Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”

Album cover for Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run"

I listened to Bruce Springsteen‘s 1975 LP “Born to Run” this week for lessons to improve as a songwriting musician. As a teenager, I rejected Springsteen’s music. His songs seemed for a completely different crowd, of a different age and a different culture. I heard “Born in the USA” and saw crowds of parents and grandparents pumping raised patriotic fists. I heard another song repeat “I’m going down, down, down, down.” and thought “What awful lyrics!” Only a few years ago did I learn that my assumptions were absurdly wrong. I especially learned a lot this week with my focused listen. Considering my own songwriting style and evolution, this album proves that Springsteen is somebody I definitely should be paying attention to.

The title track “Born to Run” opens side two of the album as the fifth track of the album. It received radio play nearly 8 months before recording of the rest of the album was completed. A wall of sound hits the listener within the first few seconds. The influence of Phil Spector‘s signature sound is all over this album. The song “Born to Run” perfectly captures the heart of the album. The sound is desperately nostalgic and longingly anthemic; You can smell the roar of engines driven fast by drivers with hands still stained by grease, but also see the high school dance filled with couples nearing the end of youth.

The sound is perfectly suited to the words. The masterfully crafted lyrics on this album deal with tales of working class Americana youth and early adulthood. They do so with a raw but poetic nostalgia that avoids, but comes quite close, to sentimentalism. The characters in these stories of desperation are taking chances on love and life, with just another hope. They probably won’t make it, but the thrill and experience of the effort is reason enough to try.And see how the story of “Born to Run” is started:

In the day we sweat it out on the streets
of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory
in suicide machines

Basically, he’s saying they work all day so they can drag race at night. But what a way to say it! Through word-choice and carefully selected metaphors, he relates the two activities to enhance their similarities and differences. The work for the “American dream” seems futile while the mansions of those who’ve commandeered the American dream surround the speaker’s dangerous pastime. Here I only start to interpret the first two lines. If I wasn’t determined here to describe my experience listening to the whole album, I would take apart this single song. Given time, I could write a volume about this single song.

That presents one of the greatest lessons to take away from this album. Springsteen worked and worked on these lyrics. The first draft of “Born to Run” shows how much he changed the verses before the final version. I usually revise my own songs many times for years, but it’s important to see how much can be changed. In a few cases, I’ve kept only a few words of my first draft, but the feeling has remained the same. You can see in his first draft that Springsteen had imagery and emotion, but didn’t quite have the heart of the song yet.

Good poetry often elevates the mundane, often to the sublime. Springsteen so expertly elevates the mundane that it’s difficult to realize that it was ever mundane. He romanticizes the emotional struggle of everyday and the desire to escape the inevitable trap of the day-to-day. In “Thunder Road“, he opens with a description of the unexceptional.

The screen door slams Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again
I just can’t face myself alone again

Standard rock chord progressions and song structures provide the backbone of these tracks, with plenty of I-IV-V and I-V-IV throughout. This strengthens the the mood and theme of the album. This vision of rock music dances on the front porch, but also climbs into the front seat to escape this old town.

The Phil Spector style production sounds better on this album than on most of the records that Spector himself actually produced. For his wall of sound, Phil Spector would record multiple musicians playing the same thing simultaneously and run it through echo chambers. This created a magical mess of sound. If focus on the background accompaniment of The Ronettes’ Be My Baby, you’ll notice how it’s a somewhat indistinct wash of instruments. Yet, Spector’s technique had the power to sonically elevate the mundane. Similar production provides Springsteen’s album with its sound while maintaining integrity of individual instruments. It’s really a wonderful thing to hear. One of my favorite tracks, She’s the One probably gets the closest to that messy wash, but still sounds great.

Thishas definitely been one of my favorites for this project of listening one great album each week. I’m looking forward to the next Springsteen.

We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Are You Experienced”

Jimi Hendrix Are You Experienced album cover

I devoted the past week to Jimi Hendrix Experience‘s 1967 debut LP “Are You Experienced” to learn as a songwriting musician. Hendrix did not much appeal to me when I was a teenager. His status as a god among guitarists gave me the wrong expectations, something like Joe Satriani, who I never liked anyway. I found Jimi’s guitar playing sloppy and didn’t initially care for his singing. Years later, I heard second chance without the expectations. What I heard as sloppy before, I now hear as human expressiveness. I hear an innovative guitar-player deeply connected with their instrument. In contrast to Joe Satriani’s technically brilliant guitar playing, Jimi’s confident playing exudes heart and soul.

