Thunder Road (song)
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|Song by Bruce Springsteen from the album Born to Run|
|Released||August 25, 1975|
|Recorded||1975 at The Record Plant in New York, New York|
|Producer(s)||Bruce Springsteen, Jon Landau|
"Thunder Road" was written and performed by Bruce Springsteen, and is the opening track on his 1975 breakthrough album Born to Run. It is ranked as one of Springsteen's greatest songs, and often appears on lists of the top rock songs of all time.Rolling Stone magazine placed it as #86 on its "500 Greatest Songs of All Time."
The song underwent considerable evolution as it was written, with an early version titled "Wings for Wheels" first performed at The Main Point in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, on February 5, 1975. The phrase "wings for wheels" would eventually be used in the final version of the song's lyrics. Other early versions also mention a girl named Angelina or Christina rather than the studio version's Mary. Among other changes, including entirely different lyrics for some verses, the original version of "Wings for Wheels" concluded with "This is a town full of losers, and baby I was born to win," instead of the studio version's ending, "It's a town full of losers, and I'm pulling out of here to win."
During Springsteen's writing of the lyrics to "Thunder Road", instead of "Skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets", he had written, “Skeletons found by exhumed shallow graves”. Max Weinberg convinced Springsteen to move away from the darker lyrics and stay consistent with the blue collar spirit of the album.
Lyrics and music
The lyric to "Thunder Road" describes a young woman named Mary, her boyfriend, and their "one last chance to make it real."
Musically, the song opens with a quiet piano (Roy Bittan) and harmonica (Springsteen) introduction, meant, as Springsteen said years later in the Wings For Wheels documentary, as a "welcoming" to both the track and the album, a signifier that something was about to happen. Eschewing a traditional verse-and-chorus structure, the song's arrangement gradually ramps up in instrumentation, tempo and intensity. The title phrase is not used until the middle section of the song, where it is recited three times in one line, and twice more in another, and is not used again. Finally, after the closing line there is a tenor saxophone and Fender Rhodes duet played by Clarence Clemons and Bittan respectively in the instrumental coda.
The song's title comes from the Robert Mitchum film Thunder Road. Springsteen declared that he was somehow inspired by the movie despite not having seen it. As he says: "I never saw the movie, I only saw the poster in the lobby of the theater."
In 2004, it was ranked #1 on the list of the "885 All-Time Greatest Songs" compiled by WXPN (the University of Pennsylvania's public radio station). Rolling Stone magazine placed it as #86 on its "500 Greatest Songs of All Time." The song came in at #226 in Q magazine's list of the "1001 Greatest Songs Ever" in 2003, in which they described the song as "best for pleading on the porch." Julia Roberts, when asked which song lyric described her most accurately, chose "Thunder Road"'s "You ain't a beauty, but hey, you're alright." The song is featured in the book 31 Songs by British author Nick Hornby. "Thunder Road" has also been ranked as the 95th best song of all time, as well as the #3 song of 1975, in an aggregation of critics' lists at acclaimedmusic.net. In 2010, American radio personality Joe Votruba ranked it as #2 on Rock-U's (Goom Radio) Top 500 Songs of All Time.
Live performance history
"Thunder Road" is one of Springsteen's most performed songs and an audience favorite, with the artist logging more than eight hundred performances of the hit by the end of 2009. During the 1974 to 1977 Born to Run tours, "Thunder Road" was always played by Springsteen accompanied only by Roy Bittan's piano and Danny Federici's glockenspiel, an example of which is found on Hammersmith Odeon London '75. Not until later in the tour did "Thunder Road" make full-band appearances. In the 1978 tour "Thunder Road" usually opened with Springsteen telling a story as to why he wrote the song, and it might segue out of some other more dirge-like song such as "Racing in the Street".
In concert in the 1980s, the song was often played to close out the first set; the coda was stretched out to showcase E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, then Clemons and Springsteen would charge at each other from opposite ends of the stage, with Springsteen sliding into Clemons in an embrace.
