Sunday, 4 October 2020

Bruce Springsteen - The Screen Door Slams (1973-1984)

Greetings From Asbury Park N.J. (1973)

Blinded By The Light/Growin' Up/Mary, Queen Of Arkansas/Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?/Lost In The Flood/The Angel/For You/Spirit In The Night/It's Had To Be A Saint In The City 

"He sings with a freshness and urgency I haven't heard since I was rocked by 'Like A Rolling Stone' - the album rocks, then glides, then rocks again. There is the combined sensibility of the chaser and the chaste, the street punk and the bookworm"  - Peter Knobler - Crawdaddy    

"Madmen drummers, bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat. In the dumps wih the mumps as the adolescent pumps his way into his hat..."

So begins the very first track on the very first album by Bruce Springsteen. What had we here? A "new Dylan", some of the music media, not too convincingly, proclaimed. To be honest, this is a somewhat strange, but undoubtedly unique, album of folky (sort of) rock, with a muffled drum sound and those verbose, overblown lyrics that gave only a few hints as to the megastar that Bruce Springsteen would become. Released in 1973, after several years playing small venues in his home town of Asbury Park, New Jersey, this album gained little serious attention, either in the US or in the UK. The world was interested in Led Zeppelin and David Bowie.

There is some interesting material on it though, the afore-quoted wordy magnificence of Blinded By The Light (which was later a big hit for Manfred Mann’s Earth Band); the mini street anthem Growin' Up (covered by David Bowie) and the dramatic Lost In The Flood, with its street characters the like of which populated many of Springsteen's early songs.

It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City had a hard edged funk to it and was also covered by David Bowie

There was also the strange, acoustic, folky Mary Queen Of Arkansas and the bleak, haunting vocal and piano-only The Angel. All the songs have been performed in far better versions subsequently by Springsteen live.

For You, an upbeat rocking song, but about an attempted suicide, showed a maturity and sensitivity impressive in one so young. 

Spirit In The Night was a very typical early Springsteen song in that it featured a cast of nick-named characters - "Crazy Janey", "The Mission Man", "Wild Billy", "G-Man", "Hazy Davy" and "Killer Joe" and a captivating jazzy rock atmosphere about fun and drinking down at "Greasy Lake". The link some have made to W.B. Yeats' "Crazy Jane" poem are coincidence in my view. I am sure the young Springsteen didn't spend his time reading Yeats on the Asbury Park boardwalk. Van Morrison is a different matter, of course. 

Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street? is a comparatively short, vaguely Latin-influenced number that occasionally still gets played live, to the delight of fans.

The album is remastered here very nicely by the experienced Bob Ludwig. The sound is excellent and much improved on all previous releases. That drum sound will always be muffled, however, just as it was on the early Southside Johnny albums.

It is pretty much impossible to categorise this album by the so-called “new Dylan”. Was it folk? Was it rock? Lots of saxophone and piano here and there gave a hint to what would become trademark E Street Band sound. Overall though, nobody really knew. It all, therefore, slipped under the radar somewhat in 1973, which was, after all, a year of some titanic albums. 

What was acknowledged, though, was that there was something in the songs of this scrawny, bearded somewhat shy, introspective young lad. He just needed to find some wings for his wheels....

The Wild, The Innocent & The E St. Shuffle (1973)

The E. St Shuffle/Sandy (4th Of July, Asbury Park)/Kitty's Back/Wild Billy's Circus Story/Incident On 57th Street/Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)/New York City Serenade

“Music that was filled with deep longing, a casually transcendent spirit, mature resignation, and … hope … hope for that girl, that moment, that place, that night when everything changes, life reveals itself to you, and you, in turn, are revealed" - Bruce Springsteen      

For many people, myself included, this album, from 1973, is up there as one of their favourite Bruce Springsteen albums.