Album opener “Purple Haze” starts with a short strange percussive march played on guitar and bass before breaking into one of rock’s greatest guitar riffs. Throughout the song, bass, guitar and drums work together to create a monument. The bass provides a full strong foundation upon which the fuzz guitar builds a wall of harmonics-ladens rock. At the 30 second mark, Jimi shouts “Purple haze all in my brain!”. The vocals drip with heavy reverb and are oddly panned full right.

The usage of panning throughout the album is often awkward and disorienting. The use of reverb on the vocals in “Purple Haze” make the panning feel even more unnatural, because the reverb also is completely in the right channel. I understand that these decisions were results of many era-specific factors: limitations of the recording equipment, a sense of youthful experimentation because stereo was still fairly new, limitations of listening equipment as some listeners were probably still on mono equipment. The drums were nicely recorded in full stereo, so they are spread across the stereo field in a way that feels natural. I’m obviously not saying that things need to feel natural, but the use of stereo effects on this album can distract from the music rather than add to it.

One of my favorites, “Love or Confusion“, makes a wonderful combination of guitar-playing and guitar-experimentation. While the bass provides a solid textural groove, Jimi strikes power-chords and individual notes letting them ring out with fuzzy bliss until they just start to grab a little feedback. My love of fuzz and feedback made this song instantly grab my attention. Unfortunately, they couldn’t keep their fingers off the pan knob and the guitar will occasionally dive left then right. This movement flattens the guitar by making it obvious that it takes up a single point in stereo field. But still, that use of drums and bass to create an rhythmic bed while the guitar produces an atmosphere of noise is amazing.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience arranged these songs strategically well. Instruments, including vocals, take turns having focus while the others pull back to support the lead. This often shows up with vocals and guitar taking turns as lead, which undoubtedly comes from the blues. In some songs, it’ll be that the guitars do something to punctuate the beat, then they fall back for a vocal line, then return to the guitar, then vocals.

For the most part, I find the lyrics on the album to be better than average, but not necessarily amazing. Most of the tracks, like “Manic Depression”, feature very direct lyrics that I think are well-written sincere expressions of their subject. This writing and performance without posturing contributes heavily to the album’s greatness.

The Wind Cries Mary” stand out for me as the best on the album, which was apparently written after he and his girlfriend (not named Mary) had had a fight. The last verse makes brilliant use of imagery in a way that everybody can relate to. Jimi uses word-choice here like a palette to paint this scene of loneliness and regret. The room is so empty that the speaker’s absence is felt even though they are in the room.

The traffic lights they turn blue tomorrow
And shine their emptiness down on my bed
The tiny island sags downstream
Cause the life they lived is dead

The song “Hey Joe“, written by “Billy Roberts, has long been one of my favorite songs. Even when I didn’t care of Hendrix so much, I enjoyed “Hey Joe” and it’s definitely for the music. I do like some murder ballads, but I don’t particularly enjoy the words of this one. The single chord progression repeats throughout the song. It feels like a non-stop coda from the opening that could go on forever. Probably because this song in E minor never fully resolves to the chord of E minor. The chord progression goes C – G – D – A – E (VI – V – VII – IV – I). That’s a very unusual chord progression for me, though it doesn’t sound strange at all. This leads me to think about the possibilities of not fully resolving a chord progression; I appreciate the non-stop cyclic feel it produces here.

Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”

What's Going On album cover.

This week, I’ve been listening to Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album “What’s Going On”. What can I learn as a songwriting musician from this great album? I looked forward to this album since starting my weekly albums. This album was mostly new to me, but enjoys critical acclaim. Unfortunately, “What’s Going On” disappointed me. It’s a concept album created as a song-cycle; For me, this is the album’s source of weakness. The songs flow into each other with such continuity that there’s an overwhelming sense of monotony. This monotony makes the otherwise great songs boring. It’s a weird situation, where I can say the whole is less than the sum of its parts. I don’t like the album, but I like some individual songs.

The only song I knew before this week, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)“, remains my favorite on the album. It follows the song “God Is Love” with a noticeable yet smooth key change and drop in tempo. The guitar picks up rhythmically, offsetting the tempo change. A woodblock fills the role traditionally occupied by a snare drum, soaked in what sounds like a spring reverb. It reminds me of some percussion on “Pet Sounds” as well as my grandparent’s Kimball organ. I love the sound. Swelling strings bring overall motion to the song and draw attention to away from the rather repetitive rhythm section. Two of my favorite sounds, tinkling celeste and ringing vibraphone, provide melodic accompaniment. I believe the chord progression is a I7-iv7-ii-IV, like a smoother variation of the 50s doo-wop progression. Part of what works with this song is that it is a break from the monotony of the rest of the album. It has its own groove and sounds slightly different.

