RACING IN THE STREET is a song by US-American musician Bruce Springsteen (born in 1949 in Long Branch, New Jersey). It was originally released as last listed track of the first side of Springsteen’s album Darkness on the Edge of Town on June 2nd, 1978. Due to its overall melancholy atmosphere and its textual reflection regarding the individual’s (fruitless) coping with finding meaning in life, RACING IN THE STREET serves as textbook example of the album’s leitmotif of disenchantment.
RACING IN THE STREET was written by Bruce Springsteen during a very precarious phase of his career (see Context below). Involved musicians of the song’s recording are Bruce Springsteen (lead vocals and lead guitar) and the members of the E Street Band: Roy Bittan (piano and backing vocals), Clarence Clemons (backing vocals), Danny Federici (organ), Garry Talent (electric bass), Steve Van Zandt (guitar and backing vocals) and Max Weinberg (drums).
Recordings took place between October 1977 and March 1978 at the Record Plant Studios in New York City. The song was produced by Bruce Springsteen and Jon Landau. Steve Van Zandt acted furthermore as production assistant. Mixing, engineering and mastering were conducted by Jimmy Iovine, Thom Panunzio, Chuck Plotkin and Mike Reese. Photographs for the album’s cover were taken by Frank Stefano.
To contextually categorize RACING IN THE STREET in an adequate way, it is helpful to draw on an academic paper by Larry David Smith and John Rutter (2008). In this paper Bruce Springsteen’s career is subsumed as a soap opera titled “The American Chronicles”. They split his career in certain phases. By that, real-life occurrences and the struggles in finding a position as a professional musician in a relentless business become psychological and narrative reflections in his lyrics. His first three albums Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973); The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (1973) and Born to Run (1975) are described as “dreaming phase”. The following “reckoning phase” combines the recordings of Darkness on the Edge of Town and its antecessor The River (1980). Working on Darkness on the Edge of Town can be interpreted as Springsteen’s personal coming-of-age experience in which a young man realizes that life entails more than just having fun: “The characters who hopped into their cars for an extensive party in the dreaming phase are now sitting in those cars running out of gas. […] [T]hey respond in a confused manner; blending an urge for one last party, one last ride in their hotrods, one last Big Laugh with a corresponding need to cry, pray, or fight” (Smith/Rutter 2008: 112). As Smith/Rutter delineate further on, Darkness on the Edge of Town tells “a tale of socioeconomic struggle and submission” (ibid.: 117; see Analysis below for a detailed discussion of those issues).
Indeed, two aspects corroborate the finding that Bruce Springsteen has taken a special, more conscious position within the music business than young interpreters usually do. First of all, several performances of the then-developing field of promotion gave rise to the often formulated notion that Springsteen’s career is based on one of the first medial “hypes” within the music business. For example, when signing his first contract at the age of 23, his record label Columbia Records internally and externally tried to popularize him as “new Dylan”. In the spring of 1974, music critic Jon Landau (who would later become Springsteen’s manager and producer) formulated the often-cited words “I have seen rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen”. Looking back, music scholar Devon Powers writes that Landau’s sentence “[…] was therefore a catalyst not only in the promotion of Bruce Springsteen, but also in the belief that Springsteen’s success was primarily about promotion” (Powers 2011: 212). This invoked the general presumption that other critics would start “piggybacking” on Landau and the publication of Springsteen articles which were “the stuff of a widespread critical groupthink rather than independent views” (ibid.). Springsteen’s presence on the covers of Time magazine and Newsweek, both depictions during the same week in the autumn of 1975, certainly did not diminish those hype accusations.
Secondly, due to quarrels about legal issues with his former manager Mike Appell, Springsteen was interdicted to record new songs in the studio after the release of his first successful album Born to Run in the late summer of 1975. In this time span, which lasted until a settlement with Appell in 1977, he kept touring, produced material for other musicians and collected song ideas that would influence his following albums (several previously unreleased songs finally found their release on 2010’s The Promise; see Reception below). Hence, the songs of Darkness on the Edge of Town would find their release not until 1978 – roughly three years after his last album. It is not unlikely that the occurrences within this phase animated Springsteen to develop a distant, critical position towards the industry which was now as well a part of him as he would continue to be part of it.
RACING IN THE STREET encompasses a running time of 06:54 minutes and is the longest track of Darkness on the Edge of Town. This signifies the song in two ways: From a temporal perspective, it diverges sharply from the other material of the album, as most songs encompass a running time of roughly four minutes. Regimented in Springsteen’s discography, the song to a greater degree meets the formula of his second album The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. Four of the latter’s seven songs have a duration of seven minutes and therefore share the intention of a more complex, coherent ballad that wants to tell an elaborated story.
