September 1982: Bruce Springsteen Goes Back to Basics on 'Nebraska'

Bruce Springsteen released a different kind of album with 'Nebraska.'
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Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

Fans of Bruce Springsteen's massive, arena-filling rock style were in for a shock when his sixth album Nebraska reached record stores on September 30, 1982. Gone were the soulful stylings of The E Street Band; in their place...nothing.

The 10 tracks of Nebraska were demos Springsteen recorded in his Colts Neck, NJ bedroom - little more than vocals, guitar and the occasional harmonica or glockenspiel, recorded on cassette into a Tascam PortaStudio four-track recorder with two Shure SM57 microphones. "We almost had to release it on cassette," he told Rolling Stone in 1984, noting how difficult it was to get the audio to track on vinyl.

Nebraska was "difficult" in its own way: gone were the Jersey shore dreamers of Born to Run or The River. The songs of Nebraska - many of them conceived on that tape over one night in January 1982 - were spare and dark. Springsteen was no stranger to those living in the shadows of the American dream, but rarely did those characters - the low-level grunt stuck in a cycle of crime in "Atlantic City," the drunk who loses his job and a whole lot more in "Johnny 99" - get pushed front and center, with nary a Clarence Clemons sax solo or Danny Federici organ line to keep audiences buoyed.

But that's not to say Bruce didn't try it: among his most legendary unreleased sessions include fleshed out "electric" versions of songs that ended up on Nebraska. While they remain unheard by the public, eight tracks from those sessions were includedtwo years later on The Boss' best-selling album, Born in the U.S.A. (the title track started out as a Nebraska-era demo, and was later released on the Tracks box set.)

Despite the unconventional nature of the album, Nebraska was a hit with audiences and critics alike, reaching #3 on the Billboard 200 and earning Springsteen another platinum record from the Recording Industry Association of America. And the songs remain some of his most influential: Johnny Cash covered two of them for his 1983 album Johnny 99, and Emmylou Harris, The Band and Steve Earle have included versions of Nebraska tunes on their albums or in concert.

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