The opening title track “What’s Going On” and the closing “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)“. “What’s Going On” has very similar use of rhythm guitar as “Mercy Mercy Me”. The opening track starts the album off with the “welcome home from the war” celebration sound, but that sense of joy is slowly worn away until finally reaching the “Inner City Blues” ending. Conceptually, the journey from start to finish makes great sense, but that doesn’t necessarily make for great listening. I particularly enjoy the rhythm of “Inner City Blues”. The first beat of each measure gets emphasis, with the fourth beat given a rest. The pattern rolls over a two measure sequence, with the first beat of the first measure getting stronger emphasis than the second measure. The bongos add nice depth and movement to the rhythm. It’s one of the few songs on the album where I don’t get bored with the bongos.

Lyrically the album falls short for me as well. There’s the overall concept of the returning war veteran to see the injustice in the society that they’re returning to. A society that they feel deeply apart of, even if they feel disconnected by the distance of time spent over-seas. The concept should provide great opportunity to tell stories that get across a strong message. Unfortunately, these songs often “tell, don’t show“. Some lines sound preachy, while others simply sound like bumper-sticker slogans. Perhaps they require being heard from the perspective of 1971, but that IS 6 years before I was born. What Marvin Gaye is communicating remains relevant today, even if some details of the circumstances have changed; the telling is not engaging. It leaves little more to think or feel beyond “Yes, that’s true. He’s right.”

I learned more about things I want to avoid rather than things I can apply to my own music. I appreciate the grooving basslines, but they are repeated too many times. My biggest problem with this album is the sameness. So, I learned that variety is a good thing. I also learned that I really do prefer some story-telling over platitudes. Oh well, I don’t have to like every great album.

The Beatles’ “The Beatles”

The Beatles: The Beatles

This week, I’ve been listening to The Beatles’ self-titled 1968 “white album” for what I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Such a variety of fantastic songs fill this double LP that I find it difficult to generalize or say only a few things. A week was not enough. This is probably my second favorite Beatles album. It opens with the rocking “Back in the U.S.S.R.“, closes with the gentle “Goodnight”, and journeys through a spectrum of Beatles styles on the way.

The noisy chaos of “Helter Skelter” makes it one of my favorites. The song nearly gets away from The Beatles, as if they’ve created a monster that they can’t keep up with. I believe they were inspired by The Who’s “I Can See For Miles” and you can certainly hear the influence. The drummer pounds on the snare and cymbals as if he’s afraid nobody will hear him over the other instruments. There’s brilliantly fuzzed guitar constantly provides an atmospheric noise in the background; A raw punk bass angrily struggles to keep up with the drums; A lead guitar plays a descending riff after the vocals in an attempt to keep things grounded. The vocals too are strained. Even though they are playing together, all of the elements are fighting to be up-front and the loudest. It’s the greatest. “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey” enters has a similar feel, but with less chaos. I love them both.

I didn’t care for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” when I was younger, but I actually like it quite a bit now. The rhythm puts unusual emphasis on the first and second beat. There’s a kick on the first and second beat of most measures and a snare on the third. This gives an almost trudging sense to the song, because this is a typical drum pattern played half speed. The muted fuzz electric guitar drives along on the first and second beats also, resting for the second half of each bar. The beautiful lead guitar solos sometimes melt into the organ, while a syncopated piano plays in the background. The way the instruments play against and with each other throughout the song really grew on my throughout the week.

“Dear Prudence” opens with a what sounds like finger-picking on an electric guitar and a quieter acoustic guitar. The arpeggios spin like a carousel; a glissando-filled bass-line in the next verse enhances that spinning sensation. At the end of each section, there is a rest before the the next begins. Each section adds layers of instruments building up to the final section. Another electric guitar joins about halfway, during the “look around, round, round” bridge, letting us know that the big finish is coming: an optimistic coda “the sun is up, the sky is blue, it’s beautiful and so are you.”

I’ll also add that I’ve always loved the Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of Dear Prudence. I don’t know if Robert Smith of The Cure played in the song, but he does show up in the music video.