"I know that is a 25-year-old's spirit just burning – like a Chevy engine": The story of The Gaslight Anthem's classic song, The '59 Sound

 Brian Fallon (R) of Gaslight Anthem performs in support of The '59 Sound release at the San Jose State Event Center on November 7, 2008 in San Jose, California.
(Image credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Brian Fallon has written good songs, great songs in the course of his storied career with The Gaslight Anthem, Horrible Crowes and solo years; but The '59 Sound is different. It's a song of the rare calibre songwriters all hope to attain; it's a classic. 

It didn't just capture a moment for Brian and his band, serving as the title track of their breakthrough second album, it's the elusive anthem recipe of old soul sorrow and youthful affirmation all wrapped up in just over three-minutes.  You can't deliver this stuff to order, you can only be the talented vessel who channels it. No wonder Bruce Springsteen was dazzled by it and Brian Fallon along with the rest of us. And in typical lightning-in-a-bottle fashion, the music came fast. But before that there was a guitar amp.

"I remember my dad had loaned me some money for a Telecaster, so I got that," Brian told me in 2018 as he reflected on the tenth anniversary of the '59 Sound album. "I had the Bassman that I built – the '59 Bassman. It was literally the '59 sound. So I just built one and I found these crazy parts. I kept going and playing through old ones in different stores, then I would go home and correct mine to sound closer to that and I would keep doing it for two years before I got it right."

Brian's eventual vision for his guitar sound on the album was wonderfully simple; "Guitar, compressor, slapback into the amp clean – there's no overdrive."

For a New Jersey band pegged as a punk rock four-piece this was quite a transition.  And it was unlike anything else outside rockabilly at the time – a callback to a much earlier time in rock'n'roll. 

“I was really getting into these sounds for recording and playing live, and I was really interested in old sounds that matched an old style of music,"  told the Asbury Park Press. "I found out that Fender made this amp called the Bassman, and the recreation of this amp was the 1959 Bassman. Then I started looking around at these pictures of Elvis, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett... and all these guys [that played with them] had the same amp. I was like, ‘Wait a minute. Maybe this thing’s magic or something like that’.”

Memory and perception can be deceptive. For a seemingly clean guitar sound, the '59 Sound sounds huge in the context of the song… or what we remember of it. 

"That riff on '59 Sound – it sounds massive in your head, and in my head too it sounds like AC/DC," agrees Brian. "But it's not – it's dead clean and it's me playing as fast as I can with no compressor on it and it's like, that's the secret. But it sounds massive when it kicks in. Clean amp – I'm telling you, turn that gain down and just learn to play."

I knew it was a good song, I knew it was a really good song

The context and delivery adds so much, but Brian still calls that tone "naked" and it would be an approach he'd revisit with '59 Sound producer Ted Hutt when the two reunited for his 2018 solo album Sleepwalkers. But the impact is obviously about much more than guitars here; we wouldn't be here now talking about the '59 Sound's sonic approach if it wasn't for the songs Brian Fallon walked into LA's Sound Studios with.

“I was just sitting there playing my guitar one night when I wrote the chords, the intro,” Brian told me matter-of-factly about his memories of writing the title track. “And the rest of it happened quick.” Did it feel like a landmark that day? “I knew it was a good song, I knew it was a really good song.”

Lyrically it's fascinating – its ruminations on death and loss are the work of a writer maturing way beyond any preconceptions of what a 25-year-old punk rocker might be capable of.  Brian Fallon has rarely been drawn on what event or events inspired the song, but one night onstage with the band in Toronto in 2009, his intro to it candidly revealed some background. 

"You drive down to Asbury Park and it’s the best drive in the world in the summertime because you see all these towns and steel mills as you’re passing,” Brian told the Canadian crowd. “I was reading the newspaper [before], which is the weirdest way to find out that a kid you grew up with passed away. I was reading about that, and [then] I was driving home and thinking about how defined things become when you’re driving by yourself and I figured out, I’m not a kid anymore and people are gonna start leaving. And that’s kind of weird.

"I think that they would want you to go on without them, and they would want you to have a good time," he concluded before breaking into the riff. "So this song's for them." 

For Brian's Gaslight Anthem bandmate and fellow guitarist Alex Rosamilia, his parts for the song came together nearly as quickly as the inspiration came to its writer.

 “I played it five or six times and there it was," he told me back in 2012. It was one of those songs where it was pretty obvious how it should fall into place.

“We actually did two versions of it

The band had five weeks in the studio to record with producer Ted Hutt, plus more gear options than they’d had for their 2007 debut Sink Or Swim – an album tracked in just over a week. Nonetheless, like Brian, Alex kept things simple .

“I had a Jazzmaster that Fender was nice enough to let me borrow," he confirmed before breaking into a laugh "And then buy from them after I played the crap out of it for the whole record. I believe I used a Hot Rot Deluxe too.”

When it came to recording The '59 Sound, things were a little more complicated than the others songs on the record – a choice had to be made.

“We actually did two versions of it,” Alex revealed. “One was slower. But after we recorded it, the version that was on the record just felt way better than the other.”

The album was released on 19 August 2008 and word began to spread over the Atlantic about the New Jersey Band, aided by Kerrang magazine (remember magazines?) deciding to stick their necks out and put the band on the cover with the line 'The best new band you'll hear in 2008'. And of course they were right, but the promise was carried by the strength of an album and its strongest songs. Not to mention The Gaslight Anthem as a live proposition. 

Bruce Springsteen performs on stage with Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem on the last day of Hard Rock Calling 2009 in Hyde Park on June 28, 2009 in London, England

Bruce Springsteen performs onstage with Brian Fallon and The Gaslight Anthem during Hard Rock Calling in London's Hyde Park on 28 June 2009  (Image credit: Andy Sheppard/Redferns/Getty Images)

I was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening’

By the Glastonbury festival in 2009, things had reached the point that headliner and fellow Garden State icon Bruce Springsteen asked if he could guest with the band onstage.

“We didn’t know he was coming,” Brian told website Rant N’ Rave With John Nagle later that same year. “He just said, ‘I want to play The ’59 Sound with you’. I just looked at him and said, ‘OK’. After we did it the first time, he asked me if I wanted to sing with him during their set. I was just like, ‘Yeah!’ We did No Surrender. The second day [during Bruce’s show at Hyde Park’s Hard Rock Calling] he came out and did The ’59 Sound with us [again], and I did No Surrender again. It was unreal. I was in front of 100,000 people. It’s so weird, because you look out and you see nothing but dots. I was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening’.”

The two's songwriter's friendship over the years would lead to The Boss guesting on the band's 2023 song History Books – the title track from their first album since their 2015 hiatus that now brings them back on the road in front of old and new fans. The '59 Sound usually remains the rightful towering closer of their sets each night.  

Because as much as the song faces the concept of death head-on, perhaps its magic is just how alive it will always sound. The '59 Sound will continue to be ageless, unlike its writer… 

"I always feel very fond about that record and that time – all of that stuff," Brian reflected with me in 2018. "The funny thing is, if I'm honest with myself, I just know I couldn't have done it now and I'm so glad I did it then because I know that is a 25-year-old's spirit just burning. That's like a Chevy engine – you can't replicate that when you're 38. I mean, some people could – I can't! That was a pure innocent joy insanity that just went off and I'm just so glad that we caught it." 

  • The Gaslight Anthem's new EP History Books – Short Stories is out now. The band tours Europe in June and the US in July, August and September 2024. More info at thegaslightanthem.com
Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.