After the somewhat half-cooked debut of 1973's Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. This saw a bit of a shift from verbose Dylanesque semi-folky stuff to more wide-ranging influences creeping in - rock n roll, Phil SpectorStax & Atlantic funk, Latin rhythms. However, Bruce still looks like a cross between Al Pacino's "Serpico" and Gil Scott-Heron on the cover. I remember seeing this album as I leafed through albums in my local record shop as a teenager in 1974 and thinking it was a laid-back "hippy" rock album and dismissing it in favour of the pompadour/glamorous images displayed on the covers of albums by BowieRoxy Music and Cockney Rebel. It would be another four years before I would be entranced by it, but when that occurred, it did so, big time. I got into it after Born To Run and Darkness as my liking for Springsteen really took off. 
This album featured the first line-up of the E St. Band by the way, featuring drummer Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez and keyboardist David Sancious. No Max Weinberg or Roy Bittan as yet. Consequently, the sound is not quite the E St. sound of subsequent years. Lopez's drumming has a rolling gait to it that differs a lot to Weinberg's powerful thump and Sancious's keyboards are inventive and maybe a bit lighter than Bittan's. 

The first track, The E St. Shuffle, is a funky number, featuring wah-wah guitar, congas and a street soul feel. It is one of those songs that is almost impossible to categorise. 

Sandy is a classic Springsteen dramatic ballad, packed full of atmosphere, that perfectly evokes the boardwalk summer life of Asbury Park. Its low key but melodic guitar opening sees Springsteen developing the impressive guitar style that would serve him so well over subsequent years.

Next up is Kitty's Back, an extended piece of jazzy rock with a riff that surely Boz Scaggs "borrowed" on 1977's Lido Shuffle. Again, it starts with some searing guitar from Springsteen. 

The album's oddity is Wild Billy's Circus Story, a rather sad tale featuring various circus characters backed by bassist Garry Tallent playing the tuba.

The old "side two" is magnificent, possible best side of music Springsteen ever recorded. Three tracks flowing into each other - the street romance of Incident On 57th Street between "Spanish Johnny" and "Puerto Rican Jane" two of those characters Springsteen delighted in creating in this era. Springsteen's guitar as the track ends is a delight, as indeed it is all the way through the track. The bit where the music stops and you get these lines is classic early Springsteen -

"...Johnny was sittin' on the fire escape, watchin' the kids play down in the street...he called down "hey little heroes, summer's long, but I guess it ain't very sweet around here anymore...". Janey sleeps in sheets damp with sweat...Johnny sits up alone and watches her dream on, dream on...and the Sister prays for lost souls, then breaks down in the chapel after everyone's gone..."

That is early Springsteen encapsulated in one block of verse - the heat of the summer, the forlorn hope, the false street "heroism", the hope, the dreams, all topped off with a bit of Catholicism too. 

Then, as if it couldn't get any better, we get the tour de force that is Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), a frenetic, Latin-influenced stormer of a rock track that is still a concert favourite. The part where Incident... suddenly becomes Rosalita as the guitar kicks in is simply magical. I remember seeing him perform this on The Old Grey Whistle Test and being just blown away.

Finally comes the jazz-tinged epic of New York City Serenade. There is a fair case for the latter track being the finest piece of music Springsteen ever composed. For me, this is the the summery, street romanticism that serves as the very essence of Bruce Springsteen.  I could make a fair case for this being his best ever album, even over Born To Run or Darkness. There is a slight imperfection to its instrumentation and recordings, clunky piano pedals clearly audible at times, but there is a loose, enthusiastic, excitable energy that you could almost say was never truly caught on record again. Seven impressive and different tracks that make this a completely unique album within the Springsteen canon.

It is just a pleasure from beginning to end. Well remastered by the experienced Bob Ludwig. Give me this over Born In The USA any day.

** The pick of the non-album tracks recorded for this album but ultimately discarded are the sprawling, shapeless but strangely atmospheric Santa Ana; the instrumental end-of-pier-pier organ-driven fun of Seaside Bar Song; the wonderful street drama of Zero And Blind Terry and the lengthy anthemic, rocking Thundercrack. The latter two tracks would have must the album an absolute classic, I think.


