Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
When Bruce Springsteen began to construct and record the songs that would make up his third album in early 1974, he knew the pressure was on. Following two critically-acclaimed but low-selling records, he had to produce a masterpiece or risk his career being over before he even got to make his impact on the world of pop music. Little did anyone, even Bruce himself, know at the time just what was stirring in his head, aching to get out: an 8-song magnum opus that stands almost unparalleled in the annals of rock. It’s one of the only records to earn a 10.0 rating from Pitchfork, and at least one critic has heralded its title track the greatest song ever written. We’re talking, of course, about Born to Run.
But though the album and song left its mark on a generation of musicians, its followers have not found producing covers to be an easy task. For starters, Springsteen consciously employed a Phil Spector-style “Wall of Sound” approach to recording “BTR,” creating a lush studio arrangement that would probably give any copycats headaches. Even live performances of the song are hard to ape; Springsteen’s E-Street Band has contained anywhere in the range of six to ten members throughout its life, putting most four-piece rock acts to shame. It’s interesting to note, then, what arrangement choices are made by every act that does take the bold step of covering this classic. How do you handle those iconic saxophone solos by the late, great Clarence Clemons? What about that glockenspiel lick that more or less defines the song? Each of the artists spotlighted below has a different answer to those questions. Who do you think is most successful?
MP3: Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen cover)
Who knew these guys had a career outside “Relax?” Who knew they had the chops to take on the Boss? Yet on their 1984 debut record Welcome to the Pleasuredome, that’s exactly what British pop group Frankie Goes to Hollywood does. In keeping with their dance-y roots, Frankie takes “BTR” to the sock-hop with a propulsive, Ramones-styled rhythm section. When it comes time for the solo sections, the group comes up with an innovation that no other act seems to have hit on – they let the bass player handle it! What results is a cool-sounding breakdown and a rare chance for the guy holding down the low end of a band to strut his stuff.
MP3: Wolfsbane - Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen cover)
Wolfsbane’s a mid-80s to early-90s British “metal” band most notable for producing Bruce Dickinson’s replacement singer in Iron Maiden. This rendition of the song comes from that awkward period in the ’90s when a couple glam groups hadn’t yet realized their time had passed; we would’ve credited this performance to Ugly Kid Joe if we hadn’t done the research ourselves. Wolfsbane deliver kind of a mishmashed punk/metal take on the classic tune, and it’s the heaviest cover we’ve heard of this song that isn’t totally laughable, though the lack of restraint on the guitar solo doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (but actually, that little riff the guitar and bass do during the “whoa-oh” parts is pretty darn cool).
MP3: Suzi Quatro – Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen cover)
In 1999 American singer-songwriter and actress (remember her from Happy Days?) Suzie Quatro released a “Born to Run” cover on a greatest hits record. Of all the renditions featured here, this one’s probably the most divergent from the original melodically; it’s also possibly our favorite. It almost shows us what a Runaways-style cover of “BTR” would’ve sounded like, inasmuch as it’s a mid-tempo rocker with a powerful lady singer at the helm. Quatro’s got some major pipes; she really digs into these notes, especially as the song climaxes, and it’s quite impressive. This rendition of “BTR” also features a unique, quasi-spoken word reading of the song’s bridge section that increases its tension.
MP3: Glee & Many Other Celebrities – Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen cover)
Alright, we get it, it’s cool to hate on Glee. But this version of the song, from the 2010 Emmy’s opening sketch, comes the closest of all of these to capturing the earnestness and longing of youth so important to Springsteen’s earliest music. Beyond that, this take provides an awesome chance to see a ton of really great celebrities cut loose on an amazing tune. Anyone who reads this site regularly knows that Jimmy Fallon’s a competent performer, but what about Tina Fey (who hilariously is a really bad singer)? Jon Hamm? Joel McHale? Hurley from Lost? Also, because the Glee cast knows what they’re doing, this song adds some impressive vocal harmonies in the verses courtesy of Lea Michele, Cory Monteith, Amber Riley and Chris Colfer. We’ve probably watched the video of this song 20 times, and it never fails to make us happy. Even if we do get a legitimate Glee performance of the song this season (which rumors indicate as especially likely), this joke version could end up standing superior.
MP3: Amy MacDonald – Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen cover)
While stripped-down, acoustic versions of “BTR” aren’t exactly uncommon (just hit up YouTube if you don’t believe me), Amy MacDonald’s cover — taken from a 2010 performance at the Rock in Rio festival — has something that many of the others lack: painful honesty. You can tell this Scottish singer believes every word she’s saying, and the Boss demands nothing less. If you’re going to tear down the Wall of Sound, make sure that what’s on the other side is worth glimpsing.
Check out more from Bruce Springsteen on his official website.