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It Started With A Mix

Bruce Springsteen: The Best Of The Boss For One Side Of A C90
David McNamee , February 2nd, 2009 06:05

Everyone loves Bruce Springsteen. It's just not that everyone realises that they love Bruce Springsteen yet. Let David McNamee don his blue collar and explain his choices and choose the most interesting Boss covers.


Genres: Rock, folk, heartland rock
Instruments: Vocals, guitar, piano, harmonica
Years active: 1972-present
Associated acts: E Street Band, The Castiles, Steel Mill, Dr Zoom and the Sonic Boom, Bruce Springsteen Band, The Seeger Sessions Band, Jen Chapin, USA For Africa
Albums: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (1973); The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle (1973); Born To Run (1975); Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978); The River (1980); Nebraska (1982); Born In The U.S.A. (1984); Tunnel Of Love (1987); Human Touch (1992); Lucky Town (1992); The Ghost Of Tom Joad (1995); The Rising (2002); Devils & Dust (2005); We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006); Magic (2007); Working On A Dream (2009)


1. ‘Thunder Road’ (Born To Run, 1975)

One of High Fidelity anti-hero Rob’s “Top 5 best track-one side-one tracks” and one of Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs, it’s precisely this kind of dubious patronage that in trendy circles throws so many sniffy barriers up against admitting all-out love for The Boss. Frankly if you can resist joyous pedal-to-the-metal poetry like this then you’re a steelier man than I.

“The mythology is always mixed,” Bruce told The Observer recently. “The skulls, crossbones, death's head. It's ever-present. I hear death in all those early Elvis records, in all those early, spooky blues records. And in records made by young kids - it's in ‘Thunder Road’. A sense of time and the passage of time, the passage of innocence.”

Covered by Melissa Etheridge, Cowboy Junkies, Badly Drawn Boy, Mary Lou Lord and Counting Crows, but the best version is Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Tortoise’s tropical-psychotropic death ballad.

2. ‘I’m On Fire’ (Born In The U.S.A., 1984)

An amazing lust song. A form that seems to be much harder to realise convincingly than love songs, perhaps because there are less obvious musical signifiers of sheer lust in music that isn’t hip-hop. ‘I’m On Fire’ finds its expression in a perpetual knuckle-whitened, palm-muted guitar flicker and “Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife baby edgy and dull and cut a six-inch valley through the middle of my skull”.

Covered by Heather Nova, Tori Amos, Johnny Cash, Electrelane, Big Country, Bat For Lashes, The Twilight Singers, Chromatics, The Gaslight Anthem and many more. Without having heard it, Chromatics is probably the most blandified.

3. ‘Born To Run’ (Born To Run, 1975)

It took six months of arranging, multi-tracking, re-arranging and hair-pulling, to get this Spectorish symphony so fist-in-gut-danceable and fist-in-the-air-anthemic. Listed by the New Jersey State Legislature as “New Jersey’s Unofficial Youth Rock Anthem”, in what wouldn’t be the last time that Springsteen’s lyrical sentiments were jaw-droppingly misappropriated. Either that or there’s something heroically self-deprecating about a town that can use “Baby this town rips the bones from your back/It’s a death trap/It’s a suicide rap” as some kind of tourist board promotion.

Covered by Mcfly and the Muppets from Sesame Street, and Paul Morley’s idea of having Frankie Goes To Hollywood perform it with deep irony killed their career dead in the deeply unamused United States.

4. ‘Atlantic City’ (Nebraska, 1982)

For all the hair-raising bells and whistles of Born To Run, it’s the crisply sparse Nebraska – a collection of bare-boned but gutsy 4-track acoustic demos – that is Springsteen’s most loved work. ‘Atlantic City’ concerns the derelict city’s pre-Vegas-isation, running a Tommy & Gina-style story through bracing fatalism. Simple, fast, and arguably Springsteen’s most perfect sonic moment.

Covered by The Band, Hank Williams III, Ed Harcourt and Eddie Vedder.

5. ‘Jungleland’ (from Born To Run, 1975)

Born To Run’s epic last stand uses a playful love-against-the-backdrop-of-gang-violence story to do something interesting with narrative. In its ten minute span, ‘Jungleland’ not only swirls through the lyrical themes of the previous seven songs, creating a sort of closing précis of the entire album, but in its ambitious structure it also revisits each individual moment of Born To Run musically. There are some stirring metaphors for the adolescent drama of gang brawling, where “…there's an opera out on the Turnpike/There's a ballet being fought out in the alley” until secret debts are paid, Jersey nightlife resumes and “Kids flash guitars just like switch-blades”.

6. ‘Dancing In The Dark’ (from Born In The U.S.A., 1984)

It’s staggering how much this song is loathed by Springsteen purists. Some felt its unashamedly 80s synthy-bombast was contrived, a bit of a sell-out, but these are the same people who can’t see that the mausoleum-cold keyboard refrain of ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ perfectly articulates the deathly emptiness of war-glory that the song concerns itself with. Anyway, ‘Dancing In The Dark’ is great, and girls look amazing when they dance to it.

Covered by Tina Turner, Ted Leo and The Pharmacists, Tegan and Sara and Amy Macdonald. Arthur Baker made a 12” ‘Blaster Mix’, where the song is ripped apart by tom-toms, glockenspiel, backing choirs, walls of synthesizer and gunshots.

7. ‘Badlands’ (Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978)

“Lights out tonight/Trouble in the heartland." ‘Heartland rock’ should be a fairly embarrassing classification for any music, but it fits Springsteen’s work beautifully; throughout his canon he casts a broken America as a mythical Jersualem. The most working class music this side of death metal.

Covered by Toronto lo-fi genius The Blankket on his excellent EP of rickety Springsteen versions.

8. ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’ (from Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978)

The Boss’ voice really varies a lot from album to album – sometimes a Dylan-ish croak, sometimes a baleful bluesy bleat – but on this awesome record he sings like a lion. Soul music smouldering with resentment.

9. ‘Land Of Hope And Dreams’ (Live In New York City, 2001)

For the best part of this decade, it was easy to forget that Americans weren’t just these rifle-waving, dinosaur-denying religious nutjobs with a perpetual grievance against a perceived less-civilised world. Americans are also people who weren’t scared to make songs and feelings as huge as the Appalachians. A music made almost purely to annihilate cynicism, like this, should to our coolly European ears be mawkish or embarrassing. It isn’t.


1) Neil Young – 'Heart Of Gold'

2) Van Morrison – 'Brown Eyed Girl'

3) Paul Simon – 'You Can Call Me Al'

4) Johnny Cash – 'Hurt'

5) Ryan Adams – 'Love Is Hell'

6) Fleetwood Mac – 'Everywhere'

7) The Clash – 'Rock The Casbah'

8) Queen – 'Bohemian Rhapsody'

9) Tom Waits – 'More Than Rain'

10) Lou Reed – 'Metal Machine Music: Part 1'