Bruce Springsteen’s 40 greatest songs

An all-star cast pick The Boss' best moments…

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2 Atlantic City
Nebraska album track, 1982

ED HARCOURT: This is probably my all-time favourite Springsteen song, from my all-time favourite Springsteen album. The album’s got a desperate feel. It seems to be, I dunno, it’s that whole kind of lovers on the run thing, young kids not knowing what direction they’re going in. That whole album is extraordinary – it’s so haunting. He did it on a four-track, it sounds so stripped down, raw and hungry. I’m not into his stadium rock stuff, so I think this is what Bruce does best. I never related to Bruce until I went on tour last year, and I was driving through Nebraska and Iowa, and then I listened to these songs again, and they all made sense to me – the desolation, the way he captures that sense of wilderness. The thing for me about “Atlantic City”, though, is the lyrics. “Maybe everything that dies someday comes back…” is such a great line, it really strikes a chord with my own songwriting. I’d be proud to have written that! “Atlantic City” just seems to speak to me. I find it so moving. He has an incredible turn of phrase, real poetry. When I was growing up, Tom Waits was the man for me, but the more I listen to Bruce, the more I think he’s incredible.
JESSE MALIN: I got into Bruce through Nebraska. I pretty much didn’t like him very much. My dad listened to him and it reminded me of old people in New Jersey and Long Island and I wanted to get away from all that my whole life. And I didn’t realise this billionaire was so real ’til he put out this four-track record, Nebraska, and then I went back and really checked out those previous records and was able to appreciate them and realise that he was singing about getting away from those suburban nightmares and not just championing the rednecks in the pick-up trucks. He was actually singing about getting out of that world. And just like punk rock, with Sid Vicious and The Dead Kennedys, it can be misunderstood and taken wrong. Goons got into punk and thought it was about destroying everything and fascism and violence when the message was quite the opposite. Bruce has a duality similar to that. I’m still today trying to convince people that “Born In The USA” isn’t the Rambo, Reagan thing, that it’s actually pretty anti-American in its sentiments. I tell them to read the lyric sheets. I mean, I’ve kept Bruce in the closet over the years, especially when I was in more punk rock bands. But I always thought there was a great parallel to The Clash. I think The River and London Calling are very similar. They came out about the same time, they’re both double albums, the Telecaster frontman with the sideburns, connections to the ’50s, the slice-of-life lyrics. I think that what I also like about Bruce and The Clash is a great feel for the cinema. Dark kinda characters going through things, very Scorsese kind of stuff. That dark, streety kinda film stuff affects a lot of my writing. And, of course, Lou Reed is also somewhere in the middle of all that. But “Atlantic City”, the story’s just really great. People clinging together with nothing but each other. People in desperate hours doing whatever they can to make ends meet. It’s just the romance of someone wanting to do something to get by and bring it back to his woman, for his girl. It’s about the parallels between romance and crime, survival. Just characters that are on the edge. And it’s a time period before New Jersey, Atlantic City was built up into something all fluffy. When he wrote it, it was a pretty dark, messed-up little place, full of crime and very seedy. It isn’t what it is today. And presumably it was at one time a place of significance and beauty and glamour and success but it had all just gone down the toilet during the ’70s. It’s a very On The Waterfront, Mafia, Mean Streets kinda song.
HOWE GELB: I like “Atlantic City” for nostalgic reasons. Basically, it was a town my folks used to take me when I was a kid, and I always had such a brilliant time that whenever I hear this song I remember being four and wandering around the boardwalk.
DAN BERN: It’s the hope of “Thunder Road”, but some years on down the line, with some of the optimism dashed.
JACKIE LEVEN: I personally never believed any of the bullshit surrounding Nebraska when it came out: how the record company were freaked out that he did it; how he supposedly recorded it on a tiny cassette player. It sounds way too good for that. It works more than any other on the album. It’s one of those songs that makes you really jealous about someone else’s writing. When I hear it, something about it hurts because I didn’t write it!
