequently in concert for some years. He’d written that one actually as an ode to Giants Stadium in metro New York, a venue he loved to play in that had been slated for demolition.

The result was in the words of both the Hollywood Reporter and his own manager, Jon Landau, Bruce’s “angriest record.” Whether or not one felt this was a good thing directly influenced the reviews, which were largely – but far from unanimously – very good. Rolling Stone picked it as their Album of the Year, giving it 5-stars. Britain’s The Guardian rated it 4-stars and its NME, 8 out of 10. The Guardian noted that on it he “paints in broad brush strokes but its bombast rarely seems hollow”. The Hollywood Reporter called it “very rock’n’roll with unexpected textures.” Barnes and Noble stores called it “his best since Tunnel of Love, if not Born in the U.S.A” However, the Chicago Tribune also found it bombastic but lamented he was “going for stadium bombast instead of unadorned grit these stories of hard times demand” and found the result “sterile”. Later, allmusic agreed in part, giving it 3-stars, one of his lower-rated albums, and decried that “the message has been placed before the music” and in his righteousness he “has systematically removed any element of fun”.

Did fans agree with Rolling Stone or allmusic? We can only guess it was some each. “We Take Care Of Our Own” was the lead single, with a mixed message of American pride and a stinging rebuke of big business as well as the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. It was picked by Barack Obama for considerable use in his re-election campaign, which The Boss had endorsed. But the song was far from a massive hit, getting only to #41 even on the rock charts, ones he’d dominated a couple of decades back. Further singles from it like “Death to My Hometown” and “Rocky Ground” fared even worse. But of course he had some level of dedicated fanbase left and the album itself did get to #1 at home, as well as in Canada, Germany, New Zealand and a few other places, making it his tenth #1 American album. It went platinum in Germany and gold discs came from Canada and Australia but it was very noticeably the first studio album of his to not hit that level in the States. Maybe if he’d ridden a wrecking ball naked in the video…

December 18 – Like A What, Now Manfred?

One could say Bruce Springsteen’s biggest hit hit the top 40 on this day 45 years back. But one probably wouldn’t, because that would not only be confusing, but rather misleading. Still, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band‘s take on “Blinded by the Light”, which charted this day in 1976, is the only song written by The Boss to ever be a #1 single in the U.S., surprising as that might seem.

Now, that it was a hit wouldn’t have surprised Springsteen, or shouldn’t have. It was the first song on his first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, and he wrote it as a late addition to it when Columbia’s boss Clive Davis told him he liked the record but it needed something that could be a radio hit. Springsteen quickly came up with this one and “Spirit in the Night” to try and deliver just that.

Springsteen said he used a rhyming dictionary extensively creating “Blinded by the Light” and that the song was one of his which “is like when you’re walking down the street. My songs are what you see, only distorted.” He ran together various disparate scenes from his hometown and memories in rapid-fire pace. They included a few references to baseball – the “Indians in the Summer” line, for instance refers to his little league baseball team, and “merry go round” slang for a pitcher who keeps walking batters – and people he knew. The “silicone sister” was a local stripper and as Songfacts put it, the phrase was “arguably the first mention of breast implants in popular music.” And then there was that line. Springsteen wrote and sang “cut loose like a deuce, another roller in the night.”

Hearing the Springsteen version, one can see how he could have been compared to Bob Dylan back then. The lyrics were poetic yet seemingly unintelligible and the delivery straight out of the tortured troubadour playbook. But hear it you might not have done back then; it was released as Bruce’s first single but flopped commercially.

Which is where Manfred Mann comes in.

His Earth Band had already cut another Springsteen song – coincidentally “Spirit in the Night” and had minor success with it in 1975, especially in Europe. So they decided to try and see if they could get lucky twice and do a Springsteen cover for their seventh album, The Roaring Silence. They picked “Blinded by the Light.” they added some two minutes to The Boss’ five minute-plus telling (although conversely the record company edited it down to under four for the radio version) and with Mann’s soaring keyboard crescendos and Dave Flett’s guitar, complete with Wah pedal effects, it sounded bold and upbeat; Chris Thompson sang it energetically. And just a wee bit differently.

He changed “cut loose” to “revved up”, but with his British accent and what Mann described as poor recording equipment, it sounded to most like he was singing “wrapped up like a douche.” Oops!

The band’s namesake said Warner Brothers weren’t happy. “The southern Bible Belt radio stations think that it’s about a vaginal douche, and they have problems with body parts down there!” He said they tried to recut it, but it sounded worse, so they left it as is. Much to Bruce Springsteen’s chagrin, perhaps. “I don’t think that Springsteen liked our ‘Blinded by the Light’ ‘coz (he thought) we sang ‘wrapped up like a douche…if I ever saw him, I’d avoid him and cringe.” Something The Boss seemed to confirm. “Deuce was like, ‘Little Deuce Coupe’, as in a two-seater hot rod. Douche is a feminine hygiene procedure. What can I say? The public spoke.”

Indeed they did. It was easily Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s biggest hit and the first big hit Mann had been on since “The Mighty Quinn” about a decade earlier. It hit #1 in the U.S. and Canada, #6 in the UK and pushed the album into the American top 10, 30 spots better than his next best. It is, in the words of Songfacts, “one of the most triumphant covers ever recorded.” It also, as noted it curiously the only American #1 single Springsteen wrote, the best of his own singles (chart-wise) being “Dancing in the Dark”, which came oh so close, at #2.

