There is an actual ’59 sound. One that existed in Brian Fallon’s mind, at least. The key to unlocking it, as far as The Gaslight Anthem frontman was concerned, was in getting his hands on a particular amp. Local hero Bruce Springsteen used one on early E Street Band tracks. It was the same kind Carl Perkins played on old Elvis hits. You can hear it on some of Sam Cooke’s raucous soul cuts.
Being as flat-broke as the Red Bank, New Jersey native was back then, picking up a vintage 1959 Fender Bassman was never on the cards. Ripping apart and rebuilding a modern reissue would have to suffice. As the title of his band’s next album relentlessly haunted him for months, the then 28-year-old’s quest became clear. Delving into online forums in search of audiophile advice, he scoured electronic stores for used parts, and soldered everything into place until he’d created the closest possible replica of the amp played on all those records he held so dear.
“I was a firm believer in the magic of things,” he told The Ringer in celebration of The ’59 Sound’s 10-year anniversary in 2018. “It was like, Well, if all these records are recorded on this one amp, and if I can get that sound, maybe I can get some of that magic.”
Now marking 15 years since its release, The Gaslight Anthem’s second album still sparkles with that magic. It’s there in the evocative lyrical imagery and the sense of nostalgia the accompanying sounds conjure. In the words of producer Ted Hutt, “people find themselves” in its 12 tracks, even if the specifics are rooted in Fallon’s local and personal experience.
You don’t need to know the Mary, Maria, Sandy, Jane, or Sally mentioned. You don’t have to have traversed the boardwalks of the Jersey shore on the 4th of July either. The record may be rich with the iconography of high-top sneakers, sailor tattoos, and classic songs playing on the radios of classic cars, but they’re details. It’s in the unsaid, the suggested, and the spaces in between where the real magic is revealed.
So dire was the situation before any of this became something worth celebrating however, the men who walked through the doors of Mad Dog Studios in Burbank, California would have probably shaken hands on the offer of magic beans. The frontman was technically still living at home with his parents when not on the road with the band sharing driving duties as well as crippling fuel costs for the van required to keep them there. Guitarist Alex Rosamilia was making ends meet from show-to-show while everything he owned was squeezed into a backpack. Their drummer, Benny Horowitz, had recently found himself of no fixed abode following an acrimonious split from his girlfriend at South By Southwest. Bassist Alex Levine, the youngest of the quartet, remembers having to bum a slice of pizza off Brian as their van rolled into Los Angeles, having spent his last $50 on beer the night before.
What the bellies making The ’59 Sound lacked in sustenance however, they more than made up for in fire and conviction. “There was this element the whole time,” Horowitz recalls, “like, ‘We’re doing this. We left everything to do it. And if it doesn’t work, we’re fucked.’”
Although interest from the punk rock community was piqued by the excellence of 2007 debut album Sink Or Swim and four-track primer EP Señor And The Queen early the following year, outside of the band nobody was betting the house on The ’59 Sound becoming a hit. It’s only in retrospect that those preceding releases even received anything close to the recognition they deserved. The cultural and musical touchstones The Gaslight Anthem favoured – soul, big budget Heartland rock, old Hollywood – were simply not in vogue.
But from the moment the needle drops and ushers in the music box-like riff on bombastic opener Great Expectations, it feels like something from a bygone era. Rosamilia even began to think of his guitars as the punk rock equivalent of the brass and horn parts on Motown records. The slapback delay on Fallon’s vocals offered something a little left-of-centre yet classic too.
That spirit lies at the heart of everything. Old White Lincoln opens with the sound of a car ignition, captured by pulling mics out to the parking lot and recording Mighty Mighty Bosstones drummer Joe Sirois – on duty as backing vocalist alongside his Bosstones bandmate Dicky Barrett – starting up his engine (incidentally, a Ford Thunderbird, standing in for the titular 1955 Lincoln Capri).
By being stridently out of step with the times, The Gaslight Anthem made something timeless. Thematic tropes of summer, sin, redemption, death, escape and rebirth course through the veins of the drama. You can pick out references to Otis Redding, Miles Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Charles Dickens, Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, and of course, Bruce Springsteen (multiple times) along the way. High Lonesome even borrows a line from the Garden State icon’s classic Born In The USA track, I’m On Fire, with Fallon bellowing, “At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet, it’s a pretty good song baby, you know the rest.”
“I just threw all that stuff in there because I wanted to define us without letting other people define us,” the singer smartly surmised.
This allowed the band to own their influences, tipping their truckers and Trilbys in celebration of those who’d laid the groundwork for all of this. Even in the everyman aesthetic of Lisa Johnson’s understated portraits for the album’s artwork and inlay, The Gaslight Anthem were making a statement. These were regular guys, as likely to be found pouring drinks in the local bar as getting thrown out for having one too many. Contained within was music without airs or graces, celebrating the intangible somethings that transform everyday experiences into beautifully poignant and universal truths. It might be a rose-tinted view of a world filled with yearning for simpler times, but the authenticity of those truths keeps things grounded. The woes are real. The romance, too.
In his capacity as Editor of Kerrang! magazine at the time and on the strength of just a few listens to the album, Louder’s Paul Brannigan bypassed traditional press build-up and boldly put the quartet on the cover of the rock weekly. Despite barely a drop of ink previously being spilled on The Gaslight Anthem in any UK magazine, suddenly they were hailed as “The Best New Band” of 2008, a declaration that may have raised some eyebrows, but caused countless more eyes to swivel in the group’s direction. Before making his decision, Brannigan requested that the group’s booking agent refrain from moving their debut UK show at Camden’s 150-capacity Barfly venue when the inevitable surge of interest in the New Jersey quartet accompanied the issue hitting shelves: within days of the magazine’s publication, however, the gig was moved to the 900-capacity ULU venue.
At the start of the following summer, The Gaslight Anthem’s star soared. Bruce Springsteen had become such a fan that, on June 27, he joined them onstage at Glastonbury Festival, and again, 24 hours later, at the Hard Rock Calling festival in Hyde Park, London. That same afternoon, Brian Fallon returned the favour, joining The Boss to sing backing vocals on No Surrender. According to Thomas Dreux from the band’s label, SideOneDummy, sales of the record shot up “300 or 400 percent” the following week.
As their story unfolded across three further records and even greater commercial success, matters became complicated: things simply got too big, too fast, and the relentless demands of the music industry offered no respite. Four men who understood what it meant to have nothing were left desperate and barely hanging on. A hiatus duly followed, but, surprisingly, so too did a reformation, and later this year, on October 27, a long-awaited sixth album, History Books, will emerge.
The Gaslight Anthem may yet have some tricks left up their sleeve. But on the pitch-perfect The ’59 Sound, a record offering promises of liberation, escape and endless horizons ahead, if only for a moment in time, they had it all.