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THREE MINUTE RECORD: The Best Bruce Springsteen Cover Songs
drop the needle and pray
When I put together what around here is referred to as The Bruce List (aka All 327 Bruce Springsteen Songs, Ranked From Worst to Best), one of the guidelines I set was that the list was only about songs written by Bruce Springsteen. This meant no covers, not even songs that are closely associated with him. The point of the list was to review and rank them and what I am reviewing and ranking is the songwriting. The performance of the song can impact its position but mostly I’m looking at each individual song’s strengths and weaknesses from a lyric and composition standpoint. I was trying to keep the criteria the same for every song, and also? If i had included covers the list would have been close to a thousand and that’s the point at which it stops being any kind of useful or interesting exercise.
I had imagined that at some point I’d do some kind of project around the covers, because something that is very much absent in the existing Springsteen scholarship is thoughtful, well-researched, and comprehensive discussion of the covers. Plenty of websites have lists of covers that will give you the name of one person who wrote it or is known for it (usually wrong or insufficient), tell you how many times he has played it (random and boring), a handful of YouTube videos, and that’s about it. That is sad to me because one of my great joys in discovering Bruce Springsteen all those years ago was understanding why these songs were around, in seeing the E Street Band love and appreciate music as fans, in figuring out why certain songs were meaningful and played live on that record or at that concert.
For a lot of people, Bruce Springsteen’s covers of things like “New Orleans” or “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes” or “When You Walked In The Room” was where they first learned or got curious about rock and roll history; there were more than a few bootlegs released back in the day that were just collections of the best covers, because it was that acknowledgement of our collective culture that was a vital element of the shows back then. You heard them radio broadcasts or maybe you bought a bootleg or two or later got a tape. “Raise Your Hand” became lingua franca after Live 75-85 came out, for example. There is so much to uncover, explain and enjoy in depth.
This is not going to be in any kind of order beyond “These are the songs I want to write about right now.” This is also not going to be a complete list of every cover song Bruce Springsteen has ever performed. I may at some point do some kind of ranking, either personal or professional, but that is not the goal of the project. Right now I just want to focus on writing at length about Springsteen’s cover songs, where they fit, and why they’re important.
What is a Cover Song: I’ve also seen a lot of incorrect definitions of the term “cover song.” A “cover song” is when an artist performs a song that was written and recorded by another artist. A cover song is not when Bruce joins Gaslight Anthem onstage and sings “American Skin” with them. That is a guest appearance. Do not email and ask me when I will be writing about Bruce’s cover of “Pink Houses” from the 2019 Sting Rainforest benefit. He sang with John Mellencamp, so it is a guest appearance. If Bruce had showed up and played “Pink Houses” solo acoustic, that would have been a cover version. I’m glad we cleared that up.
Apologies for wasting a post on a long explanation but I didn’t want to waste space in the first edition with this background and there’s no other way to publish something like this on Substack. But the next note in your inbox should be the first post! Enjoy!
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