The Story and Meaning Behind Bruce Springsteen’s “Murder Incorporated,” the Song that Helped Him Reintroduce the E Street Band

There are some songs that, even beyond their quality, mean a little more to fans for what they represent in an artist’s career arc. “Murder Incorporated” seems to be one of those songs for fans of Bruce Springsteen. Taken on its own, it’s an excellent representation of Springsteen and the E Street Band at their most rocking and muscular.

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But it’s also the song that, in its way, brought that band back into the Boss’ fold after several years away. The story begins all the way back in the ’80s, when Springsteen was putting together the album that would achieve his greatest commercial success.

Getting Away with “Murder”

Seventy: That’s the rough number of songs that Bruce Springsteen recorded for potential inclusion on the album that he would release in 1984 and eventually title Born in the U.S.A. It was a painstaking process that took place over about four years, during which time he also released an album of demos that would become a classic (Nebraska, in 1982).

“Murder Incorporated” was one of those 70 or so milling about. In fact, Springsteen thought highly enough of it that he briefly considered it as the possible title track of the record. But somewhere along the line, the fierce, hard-rocking track got shuffled off to the cutting-room floor, where it would stay for over a decade.

Born in the U.S.A. rewarded Springsteen’s fastidiousness when it became a record-selling phenomenon, and Tunnel of Love solidified that success three years later. Mega-successful tours for those albums were nothing short of legendary. But in 1989, Springsteen, feeling a bit stifled and seeking new artistic challenges, informed the E Street Band, his longtime cohorts, that he was going to work with different musicians going forward.

Springsteen released a pair of albums in 1992. One (Lucky Town) was mostly a DIY effort. The other (Human Touch) featured a new batch of musicians, a few of whom would join Springsteen’s “other” band for a subsequent tour. Those new musicians acquitted themselves well; the problems with Human Touch were more to do with tinny production and songwriting that fell short of the Boss’s usual standards. Meanwhile, an occasional boo or two supplanted the usual chants of “Broooooce” at the live shows.

Which brings us to the second life of “Murder Incorporated.” In 1995, Springsteen decided to bring his friends back into the fold. He rehired the E Street Band, with the first project being a few new songs for a Greatest Hits album. Oddly enough, when he chose to issue “Murder Incorporated” as the single from the package, he used the original recording from the ’80s.

Nonetheless, the song required a video. The shoot at a New York City nightclub turned into an impromptu mini-concert with the E Street Band in all its restored glory. They played “Murder Incorporated” several times that night to get the shots for director Jonathan Demme. When fans saw the video, they knew Springsteen was, to quote the Blues Brothers, getting the band back together.

What is the Meaning of “Murder Incorporated”?

You can take “Murder Incorporated” as a literal story about a youngster caught up with a violent gang. (There was an actual syndicate of that name that committed all kinds of atrocities in the first half of the 20th century). The protagonist (Bobby) carries a gun for protection, but it isn’t enough: You better take a look around you / That equipment you got’s so outdated / You can’t compete with Murder Incorporated.

But Springsteen seems to also be tackling the pervasive culture of violence that touches us all, even if we’re not directly involved. No matter where you step, you feel you’re never out of danger, he sings. It causes a deadening effect: And everywhere you look, life ain’t got no soul. When the protagonist meets a bad end as just another homicide, the senselessness of it diminishes us all.

You can hear the early ’80’s-era vigor of Springsteen and company in the recording of “Murder Incorporated.” But the reunited band tackled it with every bit the same urgency and potency when they played it live. If you get a twinge of nostalgia while listening to this song of travesty and tragedy, chances are you remember when it meant that Springsteen had mended fences with his old buddies.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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