Throughout the ensuing decades, Springsteen would elevate to stardom on the back of his distinctive brand of American rock. His poetic lyrical style, coupled with an uncanny ability to create memorable hooks, led to the creation of many timeless tunes.
Like all artists who enjoy career longevity, Springsteen’s sound has evolved over the years. At various times, the Boss indulged in forays into folk, blues and even pop sounds.
Springsteen’s initial breakout came with 1975’s Born to Run, an album that announced his arrival among rock’s elite. Still, the best-selling of his LPs came nine years later, with the smashing success Born in the U.S.A.
We asked UCR writers to look at Springsteen’s two most definitive eras – the ‘70s and ‘80s – to determine which version of the Boss was best.
Was Springsteen better in the ’70s or ’80s, and why?
Michael Gallucci: This is close, but I’m going to say the ’80s. The four albums he released that decade are more diverse than the four ’70s records. All are great, but he reached his peak in the ’80s, when he recorded a whirlwind double LP with the band, a harrowing solo acoustic album, a stadium-filling commercial juggernaut and a stripped-down personal work based on the deterioration of his marriage.
Nick DeRiso: The ‘80s, and it’s not really close – despite the fact that the decade doesn’t contain his single greatest album. The difference was how consistently great, and consistently different Springsteen was from project to project. The River carried over every element of his ‘70s genius, Nebraska took his muse to brutally honest new places, Born in the U.S.A. provided a time-specific stadium-sized outgrowth for the lost souls from Born to Run and Tunnel of Love stripped it all away to reveal the most personal of revelations.
Dave Lifton: The ’80s get a slight advantage because he had a greater command of his craft. I love the wide-eyed romanticism of the first three albums, but Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. is inconsistent. By the time The River hit, he knew what he wanted to say and how to say it. And the older I get, the more weight Nebraska and Tunnel of Love gather.
Corey Irwin: Give me ‘80s Springsteen. Like many artists, he spent his early years finding his voice and fine-tuning his songwriting. Yes, there were plenty of moments during the ‘70s in which Springsteen showed a glimpse of the icon he’d become. Born to Run is still a fantastic LP and I think people often forget how good Darkness of the Edge of Town is. Still, his first two albums were uneven, and I don’t think he truly figured out how to harness his prowess until the end of the decade. Conversely, the ‘80s featured much of his greatest work, from both a commercial and artistic perspective. The variety of material was also more impressive – from boisterous rock anthems to haunting acoustic tracks. Springsteen was great in the ‘70s, but it’s the ‘80s that made him the Boss.
Was Springsteen’s transition to politically-inspired material wise?
Gallucci: It wasn’t too big of a stretch for him to move his repressed characters into more political territory. After a while, it becomes clear that everyday problems – whether job-related or more personal ones – can’t be separated from politics. It’s there in the anguish faced by both criminals and enforcers in Nebraska, and it’s there in the scarred war vets and weary blue-collar workers of Born in the U.S.A. Besides, it’s always been there: “Lost in the Flood” from his debut is about a beaten-down war vet.
DeRiso: Who says Springsteen wasn’t always political? Those early characters’ lost dreams didn’t get lost all on their own.
Lifton: I think calling it a transition is a bit overblown. You can find social commentary on Greetings (“Lost in the Flood,” “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City”), and there are really only two songs on Born in the U.S.A. that are directly about issues, with a few others that touch on them. In between are records filled with stories about people struggling with the cards that they’ve been dealt, and that goes across Democratic and Republican administrations. With the exception of when he unintentionally got pulled in to the 1984 presidential campaign, the only really political thing he did was the Human Rights Now! tour.
Irwin: Many fans cringe when their rock idols venture into politics. I get it, people turn to music to escape society’s problems, not be reminded of them. Still, I don’t think the old “stick to music” mantra works with Springsteen. His developing social consciousness in the late ‘70s coincided with broader depth to his lyrics, allowing him to create some of the best work of his career. He needed that subject matter to unlock his potential.
Born to Run (1975) vs. Born in the U.S.A. (1984). Which is the stronger album and why?
Gallucci: Born to Run. Every great artist has a signature album, and no other sums up Springsteen as much as his third. It’s not only his breakthrough moment, it’s also one of the greatest albums of all time, thematically pulled together by some of his best songs and narratives. Born in the U.S.A. is great too, but it tends to move from one place to another. Born to Run, ironically, plants its feet and owns every moment.
