Jon Landau first entered the music business in 1965, at the age of 18, as the singer and guitarist for a Boston
band called Jellyroll
. The band never went anywhere, but Landau soon graduated to writing for Crawdaddy!
, an early Boston-based rock magazine. In 1967, Landau left Crawdaddy for Jann Wenner
's Rolling Stone
magazine, where his first review was a hatchet job on Jimi Hendrix
's Are You Experienced?
As a reviewer, Landau preferred music that was based on rock's 1950's roots, as his attempts at producing records would show. He never understood psychedelic rock, writing highly negative reviews of Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, and Cream. Nevertheless, Landau quickly made a name for himself as a rock journalist.
His first attempt at production was in 1969, on the MC5's Back in the USA. In this, and subsequent production efforts, Landau willfully blurred the lines between objective rock journalism and profiteering. Landau had been employed as a consultant by Elektra Records, the MC5's label, before they'd ever recorded a note. They also made the cover of Rolling Stone before they'd ever recorded a note.
After their first record, the MC5 were kicked off of Elektra, and were signed by Atlantic Records. Landau was given the chance to produce them, and attempted to steer the band in a more commercial, less political direction. The album was bookended by Little Richard and Chuck Berry covers, and stiffed upon release. The more commercial sound alienated the band's previous fan base, and the record sold considerably worse than Kick Out the Jams.
Landau's next production job was for the J. Geils Band, whose lead singer, Peter Wolf, was a close friend. Landau's perfectionism was a bad fit with the J. Geils Band as well, and the sessions were completed with another producer. Landau still managed to write a glowing review of the record in Rolling Stone.
In 1974, Landau met a struggling young rocker whose first two albums had stiffed. His name was Bruce Springsteen. Landau wrote up Springsteen for "The Real Paper", another Boston rock magazine, saying, "I have seen rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." Not long after, Springsteen asked Landau to be co-producer on his third record, Born to Run. The third time proved to be the charm for both Landau and Springsteen, as Born to Run was a monster hit, a deserved success both critically and commercially, and became the first million-selling rock record.
Landau was now in demand as a producer, and his next project was Jackson Browne's The Pretender. However, The Pretender was not considered one of Browne's stronger efforts, and despite the obligatory glowing review in Rolling Stone (where Landau was still an editor, though he no longer reviewed records), was not a success.
Landau then became engaged in a legal battle with Springsteen's manager, Mike Appel. Springsteen wanted Landau to produce his next record, but Appel refused. Springsteen sued to break his contract with Appel, and after two years of litigation, a settlement was reached that allowed Landau to work with Springsteen, and paid Appel handsomely to go his own way.
Springsteen's next several records clearly bear the Landau imprint. His first three records are in a vastly different style, with often-epic songs that show the influence of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison on one hand, and West Side Story on the other. Springsteen proved himself to be a gifted lyricist of street opera and sheer nonsense, for example, the opening lines of "Blinded by the Light":
Madman drummers, bummers, and Indians in the summer
With a teenage diplomat
In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps
His way into his hat
Landau gradually re-invented him as a blue-collar rocker more in the mold of Bob Seger, whose themes were the working life, along with a healthy dose of cars and girls (Remember Landau's Chuck Berry fetish). The E Street Band was also revamped. Drummer Vini Lopez and keyboardist David Sancious had already left the band by the time of Born to Run. Their replacements were Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan, who were technically proficient and had a lot of pop sensibility, but played in a far more clinical style than their predecessors. Bittan and Weinberg went on to become uber-session men, playing on records by Meat Loaf, Bob Seger, and many others.
Landau's full-time job became producing and managing Springsteen. While he was responsible for Springsteen's greatest commercial success, he also steered him in a direction that showed considerably less artistic merit than his early work. Under Landau's tutelage, Springsteen became one of those "rock stars who care" in the mid-1980's. Springsteen became the biggest benefit whore this side of Bono.
Fred Goodman, "The Mansion on the Hill", Vintage Books, 1997.