We’re #2! – Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia”

“Oh brother, are you gonna leave me wastin’ away on the streets of Philadelphia?”

Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).

Inspired by Tom Ewing’s “Popular” (which traces the history of UK #1 singles) and Tom Breihan’s “The Number Ones” (which does the same for US #1s), “We’re #2!” looks at the history of those songs which almost but not-quite managed to reach the summit of the UK Singles Chart.  Beginning a quarter century back from this column’s inception (March 2019) up until whenever the Present Day comes about.

004] Bruce Springsteen – Streets of Philadelphia

Reached #2: 27th March 1994

Weeks at #2: 1

Over the course of his 44-year career, Bruce Springsteen has scored 9 UK #1 albums, 10 if you include his 1995 Greatest Hits collection.  He has never topped the UK singles chart.  “Born to Run,” that initial bolt out of the blue which was covered by Frankie Goes to Hollywood in 1984 and is rightly considered a classic in the annals of rock music?  Didn’t chart in the UK.  “Hungry Heart,” his big Top 10 breakthrough in America and which paved the way for the rest of his dominating 80s output?  Peaked at #44.  “Dancing in the Dark,” a ginormous wall-of-sound inspirational 80s pop-rock staple that still kicks ass today?  Two weeks at #4 in 1985, a full year after the single was first issued.  “Born in the USA,” the stinging critique of American exceptionalism unfortunately embraced as a nationalistic pomp by idiots not paying attention to the lyrics?  #5 and that was with it being a double A-side (the other song being “I’m on Fire”).  The forking “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” cover, that catnip to 80s chart-buying audiences the nation over?  #9 for one week, felled by a re-run of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and the inescapable magnetism of Shakin’ Stevens.  Re-issuing “Born to Run” as a 1987 live take?  #17.

Speaking as someone who was effectively a Springsteen neophyte prior to beginning research for this article – he’s one of my bigger musical blindspots, but I’ve really enjoyed enough of what I’ve heard to want to dig in further when this piece is wrapped up – this revelation is both completely understandable and utterly perplexing.  Springsteen’s music is super-American.  Of course it is, he writes empathetically about blue-collar American dreamers, the country’s national identity, and a soundscape whose rock roots (not to be confused with the genre of roots-rock) are burrowed deep into America’s heartland during a period of time where British audiences were sceptical and often unreceptive to such things.  Yet such a theory doesn’t entirely hold water either.  Bon Jovi, a band whose permanent karaoke staple “Livin’ on a Prayer” is as blatant a Springsteen bite as one could ever hope to find, have (to date) 18 UK Top 10 singles to Springsteen’s 5, and Bryan Adams also saw much in the way of chart success sounding Red White & Blue-tiful despite being Canadian (although his big chart successes wouldn’t arrive until the 90s and a radical shift in sound).

Plus, Springsteen wrote bangers.  Catchy, emotional, fist-in-the-air, lighters-to-the-sky, tears-in-your-eyes anthems of the first degree.  These types of songs typically cross over regardless of any pre-existing biases – during my teenage boy “all pop music SUCKS” phase, even I found it impossible to deny Lady Gaga’s sensational “Bad Romance.”  You can’t even blame this misfortune on poor single choices, since cuts like “My Hometown” and “Atlantic City” blow “Summer of ‘69” and “Keep the Faith” out of the water, whilst later singles like “Human Touch” and “Better Days” demonstrate The Boss changing up his sound to reflect the new pop scene without selling out and losing his identity.  But despite all of that, he never did reach the summit of the singles chart.  The closest he managed to get was #2 for a single week with arguably one of his best ever songs: “Streets of Philadelphia.”

Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia was never supposed to open with a song like “Streets of Philadelphia.”  He had originally envisioned the intro as being scored to “a ‘Southern Man’-type anthem,” even sending out temp-cuts set to that very song, and reached out to Neil Young for an original concoction that would “send a strong, reassuring message to testosterone-fuelled men… ‘Well, if Neil’s down with it,’ you know?”  (Important reminder: Philadelphia was one of the first mainstream Hollywood movies to seriously tackle homosexuality and the AIDS crisis which, thanks to catastrophic inaction and homophobic misinformation by the Reagan administration of the ‘80s, were both heavily stigmatised at the time.)  A week later, Young sends back a tape containing “Philadelphia,” a climactic and wistful piano ballad that brought Demme to tears.  It ended up closing out the film, but there was still no “Southern Man”-type intro.  So, Demme then contacted Springsteen, whom he’d worked with on the video for “Murder Incorporated,” asking him to take a crack at it.  Once again, a few weeks later, Demme and his wife Joanne received a tape in the mail, this time with “Streets of Philadelphia” on it…

“And I’m like, ‘Wow, this is so beautiful, but honey, it’s not the anthem.’  She goes, ‘you know, it seems like these people trust your film more than you do.  Why don’t you just shut up about “Southern Man?”’  So that’s what happened.”

