Thunder Road (song)
|Song by Bruce Springsteen|
|from the album Born to Run|
|Released||August 25, 1975|
|Recorded||July 16, 1975 (completed)|
|Studio||The Record Plant, New York City|
|Born to Run track listing|
"Thunder Road" is a song written and performed by Bruce Springsteen, and is the opening track on his 1975 breakthrough album Born to Run. While never released as a single, "Thunder Road" is a fan favorite at concerts and is ranked as one of Springsteen's greatest songs and one of the top rock songs in history. Rolling Stone magazine placed it as No. 86 on its "500 Greatest Songs of All Time."
"Thunder Road" was written by Springsteen while at his living room piano. The song started out in 1972 as "Angelina", then reappeared as "Chrissie's Song" during a solo recording in October 1974 at 914 Sound Studios, including the line, "leave what you've lost, leave what's grown cold, Thunder Road". Between November 1974 and January 1975, Springsteen took "Chrissie's Song" and lyrics from another composition, "Walking in the Street", and combined them into a new song he recorded in February 1975. From "Walking in the Street" he took the lines "they case the promised land" and "Oh baby I can't lay the stars at your feet, but I think we could take it all, just you and me, Oh come on and see there's a lot of room, For you baby in this front seat". This recording of "Walking in the Street" was later lost.
"There were two outtakes from Born to Run: 'Linda Let Me Be the One' is one track, and there was another one called 'Walking in the Street' which I would have liked to have put on, but I couldn't find the master. We searched and searched. It might have been simply recorded over, because in those days, if something wasn't going to make it, you're going to need that tape so you recorded something else over the top." - B. Springsteen, MOJO Magazine interview 1999.
In 1975, music critic and record producer Jon Landau joined the album's production team, marking the start of a life-long professional relationship. A close friend of Springsteen, who describes his relationship with Landau as one having an "instant chemical connection", Springsteen trusts Landau to make the steps necessary to get the production through its "midflight stall". At Landau's suggestion they moved production from 914 Sound Studios in Blauvelt, New York to the Record Plant recording studio in Manhattan and replaced engineer Louis Lahav with Jimmy Iovine, who Bruce later describes as a "brilliant imposter" and a "young studio dog with fastest learning curve I’ve ever seen".
In his autobiography, Bruce Springsteen says he loosely envisioned Born to Run as a series of vignettes, following its character throughout the day, with "Thunder Road" serving as an "invitation" to the album and opening with a harmonica that suggests the beginning of a "new day."
In his autobiography Born to Run, Springsteen describes Landau as an "astute arranger and editor" who "guarded against overplaying and guided our record toward a more streamlined sound". Speaking to author Brian Hiatt about "Thunder Road" in 2005, Landau states it "was fantastic, but it was a little unwieldy, a little unfocused, a little more like a jam piece. […] I remember talking with Bruce about a few ideas about how to just reshuffle the deck a little bit, and keep the song building from the very beginning right through the end."
Speaking with author Brian Hiatt, Bittan describes the Thunder Road's instrumental coda as a collaboration with Springsteen: “it seemed like it needed something. So I said, ‘well, what if we do a little instrumental?’ I’d play a little something, and then Bruce would play something, so it kind of came about in a very beautiful way.”
During Springsteen's writing of the lyrics to "Thunder Road", instead of "skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets", he had written, "skeletons found by exhumed shallow graves". Max Weinberg convinced Springsteen to move away from the darker lyrics and stay consistent with the blue collar spirit of the album.
Lyrics and music
The lyrics to "Thunder Road" describe a young woman named Mary, her boyfriend, and their "one last chance to make it real." Musically, the song opens with a quiet piano (Roy Bittan) and harmonica (Springsteen) introduction, meant, as Springsteen said years later in the Wings For Wheels documentary, as a signifier that something was about to happen. The title phrase is not used until the middle section of the song. After the closing line, there is a tenor saxophone and Fender Rhodes duet played by Clarence Clemons and Bittan in the instrumental coda.