DeRiso: Born to Run, if only because it hangs together as one creative statement – almost like a book of interconnected short stories – in a way that Born in the U.S.A. never tries to. The production style found on Run also feels rooted in rock’s greatest, most timeless sounds – the ‘70s, sure, but also very much the ‘60s – while U.S.A., in some ways, locked itself away in the ‘80s. (P.S.: That said, I’ll commit a Springsteen apostasy here by revealing that Darkness and Tunnel of Love are my favorites from these respective eras.)
Lifton: Born to Run is more musically adventurous than Born in the U.S.A. It starts off with a song that doesn’t have a proper chorus and ends with a 10-minute epic where the main character gets killed by a woman with whom he just had sex. And there’s a reason the house lights come on every night for the title track.
Irwin: Sticking to my ‘80s fandom, I’ll go with Born in the U.S.A. Just look at the depth of material. The title track is one of the most recognizable tunes in rock history, yet it may not even be the best song on the album! Seven songs from the LP were released as singles, all of which reached the Top 10. Chart success isn’t the be-all-end-all of quality, but when songs as wildly different as “Dancing in the Dark,” “Glory Days” and “I’m on Fire” can all connect with a mainstream audience, you know you’re doing something right.
Pick a song from each decade (’70s and ’80s) that best represents Springsteen during those respective eras. Explain your choices.
Gallucci: Both decades are best represented by their greatest albums and their respective title tracks. “Born to Run” made Springsteen a star and has served him well over the years, showing up constantly in set lists and as the title of his memoir. It’s one of those rare songs that sums up an entire career. “Born in the U.S.A.” is definitive ’80s Springsteen: anthem-sized, radio ready and a bit weighed down by glossy production. It’s emblematic of the period, right down to the LP’s famous cover art.
DeRiso: “Thunder Road,” darker and more serious than the justifiably celebrated “Born to Run,” reflects the worries of the nation through the eyes of a guy who already feels like life has passed him by. “Born in the U.S.A.” shows how all of that worry turns into cold, hard truths.
Lifton: Springsteen has often talked about how his music is about people trying to reconcile the American Dream with its reality, and “Badlands” is the best example of that across his catalog. It’s just so rousing and uplifting now matter how many times you hear it. And “The River” boils is all down to one phrase: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true.“
Irwin: For the ‘70s, I’m going with “Badlands.” The song, featured on 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, jumps through the speaker with its soaring, anthemic sound. This ambitious style was emblematic of Springsteen in his first decade, helping cement the rocker as a budding star. For the ‘80s, I’ll choose “Atlantic City.” Far more subdued, but still brimming with energy, the track showcases the Boss’ evolution as a songwriter, with its minimal acoustic arrangement letting Springsteen’s storytelling lyrics shine through.
Springsteen famously dismissed the E Street Band in 1989. He wouldn’t fully reunite with them for another decade. How do you think that change affected his material in the ‘90s?
Gallucci: It’s easy to claim Springsteen needed the E Street Band to make him great. After all, the two albums he made in 1992 without them are among the worst of his career, and their 2002 reunion LP, The Rising, is a rousing return to form. But 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, a solo acoustic record much like 1982’s Nebraska, is a striking reminder of what he’s capable of with just his voice and a guitar. I’m not sure he would have made this evolution if the E Street Band were still around at the time.
DeRiso: Those were records, and separate adventures, Springsteen needed to have. It certainly informed his failures (1992’s Human Touch), but also – and this is so often overlooked – his successes (parts of 1992’s Lucky Town, all of 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad,) during a period of exploration that only tightened their bond for the perhaps-inevitable E Street Band reunion. I always felt they rallied around each other (and a wounded American city) in ways they might not have on 2002’s The Rising without that period of absence.
Lifton: I don’t think it did. While the E Street Band would have given better performances on Human Touch and Lucky Town, it wouldn’t have been enough to elevate the substandard songs. And, as with Nebraska, the stories he tells on The Ghost of Tom Joad and “Streets of Philadelphia” wouldn’t work with big rock arrangements, with the exception of “Youngstown.”
Irwin: The ‘90s were a weird time for Springsteen. His three albums from that time period don’t compare to his efforts in either of the previous decades. Now, I wouldn’t chalk all of that up to the E Street Band’s absence. After all, he still used some of those musicians at varying points during the ‘90s. I think that era was just a time for Springsteen to look around and try some new things before refocusing. And it wasn’t all bad. “Streets of Philadelphia” won an Oscar. That’s cool, right?