The song starts with moderate piano tunes until Springsteen’s voice is added after approximately 22 seconds. This purely instrumental piano passage can be seen as a hook which intends to accompany the song in a sometimes varying but nevertheless recurring way. For the time being, the piano tunes prove to be the only instrumental sound source of the song while Springsteen treats the first stanza and the chorus. Hence, RACING IN THE STREET opens with a tonal reduced prelude of roughly 90 seconds. This minimalistic sound structure facilitates the mediation of melancholy and disenchantment and is furthermore corroborated by Springsteen’s “echoesque” voice. For the listener, his words seem to come from a far distant position inside a big and deserted space. To sum it up, the initial technization of the music indeed elicits a scenario of darkness (perhaps on the edge of town).
With the beginning of the second stanza Springsteen’s voice adopts more loudness and drive, yet it keeps its melancholic undertone. Successively, the instrumentation is now added up by drums, electric bass and a recurring organ theme. At the latest by the second iteration of the chorus (02:14) RACING IN THE STREET reaches its peak in terms of the instrumental accompaniment. Drums are now certainly in the foreground, as well as the organ. The more surprising, the song is once again reduced to the singing-voice-plus-piano skeleton by reaching the third stanza. The third stanza therefore aligns with the first one, albeit the first voice is now experiencing assistance by barely perceptible, but nevertheless existant background vocals. The background voices accumulate to an elongated “aah”-sound (“choir of angels”) so that Springsteen’s voice occupies a sublime position (his later nickname “the boss” is mostly based on his powerful stage performances, but amusingly it would also be adequate here – yet in a very special, predominantly acoustic way). After a running time of approximately five minutes and the last iteration of the chorus the song turns into a straight instrumental track. The piano gets enhanced by drums, electric bass, the organ hook and now also the unobtrusive play of an electric guitar. RACING IN THE STREET fades out as a dreamy ballad searching its way on an open-ended, nightlight-illuminated road.
RACING IN THE STREET discusses the issues of a dull working class life and how to cope with it. The protagonist seems to find distraction only in nightly car rides together with likewise macerated colleagues and/or his love. Affection for machine parts and collectively found pleasure in the title-giving practice of RACING IN THE STREET are manifested in the first six lines: “I got a sixty-nine Chevy with a 396 | fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor | she’s waiting tonight down in the parking lot | outside the Seven-Eleven store | me and my partner Sonny built her straight out of scratch | and he rides with me from town to town”. It is interesting that the protagonist furthermore defends his aimless cruising as a meaningful pastime. As other people “just give up living” and “start dying little by little, piece by piece”, he claims to be one of those “guys” who “come home from work and wash up” to straightly find their place behind the steering wheel. This “hobby” may be a contracted one, but otherwise, in his view, it does prevent literally falling apart or committing suicide.
Although basically structured as a melancholic ballad, RACING IN THE STREET possesses a certain variety. The pace remains more or less constant throughout the whole song but the repeated reduction and enrichment of musical instruments set turning points which influence both content and the overall “mood” of the sound. As a result, the musical enactment of every stanza diverges from the former (the minimally accompanied stanza one, the most uplifting and powerful stanza two and the “choir of angels”-backed third stanza). This can be interpreted as a legitimation for Springsteen’s textual variations when performing the chorus. After the first stanza the chorus reads: “tonight, tonight the strip’s just right | I wanna blow ’em off in my first heat | summer’s here and the time is right | for goin’ racin’ in the street”. After the second stanza (the uplifting one) Springsteen replaces “I wanna blow ’em off in my first heat” with “I wanna blow ’em all out of their seats” and “summer’s here and the time is right” turns into “calling out around the world”. The changes are slight, but the more effective: The “first heat” is gone. Drawing on the second stanza’s uplifting rendering, the protagonist has reached a maximized urge/prowess. The intention to impress is now regarding the human body (“out of their seats”) and neglects the season of summer because the call-to-action is a spatial one (“around the world”). The season of summer reappears in the third chorus but both “heat” and “seats” step aside in favor of the verse “out of our way mister you best keep”. Anger is still existent, yet it is about to begin to cool off in the course of the instrumental fade-out. This voiceless and tranquil ending furthermore reinforces the decision to place RACING IN THE STREET as the last track of the original LP’s first side.
