“Thunder Road,” the opening track from Bruce Springsteen’s classic 1975 album, is widely regarded as not only one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs of all-time, but one of the most uplifting and positive ones as well. However, this version of “Thunder Road” that Springsteen recorded, likely as a demo, is starkly different in tone and feeling. Without changing any lyrics, this version of “Thunder Road” is mournful and very sad. Instead of being the inspirational tale of a young couple leaving a small town to make their dreams come true despite the odds against them, this version is a tale of desperation and regret. And all because of an arrangement that would feel right at home on a Leonard Cohen album. While the “Born to Run” version of “Thunder Road” will make you feel like you can conquer the world, this acoustic version breaks your heart.
The fact that Springsteen can evoke two different emotions with the same lyrics speaks to his power as a songwriter and performer. As Nick Hornby said about this version of “Thunder Road” in his book “Songbook” (aka “31 Songs”): “It’s slow, and mournful, and utterly convincing: an artist who can persuade you of the truth of what he is singing with either version is an artist who is capable of an awful lot.”
For another contrast, I would also urge you to check out this live version of “Thunder Road” from a 1975 concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. This is closer to the version on “Born to Run,” but it’s mainly done with a solo piano and no rousing guitar work. Again, it’s not depressing like the acoustic demo discussed earlier, but this version is a lot more melancholy than the version on “Born to Run.” Apparently, this was the way “Thunder Road” was performed in concert until around 1977 or so.
Out of the blue … and into the black. This is the most horrific song I’ve ever heard. The premise is not original: a young man with a wife and child can’t afford to support his family … so in desperation he murders them and commits suicide. The strange thing about this song is how little is expressed in the lyrics.
While your typical death metal band would go into graphic detail about the murders, “Frankie Teardrop” provides very minimal detail about what happens. The musical background is a monotonous synth riff played over and over again. What makes this song so painful to listen to is the twitchy way singer Alan Vega spits out the lyrics (which sound like he’s reading from a newspaper). Vega then expresses the most bloodcurdling screams you’ll ever hear. The screams are so frighteningly intense, they must come from a place that’s inconceivably dark.
It’s a song that forces you to question why anyone would subject themselves to the most horrific art. The fact that the lyrics and music are so minimal is a reduction of dark ideas into their evil essence.
Author Nick Hornby wrote an excellent essay about this song in his book “Songbook” where he advised: “Me, I need no convincing that life is scary. I’m forty-four and it has got quite scary enough already … Friends have started to die of incurable diseases, leaving loved ones, in some cases young children, behind. My son has been diagnosed with a severe disability, and I don’t know what the future holds for him … So … please forgive me if I don’t want to hear ‘Frankie Teardrop’ right now. He later concludes: “That’s the real con of shock art: It makes out that it’s democratic, but it’s actually only for those who can afford it. And some of us, as we get older, simply find that we don’t have that much courage to spare anymore. Good luck to you if you have, because it means that you have managed to avoid more or less everything that life has to throw at you, but don’t try to make me feel morally or intellectually inferior.”
Even though I am 100% in agreement with Hornby, I’m not quite ready to dismiss “Frankie Teardrop.” Let’s just say that it’s a song I greatly admire, but can only listen to every couple of years.
The splendid and infamous mash-up of “Push It” by Salt n’ Pepa with “No Fun” by The Stooges, put together by 2 Many DJs. This was one of Nick Hornby’s favorites in his collection of essays about desert island songs, “Songbook.” If you like what you hear, be sure to check out the 2 Many DJs album “As Heard on Radio Vol. 2″ , which is nothing but multiple mashups of everything from the Velvet Underground to Dolly Parton to Peaches to Emerson Lake & Palmer. Trust me, it’s WAAAAY better than it sounds.