Friday, December 28, 2007

The Ten That Made Springsteen: 5. The Animals - It's My Life

Of all the British Invasions bands the Animals may have had the most profound impact on Bruce Springsteen. In particular two songs, "It's My Life" and it's predecessor "We've Gotta Get Out Of This Place". It is save to say that the British Invasion saved R&R. By the time the Beatles hit America R&R had been near death. Elvis enjoyed his stint in the army and came back to churn out increasingly uninspired Pop schmaltz, Jerry Lee Lewis was caught up in the scandal for marrying his 13 year old niece, Chuck Berry was doing prison time for sleeping with a 14 year old prostitute, Buddy Holly flew into a mountain and Eddie Cochran found his maker after a tragic car accident. On top of that the payola, a practice where DJs would be offered money or other services in exchange for airplay, was made illegal in 1960. This hurt the independent record companies, instrumental in pushing R&R, considerably as this was their main means for getting their material under the attention of DJs. Famous R&R DJ was caught up in the following witch hunt and lost his radio show and job. R&R had lost one of it's primary advocates. R&R's surviving performers, like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Roy Orbison, or producers as Lieber & Stoller and Phil Spector, were now striving for a more sophisticated sound. Even though it meant that R&R gained some maturity, it also meant it lost some its edge.

The British Invasion, kicked off by the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, gave R&R its balls back. An entire tilde wave of acts inspired by the sound of early R&R by Sun in Memphis, the inner city Blues from Chess records in Chicago and the upcoming Motown sound of young America flooded the US charts. Among those acts were many of Springsteen's pronounced influences. From the Rolling Stones to the Kinks, from the Yardbirds to the Who, from the Zombies to Manfred Mann, the young Springsteen sucked it all in. Barely a year after the invasion found its way to the US Springsteen was playing guitar live on stage in his first band the Castiles. Somewhere in June 1964 "Twist and Shout" was the first song Bruce performed at an audition for the band formed by Tex Vinyard, who would promptly give him a spot in the line up. Soon after that the Castiles would start playing the Jersey shore. The R&R that was spawned from the British invasion, along with Bob Dylan, would prove to be the main ingredient for Bruce's early musical education. The British invasion would soon kick start the American Garage or Frat Rock scene, Springsteen was part of that and it would form his definition of R&R and instill in him an importance of having a band. The power blues of Led Zeppelin, The Yardbirds and Cream would prompt Springsteen to shortly experiment with the genre himself in bands like Steel Mill before settling back into classic R&R and British Invasion music with the E-Street Band.

Shortly after breaking through with "Born to Run" Springsteen was confronted with the uglier side of the R&R industry. The recording of the album had hardly been a breeze and Springsteen had at first hated the results. Maybe it was fear of failing acting up, what else was he going to do but be a R&R star. On top of that Springsteen had to deal with the draw back of the hype that was created around him. Although he wanted to make it big, I don't think Springsteen had ever considered what that would mean, the hassle that would bring with it. Springsteen was uncomfortable with the adoration, going from a small town kid with a R&R band enjoying moderate success on the Jersey shore to the messiah of R&R is not an easy transition to make. His manager Mike Appel had filed suit when he saw his young protégé slip from his control with Rock critic Jon Landau now in the picture as producer. As a result Springsteen could not return to the studio. Instead he was forced to go back on the road after the emotionally exhausting "Born To Run" tour to gain some revenues to pay for his legal battles with Appel.

During what would be called the "Chicken Scratch Tour" Bruce's frustration and disillusion would increasingly start floating to the surface. Some performances on this tour would proof to be his most personal. Although Springsteen threw some new self penned material into the mix, like the "Thunderroad" negative "The Promise", some songs of Eric Burdon's the Animals proved to be a better vehicle. The Animals had first broken the charts with Josh White's "House Of The Rising Sun". Although Both Bob Dylan and Nina Simone would cover the song with success before the Animals, Burdon's dark, brooding and intense vocal made their version the one that mattered. The Animals set themselves apart in the whole British Invasion by heavily relying on keyboards instead of guitars, add to that Burdon's uninhibited baring of the Soul the attraction for Springsteen is easy to see. The Chicken scratch tour would feature two songs made popular by the Animals. First there was Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill penned "We've Gotta Get Out Of This Place". Originally this song was intended as the follow up for the Righteous Brother's immortal smash "You've Lost That Loving Feeling", to be produced by Phil Spector. Through the intervention of the Animals manager Allen Klein the song found a much better voice with Eric Burdon. The song quickly grew out to be an anthem for soldiers serving in Vietnam and for small time teens wanting escape, a sort of prototype "Born to Run". Throughout his career Springsteen performed the song a handful of times, reflecting both interpretations.

The second song Springsteen would perform was the chilling "It's My Life". Springsteen would stretch out the three minute record to a full blown fifteen minutes starting with a long spoken intro in which he revealed much of his troubled relation with his father. The best recorded performance, on bootleg that is, in my opinion the November 4th 1976 version performed at the Palladium in New York (download here). With a subdued arrangement Springsteen would describe the confrontations he would have with his father in the kitchen of their house. The piercing guitar backed with the haunting glockenspiel, saxophone and cymbals would add to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the intro. Springsteen sets the scene perfectly, we can see his old man hunched at the kitchen table, over the empty cans of beer and his cigarettes. We can feel the apprehension Springsteen must have felt entering that kitchen, dreading yet another confrontation. Here we see a young Springsteen trapped in his relation with his dad, feeling suffocated by the small town he was growing up in, scared to death he'll end up like his old man with his dreams broken. R&R was Springsteen's means of taking control, of acting out his dreams and fantasies. And as "It's My Life" moves into Springsteen's venomous reading of the song, spitting out the chorus "It's my life and I'll do what I want", its not just his father anymore he's shouting at. Bruce is also directing his frustration at Appel, who's at that moment threatening to take away his dreams and means of escape.

When the lawsuit settled Springsteen was free to record "Darkness On The Edge Of Town". The direction he took in that spoken intro of "It's My Life" would prove to be instrumental for large parts of that album. The venom of that intro and song can be found back in "Badlands", a song decidedly more confrontational than "Born To Run". The latter was a statement, with the second we find Springsteen spitting in the face of his background and maybe even Appel. It's there in his affirmation of being a man in "Promised Land". More pronounced "It's My Life" echoes in "Adam Raised a Cain", here the song and intro have simmered to adolescence angst of biblical proportions. But the traces are found in "Factory" as well. Nowhere near as venomous as the first examples "Factory" is a song of a much more reflective nature. "Factory" might be one of the key tracks in his career. It is where Springsteen let go of the battle with his father for the first time and took an effort to see where his old man was coming from. Through understanding Douglas Springsteen he got a look into the lives of working class America, a look into the lives who hadn't had the means to escape it. Through his father he became to understand what moved that segment of America better, allowing him to write about them and for them with more intelligence and authority in the years to come.

"House Of The Rising Sun" - Josh White Jr.
"We've Gotta Get Out Of This Place" - The Animals
"It's My Life" - Bruce Springsteen
"The Promise" - Bruce Springsteen

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