Imagine the title sequence of Philadelphia opening to anything other than “Streets of Philadelphia.”  Go ahead, watch it back on mute and play “Southern Man” or a “Southern Man”-type jam underneath those images.  Try and envision anything else playing under the montage of working-class Philadelphians going about their uneventful days with grey skies and a slow turn towards racial income divides, homeless people sleeping covered by trash, shots of the unemployment line.  Inquire what other song could possibly better suit or eclipse “Streets of Philadelphia” backing this specific montage for this specific movie.  I almost guarantee you will come up empty in your search for answers, it’s a perfect marriage of visuals and song.  “Southern Man” snarls with palpable righteous anger at furious injustice which isn’t ineffective but is very much at odds with the resigned spectating mundanity of Demme’s montage.  “Streets of Philadelphia” nails that feeling and sets the stage for Philadelphia’s tone to follow like all the best overtures do.

Now, with that said, we’re judging the song on its merits as a piece of music, without giving points for how much it enhances or is enhanced by its appearance in a movie, so this also needs to be capable of standing on its own two feet.  Spoilers for later instalments in this series: there’s only one other #2 from 1994 that is on “Streets of Philadelphia”’s level.

See, I have a real weakness for the minimalist ballad that sounds all-encompassing when you’re sat in your bedroom at night in the dark crying your eyes out over this deep melancholic sadness which refuses to go away, or walking along quiet town streets with your headphones on and nothing but your own thoughts and anxieties to keep you company like it’s the closing montage in an episode of a CW show.  They barely seem to raise their voices above a whisper and don’t openly aim for the gut-punch of emotions, rarely seeming to build to a proper crescendo and often quietly fading back out the same way they came in, unresolved and potentially eternal.  Yet the best examples cut deeper than the biggest and loudest showstoppers could ever hope to manage, perhaps because those louder versions strive for and offer a catharsis which these more melancholic pieces don’t even understand is an option.  One of my favourite songs of all-time is The Sundays’ cover of “Wild Horses” for pretty much exactly this reason, since even its release at the chorus is only one compared to the stripped-back nature of the rest of the track and by the end singer Harriett Wheeler stops trying to hit the higher register of the title phrase leaving the song to slink off awkwardly back into its feelings.

That’s what “Streets of Philadelphia” reminds me most of, although in the catalogue of Springsteen singles its closest antecedent is perhaps “My Hometown,” another restrained and semi-wistful ballad about social injustice and hardship in an unmistakably American residence.  That one closes out Born in the U.S.A. on a heartbreaking note, the moment the rose-tinted nostalgia for where one came from finally fades away to reveal the ugliness underneath yet, kinda tragically, the narrator cannot help but pine for that youth and that town regardless.  (Suddenly it has become extremely clear where Arcade Fire most cribbed notes for The Suburbs from.)  By contrast, “Streets of Philadelphia” is an opener and it lacks that kind of finality which gave “My Hometown” a dissonant nostalgic tinge, which is ironic since Springsteen is singing from the perspective of someone in the final stages of AIDS.  One gets a sense of purgatory from the lyrics and the instrumentation.  There is no great finality, no grand send-off, no certainty that this is definitely it; just waking up each morning slowly wasting away and maybe this day will be the last or maybe he’ll wake up tomorrow and continue shambling around alone and shunned, functionally dead since his cries forever go unheeded yet stuck dying because of the same.

