The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s “Blinded By The Light”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Manfred Mann’s Earth Band – “Blinded By The Light”

HIT #1: February 19, 1977

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

There were certainly people in the ’70s who wanted Bruce Springsteen to be the next Bob Dylan. Around that time, there was a lot of talk about who the next Bob Dylan might be, especially since the actual Bob Dylan was becoming slipperier and less consistent. Loudon Wainwright III joked about being a member of the Next Dylan Club, a group that would’ve also included people like John Prine and possibly Patti Smith. But Springsteen, with his rambling intensity and his wild literary flair, was the obvious candidate. Columbia, Dylan’s label, signed Springsteen. The headline of a 1975 Rolling Stone profile called Springsteen the “New Dylan From Jersey.” And Springsteen, of course, revered Dylan.

Bruce Springsteen would not turn out to be the next Bob Dylan. Nobody would. Nobody would turn out to be the next Springsteen, either, though plenty would try. (A couple of prospective next Springsteens will eventually end up in this column.) But there’s one area where Dylan and Springsteen are eerily and almost exactly alike: Their pop-chart fortunes.

Bob Dylan, an absurdly important and popular artist, has never had a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. He’s come close. Two different Dylan songs have made it up to #2: 1965’s “Like A Rolling Stone” and 1966’s “Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35.” (“Like A Rolling Stone” is a 10. “Rainy Day Women” is a 6.) And Bob Dylan had a weird brush with the #1 spot when he sang on USA For Africa’s “We Are The World,” which will eventually appear in this column. But when Dylan was near the peak of his creativity, someone else covered a Dylan song and took it to #1. In Dylan’s case, that was the Byrds with “Mr. Tambourine Man” in 1965.

Bruce Springsteen, another absurdly important and popular artist, has also never had a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. He’s come close. One Springsteen song has made it up to #2: 1984’s “Dancing In The Dark.” (It’s an 8.) Just like Dylan, Springsteen sang on “We Are The World”; it’s the only time either of them ever laid vocals on a #1 hit. And as with Dylan, when Springsteen was near the peak of his creativity, someone else covered a Springsteen song and took it to #1.

“Blinded By The Light” was Bruce Springsteen’s first single. He released it in 1973. John Hammond and Clive Davis had signed Springsteen to Columbia after a 1972 audition, and Springsteen had put together a new band to record Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, his debut album. (He didn’t start calling them the E Street Band until 1974.) But Davis didn’t hear any singles on Greetings From Asbury Park, so Springsteen wrote “Blinded By The Light” and “Spirit In The Night” in a rush, later saying that he gave his rhyming dictionary a real workout that night. Most of the band wasn’t available, so Springsteen played guitar, bass, and keyboards on the song. It didn’t chart. Greetings From Asbury Park didn’t sell much at the time, either.

Listening to the original “Blinded By The Light” now, it’s not exactly a shock that it didn’t race up the charts. 1973 was the high Carpenters era. “Blinded By The Light” is a messy scrawl of a song, played with a muddy immediacy that sounds just slightly out of sync. Springsteen was 23 when he recorded it, but he sang it in a garbled old-man mutter. And they lyrics are a sort of impressionistic pastiche of a teenage night out on the Asbury Park boardwalk. At the time, Springsteen’s lyrics were Dylan-esque poetic excursions, not the concrete storytelling he’d adapt later. There are lines on “Blinded By The Light” that still come off as heady, evocative gibberish: “Little Early-Pearly came by in his curly-wurly and asked me if I needed a ride.”

In “Blinded By The Light,” you can hear plenty of the strengths that would eventually turn Springsteen into a star: The monster chorus, the finely observed everyday-life lyrical details, the life-affirming Clarence Clemons saxophone-bleats, the “whooooaa.” But the song, in its original form, sounds nothing like any version of ’70s pop music. It took Manfred Mann to make that happen.

Manfred Mann was probably an unlikely candidate to take Springsteen’s music to the American masses, even if he had a history of hitting #1 with covers of unappreciated American gems. Mann, a South African-born keyboardist, had moved to London in 1961, at the age of 21, to work as a jazz critic. He’d formed a blues band, and his band, also called Manfred Mann, became a part of the art-school scene that also produced the Animals and the Rolling Stones. During the 1964 British Invasion boom year, Manfred Mann — the band, not the guy — hit #1 in the US with “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” a cover of a song that Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich had written a year earlier for an R&B group called the Exciters.