December 14 – The Boss, Ol’ Neil Put Philly Back On Musical Map

This night in 1993 was quite a big one in Hollywood…and in turn, a day worth noting in music. The movie Philadelphia opened, just in time for Christmas… for those who wanted to limit their holiday cheer just a little. The movie about a lawyer with AIDS continued to elevate Tom Hanks status as perhaps the leading “everyday man” actor, getting him his first Academy Award for Best Actor (he’d follow up the next year with Forrest Gump) and was a box office smash, taking in over $200 million. As well, it achieved director Jonathan Demme’s objective of opening many people’s eyes to the tragedy of AIDS and its human toll at a time when it was still largely viewed as always fatal and its victims as contagious and frightening. A worthwhile movie, but why it’s mentioned here is that it also had a very worthwhile soundtrack, which Sony released days later.

Bob Clearmountain was brought in to mix and do final production on the soundtrack, but the idea was very much Demme’s. He wanted impactful songs by big-name artists not traditionally associated with the AIDS cause; no Queen songs for instance. One of the first names that came to mind was Bruce Springsteen.

Demme told The Boss about the movie idea and asked him to do the title track. Springsteen replied “I’m interested, if you give me some time I’ll see,” adding “I’m not very good at scores.” Turns out he was. He came up with “The Streets of Philadelphia,” a brooding ballad which would have seemed quite at home on The River or Darkness on the Edge of Town. He had a sax player called Ornette Coleman on the demo, but by the time it went to the album, it was all Bruce, playing all the instruments, with just a few backing vocals thrown in. Billboard called it “a powerful song with or without the image of the film to support it,” the L.A. Times seemed surprised to find he “can still write purposeful songs that connect on a deeply personal level.” The song was the lead single off the soundtrack, and connect it did. It was a #1 hit in Canada (his first one there), France and Germany and at home in the U.S., it got to #9 and earned him his first gold single since ones from Born in the U.S.A. nine years earlier. It also meant Bruce likely had to get a few new hardware shelves installed at home. It won him the Oscar for Best Original Song as well as four Grammys including Best Song.

Bookending The Boss was another song with the city in its name. In fact it was the name of the song from Neil Young, also hand-picked by the director. Demme originally wanted a song like it to open the film. “What we need is the most upto the minute guitar-dominated, American rock anthem about injustice to start the movie,” he said. “Who can do that? Neil Young can do that!” He showed Young a rough cut of the film with his “Southern Man” played to open it, to give the artist an idea of what the song should sound like. Young agreed and came up with “Philadelphia,” a song allmusic suggest is “arguably a better song” than Springsteen’s. Not quite the hard rock blast Demme had in midn perhaps, but still a song that he said made him cry the first time he heard it.  It got shifted to the ending of the movie but didn’t go unnoticed. It hit the British charts as a single and earned Neil an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song, which as we noted Springsteen’s took. Young played it on piano at the Awards show.

A third noteworthy new song for it was Peter Gabriel’s “Lovetown”, one that sounded quite like songs of his previous album, Us. It was a top 20 in New Zealand.

Add in some cover songs from the likes of Sade and Spin Doctors (who took a run at CCR’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” and you have one of the better soundtracks of the first-half of the ’90s. And like the movie, it was a hit, getting to #12 in the U.S. and going platinum. In Canada, it was triple-platinum. Just like Hanks next movie went on to eclipse the popularity of this one, so too did its soundtrack. Although it had no new hit songs on it, the Forrest Gump soundtrack which came out months later would go on to sell over 10 million copies.

December 12 – The Boss…Of The North Pole?

A song you’re going to hear today (count on it) if you’re listening to radio or spending any time shopping was recorded 46 years ago in 1975. And you’d better not pout – because “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” So promises the Boss, Bruce Springsteen, in what has become one of rock’s most-played Christmas songs.

Of course, it isn’t a Bruce original. The ditty about the big guy from the North Pole who watches kids while they’re sleeping was written way back in 1934, by J.F. Cootes and Haven Gillespie and recorded later that year by Harry Reser and Tim Stocks. It was an instant hit, with over half a million copies of the sheet music being ordered that year alone! Bing Crosby further popularized it in the ’40s with his rendition, which added that Santa was “the big fat man with the long white beard,” in case the listener hadn’t seen Coca-Cola’s ads which essentially created the Santa we now know, with the red suit with white trim and so forth.

The Carpenters had released their own version of it in 1974, and had a top 30 hit in the UK with that. A year later, in fall/winter 1975, Bruce Springsteen was rising to international fame and was touring to support his Born to Run album. The tour had run most of the year, and was going strong through December, running to Toronto on Dec. 21 and then resuming to end the year with four shows just outside of Philadelphia. During the tour, he did a considerable amount of his own material, of course, but also at times added in covers. Over the course of the tour, some fans heard him play Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” the Beach Boys “Be True to Your School” or ’60s classics like “Twist and Shout.” So with Dec. 25th closing in, it was no surprise he’d decide to have a little fun and do a seasonal tune or two. Thus we get his Christmas classic, complete with instructions for Santa to bring Clarence Clemons a new saxophone, recorded in a show at C.W.Post College on Long Island.

Oddly enough, the recording seemed to have appeared first on a Sesame Street compilation record in 1982; fans of The Boss could have their own copy by itself three years later when it was put out as the B-side to the single “My Hometown” off Born in the USA. The single hit #6 in the U.S. and earned him one of many gold records both there and in Canada, and as we know, has become a mainstay or pop and rock radio every December since.

Santa Claus mind you, is far older than the 1934 song, the 1970 animated TV show (narrated by Fred Astaire) about it or even Springsteen himself. The story of Santa seems to have evolved from St. Nicholas, a 4th Century Greek saint who gave gifts to the poor and was in turn anglicized as Father Christmas in the middle ages, when giving gifts to children became commonplace. The 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known to us as “Twas The Night Before Christmas”) made him a regular part of the culture and set the gifting date as Christmas Eve… up until then, December 6 was a popular date to do so.

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