In 2004, it was ranked No. 1 on the list of the "885 All-Time Greatest Songs" compiled by WXPN (the University of Pennsylvania's public radio station). Rolling Stone magazine placed it as No. 86 on its "500 Greatest Songs of All Time." The song came in at No. 226 in Q magazine's list of the "1001 Greatest Songs Ever" in 2003, in which they described the song as "best for pleading on the porch." Julia Roberts, when asked which song lyric described her most accurately, chose "Thunder Road"'s "You ain't a beauty, but hey, you're alright." The song is featured in the book 31 Songs by British author Nick Hornby. "Thunder Road" has also been ranked as the 95th best song of all time, as well as the No. 3 song of 1975, in an aggregation of critics' lists at acclaimedmusic.net.
Live performance history
During the 1974 to 1977 Born to Run tours, "Thunder Road" was always played by Springsteen accompanied only by Roy Bittan's piano and Danny Federici's glockenspiel, an example of which is found on Hammersmith Odeon London '75. Not until later in the tour did "Thunder Road" make full-band appearances. In the 1978 tour "Thunder Road" usually opened with Springsteen telling a story as to why he wrote the song, and it might segue out of some other more dirge-like song such as "Racing in the Street".
In concerts during the 1980s, the coda of the song was stretched out to showcase E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Clemons and Springsteen would charge at each other from opposite ends of the stage, with Springsteen sliding into Clemons in an embrace.
The early 1990s "Other Band" Tour performed the song on acoustic guitar with an organ in the background; this arrangement is documented on the 1993 concert video and album In Concert/MTV Plugged.
The song then disappeared from Springsteen concerts until emerging again in 1999 in the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Reunion Tour, where it was played at a significantly slower tempo than the studio version while Springsteen pointed to people he knew or to females in the front rows. An example of such a performance can be found in the 2001 release Live in New York City. Although played fairly regularly on The Rising Tour as on Live in Barcelona, the song then rarely appeared on the Devils & Dust Tour, this time on piano. The song was not performed during the Sessions Band Tour; it reappeared on 2007–2008 Magic Tour and continued to be played regularly on the 2009 Working on a Dream Tour.
On June 14, 2008, on stage at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Springsteen dedicated a performance of the song to political broadcast analyst Tim Russert, a longtime Springsteen fan who had suddenly died the previous day. On June 18, 2008, Springsteen performed the song, with acoustic guitar, for a Russert memorial event in Washington DC via satellite/tape.
On November 7, 2016, Springsteen performed the song at a Hillary Clinton presidential election rally in Philadelphia.
In 2016 a fan made a video compilation of Springsteen performing "Thunder Road" over 41 years. The video illustrates how Springsteen's performance of the song has changed over the years.
- Bruce Springsteen – guitar, vocals, harmonica
- Garry Tallent – bass guitar
- Max Weinberg – drums
- Roy Bittan – keyboards, glockenspiel, backing vocals
- Mike Appel – backing vocals
- Steve Van Zandt – backing vocals
- Clarence Clemons – tenor saxophone
"Thunder Road" is a classic rock staple and has been covered by artists such as Eric Church, Melissa Etheridge, Cowboy Junkies, Badly Drawn Boy, Brazilian singer Renato Russo, Frank Turner, Tori Amos, Brian Vander Ark (Live at Eddie's Attic), Kevin Rowland, Nate Ruess during his Grand Romantic world tour, Matt Nathanson, Mary Lou Lord and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy with Tortoise. (Tortoise's version is interpreted in minor key.) Adam Duritz of Counting Crows often sings large portions of the lyrics to "Thunder Road" in the middle of their song "Rain King".
In 2011 a limited, signed, letterpressed, handbound chapbook with the lyrics of "Thunder Road" along with Nick Hornby's essay on the song was released. (26 copies were signed by both, Bruce Springsteen and Nick Hornby, 200 copies were signed by Hornby only.)
In 2016 actor, writer and director Jim Cummings released a comedy/drama film called Thunder Road, which includes an extensive scene depicting Cummings dressed as a policeman at his mother's funeral singing along to "Thunder Road", playing on his daughter's pink boombox. It won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Sometime after the release of Born to Run, Springsteen wrote a follow-up to "Thunder Road" called "The Promise", which explicitly mentions the first song by name but reveals a far more pessimistic outlook on the narrator's life and future. Unreleased for years, "The Promise" gained considerable legend for its 1978 Tour performances; it finally materialized in a re-recorded version on 1999's 18 Tracks, before appearing on its namesake album The Promise, released in 2010.
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