Born To Run (1975)

Thunder Road/Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out/Night/Backstreets/Born To Run/She's The One/Meeting Across The River/Jungleland 

"I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen" - Jon Landau           

This was Bruce Springsteen’s shot at the big time, after more years gigging than people may have thought and a couple of impressive but not particularly well-known albums. He saw this as pretty much his last chance at meaningful success. Together with producer Jon Landau, who was responsible for hyping Springsteen up with his now legendary quote and the newly-revamped E St Band )in to the line up that was the most well-known), he merged a full-on “wall of sound” musical backdrop with his romantic, optimistic yet at times fatalistic lyrics. His songs were often character-driven - “street operas”, featuring an array of names like “Magic Rat”, “Barefoot Girl” and various other non-nickname ones but heavily featured, such as “Mary”, "Wendy", "Terry" and “Eddie”. The imagery in his songs was almost cinematic. You could see the characters, feel the “soft summer rain”.  It really was a masterful piece of work. Hard to know how it could be bettered, certainly musically and lyrically.
It was painstaking in its creation, however, with Springsteen frustrated at his "having sounds in his head that he just could not explain to the members of the band". He brought in Jon Landau as producer, a relationship that would continue on after this, and this helped, and the final product would seem to be pretty much perfect, apart from possibly one thing - the sound. 


Despite all the album's many good points, the reproduced sound quality, (as opposed to the actual music) however, has always let the album down slightly in my opinion. It is, however many remasters are done, always somewhat muffled and tinny. For some, though, therein lies its appeal, almost like a “back to mono” thing. I would just like to have heard it sound better, although I appreciate now that will never happen.

Thunder Road is a candidate for Bruce Springsteen’s most iconic song of all time (yes, that includes Born To Run). This five minute slice of sweeping hymnal majesty sees killer lyrics meshing with a huge piano, harmonica and saxophone backing, and, (for one of the only times in rock music), a glockenspiel, a sound that just blows one away. “It’s a town full of losers and we’re pulling out of here to win”. Indeed. 

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out is an inspirational, Stax-influenced slab of rock and soul that describes the initial meeting between Springsteen and saxophonist Clarence Clemons - “the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band”. A concert favourite for many years, with its singalong horn parts proving ideal in that respect.

Night - this song's machine gun drum attack ushers in this frantic “wall of sound” rocker that tells of a blue collar working guy waiting for his weekend night out, a common theme in Springsteen’s mid 70s/early 80s output. "Get to work late and the boss man's giving you hell..." was an archetypal line from this era, working hard all day for the relief of the night. Musically, Clarence Clemons' saxophone dominates the song. It is a relatively short number but it packs one hell of a punch and fits in well with the album's overall ambience.

Backstreets - this lengthy, slightly sombre number is a bleak organ and guitar driven lament and a final climax repeats the line “hiding on the backstreets” many, many times. It doesn’t detract from it though, and the song is most evocative and atmospheric - the line "sleeping in that old abandoned beach house, getting wasted in the heat..." perfectly exemplifies it.

Born To Run - now we get the "one everyone knows". No introduction needed. Session drummer ’s rattling drum introduction sends us speeding down the freeway in search of a “runaway American dream” with Wendy in the passenger seat. The youthful optimism of Born To Run lives forever. We will always know that love is wild and love is real.
She's The One is an infectious, shuffling Bo Diddley/“Mona” groove backs the album’s most obviously romantic track. It contains a supreme saxophone solo from Clarence Clemons at the end. 

The atmospheric Meeting Across The River provides a distinct change in mood. Jazzy trumpet backs a mournful Springsteen vocal concerning the tribulations of a small time criminal and his hope he will “throw that money on the bed”. This is the often-forgotten song of the album and makes for an interesting listen because of it.

Finally, the album ends with a true Bruce classic, JunglelandIt is the album’s A Day In The Life. A monumental closer, an atmospheric slow-building piano intro, a great guitar solo and Clemons’ extended jazzy saxophone solo before Springsteen’s poetic finale. "The poets down here don't write nothing at all" - an overblown lyric in many ways, but all of these type of lines just suit this album perfectly.

