Bruce Springsteen might be music’s most misunderstood man.

A performer whose music is sometimes dismissed as over-the-top has crafted some of the most intricate, perceptive and tender pop music of the last 50 years.

1984’s ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ is perhaps his best-known song, yet this damning verdict on his country’s actions in Vietnam is frequently misinterpreted as a tubthumping, pro-America anthem by right-wingers.

Songs like ‘Factory’, ‘Working on the Highway’ and ‘Jack of All Trades’ have earned him a reputation as the voice of blue-collar America, yet on his 2017 ‘Springsteen on Broadway’ tour he admitted: “I made it all up. I’ve never held an honest job in my entire life! I’ve never done any hard labour. I’ve never worked 9 to 5. I’ve never worked five days a week”. 

The Herald: Bruce Springsteen is set to tour the world in 2023.Bruce Springsteen is set to tour the world in 2023. (Image: Herald Scotland)

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Reviewing a Springsteen concert for Boston’s Real Paper in May 1974, music critic Jon Landau said: “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”. 

That’s a feeling he’s given millions of tramps like us over 20 studio albums and countless epic live performances backed by the legendary E Street Band. Springsteen’s music can locate your heart (‘Thunder Road’), your gut (‘Downbound Train’), your eyes (‘The River’) and even your loins (‘I’m On Fire’), but his best work will always get you in your soul.

The Herald:

With new covers album ‘Only The Strong Survive’ having been released on Friday, we’ve given The Boss our ‘Life in Songs’ treatment.

As opposed to a ‘best of’, these are 10 songs that chart the course of an incredible 50-year rock and roll journey.

GROWIN’ UP (Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., 1973)

Springsteen was labelled ‘the new Dylan’ early on, and this ode to his New Jersey childhood bears the folk legend’s influence on lyrics such as ‘I took month-long vacations in the stratosphere, and you know it’s really hard to hold your breath/I swear I lost everything I ever loved or feared, I was the cosmic kid in full costume dress’. 

Featuring on the 2016 ‘Chapter and Verse’ soundtrack compilation for his autobiography and the following year’s ‘Springsteen on Broadway’, Springsteen is clearly aware of this song’s importance within his catalogue. 

It was also recorded by David Bowie during the sessions for his ‘Diamond Dogs’ album. 

THUNDER ROAD (Born to Run, 1975)

Had his third album not taken off as it did, this particular ‘Life in Songs’ feature could have been devoted to a long-forgotten artist whose career spanned two years in the early ‘70s. E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt told Slate that, with Springsteen’s first two albums having failed to do the business commercially, “if this one didn’t make it, it seemed obvious that it was going to be the end of the record career”. 

Everything hinged on his third album, but it was clear from the first few seconds of its opening track that Springsteen had pulled it off. 

Describing it as a “rock ‘n’ roll lullaby” when he performed an acoustic version at Hampden Park in 2013, it’s full of vivid imagery such as ‘skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets’ and a graduation gown that ‘lies in rags at their feet’. 

Pretty Woman star Julia Roberts once said the lyric that best describes her is this song’s ‘you ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright’. 

BORN TO RUN (Born to Run, 1975)

This is it. The one where it all came together. Springsteen threw everything into this one, then threw a bit more, before coming back to throw some more on top.

All the best best songs have ‘the good bit’. With ‘Born to Run’, every bit is the good bit, and if you’re tired of one good bit there’s always another good bit a few seconds away.

Indebted to Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ production style, the song has in turn influenced the likes of The Killers, The War on Drugs and The Gaslight Anthem. 

One of the great moments of musical catharsis comes when Springsteen counts the band back in and sings “The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive”. That line was referenced in The Sopranos, a show in which Van Zandt starred.

RACING IN THE STREET (Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)

Springsteen’s fourth album is up there with his best, but legal wranglings, pressure to follow up the blockbuster success of ‘Born to Run’ and the Boss’ occasionally exasperating perfectionism in the studio ensured a gap of almost three years between records. 

Long before achieving mainstream success, Springsteen had made his bones in bar bands, and he draws on those ‘60s influences here. Its title is a play on Martha and the Vandellas’ ‘Dancing in the Street’, and its theme is similar to that of The Beach Boys’ ‘Don’t Worry Baby’. 

The mournful piano intro, meanwhile, is a slower take on The Crystals’ ‘Then he Kissed Me’, which can be interpreted as the optimism of the ‘60s curdling into something darker.

ATLANTIC CITY (Nebraska, 1982)

After the buoyancy of 1980’s ‘The River’, Springsteen surprised fans with his stark sixth album. While two years earlier the E Street Band had been in celebratory mode on the likes of ‘Hungry Heart’ and ‘Out in the Street’, these were stripped-down, intense character studies.