RACING IN THE STREET is one of his first narratives in that Bruce Springsteen not only sets the motive of the “desperate girlfriend”. Beyond her fundamental sadness, he strengthens the girl’s desperation in the third stanza. The protagonist discerns “wrinkles around my baby’s eyes” and notices that she “cries herself to sleep at night”. Desperation is at its maximum when the following happens: “she sits on the porch of her daddy’s house | but all her pretty dreams are torn | she stares off alone into the night | with the eyes of one who hates for just being born”. Almost paradoxically, it is now the girl and not the aforementioned driver who seems to be on the verge of suicide. Yet the fact that desperation is integrated in a traditional, heterosexual love relationship is obvious, it should be mentioned that Springsteen’s lyrics have been applied in an enormous contrasting way. Betsy A. Sandlin reports of the usage of Springsteen’s lyrics by homosexual writer Rane Arroyo. Arroyo’s poems challenge both his own position in a subcultural milieu and the homophobia of classic rock music. He also portrays the nightly use of cars in terms of distraction, however with a diverging purpose. In his poems, he finds enjoyment in escaping with like-minded lovers while listening to Bruce Springsteen songs and asking for the real definition of a “man”. From this vantage point, RACING IN THE STREET becomes the soundtrack of hidden (sexual) practices and the queer individual finds satisfaction by subverting macho vernacular. The escapism portrayed by Arroyo is, according to Sandlin, not anymore based on the wish to put the working-class-routine on the shelf but to flee from social stigmas, injustice and violence. It is important to mention that, although Springsteen’s lyrics enact a love scenario with explicitly traditional roles, he can identify with being seen as an “outsider”. Sandlin refers to an interview in which Springsteen in hindsight describes himself and his friends as “the town freaks” while growing up and that he didn’t share homophobic attitudes (see Sandling 2015).
These findings about RACING IN THE STREET correlate with those of Craig Hemmens. He determines a change in Springsteen’s music from Born to Run to Darkness on the Edge of Town. The tone of frustration and sadness inherent in the former is extended with a profound expression of angriness by the latter; the characters depicted seem to have no more illusions. Hemmens continues that the lyrics emphasize the aspect of community cohesion and expose the various problems the American working class has to deal with. All in all, the practice of aimless rushing through the streets appears to be quite paradoxical: the driver knows that his nightly getaways won’t result in any kind of progression for his sorrowful working class life. However, he is so deeply trapped in his spiral, so accustomed to the recurring cocktail of love, chrome and open roads, that he can’t stop tasting it (see Hemmens 1999).
In spite of Darkness on the Edge of Town’s stylistic diversion of predecessor Born to Run and the fact that it was released roughly three years after the latter, it was a commercial success. Released on 2nd June 1978, it reached the fifth position of the US Billboard Album Charts and was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) at the end of the same month. Collectively, it would accomplish to remain in the Album Charts for 97 weeks and receive Triple Platinum status.
Yet, the album did not manage to spawn successful singles. “Prove It All Night” peaked at #33, “Badlands” at #42 and “The Promised Land” failed to achieve any ranking in the Single Charts. It would last until 1980 when Springsteen would produce his first hit single (“Hungry Heart” ranking #5 on the Single Charts).
Due to the above mentioned difficulties in the forefront of the album’s recordings, several Special Editions and Anniversary Editions were released in 2008 to retrospectively elucidate the background. Moreover, previously unreleased songs that emerged during Springsteen’s “recording-studio-forbidden” phase were part of the release of The Promise in 2010. Among those songs is a version of RACING IN THE STREET with alternate lyrics. Exceptional for the distribution of a music album, the special releases came along with a documentary film named The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town in which the song’s/album’s origins are explained in detail.
RACING IN THE STREET is also included in Springsteen’s live recording collection Live/1975–85 (1986) which reached the Number One Position of the Album Charts in the winter of 1986 and would ultimately receive a 13x platinum status. The song was a regular feature during his live concerts in the late 1970s throughout mid-1980s. Within live performances, Springsteen and his band often extended the instrumental fade-out of the song so that it exceeded the album’s version running time. Its running time on the aforementioned box set, for example, encompasses more than eight minutes.
Critically, both RACING IN THE STREET and Darkness on the Edge of Town can assert to be highly successful and decisive works within Springsteen’s career. The song was lauded by other musicians, such as Joe Strummer (The Clash). According to Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh the song seperates casual Springsteen fans from the fanatics, insofar that many of the latter would evaluate RACING IN THE STREET as maybe the pinnacle of Springsteen’s work (see Marsh 1987: 356ff.). The Rolling Stone magazine lists the album at #150 among the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. Darkness on the Edge of Town mediates Springsteen’s “hard-won realism breaking through”. It entails “working class dreams and despair” in which RACING IN THE STREET is “his greatest-ever car song”. In the original Rolling Stone album review, RACING IN THE STREET is noticed as Darkness on the Edge of Town’s “most beautiful ballad”. Furthermore, the album is evaluated as follows: “If these songs are about experienced adulthood, they sacrifice none of rock & roll’s adolescent innocence. Springsteen escapes the narrow dogmatism of both Old Wave and New, and the music’s possibilities are once again limitless. […] [The album] feels like the threshold of a new period in which we’ll again have ‘lives on the line where dreams are found and lost.’ It poses once more the question that rock & roll’s epiphanic moments always raise: Do you believe in magic? And once again, the answer is yes. Absolutely” (Marsh 1978).