A nod to the iconic nature of the cover too. Unbelievable as it sounds, in 1975, a white man and a black man together in friendship on the cover was not a regular occurrence. The photos are by Eric Meola

** In comparison with most of Springsteen's other albums there were only two songs recorded during the sessions for this album that didn't make it, firstly Linda Let Me Be The One, which is one of my absolute favourite Springsteen non-album "rejects". It is a marvellous piece of Spectoresque majesty, with an infectious Be My Baby beat and piano refrain. It is a street romance song about characters Linda and Eddie, the sort of thing he did so well in this period, with lyrics about "the midnight boys""angels in defeat" and "empty homes and broken hearts". I love everything about it and feel that it would have made an ideal addition to the album, coming after She's The One, maybe.

Secondly, So Young And In Love was a vibrant, saxophone-driven rock 'n' roller with a bit of a funky soul guitar line underpinning it. Clarence Clemons's saxophone roars out throughout the song and the feel is a bit like that heard on The E St Shuffle, but much faster, with shades of Kitty's Back too. Max Weinberg's drums pound and roll all the way along. It is a lively, fun number, possibly too much so for a final inclusion on the album.

Live At Hammersmith Odeon (1975)

Thunder Road/Tenth Avenue Freeze Out/Spirit in The Night/Lost in The Flood/She's The One/
Born To Run/The E St. Shuffle/It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City/Backstreets/Kitty's Back/Jungleland/Rosalita/4th July Asbury Park (Sandy)/Detroit Medley - Devil With A Blue Dress On/See See Rider/Good Golly Miss Molly/ Jenny Take A Ride/For You/Quarter To Three

"The decision to label me as the 'future of rock' was a very big mistake and I would like to strangle the guy who thought that up" - Bruce Springsteen

This was Bruce Springsteen's first tour of Europe and this was the first gig of that tour. The British music press had hyped it up with the now legendary "finally London is ready for Bruce Springsteen" posters, which the artist himself allegedly went around tearing them down wherever he came across one. By his own admittance, this hype had led to he and the band being as nervous as they could be when they stepped out on to the wooden Hammersmith stage boards on November 18 1975. Despite that, it does not show in the sound, or in the actual performance, although Springsteen does his level best to look completely incongruous by wearing a huge tea-cosy woolly hat and sporting an Al Pacino as "Serpico" style beard. He hardly looked like the "future of rock 'n' roll" as journalist and future manager Jon Landau had dubbed him after this gig. Springsteen himself has never been too happy about this show, preferring the return one on November 24.

It is an excellent live album though, with surprisingly good sound quality considering its date. Outstanding in fact. There is a very convincing argument for this being Springsteen's best official live album. Certainly it is as far as I am concerned.

After a slow, piano-based opener in Bruce's contemporary version of Thunder Road, the band kick in to Tenth Avenue Freeze Out and it is clear this is going to be something special. Springsteen shows his influences by including several brief "hint" snippets of rock classics in various songs during the set. Many of the songs are lengthy, extended versions, with the E St. Band on fire and you have to say that nobody had really done anything like this before. This was 1975 and this was nothing like David BowieLed ZeppelinElton John or Queen. Springsteen was taking rock 'n' roll romanticism and musical history and updating it to the present day, but it was far more than simply a revivalist show, it was definitely pushing boundaries. The white soul dreams of David Bowie's 1974 David Live are taken even further on the saxophone-driven Spirit In The Night and The E St. Shuffle is almost reminiscent of Van Morrison's It's Too Late To Stop Now from the same year. Like Morrison on that album, this is a singer in complete harmony with his band, while simultaneously controlling them like a general. This album is up there with Morrison's as examples of ground-breaking live offerings from the period. Indeed, the lengthy piano improvisation in the middle of Kitty's Back owes more than just a little inspiration to Morrison's Moondance. On this track, as on others like The E St. Shuffle and It's Hard To Be Saint In The City, there are considerable jazz influences, a bit of funk in there on the latter, too.

It is a bit strange listening to the album now and realising that Born To Run, played at sixth track in, was just another track off the new album, which had been released three months previously. It was not the show-stopper it would be on the next tour, three years later. The dramatic Lost In The Flood from Springsteen's debut album, seems to get a better audience reception. Not surprising, though, as it's great.

