Bruce Springsteen - The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle: Album Of The Week Club Review

He hadn't been tagged the future of rock'n'roll yet, but Bruce Springsteen was beginning to make the right noises...

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Bruce Springsteen - The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle

The E Street Shuffle
4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)
Kitty's Back
Wild Billy's Circus Story
Incident on 57th Street
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
New York City Serenade

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The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle was Bruce Springsteen's second album, and despite the infamous John Landau line that followed in its wake, it was not a big seller. 

"I saw my rock 'n' roll past flash before my eyes," said Landau. "And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time." 

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. By the time Landau saw Springsteen he'd already written Born To Run, and a more accurate appraisal of Springsteen at the time of the album's release might have come from The Village Voice's Robert Christgau, who wrote, "This guy may not be God yet, but he has his sleeveless undershirt in the ring."

The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle was recorded by Springsteen with the E Street Band at 914 Sound Studios in Blauvelt, New York, where he's recorded his debut album. Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. Released on November 11, 1973, it clambered to #59 on the US album chart.

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Background

Bruce Springsteen may have been the future of rock’n’roll, but he wasn’t yet its present. Second album The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, his first to really showcase the E Street Band, got great reviews but sold dismally.

Rich in self-mythologising tales of the frustrated boys and girls of Asbury Park’s balmy boardwalk days and nights, it delivered a show-stopping, cinematic Side Two. Incident On 57th Street is where Springsteen moved from dreamer to creative colossus. But success? It wasn't happening. 

It’s unthinkable now, but in early 1974 Bruce Springsteen was on the ropes. Despite favourable reviews, his first two albums had sold badly and his label, CBS, were unconvinced that he had a future with them. With his career in the balance, Springsteen was aware he had to make his mark, but he didn’t know how. 

Other albums released in November 1973

  • The Shadows - Rockin' with Curly Leads
  • Roxy Music - Stranded
  • Alvin Lee - On the Road to Freedom
  • Ringo Starr - Ringo
  • Hall & Oates - Abandoned Luncheonette
  • Billy Joel - Piano Man
  • Santana - Welcome
  • Rory Gallagher - Tattoo
  • John Lennon - Mind Games
  • The Kinks - Preservation Act 1
  • The Beach Boys - The Beach Boys in Concert
  • Emerson, Lake & Palmer - Brain Salad Surgery
  • Bob Dylan - Dylan Outtakes recorded 1969–'70
  • Alice Cooper - Muscle of Love
  • Yoko Ono - Feeling the Space
  • Badfinger - Ass
  • Manfred Mann's Earth Band - Solar Fire
  • Greenslade - Bedside Manners Are Extra
  • Mahavishnu Orchestra - Between Nothingness and Eternity
  • April Wine - Electric Jewels
  • Cockney Rebel - The Human Menagerie
  • The J. Geils Band - Ladies Invited
  • Nazareth - Loud 'n' Proud
  • Robert Fripp and Brian Eno - (No Pussyfooting)
  • Electric Light Orchestra - On the Third Day
  • Buffy Sainte-Marie - Quiet Places
  • Scott Walker - Stretch
  • Spooky Tooth - Witness
  • Redbone - Wovoka

What they said

"The Wild, The Innocent, & The E-Street Shuffle is The Boss at his finest. While it may not have the same scope and grandeur of the album following it, Springsteen's mega-hit Born To Run, it contains more than ample doses of the lively spirit, youthful enthusiasm, and endearing optimism that made Bruce Springsteen not only a household name, but the epitome of the American experience." (Sputnik Music)

"The album's songs contain the best realization of Springsteen's poetic vision, which soon enough would be tarnished by disillusionment. He would later make different albums, but he never made a better one. The truth is, The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle is one of the greatest albums in the history of rock & roll." (AllMusic)

"The size and style of Springsteen's talent is suggested by the title, which I like, and this is very good in spurts, but it never coalesces. The kind of album that will be fun to go back to if he ever gets it together enough to make us care. The plus is for encouragement. B+." (Robert Christgau)

What you said

Mike Bruce: I wish I had a time machine. I'd love to go back in time to '73 and hear this album in its own right. Because listening for the first time here and now in 2018 it's almost impossible not to hear it through the filter of what came after it. You can hear The Boss reaching for the heights he would scale on his next album. It's maybe that striving that leaves me feeling this is an album that tried too hard at times.

When it works though, boy does it. Incident on 57th Street lays the foundation of atmosphere and dynamics that would build Thunder Road and Jungleland

And Rosalita? Entire careers have been pegged on songs half as good. Although I like a lot of his stuff I don't buy into the whole Landau "future of rock and roll thing about Springsteen. That said, if someone asked me to name a song that sums up the energy, the bollocks and the sheer fun of rock music I'd be hard pressed to name a better song than Rosalita.

Shane Reho: After a rather spotty (in my opinion) debut, Springsteen aims high and comes out with a masterpiece. The opening E Street Shuffle sets the tone, and gives way perfectly to 4th of July Asbury Park (Sandy), which eases along in its own way. Then the Boss gets jazzy on Kitty's Back, one of his most underrated songs. Even Wild Billy's Circus Story is well worth its time, and that may be the closest this album comes to having filler. Flip it over, and my favorite song by him, Incident on 57th Street. Starting with solo piano, building up, dipping down, coming back higher than ever, then retreating back to solo piano, it's a perfect seven minutes. Then into Rosalita, which there isn't much to say about that hasn't already been said. Finally, New York City Serenade wraps up the album on a somewhat down, but pleasing note. All this makes it hard to believe that this album got ignored on release, let alone that Springsteen would release a better album two years later. 5/5.

Cam Traviss: I’ll cop to not being a ginormous Springsteen fan. But I saw his 1984 Show here and next to Led Zeppelin, it’s the single most electrifying concert I ever saw. I was really close, and The Man was just inhuman. Everyone left drenched that night, what a show.

Chris Boulter: The album took a while to grow on me I must admit. However there are certainly some brilliant tracks as others have mentioned on here. The fact that Bruce still plays a number of the tracks e.g. Rosalita and Asbury Park in his shows today shows that it was a strong album.

Jim Linning: Haha. Got this album as part of the introductory four 'free' albums on my signing up to the old Britannia Music club (remember that?) Absolutely no idea who he was or what to expect but the album blew me away and I've been a confirmed fan ever since and eventually had the last laugh on all those at school who didn't believe me when I said I'd seen the future of rock'n'roll - or at least words to that effect.

David Jones: His debut was influenced heavily by Dylan with songs crammed with lyrics that didn’t let the music breath. This was more of a band effort. The songs are five or six minute vignettes about life on the Jersey shore and more importantly Asbury Park. Tales of shady street dudes, sidewalk queens and nights under the boardwalk set the scene for the nascent E-Street band to open up. Rosalita, Sandy, E Street Shuffle and Wild Billy all paint pictures of boardwalk life in the shadow of New York. He revisited these themes in Born to Run but by then the shore had become a town full of losers. By no means is this Springsteen’s best but it was a sign of things to come and the birth of a true music legend but not yet The Boss.

Lee Jones: Listened to it quite a few times over the years and nothing resonated with me. The only thing I remember is Kitty's Back, because Thin Lizzy borrowed a bit of it for The Boys are Back in Town

Bill Pratt: Amazing album. Not my favorite (that’s Darkness in the Edge of Town) but it may be the most unique thing he’s ever done. There’s been nothing like it since.

Stephen Woolerton: I'm not sure he has ever bettered it. Just so vivid, the lyrics and music paint pictures in my mind like nothing else I have ever heard. Many people say "I don't like Springsteen" based on Born in the USA. I say try this album - it might just surprise! Masterpiece, pure and simple

Scott Edwards: Understandable that it wasn’t a commercial success. This album is a work of art worthy of the name. Side one features songs about the characters around his home turf of central NJ while side two crosses the Hudson with tales of NYC. The music has the stamp of jazz man David Sanctious all over it. Subsequent BS music has much more of a rock feel but the piano, sax and organ are always there. Like all of Springsteeen’s music, each song is a mini opera that tells a tale. Fourth of July (Sandy) is a seemingly syrupy love song until the narrator says “l promise I’ll love you forever” as a question darkening the song.

James Praesto: For many years, Bruce Springsteen only existed in my world as the guy who sang Born in the USA, and as a lone record in my collection that I had never listened to. My parents had once given me Greetings from Asbury Park by mistake, and it spent years nestled between Scorpions and Steeler (because… alphabet), still sealed in its original plastic, and I fully intended to let it sit there forever. How it came that I one day unwrapped it and put it on, I do not remember, but as in countless other instances in my life, the music just took me away, and I came back a changed man (awkward pimply teenager, but still… you get my drift). 

I was fascinated by the honesty and the grit, and I remember thinking how the hell do all those rambled words fit within the verse? I couldn’t even sing along to it. Even though lyrics never really meant much to me, I was mesmerized by the effortless and natural delivery of his words. There were actual lives inside those songs. They were about somebody real. As a grown man, with too many years of experience on my shoulders and a fair amount of self-taught wisdom (pointless nonsense to most) between my ears, I can now appreciate those stories to a greater extent; both in relation to my own life, and in a musical perspective gained from listening to many other artists. 

Back in his early days, Bruce was signed by Columbia as “the next Dylan”, and toted as such, but he was anything but. Bob Dylan spoke to the people, about himself, often in analogies and abstracts. Bruce spoke with the people, telling stories of the people, because that is what he was. As a teenage metal head in Sweden, my life was far removed from that of a street smart troubadour on a pier in Jersey, 15 years prior, but the integrity and the honesty still resonated with me on a personal level. As a songwriter myself, his lyrics helped me evolve in that regard. Before Springsteen, I rhymed “fire” with “desire”. After Springsteen, “fire” rhymed with “fallen down telephone wire” instead. Know what I mean?

My love for Bruce’s early material has stood the test of time, and I often find myself coming back to his rambling musical street poetry on those 70’s albums to find that center of gravity again; to visit one of those unchanging places in my musical universe. I can pick pretty much any of the albums from the first ten years of his career and appreciate each and every song on it. The people, places and events come to life when that needle hits the groove, and it’s like meeting old friends again. This same musical storytelling is what bred my love for Thin Lizzy as well. Mary Queen of Arkansas and Johnny the Fox? It’s all good.

And, so we arrive at the subject at hand: The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle. Whereas many people see this album as the “real” beginning of Bruce’s legacy, I find it to be the most transitional album in his career – bridging the honest heartfelt debut with the more confident and complete Born to Run. After the introductory opener jam of The E-Street Shuffle, and the somewhat sleepy 4th of July Asbury Park (Sandy), we get treated to the first interesting song on the album in Kitty’s Back. It’s got cool, swing, soul and heart, and sings the tale of trash alley girl Kitty who leaves her man for some guy from the city. Gary Tallent on bass and Vini Lopez on drums set the pulse and the rest of the band fills in the blanks. 

The travelling show of Wild Billy’s Circus Story introduces us to a plethora of odd carney-style characters that bring a little excitement to the towns they visit along the road. But there is a sadness behind the façade, with the resident clown stealing away in the middle of the night to make his way home, and Bruce’s lazy drawl is a perfect companion to the slowly changing music (even though the tuba kills it for me).

Other tracks, like Incident On 57th Street could have been right at home on Asbury Park, but the instrumentation is off. The piano on here is fantastic, and I have a feeling this song was meant to be a quieter number, until somebody added the silly percussion and the piping organ. It just doesn’t work as well as it could have. I have heard this song live many times, and in those later incarnations they have sorted it out with a much better arrangement.

The album ends on a high note with the two best songs, Rosalita and New York City Serenade. The former showed what Born to Run would be all about a year or so later – up-tempo energetic songs for the working man – and the latter penned a dramatic 10 minute love letter to the city that never sleeps. New York City Serenade is one of my favorite Springsteen tunes, along with Angel, Lost in the Flood and a few others, and I love how it encompasses every facet of his style of songwriting and the musical delivery thereof. It’s like a musical free verse ode to life in the Big City. If I could just do one thing, it would be to reach through time and space and remove Richard Blackwell and his congas and percussions from the band. His contribution serves as a distraction, and this album in general, and this last song in particular, would have been much better off without him.

All in all, the album unfortunately falls short of the quality of his other early albums for a couple of reasons. Whereas he on his debut album already had a set of solid songs, written as a street musician who had cut his teeth on the New York City sidewalks for years, and with the added benefit of a band just backing him, this album instead shows him not entirely sure what to do with all the members of his band. I feel many of the arrangements overuse people who should have sat out a session or two. 

Just because you have a big band, it doesn’t mean they all have to play all the time. It takes away from a bit of the intimacy of the first album, where sometimes just a lone piano and Bruce’s whispered croaks would do the job, and does not reach the absolute level of musical connection on Born to Run where the E-Street band hit its stride. However, quite a few of these Wild and Innocent songs are on the Live at Hammersmith 1975 album that came as a companion to the Born to Run 30th anniversary edition. On that fantastic piece of live history, the band shows exactly why Bruce is the boss and why these songs mattered at all. If you are even the slightest bit on the fence about Springsteen, and you're not quite “getting it”, and just have the patience to check out one single Springsteen recording, go to Spotify/Amazon/iTunes and find the Hammersmith Odeon London ‘75 album. If you are not a convert after that, I can’t help you.

