Educating Omand - Gap Year: Bruce Springsteen

Close up on 24 year old Bruce SpringsteenEducating Omand in green on an orange postage stamp on a brown envelope with a black postmark and a rubber stamp that says Gap Year

For Educating Omand, Susan Omand has been listening to music that she missed out on first time round. This year, our team of writers suggest albums for her to listen to in Educating Omand: Gap Year. This week, it's The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, suggested by Stuart Mulrain ...

Find the full list of albums for Educating Omand's Gap Year here

I’ve long been a fan of the Boss, so why has it taken me nearly fifty years to listen to The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle? Firstly, I was only five when it first came out in November 1973. [That’s no excuse - Ed]. Secondly, I never knew it existed. It was the album that came before Springsteen’s “big breakout hit” album Born to Run, so it was never on my radar. I first came to the wonders of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band with their 1984 mega hit Born in the USA which, if you’ve been doing your maths, hit the charts when I was at peak music consumption age of 16. I was hooked from then and listened through his back catalogue as often as I could afford the albums from Boots (yes, they had a record bit back in the day). I went back through Nebraska, The River, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born to Run and then my supply dried up because the record shop didn’t have anything else and I didn’t know to look for any more.

So, now that I’ve found it, what’s it like? Surprisingly there are only seven songs on the album. Equally surprisingly, most of them are over 7 minutes long! But that’s nothing to the surprise I got pressing play on the first track, The E Street Shuffle. Where’s my twangy guitars? Where’s my rock and roll?? This is …. disco soul!

And it’s bloody brilliant.

The trademark growly vocals are still there, thankfully, otherwise there would have been words, but that’s really the only recognisable thing comparing to the Springsteen of 10 years later. The Shuffle itself is cool, very brass heavy with slap bass and Bruce doing his best James Brown (squeal included). The one thing I’d say for it is that it’s a bit frantic for a shuffle and would benefit a lot from being played at 33 rather than 45. [joke for old musos there - Ed]

The pace slows down a lot for 4th July, Asbury Park (Sandy) and we go full on Bob Dylan with too many lyrics for the lines, which is no bad thing at all. I also love the continental accordion touch in the highly singable chorus in a song that would make a great end of the night at the pub.

Kitty’s Back is my favourite track on the album, right from the first few notes. This is shivery, tear-inducing blues guitar at its best that morphs into incredible Nola style jazz and I adore it. The melodies picked out by the instruments all wander around an arpeggiated bass that changes time signatures so subtly it’s brilliant. There’s blasting brass, incredible organ and glorious guitar work. It’s just perfect.

Wild Billy’s Circus Story immediately evokes the circus it is named for with the pachyderm-like ploddy bass brass in the intro. It soon settles down into a gorgeously descriptive ballad of just voice and guitars, including a glorious mandolin. Wavery harmonica and snare add big top highlights but it’s really worth finding the words for this one, as it is pure poetry.

On to side two and Incident on 57th Street reminds me a lot of Dire Straits’ Romeo and Juliet in its rhythm and structure as well as the subject matter, even though the Straits song was written seven years later - there may have been some influence there then. The piano is gorgeous throughout but, if I was going to be picky, the organ mid-section feels a little harsh for the mellowness of the song.

Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) is probably the most reminiscent, again if one can be reminiscent about a future event, of the sound of Born to Run. The guitars aren’t quite so pronounced, with epic bass taking the lead, but that mariachi styling and Latin rhythm added to the emergence of The Boss’ signature rock n roll sound definitely makes for a chair-dancing bop.

The ten-minute epic that is New York Serenade rounds out the album in spectacular fashion. The piano at the start feels almost classical and the quick changes in mood and tempo are just stunning before it settles into a laid back, soulful ballad, complete with bongos and a chantlike chorus.

So, yeah, Stuart, thank you. You can definitely call me educated this time. This was not a Springsteen album in the same vein as those to follow at all, but it really let me see where it all came from; the green shoots are all there. You can tell it would have been a “finding his feet” album at the time, experimenting with different styles to discover his own unique voice. Which he most definitely did as history proves. Would I have enjoyed the album if I had found it back when I was 16 and on a Boss roll? I don’t know. The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle is a lot more “grown up” sounding than his 80s rock, which seems a weird thing to say but I know what I mean; I’m not sure I would have appreciated the complexity and variety in the music back then. Do I enjoy it now though? Oh, hell yes, especially knowing now how Springsteen’s sound has evolved over time and has pretty much gone full circle back to his urban-folk-protest roots. It’s a brilliant album and Bruce is still, and always will be, The Boss.

[and here's the 16 minute live version of Kitty's Back to prove it - Ed]


Image - Amazon