The ad hoc feeling of the encores Detroit Medley and Gary US BondsQuarter To Three is simply energising and exhilarating, even now. This was Springsteen at his most essential, raw and unpolished. For me, this is the best of him. 1975-1978. You can't beat those years.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978)

Badlands/Adam Raised a Cain/Something In The Night/Candy's Room/Racing In The Street/The Promised Land/Factory/Streets Of Fire/Prove It All Night/Darkness On The Edge Of Town 

"You're born with nothing and better off that way. Soon as you get something they send someone to try and take it away" 
As Bruce Springsteen has stated many times in interview, by 1978, both himself and the characters in his songs had grown up and were now in their late twenties/early thirties, the breathless, energetic youthful optimism of Born To Run had been depressingly replaced by a cast iron reality. All that they could look forward to now was a life of more responsibility, struggle and ultimate disillusion. Such seemingly dour sentiments produced, in my opinion, Bruce Springsteen's great album.

Remember, also, that in 1978, Bruce Springsteen was, certainly in the UK, still very much a "cult" artist that no-one knew quite what to make of, looking like a cross between Elvis in 1968 comeback era and The Fonz from Happy Days. Punk was at its height. Was he a punk? Well, he wore a leather jacket, but his were extended rock songs, not two minute thrashes. No matter, the punks, all too eager to dismiss "boring old farts" seemed to respect Springsteen. Everyone did, whether they liked him or not, indeed, whether they had heard his music or not. He just seemed credible.

Max Weinberg's drum roll introduces this searing tub thumper of a Springsteen anthem in the opener, the bombastic Badlands. Full of lyrics concerning the everyday struggle of the ordinary man over a strangely uplifting musical backing - great guitar riffs, pounding drums and, of course, Clarence Clemons' soaring mid-song saxophone solo. Springsteen opens his soul and makes his sentiments clear - "I wanna spit in the face of those Badlands". In many ways he still saw himself as a struggler - banned from recording for three years due to a protracted lawsuit, he was certainly not yet the superstar he became. At this point he didn't know whether he would make it into a career that would last a lifetime or not. So, Badlands was, at the time, not the rant of a comfortable multi-millionaire.

Adam Raised A Cain is a blistering, bass heavy, guitar-dominated bleak song that has often been forgotten about. When I first got in to the album, back in 1978, this was the one track that I never really liked. Now, it is one of my favourites. It has taken all those years to grow on me.

The passionately delivered slow burner, Something In the Night contains few lines that are the very essence of this album - "you're born with nothing and better off that way. Soon as you get something they send someone to try and take it away". It speaks for itself.

Candy's Room is a frenetic rocker that emerged from a demo entitled Candy's Boy, which is much slower and soulful and, to be honest is the better song. The pace never lets up on this though, with some searing guitar from Springsteen and excellent drums from Weinberg.

The monumental Racing In The Street is the album's funereal, fugue-like cornerstone about broken dreams, shattered hopes and just struggling on through an unforgiving life with that old fire still burning in your veins, somewhere, somehow. The song takes the joyous refrain from Martha And The VandellasMotown hit, Dancing In The Street and turns it into something much darker - about the teenage street racer, now grown up, with new, taxing responsibilities, yearning desperately for one more big race, just like the old days, the days of Brian Wilson's Don't Worry Baby. This time, though, the racer doesn't come home to a loving, welcoming proud girl who said "baby when you race today just take along my love with you", he comes back to an exhausted, disillusioned woman who "stares off alone into the night with the eyes of one who hates for just being born".

The magnificent, stark piano-organ-drum-guitar extended instrumental ending to the song seems to musically sum up the bleakness of it all. However, as with many Springsteen songs, there is always a tiny hint of redemption with the lines "tonight my baby and me, we're gonna ride to the sea, and wash those sins off our hands".

The tribulations and struggles of the working life are back again on The Promised Land, driving off alone on a "rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert". Again, though, there is that spirit of hope - "mister I ain't a boy, now I'm a man, and I believe in a promised land". Great harmonica from Springsteen and saxophone from Clemons.

The short Factory is one of my favourites. A simple backing and a sad, plaintive vocal concerning the drab lives of factory workers. "You'd just better believe boy, somebody's gonna get hurt tonight". It never got much darker. It's just the working life. We've all been there - factory, office, hospital, railway. Everyone can relate to this.

Streets Of Fire has a growling, impassioned vocal over a bleak organ backing introduces this grinding, industrial song of defeat and disillusion. 

The atmosphere is lifted just a little with the upbeat romantic rocker, Prove It All Night. It is performed much more convincingly in concert around this same era (1978) with an extended Springsteen guitar intro and solo in the middle, showing just what a good guitarist he actually is, something that is often forgotten. Many think of him as just a singer.

For the closing Darkness On The Edge Of Town, however, the bleakness is back now, big time. However hopeful one may be about this and that, however hard you work, however hard you try, there is always a "darkness on the edge of town", basically a darkness lurking in the soul of all of us.

** There were lots of non-album rejected tracks from this album's sessions and also from 1977's hiatus period - River-style rockers like RendezvousGive The Girl A KissBring On The NightSo Young And In Love and the excellent Don't Look Back; sombre numbers like the bleak IcemanSouthside Johnny-covered romantic ones like Hearts Of Stone and the bluesy, smoky vibe of The Fever and the epic piano-driven, moving ballad The Promise, that really should have been on the album, possible with Iceman too.

The River (1980)

The Ties That Bind/Sherry Darling/Jackson Cage/Two Hearts/Independence Day/Hungry Heart/Out In The Street/Crush On You/You Can Look (But You'd Better Not Touch)/I Wanna Marry You/The River/Point Blank/Cadillac Ranch/I'm A Rocker/Fade Away/Stolen Car/Ramrod/The Price You Pay/Drive All Night/Wreck On The Highway 

"The songs lacked the kind of unity and conceptual intensity I liked my music to have" - Bruce Springsteen

Released in 1980, before Bruce Springsteen had truly broken “big” (certainly in the UK) and when punk, new wave and two tone were the popular genres, this slightly bloated double album of Searchers/Byrds-style guitar-driven rock actually turned to do pretty well. Tracks like Hungry Heart and The River have proved to be durable in their appeal. It is still an enjoyable double album listen despite there being just a little bit of “filler” in there. Strangely, there are many, many superior tracks to be found on retrospective collections of unreleased material that Springsteen unaccountably rejected from the final album at the time. Having said, just listen to the energy and commitment that those "filler" tracks, like Crush On YouYou Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) or I'm A Rocker are given and you realise that there is "filler" and there is "Springsteen filler". Check out the sax on the former or the fairground organ on the latter for starters.

I remember buying this album while studying in Canterbury, in October 1980, full of excitement. It didn't let me down simply because of the sheer wealth of material on the album. This was Springsteen's London Calling. Looking at it in retrospect, though, it is certainly inferior to the three albums that came before it, for me. Indeed Springsteen dismissed the first, single album version of the album saying that its songs lacked "unity and conceptual intensity". So - he then put out a sprawling double album. 

As someone who has lived with Springsteen’s music since 1978 and has been lucky enough to see him live on eighteen occasions, I have to say that I have always had a big problem with the sound on this album. This latest remaster, by the vastly experienced Bob Ludwig, does the job as best as he can, and it certainly sounds as good as it has ever done. However, no amount of remastering will repair the tinny, treble-heavy sound that the original recording had. Bob Ludwig’s work thankfully realises that Garry Tallent played bass on this album and finally we are allowed to hear him, particularly on the slower, bassier tracks like Point BlankThe RiverI Wanna Marry YouIndependence Day and Fade Away. As I said, this is the best I have heard the album so far, easily. It makes it a better listen by far but it still doesn’t paper over all the cracks.

Springsteen, never the master of the studio, intended to capture a sixties jangly guitar sound on many of the tracks, so fair enough, but the original recording’s production did leave a lot to be desired. Just my opinion. I still love so many of the songs. The upbeat, jangly rock of The Ties That Bind, the fairground-style fun of Sherry Darling, the sheer emotion of Independence Day, the rock n roll good time of Out On The Street and Cadillac Ranch (pictured below), the yearning, evocative The Price You Pay and the extended promises of undying love of Drive all Night. Killer saxophone solo in the latter, too. 

