In January 1973, the world was introduced to the legendary Bruce Springsteen, a gravelly-voiced Jersey Boy with a guitar who earned himself many comparisons to Bob Dylan. Formerly appearing in a variety of bands like Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom, Springsteen was signed to Columbia Records as a solo artist in 1972. He quickly turned around his now iconic debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park N.J., on a budget and created a modestly-selling critical darling.
Not wanting to spend more of his advance than necessary, Springsteen, then manager Mike Appel, and the musicians that would eventually be called the E Street Band created Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. in a burst of creative energy. Much of the album was created within a week at the cheap, remote 914 Sound Studios to save on costs. Upon its presentation to the record label, Columbia Records President Clive Davis thought it lacked a lead single. Springsteen dove back into the studio to quickly cut the now fan favorites “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirit in the Night,” the only two singles to be released from this album. Unfortunately, neither of these singles charted until Manfred Mann’s Earth Band covered “Blinded by the Light” in 1976 and Springsteen earned a #1 with a songwriting credit.
Greetings from Asbury Park N.J. is everything you’d expect Springsteen’s debut album to be. It’s an origin story that he crafted for himself, along with several tales of people he’s met–or imagined–along the way. While the album doesn’t hold Springsteen’s strongest fare, it’s plenty proof that his songs pack a punch when it comes to storytelling and includes one of the most pervasive motifs throughout his early works: cars and motorcycles, both literally and figuratively.
Springsteen’s work is well known for its exploration of his New Jersey upbringing, a fact that started with Greetings from Asbury Park N.J.. The album includes several tracks that recall stories and references of Springsteen’s rebellious teenage years in New Jersey, painting him as someone who refuses to just go with the crowd. Songs like “Blinded by the Light,” “Growin’ Up,” and “Spirit in the Night” lead listeners through a series of nonlinear vignettes with the recurring theme of rebellion, be refusing to do what everyone wants you (“I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd, but when they said, ‘Sit down,’ I stood up”) to or just a classic case of teen partying (“By the time we made it up to Greasy Lake/I had my head out the window and Janey’s fingers were in the cake/I think I really dug her ’cause I was too loose to fake”). These songs ring with freedom and possibility.
Greetings from Asbury Park N.J. is full of good, old-fashioned, down-home Springsteen epics he came to be known for. Kicking off with an acoustic guitar and strong harmonica (which would also come to be a classic Springsteen move), “Mary Queen of Arkansas” is a rambling, Bob Dylan-esque track about a drag queen. Told in three parts, piano ballad “Lost in the Flood” examines the life of one or more Vietnam Vets in their post-war lives. Album closer “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” tells the story of a young man growing up on the streets of a city, attempting to be as good as he can but eventually straying his path. Though the title and description sound like a morality tale, “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City” is a bouncy, piano-laden track that takes the album home with great energy.
While Greetings from Asbury Park N.J. may not be Springsteen’s strongest or most popular album, it provided for a strong foundation for the rest of his career. As stated above, the album was well received; critics praised Springsteen for his illustrative lyric style and his dedication to a good rhyme scheme. Songs like “Lost in the Flood” and “For You” both show the beginnings of the evolution in musical structure that would lead to hits like “Rosalita” and “Thunder Road.” Everyone could see the potential building throughout the tracks, potential that Springsteen would continue building when he jumped back in the studio to record his sophomore album The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle later that year.