The band known as Manfred Mann broke up in the mid-’60s, and Mann himself later went on to start a new band — which, confusingly enough, was also known as Manfred Mann, at least at the beginning. The new band formed in 1971 and eventually started calling itself Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. They made blues-rock, too, but it was a version of blues-rock that leaned into the prog that was just then taking shape in the UK. By the time they recorded their “Blinded By The Light” cover, the Earth Band had already cranked out six albums in quick succession. They were not exactly an instant sensation; before “Blinded By The Light,” none of their singles had charted higher than #69 in the US.

On their seventh album, 1976’s The Roaring Silence, the Earth Band covered both “Blinded By The Light” and “Spirit In The Night,” those two last-minute singles that Springsteen had written for Greetings From Asbury Park. Their take on “Blinded By The Light” is seven minutes long, and it’s much cleaner and heavier on showy musicianship than Springsteen’s original had been. (The single edit of Mann’s version was shorter.)

Mann, who had discovered synths, went nuts on his Moog, and he had the strange idea to play “Chopsticks” right in the middle of the song. He also made a fateful lyrical error, singing about being “revved up like a deuce” instead of “cut loose like a deuce.” The lyric was supposed to be allude to a two-seater hot rod, but everyone heard it as “wrapped up like a douche.” And it really does sound like “wrapped up like a douche.” Springsteen still jokes about that.

The Earth Band take on “Blinded By The Light” isn’t really prog, and it definitely doesn’t sound like Springsteen. What it sounds like, at least to me, is the Boston/Journey/Foreigner school of largely-anonymous gleaming studio-rock that was just starting to take shape at the time. It sounds big and sharp and dramatic — Grand Funk-style Midwest-friendly arena-rock, but transformed into something clean and cinematic enough to compete with disco on the pop charts. We can hear that coming sound in Mann’s keyboard tone, in the triumphant tire-squeal of the guitars, and in the approachable growl of Mann’s voice. It never sounds better than when Dave Flett’s guitar is doing sort of arpeggiated twinkle thing that seems custom-built to accompany a twirling colored spotlight.

Manfred Mann was singing in a fake American accent when he first showed up on the scene in the mid-’60s, and he was still singing in a fake American accent on “Blinded By The Light.” Mann clearly doesn’t have much idea what Springsteen’s elliptical boardwalk impressions might mean, but he knows they sound cool. He sings them with grand cover-band flair, hitting all the big moments he should hit. It’s an effective translation. Bruce Springsteen might be the greatest crafter of road-trip bangers in rock history, but “Blinded By The Light” wasn’t a true road-trip banger until Manfred Mann got ahold of it.

At least in the US, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band would never return to the top 10 after “Blinded By The Light.” But they stayed together and kept working, steering into the synth-heavy studio-rock that “Blinded By The Light” clearly foreshadowed. (Their second-biggest hit, 1984’s “Runner,” peaked at #22. It sounds like it was concocted specifically to soundtrack a training montage in an ’80s sports movie, and it probably owed its success to coming out around the same time that the Summer Olympics came to Los Angeles.) Mann also got really into African music and the anti-apartheid movement; for a while, he was barred from returning to South Africa. He’s still around, and a version of the Earth Band is still touring today.

Also still touring today: Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen was well on his way to stardom by the time “Blinded By The Light” hit, though the song certainly helped him along the way. But Springsteen wasn’t really a pop-charts presence at the time. When “Blinded By The Light” hit, Springsteen’s biggest hit was “Born To Run,” and it had peaked at #23. He wouldn’t score his first top-10 hit until 1980. (“Hungry Heart,” peaked at #5, a 9.) But by the time the ’80s were half-over, Springsteen was one of the biggest stars in the world. Springsteen’s 1984 LP Born In The USA was Billboard’s highest-selling album of 1985; it beat out Bryan Adams’ Reckless and Madonna’s Like A Virgin and Wham!’s Make It Big and Tina Turner’s Private Dancer.

Born In The USA also launched seven singles into the Billboard top 10. That is a stunning, baffling blockbuster achievement. There are only three other albums that have yielded seven top-10 singles: Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, and Drake’s Scorpion. (Even more impressive: Springsteen and the Jacksons pulled it off without relying on streaming numbers boosting up album tracks. Drake couldn’t do that.) It’s a four-way tie for the record; no album has ever yielded more top-10 singles. But unlike those other three albums, Born In The USA didn’t push any singles to #1. Unless you count “We Are The World,” we won’t be seeing Springsteen in this column again.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil Wayne, a man who will eventually appear in this column, rapping over a sample of the Manfred Mann’s Earth Band version of “Blinded By The Light” on his 2008 mixtape track “Blinded”: