Very few 1970s rock stars adapted to the 1980s as effortlessly as Bruce Springsteen. While many of his peers struggled to find their way in the MTV age, Springsteen managed to reach a level of extreme popularity that even he probably couldn’t have imagined — especially during the peak of Born to Run. He began the decade by scoring his first Top Ten hit with “Hungry Heart,” and then after wowing critics with the stark Nebraska, he dropped Born in the U.S.A. Songs from that album dominated rock radio for well over a year, bringing his show to football stadiums all over the world. It was a level of success few solo stars have ever reached, and his followup record, Tunnel of Love, was a deliberate attempt to ratchet down the hype. He’s on tour right now playing The River straight through, so we asked our readers to select their favorite Springsteen songs from the Reagan decade. Here are the results.
“Out in the Street”
Bruce Springsteen originally envisioned The River as a single album of largely bleak songs called The Ties That Bind. “I didn’t feel it was was big enough,” he said in 2009. “I wanted to capture the themes that I’d been writing about on Darkness [on the Edge of Town]. I wanted to keep those characters with me and, at the same time, added the music that made our live shows so much fun and enjoyable for our audience.” With that last point in mind, he wrote “Out in the Street” near the very end of the sessions. It’s a quintessential Springsteen song about unwinding after a long working day, and it’s been a highlight of his live shows during the past 36 years.
“One Step Up”
One of the wisest choices Bruce Springsteen made in his entire career was realizing that Born in the U.S.A. couldn’t be topped. Any attempt to write “Dancing in the Dark Part II” or “More Glory Days” would have been an absolute disaster. Instead, he took a couple years off and emerged with the highly introspective Tunnel of Love. His marriage to actress Julianne Phillips was just two years old but it wasn’t working out, and he poured all of his heartache into songs like “One Step Up.” This is anything but a radio song, but Springsteen had so much residual Born in the U.S.A. popularity that it actually reached Number 13 on the Hot 100.
In March of 1979, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt went to the Fast Lane club in Asbury Park to see the Ramones. “After the show, he came backstage,” Joey Ramone said years later. “This was around the time he gave Patti Smith ‘Because the Night.’ I said to him, ‘Would you write us a song?’ He went home and, inspired by us, wrote ‘Hungry Heart.’ He played it for his manager [Jon] Landau, and Landau [wanting to keep his] commission for himself, told him to keep it…I feel like he owes us something. He was inspired by us, wrote this song and then takes the money and runs.” Bruce would probably phrase these events slightly differently, but it is undeniably true that “Hungry Heart” was originally meant for the Ramones. Too bad they never got around to covering it.
“Tunnel of Love”
Bruce Springsteen spent the earliest days of his musical career bumming around the resort town of Asbury Park, New Jersey. It was years past its peak as a vacation destination, but in the warm weather months it was still packed with tourists enjoying carnival games across the boardwalk. Imagery from that scene seemed into many of early tunes, like “4th of July (Asbury Park).” By Tunnel of Love, however, he was going through a personal crisis and suddenly the Tunnel of Love was a menacing place in his imagination. “Man meets woman and they fall in love,” he sings on the title track.”But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough/ And you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above if you want to ride on down in through this tunnel of love.” The track features one of the most memorable Nils Lofgren guitar parts in the Springsteen catalog, but by this point Springsteen was rapidly losing interest in the E Street Band, and he’d ditch them as soon as the tour wrapped.
“Born in the U.S.A.”
At some point during Bruce Springsteen’s writing sessions for Nebraska, he began singing a tune about a veteran that comes back from the war and couldn’t find a job. “You died in Vietnam, you died in Vietnam,” he sang on the chorus. “Boy, don’t you understand, you died in Vietnam.” By the next take, he decided to flip it, turning “Died in Vietnam” into “Born in the U.S.A.” The bleak song wouldn’t make Nebraska, but it became the title track of his next studio release with the E Street Band. The song was clearly meant as a condemnation of the way America treated the Vietnam vets, but many just heard the booming chorus and saw it as a patriotic anthem. Today it ranks up there with “This Land Is Your Land” as one of the mostly widely misunderstood tunes in American history, although when when Springsteen belts out, “Forty years burning down the road, nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go!” it’s impossible to miss his intent today.
In the waning days of John Kerry’s ill-fated 2004 presidential campaign, Bruce Springsteen began appearing at rallies with the candidate in crucial swing states. He always ended his brief acoustic set with “No Surrender.” The 1984 Born in the U.S.A. song centers around a defiant youth that “learned more from a three-minute record than they ever did in school,” but in this context it was meant to show that Kerry wouldn’t surrender in his quest to make George W. Bush a one-term president. Well, it didn’t work, but four years later, he sang the tune at Obama rallies and saw a better result.
On March 15th, 1981 Philadelphia-based mafia boss Philip Testa was murdered when a rival member of his own gang blew up his house. He worked in the chicken business (and had horrible chicken pox scars on his face), so he was known in the underworld as the Chicken Man. Springsteen learned of Testa’s fate when writing songs for Nebraska, leading to one of the most memorable opening lines in his catalog: “Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night / Now they blew up his house too.” The song goes on to tell the sad tale of a desperate man driven to crime. The song works beautifully as a solo acoustic number or as a booming rock rendition with the E Street Band. The Band also cut a stellar cover on their 1993 LP, Jericho.
There’s probably no topic Bruce Springsteen is less interested in talking about publicly than his short-lived marriage to Julianne Phillips. But after listening to Tunnel of Love, you really get a sense of how he was feeling when it was falling apart. “We stood at the altar,” Springsteen sings on “Brilliant Disguise.” “The gypsy swore our future was right/ But come the wee wee hours/ Well maybe baby the gypsy lied.” The song was the first single from Tunnel of Love, hitting the airwaves about a week before the album arrived. It was promoted by a stark black-and-white video of Bruce singing the song in a kitchen. Breaking with MTV tradition, he actually sang the vocals live with each take, making it feel even more intimate and revealing.
“I’m on Fire”
Bruce Springsteen became so incredibly famous in the mid-1980s he probably could have pulled a David Bowie and started taking movie roles. (Imagine him playing, say, a gym teacher in the Breakfast Club. It would have been weird.) Anyway, he was smart enough to not go down that path, but the video for “I’m on Fire” gives you an idea of what it might have looked like. He portrays an auto mechanic that catches the eye of a wealthy woman clearly interested in some sort of illicit tryst. He drives out to her house, but he ultimately opts to resist the temptation. It’s sort of a much darker look at Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” video. The song was the fourth single from Born in the U.S.A., and it hot Number 6 on the Hot 100. For whatever reason, he rarely drags it out in concert.
Bruce Springsteen’s younger sister Virginia was an 18-year-old high school senior in 1968 when her boyfriend accidentally got her pregnant. They got married and were forced to grow up very fast, and a little over a decade later, their plight was in Bruce’s head when he wrote the title track to The River. He debuted it at the No Nukes concert in 1979 with his sister in the audience. She had no idea he had written a song about her. “Here I am totally exposed,” she told writer Peter Ames Carlin. “I didn’t like it at first – though now it’s my favorite song.” Amazingly, Virginia and her husband Mickey are still happily married nearly 50 years later.