Lyrics: Bruce Springsteen
Producers: Bruce Springsteen, Jon Landau, Steve Van Zandt
Vocals: Bruce Springsteen
Music: Bruce Springsteen, Roy Bittan, Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, Garry Talent, Steve van Zandt, Max Weinberg
Mixing, mastering and engineering: Jimmy Iovine, Thom Panunzio, Chuck Plotkin, Mike Reese
Label: Columbia Records
Recording: Record Plant Studios, New York City, USA
Duration: 06:54 (original album version)
- Bruce Springsteen. “Racing in the Street”. On: Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978, Columbia, 7C 35318, US (Vinyl/Album).
- Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band. “Racing in the Street”. On: Live/1975–85, 1986, Columbia, C5X 40558, US (5xVinyl/Album)
- Bruce Springsteen. The Promise, 2010, Columbia, 886977761771, US (3xVinyl/Album).
- Hemmens, Craig: There’s a Darkness on the Edge of Town: Merton’s Five Modes of Adaption in the Lyrics of Bruce Springsteen. In: International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice 23/1 (2011), 127-136 Retrievable online via: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01924036.1999.9678636. [18.12.2015].
- Marsh, Dave: Darkness on the Edge of Town (Abum Review). In: Rolling Stone, 27.07.1978, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/darkness-on-the-edge-of-town-197342/ [18.12.2020].
- Marsh, Dave: Glory Days. Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s. New York: Pantheon Books 1987.
- Powers, Devon: Bruce Springsteen, Rock Criticism, and the Music Business: Towards a Theory and History of Hype. In: Popular Music and Society 34/2 (2011), 203-219.
- Rutter, John; Smith, Larry David: There’s a Reckoning on the Edge of Town: Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on The River. In: Journal of Popular Music Studies 20/2 (2008), 109-128.
- Sandlin, Betsy A.: Queering the Badlands and the Darkness: Rane Arroyo’s Springsteen Poems. In: Popular Music and Society 39/2 (2015), 175-185. Retrievable online via: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03007766.2015.1036633. [18.12.2015].
- Lyrics and releases of RACING IN THE STREET on the official Bruce Springsteen website. URL: http://brucespringsteen.net/songs/racing-in-the-street [20.12.2015].
- Short summary of Bruce Springsteen’s career. URL: http://www.donaldclarkemusicbox.com/encyclopedia/detail.php?s=3209 [20.12.2015].
- RIAA’s certifications of DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN. URL: http://www.riaa.com/goldandplatinumdata.php?resultpage=1&table=SEARCH_RESULTS&action=&title=&artist=bruce%20springsteen&format=&debutLP=&category=&sex=&releaseDate=&requestNo=&type=&level=&label=&company=&certificationDate=&awardDescription=&catalogNo=&aSex=&rec_id=&charField=&gold=&platinum=&multiPlat=&level2=&certDate=&album=&id=&after=&before=&startMonth=1&endMonth=1&startYear=1958&endYear=2009&sort=Artist&perPage=25 [20.12.2015].
- RIAA’s certifications of LIVE/1975–85. URL: http://www.riaa.com/goldandplatinumdata.php?resultpage=1&table=SEARCH_RESULTS&action=&title=&artist=bruce%20springsteen&format=&debutLP=&category=&sex=&releaseDate=&requestNo=&type=&level=&label=&company=&certificationDate=&awardDescription=&catalogNo=&aSex=&rec_id=&charField=&gold=&platinum=&multiPlat=&level2=&certDate=&album=&id=&after=&before=&startMonth=1&endMonth=1&startYear=1958&endYear=2009&sort=Artist&perPage=25 [20.12.2015].
- Hagen, Mark: The True Fax about Bruce and Joe. In: The Guardian, 14.06.2009. URL: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2009/jun/14/bruce-springsteen-joe-strummer-glastonbury [20.12.2015].
- Entry of DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN within Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. URL: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/500-greatest-albums-of-all-time-20120531/bruce-springsteen-darkness-on-the-edge-of-town-20120524 [20.12.2015].
About the Author
All contributions by Niklas Nowak
Niklas Nowak: “Racing in the Street (Bruce Springsteen)”. In: Songlexikon. Encyclopedia of Songs. Ed. by Michael Fischer, Fernand Hörner and Christofer Jost, http://www.songlexikon.de/songs/racing-in-the-street, 12/2020.Print