Watching the video take – where Springsteen and Demme recorded the vocals live via a hidden microphone rather than lipsyncing – really does drive that point home.  There is no anger or bitterness in Springsteen’s vocals, no despair or intensity in his delivery, no desperation or pain, at times he comes borderline close to mumbling and even during the bridge he quickly loses any strength after the first line.  But that’s the absolutely devastating point: he’s gone.  His protagonist is gone.  Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t shout, he couldn’t scream, he couldn’t cry because he’s been so physically ravaged by this disease; so mentally and spiritually beaten down by the apathy and hostility displayed towards him by his family, friends, former lovers, and fellow Philadelphians as a whole.  There is nothing left.  All he can do is mumble to himself, suffer in the middle of an uncaring crowd, waste away in front of our eyes via some of the most poetic and evocative imagery Springsteen has ever penned.  “At night I could hear the blood in my veins/It was just as black and whispering as the rain.”  “I walked a thousand miles just to slip this skin.”  “So receive me brother with your faithless kiss/Or will we leave each other alone like this.”

And then there’s the chorus, a wordless murmured refrain that sounds almost ghostly coated in such reverb.  One gets the sense that, in the horrible maximalist version of this song which exists in some parallel universe, here would be where the choir traditionally slotted in.  No such choir turns up, perhaps they’ve also suffered the same fate as Springsteen’s protagonist and this constant ever-present longing hum is a reminder of the hundreds of thousands who succumbed to the disease as a direct result of the Reagan administration and American society’s inaction during the 1980s.  Just like with Springsteen’s vocal performance elsewhere on the song, it’s a golden example of the power of restraint and knowing exactly how much is enough.

Springsteen is the only credited person on the track – although Wikipedia claims that Other Band member Tommy Sims contributed bass and backing vocals – with “vocals, keyboards.”  The song really doesn’t need anything else.  The three key elements are established up front, the drum loop preset followed by those sinking synth chords and finally bringing in the man himself, and remain for the duration, whether that be the 4:12 soundtrack version or the 3:15 radio edit.  Springsteen accentuates whenever necessary – additional string-like synths layered on-top, the chorus murmurs, an occasionally stabbing bass peeking through at the end – but we always return to the bedrock.  Ornette Colman recorded saxophone for the song that ended up getting cut (although it would be repurposed throughout the movie itself) and, as someone who ordinarily rejoices the presence of saxophones in pop music, that was indisputably the right call; that instrument is too pronounced and energetic for the tone of “Streets of Philadelphia”’s narrative.

Joanne Howard was right.  The Boss trusted Philadelphia way more than Jonathan Demme did and in doing so recorded not just the perfect song for the movie but one of the greatest songs of his storied career.  At the 65th Academy Awards, he would perform the song with a live band, them placed in between the lights shrouded in shadow and him stood rigid in a spotlight, the synth tones a step or two up from recording and his vocal delivery containing a slight snarl, almost like he was trying to find the persevering hope in a song that as recorded does not have that kind of energy.  It’s a strong performance yet it also feels false, antithetical, blown up too high even with the reserved staging.  Perhaps that’s why, even though it’s one of his most successful singles in Europe – going to #1 in Germany, Italy, France, and Belgium – and won him four Grammys plus the Oscar for Best Original Song, he’s largely refrained from performing it at concerts following his Ghost of Tom Joad Tour, pulling it out just eight times this millennium and almost exclusively in Philadelphia (in a stripped-back piano or acoustic guitar format).  Maybe it’s too mentally taxing for him to perform in its intended form.  Maybe he knows it just doesn’t work in a non-intimate setting.  Maybe he realises that the perfect version was recorded 25 years ago and nothing else will ever come close.

Or maybe he’s just rightly bitter that one of the best songs of the 90s was held off the top of the UK singles chart by motherfucking “Doop.”

Bonus Beats: In 1995, Rhino Records released a collector’s boxset containing recordings of every winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Song from 1934 up to 1993.  However, they were unable to license the Springsteen recording for usage so instead commissioned legendary folk-rock singer-songwriter Richie Havens to record a cover.  The results are pretty great.

Bonus Bonus Beats: Here is German electro post-punk duo Lea Porcelain transforming the song into something more in line with 80s widescreen Goth Pop.

The #1: As mentioned, “Streets of Philadelphia” was blocked by the third and final week at the top for novelty Eurodance “Charleston”-butchering spunkfest “Doop” by Doop.  I disliked this song upon first listen, grew to hate it with each subsequent listen for this project in order to score it, and now utterly despise it due to this being the song which beat back “Streets of Philadelphia.”  This, of all fucking obscenities!  It’s a 1, obviously.

A new instalment of We’re #2! will be posted every week.

Callie Petch bought you a toy that can reach places they never go.

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