A down-on-their-luck couple seek salvation “where the sand’s turning to gold” in Atlantic City, with the protagonist telling his partner to “put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty”. Their plans appear doomed, however, as he agrees to “do a little favour” for someone that might not be entirely legal.

DANCING IN THE DARK (Born in the U.S.A., 1984)

The tone shifted dramatically again on his seventh - and biggest - album. Selling 30 million copies and spawning seven US top 10 singles, it was packed with anthems and made Springsteen one of the era’s biggest stars.

‘Dancing in the Dark’ has become synonymous with its video, in which Springsteen brings a then-unknown Courteney Cox onstage for a dance. 

Covered by artists as varied as Amy Macdonald, Hot Chip, John Legend, Sam Fender and Kermit the Frog, this live staple was written in one night after Springsteen was told the album lacked a single. 

His frustration and hunger are palpable throughout, and never more so than when he sings “They say you gotta stay hungry/Hey baby, I’m just about starvin’ tonight”. 

STREETS OF PHILADELPHIA (Philadelphia: Music from the Motion Picture, 1993

Written for the Tom Hanks film Philadelphia, this was another departure in sound. The synths are now sombre, accompanied by a drum machine and one of Springsteen’s most restrained vocals.

The song would earn him four Grammy awards and an Oscar. Speaking at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017, Hanks said: “If you ever want to have a great moment in a motion picture, walk out a door and make sure they just put up a Bruce Springsteen song”. 

THE FUSE (The Rising, 2002)

‘The Rising’ was Springsteen’s response to 9/11, with its triumphant ‘Waitin’ on a Sunny Day’ and anthemic title track remaining live favourites. ‘The Fuse’ is something altogether more complex, but no less stirring. 

The lowered flags and “‘long black line of cars” plant us firmly in the aftermath of 9/11, but he sings about a couple who “shut out the lights” in order to find some escapism in the bedroom.

It soundtracked the end credits of Spike Lee’s 2002 film The 25th Hour, itself one of the first major pieces of pop culture to reference 9/11.

WE TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN (Wrecking Ball, 2012)

In both sound and message this could have comfortably slotted into the ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ album, juxtaposing rousing strings with condemnation of the US government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. 

Played by Presidents Obama and Biden during their 2012 and 2020 victory speeches, a song in which “the road of good intentions has gone dry as bone” proved Springsteen’s well of creativity remained anything but.

DO I LOVE YOU (Only the Strong Survive, 2022)

With a world tour scheduled for 2023, retirement does not appear to be on the 73-year-old’s horizon. His collection of soul covers sees Springsteen engaging with the music on which he and his band honed their skills, but with the benefit of 50 years as a beloved performer.

This cover of Frank Wilson’s Northern soul classic is New Jersey’s finest at his most joyous.

Bonus tracks


After Springsteen shelved the song during sessions for ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, producer Jimmy Iovine suggested he pass it to Smith.

The punk legend added some lyrics and ended up with not just the song’s definitive version, but the biggest hit of her career. 

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Springsteen and the E Street Band are known for their epic live shows, and few songs benefit from that setting more than his fifth album’s title track.

Already a beautifully-drawn, poignant tale of young love beset by economic insecurity, this live version features a five-and-a-half-minute recollection of Springsteen’s struggles with his father, who believes the Vietnam War will “make a man out of you”. 

His story ends with Springsteen explaining that the army didn’t take him, to which his father unexpectedly replies “That’s good”. The ensuing harmonica blast has every hair on every neck standing to attention. 


1987’s ‘Tunnel of Love’ chronicled the disintegration of Springsteen’s first marriage, and this song sees a man who’s “been around a time or two” looking for “another dance”.

He performs it live with his wife and bandmate Patti Scialfa, and in October 2022 he said on The Howard Stern Show: "It's probably my best love song, because it's so understated". 

Glaswegian band Camera Obscura stripped out the original’s synths and leaned into its country feel, to great effect.

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THE STAVES - I’M ON FIRE (If I Was, 2014)

Bat For Lashes and Johnny Cash are among the many who’ve covered this libidinous classic from ‘Born in the U.S.A.’. 

Folk trio The Staves dispense with none of the song’s drama, while applying sumptuous harmonies to Springsteen’s story of someone consumed with desire and “a freight train running through the middle of my head”. 

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN - MEET ME IN THE CITY (The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, 2015)

1998’s ‘Tracks’, 2010’s ‘The Promise’ and 2015’s ‘The Ties That Bind’ collect dozens of Springsteen offcuts that were left off his albums. 

Many of these would not only make the cut with other artists, but would be among their most popular songs. 

While the backing track was recorded during sessions for 1980’s ‘The River’, the euphoric ‘Meet me in the City’ features a vocal recorded by Springsteen in 2015.