"Everybody's always asking the definition of Garage Rock. Well, I'm gonna tell you right now. It's white kids trying to play black Rhythm and Blues and failing......gloriously." Little Steven van Zandt.
I picked Mitch Ryder's classic rendition of Shorty Long's "Devil With The Blue Dress On ", but I might as well have picked the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" or "Dirty Water" by the Standells, "Double Shot Of My Baby's Love" by the Swinging Medallions or "You Can't Sit Down" by the Dovels. I simply picked "Devil" because it was the template crowd pleaser "The Detroit Medley" that has been present in Springsteen's set lists since September 1975, all the way up to the Rising tour in 2003. Mitch Ryder was one of those quintessential Garage acts from the early mid to late sixties. "Devil" was one of Mitch's few hits peaking at #4 in the billboard charts. But contrary to popular believe this was not uncommon those days. Garage acts, or Frat Rock bands, though often one hit wonders, would regularly be on top of the charts. But since Garage was a factor in a time when the 45 still reigned supreme and in a time where small labels still were a force to be reckoned with, a lot of those hits became obscure nuggets when the album format took over R&R.
Garage was part of the tidal wave caused by the British Invasion, or rather the Beatles appearances on the Ed Sullivan show. Even though "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen was released in 1963, as sort of an avant garde Garage release, those appearances were what busted the band culture wide open and prompted Springsteen to pick up the guitar and join his first band the Castilles. I believe that Garage became an important part of the aesthetic, romanticism and ethics that is at the base of Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band. Garage gave young kids the feeling that anybody could have that big record on the top of the charts. More than ever Garage made the dream of R&R accessible to just about anyone. By the time the Beatles hit, the first wave of R&R had perished. Radio was dominated for a while by R&R based pop, by the lavish productions of Phil Sector or Leiber & Stoller, or by the highly polished songwriting and performing of Sam Cooke and Roy Orbison. While that did give R&R more credibility and gave R&R more artistic value it also put R&R beyond the reach of many kids. The Beatles showed that you could do it yourself basically, they opened the doors to a whole new bag of R&R dreams.
That band ethic is why "Born To Run" turned out the way it did. Springsteen wanted to record his own Phil Spector album, but I believe he never even contemplated recording it with studio musicians and a proper producer. In stead he took the band in the studio trying to recreate the Spector sound with his own band, layer by layer. Spector simply had an army of musicians in the studio recording them simultaneously on a two track recorder. Although the musicians on Spector's record became known as the Wrecking Crew, they were never a band in the way the E-Street Band was. I think to Springsteen the R&R band represented the sort of mystic brotherhood busting out of class together, trying to get away from those fools. That romanticism created a different aesthetic from the producers approach Spector had, where musicians were secondary to his own genius. It was also the reason why "Born to Run" ultimately came out sounding different from Spector's ground breaking singles. Though recorded with a smaller band, the album ironically sounded a bit more cluttered and muddy than what Spector achieved with his two track. By the time "Born To Run" hit the market Spector was already far in his decline. Springsteen met him once in the studio when Phil was recording one of Bruce's idols, Dion, in '77. Spector merely turned to Springsteen and said "doesn't this make "Born To Run" suck".
Though the band ethics of Garage were important to Springsteen while recording his albums with the E-Street Band, on stage it wasn't as pronounced till Little Steven joined the band. Van Zandt has always been much more the Garage connoisseur and enthusiast. Though Springsteen tapped in to the Band ethics of the Garage movement and part of its aesthetic (taking his loud guitar sound from there), I think he himself was much more enamored with the R&R sound of the mid fifties to the early sixties. Van Zandt however was a hard core Garage fan. I think his enthusiastically running mouth is what made Springsteen realize how important the Garage sound was to the E-Street Band, often characterized as the greatest bar band of R&R. With Little Steven joining the Band the Garage classics became regulars in the set with "The Detroit Medley" turning out to be the ultimate rave up for the boys. In no other song Max's relentless pounding, Gary's throbbing base, Danny's raucous organ licks, Roy's rollicking piano or Clarence honking would come together in quite the same way building to a climax in a R&R frenzy. "The Detroit Medley" made clear we were indeed dealing with the heart stopping, pants dropping, earth shattering, hard rocking, hips shaking, earth quaking, nerve breaking, Viagra taking, history making, legendary E-Street Band.
Springsteen's Garage sensibilities would be part of his break through success as well. By the time "Born To Run" hit the market R&R was threatening to collapse under its own pretenses. The album culture and art rock had taken the fun out of R&R. In a recent interview with Boulevard Magazine Little Steven called Art Rock "the anti-Christ", while trying to make an argument that songs like "Louie Louie", with their simple effectiveness, are actually harder to write than Pink Floyd's pretentious drivel of the early seventies. The Jack Holtzman release of Nuggets in 1972, with the infamous Lenny Kaye liner notes coining the term Punk, was signifying that something was simmering beneath R&R's pretentious surface. Nuggets stood as a reminder of R&R's dream and glory. While Springsteen played in the infamous Max's Kansas City, one of the key clubs to the birth of Punk, he was never part of that scene. Springsteen is never mentioned when it comes to the significance of Max's or the birth of Punk. Even though "Please Kill Me (the oral history of Punk)" does have a chapter called "Because The Night", a Springsteen penned Patti Smith song, Springsteen is never mentioned. Although Springsteen was trying to find that three minute essence of R&R, much as Punk was, Springsteen stood outside of that movement. Maybe that's because Springsteen, although undoubtedly part of the counter wave, simply was too good a musician and songwriter to be a part of the Punk scene. Springsteen wasn't marred by the artistic pretense Punk had before the Ramones hit the scene, he wasn't NY enough, but more importantly he wasn't held back by being unable to play even the simplest chords. Springsteen became the artist who infused the album culture of Rock with the aesthetics of early R&R and Garage, bringing R&R back down to earth.
But as Don McLeese pointed out in his classic article, "Abdicating the Rock 'n' Roll Pedestal: Bruce Springsteen Gets Down", for the Chicago reader in 1980 there was a paradox to Springsteen as well, "[By] treating a Springsteen as something special, we threaten to undermine what made him special in the first place". As early as '78 Springsteen realized that when the first River songs became part of the Darkness tour. Two of them "The Ties That Bind" but especially "Sherry Darling" were much closer to the the sounds of the Garage bands that inspired Springsteen. As "Tracks" showed, Springsteen had been writing songs like that for the E-Street Band as early as 1973 with "Seaside Bar Song". It wasn't until "The River" Springsteen started to bring those Garage sounds more to the foreground. Further scaling down his songwriting Springsteen abandoned much of the grand imagery that defined "Born To Run" and "Darkness On The Edge Of Town". Partly produced by Little Steven, "the River" was oozing with the sweat of the garage that gave birth to Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band in the first place.
"Devil With The Blue Dress On" - Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels
"Dirty Water" - The Standells
"Double Shot Of My Baby's Love" - The Swingin' Medallions
"Sherry Darling" - Bruce Springsteen (live '78)