Pekka Turunen: From the debut up to Born in the USA, this is probably my least favourite Springsteen album. It's good, but not great, and part of it I think is what James Praesto said in his great text about the arrangements (I love Hammersmith '75 as well, one of my all time favourite live albums by anyone). 

But I absolutely love the album cover. Usually album covers focusing on the artist's face or figure are very very dull, but along with Miles Davis' In a Silent Way and Get Up With It and Joni Mitchell's Blue this is my all time favourite "face cover". The colour, typography and mood all sync perfectly.

Per Ove Haukland: Growing up with Kiss and Scorpions (yes, maybe an odd couple), I didn't really catch Springsteen until the release of Live 1975-85 in 1986. But that became a huge impact on my taste in music, and I went and bought every Springsteen-record straight away. I loved every album he had made up till then, except maybe Nebraska and The Wild... - those just didn't do it for me. Greetings From Asbury Park is such a gem, but the follow up with The Wild... was just a big downfall. Rosalita is a great tune, but it can't save an entire album...sorry.

But I soon found out that Born In The USA and the mentioned Live 1975-85 was the last good records from him for my part. I've seen him live once, in 2008, and it was a thrill!! But Springsteen on record?? No thanks...

Mike Knoop: I really didn't start listening to Springsteen until the past couple of years. I bought The River as a teenager but it was way too deep for me, so besides the Born albums I was mostly a "hits" guy. 

Rolling Stone ranked Springsteen in its Top 100 Guitarists a few years ago and one of the songs they offered as proof was Kitty's Back. I checked it out and it was fan-freakin-tastic, like the best Thin Lizzy song that Phil Lynott never wrote. I then checked out the full album and most of it has a loose, breezy, funky feel that I really like. Even the epics seem to have a lighter touch than his later more somber work. 

Finally, the detailed observational storytelling in all the lyrics is incredible, like when the narrator's sleeve gets caught on the Tilt-A-Whirl on Sandy and he has to keep riding over and over or when the ringmaster gets the crowd to count along to the neck twirls in Wild Billy's Circus Story

All in all, a great album that makes me think I might someday be ready to tackle The River again.

Jim Saville: Bruce Springsteen was quite an important artist to me but I never really 'discovered' him until The River & Nebraska (when I was 13/15.) I then discovered that a friend had some of his earlier stuff and I really enjoyed listening to it. I still 'dip in' and listen to Bruce now and again but not this particularly album. So, thank you so much for suggesting it on here as I've listened to it a few times and really enjoyed it. 

I don't remember it sounding so 'seventies' (although no real surprise there.) It really conjures up the US of A of it's time - boardwalks, switchblades, dodgy characters, etc - and paints great pictures of people's lives. I always enjoyed 4th of July, Incident on 57th and Rosalita but I really saw some in a new light - e.g. Kitty's Back and (especially) New York Serenade (I love the guitar at the beginning!) As well as the usual comparisons to Dylan it's also got a 'feel' of David Bowie around Hunky Dory and Van Morrison. I thoroughly enjoyed listening and I'll have to listen to Bruce a bit more often!

Roland Bearne: I remember when my Dad bought home Born To Run and being intrigued by it. I had no idea what the old guy in it was singing about but suicide machines and thunder roads seemed cool. Cut to the 80's and Bruce became "ours" with Born in the USA and onward. I've listened in the past to Asbury Park and Wild Willing etc but I just can't relate to them. I still don't really know what he's babbling on about or who this ubiquitous ""Johnny" is? Music is lush and lovely if a bit fiddly. Bought Born To Run again on vinyl the other day though

Iain Macaulay: The first time I heard this album I hated the first two tracks and never ventured any further into it. Years later, after finally getting more acquainted with Springsteen, I went back to it and managed to get through it, to find the rest of it is pretty good. I still skip E Street Shuffle and 4th July when I do listen to it now, which admittedly is not very often. It’s not a go to album for a sit down listen, or even a casual listen, there are much better Springsteen albums, but for this week it was a good trawl down memory lane, which was nice.

Carl Black: Before listening to this album (for the first time ever) it's difficult to ignore Bruce Springsteen's reputation. A leather jacket, white t-shirt clad champion on the people, hero of the common people who sings passionate songs and is adored by many millions and has earned the title "the boss". However after listening to this album, he came across as a boring introvert, who creates a mash up of the boomtown rats, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan. Neither of these artist I like. The Boss? More like the employee who nips out for a ciggie every ten minutes. Sorry, not for me.

Final Score: 6.32 ⁄10 (132 votes cast, with a total score of 835)

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