THEA GILMORE: “Everything dies baby, that’s a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back” – what a couplet for a chorus. The whole song hovers on that point where sheer desperation and hope battle it out. It’s a great picture of the chasm that exists between the reality that is and the reality you’re made to think is out there. It shines kind of a harsh light on the real world and sticks a little needle into you that says true love doesn’t always last forever, money doesn’t always solve things and truth isn’t always on the lips of those you expect, but knowing that stuff never stops you hoping.
NICK JOHNSTONE: This broods like Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront. I hear it in black and white. There’s no colour on this one. The backing vocals get me every time. It has the feel of an old movie. Something desperate and real like It’s A Wonderful Life. When he sings “Put your make-up on/Fix your hair up pretty”, it’s romantic the way Edward Hopper paintings are romantic.
TOM McRAE: “Everything dies baby, that’s a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back…” Sometimes he walks a fine line between emotional and sentimental, but to offer despair and hope in one line is typical of his genius. And when he sings “Put your make-up on, fix your hair up pretty/And meet me tonight in Atlantic City”, I swear I can feel my heart crack. And all done on a four-track. The bastard.
CHRIS T-T: I’ve got several different recordings of this song and they’re all completely spine-tingling. The Nebraska version is really low and stripped down while the live versions are quite raucous and messy. I think that’s one of the most impressive things about Springsteen: his songs are so strong he can adapt them to suit any format. If we wait long enough, he might treat us to a piano version of “Atlantic City” one day.
CHUCK MEAD: A Technicolor anthem. One of the greatest films of all time.
LYNDON MORGANS: I could fill a Bruce Springsteen Top 10 just by citing the Nebraska track-listing. For me, the stripped-down Boss is the most moving and impressive of all. It’s ironic that a man who doesn’t need a band at all has access to one of the finest bands you could imagine. Talk about having your cake and eating it! The lyrics to the chorus of this are capital-p Poetry. And profound.
BEN HARPER: “Atlantic City” is a fantastic East Coast tale – a blue-collar fairy tale, in a weird way. It’s super-romantic, and it moves me in a very profound way.
TOM BRIDGEWATER: You’ve gotta have a song from Nebraska. Just when Bruce was threatening to go all bombastic, he put out this record and we knew he was the new king of rock. I heard him perform this song solo at the Albert Hall. Amazing.
NIGEL WILLIAMSON: Songwriting of pure genius from his best album ever. The only song ever to use the word “rumble” – Link Wray’s hit of the same name being an instrumental – and not sound like some ludicrous West Side Story pastiche.
DANIEL DAVIDSON: Every time I listen to “Atlantic City” it takes me to a different place. I can’t explain why or how, but the vocals and the music always make me feel good. I guess it’s probably one of Springsteen’s most romantic songs, but I tend to listen to it when I’m driving round in my car.
RODDY WOOMBLE: Three or four years ago, I was having an argument about Springsteen with And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. They encouraged me to go and buy a copy of Nebraska, and I’ve been a fan ever since. All the tracks on that album are excellent, but I think “Atlantic City” captures Springsteen at his most Dylanesque. The melody is really strong, the vocals are fantastic and the narrative draws you in perfectly. I’d love to write a song as poetic as this, but I’m still quite scared of writing stories. Springsteen is a born storyteller, and when you listen to songs like this you can understand why he’s seen as America’s favourite son. His stories embrace everyone from waitresses and bus drivers to lonesome teenagers looking for love.
BRETT SPARKS: This song is like a little film. The little guy down on his luck risking everything on one last shot. And you just know he’s going to lose out completely. “Everything dies baby, that’s a fact.”
RENNIE SPARKS: This is Bruce’s Zen mind, a koan written for the Jersey set. So bittersweet, and even more so if you’ve ever been to Atlantic City. Smell the chemicals in the sea breeze and pray you don’t come back as a duckling on the Jersey shoreline.


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