The song then disappeared from Springsteen concerts until emerging again in 1999 in the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Reunion Tour, where it was played as celebratory from start to finish, at a significantly slower tempo than the more upbeat studio version, with Springsteen pointing to people he knew or to attractive females in the front rows during the extended outro. An example of such a performance can be found in the 2001 release Live in New York City. Although played fairly regularly on The Rising Tour as on Live in Barcelona, the song then rarely appeared on the Devils & Dust Tour, this time on piano. The song was not performed during the Sessions Band Tour; it reappeared on 2007-2008 Magic Tour and continued to be played regularly on the 2009 Working on a Dream Tour.
On June 14, 2008, on stage at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Springsteen dedicated a performance of the song to political broadcast analyst Tim Russert, a longtime Springsteen fan who had suddenly died the previous day. On June 18, 2008, Springsteen performed the song, with acoustic guitar, for a Russert memorial event in Washington DC via satellite/tape.
- Bruce Springsteen – electric guitar, vocals, Hohner Marine Band harmonica
- Garry Tallent – bass guitar
- Max Weinberg – drums
- Roy Bittan – piano, electronic glockenspiel, Fender Rhodes electric piano, backing vocals
- Mike Appel – backing vocals
- Steve Van Zandt – backing vocals
- Clarence Clemons – tenor saxophone
"Thunder Road" is a classic rock staple and has been covered by artists such as Eric Church, Melissa Etheridge, Cowboy Junkies, Badly Drawn Boy, Brazilian singer Renato Russo, Frank Turner, Tori Amos, Brian Vander Ark (Live At Eddie's Attic), Kevin Rowland, Nate Ruess during his Grand Romantic world tour, Matt Nathanson, Mary Lou Lord and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy with Tortoise. (Tortoise's version is interpreted in minor key.) Adam Duritz of Counting Crows often sings large portions of the lyrics to "Thunder Road" in the middle of their song "Rain King".
In the film Explorers, the main characters' space vessel is named "Thunder Road" after the song.
In 2008, years before ideas for his film Cemetery Junction were put down in writing, Stephen Merchant also mentioned his ambitions for the song on his self-titled BBC Radio Show: "The more you listen to it the more you realize just how extraordinar(il)y it is put together, and how it builds, and how it's just so cinematic. And that final line when he declares 'It's a town full of losers and we're pulling out of here to win', oh, goodness me! I've always wanted to make a movie of that song (...) I don't mean literally, I just mean a film that can invoke the spirit of that song." Later, in an interview with BBC Radio 2's Danny Wallace on 9 January 2010, Merchant stated the script for Cemetery Junction was loosely based upon the lyrics of "Thunder Road". This sentiment was repeated by co-writer/co-director Ricky Gervais on 12 April 2010 when he appeared on The Graham Norton Show.
In the novel High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, the protagonist Rob Fleming ranks "Thunder Road" as one of his five best side one track ones.
In 2011 a limited, signed, letterpressed, handbound chapbook with the lyrics of "Thunder Road" along with Nick Hornby's essay on the song was released. (26 copies were signed by both, Bruce Springsteen and Nick Hornby, 200 copies were signed by Hornby only.)
In the Sonny with a Chance Christmas special, the sketch titled "The Real Princesses of New Jersey" mentions "Thunder Road" when Sterling Knight's character yells "I'm listening to 'Thunder Road!' You come over here!".
A FoxTrot strip has the song playing on Peter's stereo, with a loud blast of "OH, THUNDER ROAD" sending Peter flying into his bedroom wall when Jason takes off the mute button (FoxTrot has repeatedly paid homage to Springsteen and his work, among other rock singers).
Sometime after the release of Born to Run, Springsteen wrote a follow-up to "Thunder Road" called "The Promise", which explicitly mentions the first song by name but reveals a far more pessimistic outlook on the narrator's life and future. Unreleased for years, "The Promise" gained considerable legend for its 1978 Tour performances; it finally materialized in a re-recorded version on 1999's 18 Tracks, before appearing on its namesake album The Promise, released in 2010. "The Promise" can also be seen and heard on disc two of the DVD release of Live in New York City.
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- Springsteen, Bruce. South By Southwest Keynote Address. Austin, TX. 15 March. 2012. 
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