“This boardwalk life for me is through
You know you ought to quit this scene too…”
What a difference six months can make. After his début failed to propel him to the dizzying heights hoped for by his signing as a ‘new Dylan’, Bruce Springsteen entered 914 Studios in New York to record his second album. This time, though, things would be a little different. For one, Bruce wanted more control of the sound and production. For another, and perhaps prompting the former, Springsteen was fired up about playing with his embryonic E Street Band and had reignited his passion for a big, full-band sound that was absent from Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ.
Everything on here is aiming for epic – the sound, the instrumentation and even the characters. Before he started singing about the less fanciful Marys, Wendys and Joes his New York and New Jersey characters were more colourful than a ‘gang meeting’ on Hill Street Blues. On The Wild, The Innocent… there’s Power Thirteen and his girl Little Angel, Sandy, Kitty, Big Pretty, Catlong, Missy Bimbo, the Flying Zambinis, Margarita, Sampson, Tiny Tim, Spanish Johnny, Puerto Rican Jane, Billy, Diamond Jackie, Little Dynamite and Little Gun, Jack the Rabbit and Weak Knees Willie, Sloppy Sue and Big Bones Billy all amidst a maelstrom of boy prophets, Latin lovers and hard girls on Easy Street. Not to mention a certain girl called Rosie. All within just seven songs.
And what songs they are. Here Bruce ditched the rhyming dictionary and attempts to sing a novel at speed in every verse, embraced the opportunity offered by the band and delivered a set of songs with more ambition in terms of lyrics and scope than you’d have guessed possible of him just six months earlier. While personally I’ve never been hugely fond of the opening cut (it’s down to that phunk keyboard line dancing all over it like some platform-shoed drunk disco elephant) there’s no denying its quality. Other than that, every other song here gets a five star rating from me.
With its wistful tale of Madame Marie, ‘4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)’ alone shows the strides Springsteen took as a songwriter between albums and the benefits of road-testing songs before getting into the studio. It’s easy to see why Federici asked to play this showcase on his last performance with the band and this most romantic of Bruce’s songs remains a live highlight decades later.
‘Kitty’s Back’ is a monster of a tune, clocking in at over seven minutes and showcasing Springsteen’s guitar chops (again absent through Greetings..) and proving what a wild, R&B/Soul/Jazz/Rock powerhouse outfit his band was. I’ve heard criticism that ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ takes itself too seriously but to that I say “arseholes”. It’s a cracking, fun little tune and contains a great lyric: “the runway lies ahead like a great false dawn”. It’s odd but I think that Springsteen’s lyrics often get overlooked as some of the real nuggets like this one are often missed when reflecting on the overall story of the song. At just 23 Bruce was already coming up with some great lines.
Listening back through these albums has meant I’ve been discovering little gems that I’d almost forgotten and that’s certainly true of ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’. It also means my young son has been getting introduced to these and along with calls for this one (the “Elephant Song” based on Gary Tallent’s tuba blasts) he’s surely one of precious-few three year old’s calling out for “Rosie!”
Ah yes, ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’. There’s no getting away from just how fucking good this song is. Described by Bruce as an early ‘Born To Run’ but with more humour, this is a real indicator as to where Springsteen’s sound was going. Just listen to the mix of sax and guitar around the 5:10 mark, you half expect “the highway’s jammed…” to come barrelling in. In this instance, it goes back to the party instead. Rolling Stone have described this song as “a raucous celebration of desire.” It is a big, beautiful and triumphant song and easily one of Springsteen’s best and does remain the album’s biggest sign post as to what’s to come both in terms of it’s “it’s time to bust out of here” and it’s sound, made especially arresting by it’s sequencing.
The prototype of Bruce’s ‘busting outta here’ song sits between his two most unabashed and wonderful epics; ‘Incident on 57th Street‘ and ‘New York City Serenade’. ‘Incident on 57th Street’ is a massive song in terms of Bruce’s song-writing. It’s like listening to the sound of all the pieces aligning properly as Bruce steps aside and delivers one of his finest – and earliest – songs sung from an observational point that’s far greater than the sum of its parts.
Why I mention sequencing, though, is that the sound of the final, gentle tickle of piano notes is quickly blasted away by the sheer force and power of ‘Rosie’, making the juxtaposition between the two styles all the more evident.
And then there’s ‘New York City Serenade’. You know there’s a few, a small few songs that I’ll listen to where the opening bar is so immediately ‘right’, so ‘spot on’ and tuned to me that it affects me to the core. It’s like an instant high. ‘New York City Serenade’ is one of those. That hammer of the piano strings, the cascade of notes that follows. Sometimes you’ll hear an intro that’s perfect and you’ll think ‘ok, how’s this gonna get marred?’ because not everything that follows can be as good. With ‘New York City Serenade’ everything works beautifully, the arrangement is so perfectly put together that every element just flows into the next in a way that makes it seem like effortless poetry. There’s not a single bum not or misstep in the entire song. Bruce Springsteen was 23 when he wrote and arranged ‘New York City Serenade.’ When I was 23 I though it was a good idea to call a band ‘Wookie Cushion’*. I’ve played this song to people who thought they knew what to expect from a Springsteen song and they’ve always had to question whether it was really “that Born in the USA guy”.
One of my all-time favourite songs.
What this also means is that Side B of this album might just be the finest 25 minutes of music put to vinyl.
Easily Springsteen at his most expansive, poetic and romantic, The Wild, the Innocent & The E Street Shuffle is a beautiful embrace of and gentle kiss goodbye to his boardwalk life as he takes his characters and breaks them out of their surroundings in pursuit of a new dream.
Oddly, though, his record label didn’t agree that the album was up to scratch. When Springsteen handed it in, the allies he’d had at Columbia were no longer in place. Instead of receiving the great feedback he’d hoped for, Bruce was instead told that the players were sub par and it was suggested that he re-cut the majority of it with professional studio musicians. Of course, this wasn’t an option. Unfortunately, sticking to his guns meant that Columbia buried the album. No release fanfare, no promotion, little distribution. Bruce would play shows in towns where they had no idea the album had even been released.
Thankfully, though, Bruce still had what it takes to cut it live and lay down a killer show. This lead to two things. The first was catching the eye of Jon Landau and the infamous “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen,” review that would lead to the pair’s friendship and Landau becoming Springsteen’s manager. Secondly, Springsteen took to taking aim at his record company during his on-stage patter. One particularly embittered voicing of his frustration happened at a college where the son of the label’s boss happened, unknown to Bruce, to be in attendance. Legend has it he called his father, explained just how much of an amazing act Springsteen was and what was being said and the head of the label soon sat down with his charge and said words along the lines of “what can we do to get this working?”
With Landau and his record label supporting him, it would be time to shed the mythic tales and follow The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle with a last chance power drive…
Highlights: ALL OF IT
*You’d sit on it and it would go “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrgh!”