Springsteen’s first two albums had flopped commercially, and he was struggling to get the sound he heard in his head onto vinyl. In the spring of 1974 his band was touring college auditoriums and small theaters to support his second album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.
Jon Landau had been born in suburban Boston suburbs and spent much of his time at Brandeis in the ‘60s listening to rock ‘n roll records. In 1965 and 1966 he played in a band called the Jellyroll that never made it. Landau blamed himself; he was too much of a perfectionist to work with others.
Realizing he’d never play rock ‘n roll, he became a critic for alternative newspapers. He once wrote:
I flipped for the Animals' two-hour show at Rindge Tech; the Rolling Stones, not just at Boston Garden, where they did the best half hour rock'n'roll set I had ever seen, but at Lynn Football Stadium, where they started a riot; Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels overcoming the worst of performing conditions at Watpole Skating Rink; and the Beatles at Suffolk Down…
Landau had also parlayed a friendship with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records to produce a few records. The MC5’s Back in the USA was a flop and he failed at producing J Geils’ debut album.
By 1974, Landau was bored with rock ‘n roll. He liked Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder – and Bruce Springsteen.
The two had met in April that year outside Charlie’s Place, a bar in Cambridge where the band was playing. Then on May 9, 1974, Springsteen played two separate shows opening for Bonnie Raitt at the Harvard Square Theatre.
His band was announced as The E Street Band for the first time ever. They played I Sold My Heart to the Junkman during the first set, and closed the second with a frenzied version of Twist and Shout. During the second set, Springsteen unveiled Born to Run.
Landau attended the second set and was blown away.
In the May 22, 1974 issue of The Real Paper, Landau wrote a column about the concert. It became one of the most famous pieces of rock criticism ever. Novelist Nick Hornby called the column ‘influential, exciting, career-changing, and subsequently much derided and parodied article.’
I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.
Springsteen’s record company built a campaign for Springsteen’s breakthrough album, Born to Run, around that quote. More importantly, Springsteen asked Landau’s advice about getting the wall of sound he wanted on the album.
Landau knew enough about record production to advise Springsteen to switch studios. He gave Springsteen so much help on the production of Born to Run that he is credited as co-producer on the record.
Born to Run – which includes Thunder Road, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, Jungleland and, of course, Born to Run -- is considered one of the greatest rock ‘n roll albums ever.
We were worlds colliding. His creative ability as a producer, an editor, speechwriter earlier this evening, his ability to see through to the heart of matters both professional and personal, and the love that he’s given me has altered my life forever. What I hope to give to my fans with my music — a greater sense of themselves, and greater freedom — he with his talents and his abilities has done that for me. There’s no ‘thank you’ tonight that’s gonna do the job, and it’s a debt that I can’t repay, and one that I treasure owing.
You can hear a tape of the May 9, 1974 concert here.