The E Street Shuffle: Bruce Springsteen’s messy, flamboyant, life-affirming second album

In 1973, when Bruce Springsteen presented his completed second LP The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle to Charles Koppelman at Columbia Records, he was told in no uncertain terms that the record would be a commercial flop. With its scruffy musicianship and lengthy, sprawling songs, the album would, Koppelman believed, kill Springsteen’s short career for good.1

Unlike Greetings from Asbury Park, which introduced the world to the magic of the E Street Band with the lively burst of sunshine that is ‘Blinded by the Light’, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle had no snappy lead single. The shortest track at 4 and a half minutes long was opener ‘The E Street Shuffle’, a funky, bouncing jam which ends in a percussive clamour as the tempo accelerates and everyone plays over each other. If ‘Blinded by the Light’ sounded like a vibrant street party, ‘The E Street Shuffle’ was a food-fight that broke out at the end.

Koppelman implored the young rockstar to let him show him what ‘real musicians’ could do with the songs. But the stubborn and loyal Springsteen stuck to his guns and insisted on the album being released as it was. So in all its chaotic glory, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle remains one of the Boss’s least celebrated projects, cast into shadow by the monumental success of its follow-up Born to Run. While Koppelman correctly predicted its lacklustre commercial performance, he could hardly have foreseen that the record would someday be a mere pitstop in the glittering discography of one the most beloved musicians of the twentieth century. But is that all it should be considered? Or is The E Street Shuffle in fact an overlooked masterpiece?

Other than the title track, the closest thing to a hit the album has is the wildly exuberant ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’. With its blood-pumping energy and themes of defiance, it’s the most prototypical Springsteen number on the track list. As Bruce himself explained, ‘it was my “getting out of town” preview for Born to Run, with more humor.’2 But ‘Rosalita’ is far messier round the edges than anything on Born to Run, fearlessly incorporating salsa rhythms, a frantic, spiralling keyboard solo, stomps, claps and shouts from the band and a chanted a-cappella interlude. Not to mention the pure exhilaration of Bruce’s cry of ‘CAUSE THE RECORD COMPANY, ROSIE, JUST GAVE ME A BIG ADVANCE!’

Much like a snowball gathering up anything in its path, the album follows every whim that flits its way, paying little heed to the conventional boundaries of rock music. While ‘Rosalita’ flirts with Latin music, ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ borrows liberally from European sounds with its tingling mandolin and thumping oompah tuba. Meanwhile, ‘Incident on 57th Street’ is chrystallised in pinpricks of piano, creating a harpsichord effect reminiscent of the Beatles’ ‘In My Life’ or the Rolling Stones’ ‘She’s A Rainbow’.

In a post-Sgt. Pepper music landscape, infusing rock and roll with different musical styles and instrumentation was hardly unique. But with a far more rough and ready approach than the psychedelic and prog-rock innovators of the day, the E Street Band seemed to be doing it less in search of more sophisticated rhythms and harmony and more out of sheer enthusiasm.

Congas, harmonica, accordion, clavinet: they’re all welcomed into the vibrant tangle. ‘Kitty’s Back’ jumps between sultry, vaudevillian jazz and full-throttle big-band show-biz. Its lavish, wailing intro just oozes schmaltz and Davy Sancious’s hypnotic organ solo transports you into a nightmarish circus before Clarence Clemons’ slick sax leads the song out with unmatched extravagance.

Each song takes shape around you as you listen, Springsteen’s vivid autobiographical lyrics constructing a detailed backdrop for every tale he tells. The twinkling fairy lights and washed-out boardwalk carnivals of ‘4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)’ set one of the most evocative scenes. And finally, cascading jazz piano and velvety strings bring in the romantic epilogue ‘New York Serenade’, cooling off the album in a sweeping, nocturnal panorama.

‘Friends, there’s a reason they don’t call it “working,”‘ Springsteen divulges in his autobiography Born to Run, considering the joy of music-making. ‘It’s called PLAYING!’3 he exclaims in characteristically enthusiatic capitals. And if there’s any album that sounds like a bunch of musicians not working, but playing, it’s The E Street Shuffle.

While it is not Springsteen’s most direct and cohesive album and it’s far from being his most refined, it’s an album that encapsulates all the life-force of his music with the E Street Band: so full of grit and energy, so full of blood, sweat and tears. So full of life!

Every bit as much as Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town it’s guided by expression, artistry, by feeling so immediate, visceral and human. And yet more than any other Springsteen album, it’s guided first and foremost by a passion for music itself. As Pat Carty wrote in Hot Press, ‘if I want to beam like an idiot and remember why I fell in love with music in the first place, this is the Springsteen record I put on.’

Listen to The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle on Tidal

1Springsteen, Bruce. Born to Run, Simon and Schuster, London, 2016, p. 194

2ibid., p. 193

3ibid.,, p. 186

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