Bruce Springsteen was about to get dropped by his record company when Jon Landau, a 27-year-old music critic for Boston’s Real Paper, wrote a column that launched both their careers.
Springsteen’s first two albums had flopped commercially. He also couldn't quite 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.
Boston was a paradise for rock 'n roll fans in the 1970s. The city's many colleges provided a ready audience for groups like the Cars, The J. Geils Band and the Modern Lovers. Aerosmith seemed to perform at every frat party, high school and country club in Greater Boston. In far off Toledo, Ohio, Tom Scholz listened to rock 'n roll on Boston's WBZ radio. He then went to MIT and named his band after the town.
So perhaps it was inevitable that Springsteen's career would get its biggest lift in the town where the mayor once bailed out the Rolling Stones.
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, including Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy and The Real Paper. 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 Walpole 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 flopped, and he failed at producing J Geils’ debut album.
By 1974, rock 'n roll bored Landau. He liked Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder – and Bruce Springsteen.
The two had met in April that year outside Charlie’s Place, a Cambridge bar where the band played. Then on May 9, 1974, Springsteen played two separate shows opening for Bonnie Raitt at the Harvard Square Theatre.
Born to Run
Springsteen announced his band 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 it blew him away.
In the May 22, 1974 issue of The Real Paper, Jon 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.’
Jon Landau had written:
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.
Jon Landau knew enough about record production to advise Springsteen to switch studios. He helped Springsteen so much help on Born to Run that he received a credit as co-producer.
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.
No Thank You
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.
This story about Jon Landau was updated in 2018.