Not forgetting the Drifters meets Mink De Ville on a street corner soul of I Wanna Marry You. Or the beautiful bleakness of Point Blank (possibly the album's best track). The rocking beat of Ramrod. Lots of good stuff. However, one listen to the “rejects” from these sessions to be found on the “Tracks” box set makes one question Springsteen’s choices. There again, he’s “The Boss”, so he gets away with it.

Stolen Car, for example, is nowhere near as good on this album as it is on the original version from the album's recording sessions (see below). Everyday rockers like Two HeartsI'm A Rocker, Crush On You, You Can Look (But You'd Better Not Touch) or the ordinary ballad Fade Away could easily have been replaced by several from those featured below. However, the familiar strains of The River and Hungry Heart have made themselves pretty irreplaceable, although neither of them are my favourites. 

Finally, there is the tragic, moving Wreck In The Highway that ends this sprawling album on a sombre note. Maybe this wasn't such a good time album after all, there is still a now trademark darkness running through it. It is those tracks that re-summon the spirit of Darkness On The Edge Of Town that are the unspoken cornerstones of this apparently high-spirited album - Point BlankThe Price You PayStolen CarIndependence Day and the rocking bleakness of Jackson Cage.

The River Sessions - Extras


Bruce Springsteen's late 1979/early to mid 1980 sessions for The River album produced mountains of unused tracks. The double album was originally intended to be a ten track single release. The first ten tracks below were those chosen. It would have been an ok album, but certainly not as good as the eventual double release and also would have suffered in comparison to its illustrious predecessor, Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

The original selections for "The River" album:-

The Ties That Bind (1979)/Cindy (1979)/Hungry Heart (1980)/Stolen Car (1980)/Be True (1980)/The River (1979)/You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) (1979)/The Price You Pay (1979)/I Wanna Marry You (1979/1980)/Loose Ends (1979)

The "River" sessions previously unreleased tracks:-

Meet Me In The City (1979)/The Man Who Got Away (1979)/Little White Lies (1979)/The Time That Never Was (1979)/Night Fire (1979)/Whitetown (1980)/Chain Lightning (1979/1980)/Party Lights (1979)/Paradise By The "C" (1978)/Stray Bullet (1980)/Mr. Outside  (1980)

"River" sessions tracks that previously appeared on the "Tracks" box set:-

Roulette (1980)/Restless Nights (1980)/Where The Bands Are (1979)/Dollhouse (1979)/Living On The Edge Of The World (1979)/Take 'Em As They Come (1980)/Ricky Wants A Man Of Her Own (1979)/I Wanna Be With You (1979)/Mary Lou (1979)/Held Up Without A Gun (1980)/From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come) (1979)

The Ties That Bind. Apart from a few vocal inflections this sounds pretty much like the version that eventually appeared on the album. To my ears, this version sounds a bit bassier, but maybe that is just me. It is a tiny bit hissier in places.

Cindy is a mid-pace romantic number with echoes of Buddy Holly and a Crickets-style guitar solo. It is not particularly special and doesn't really merit inclusion on the eventual album. Hungry Heart sounds very similar to the final version, if not exactly the same.

Stolen Car. This is here in its longer, and in my view superior version, full of delicious piano and big, heavy bass. Springsteen's vocal is great on this, gently backed by a fetching accordion from Danny Federici. The bit near the end when you just get his vocal, keyboards and piano for a while is wonderful. Garry Tallent's bass dominates and rightly so. This would have been one of the original album's centrepoints, one we all would have talked about, however, the version that appeared on the double album was only half as good as this one.

Be True is an infectious, lively rocker that eventually appeared as the 'b' side of Sherry Darling. This version seems slightly different to that one. It has a less strong vocal. The 'b' side version appears on the Tracks box set. It is a track that deserved to be on the double album, in place of material like Crush On You or I'm A Rocker, for me.


The River is not much different. Again, it seems to have a warmer bass line.

A track that is considerably different, though, is You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) which is far more rockabilly in its rhythm and guitar sound. I prefer this one, it has a loose, bassy swing to it. 

The album's other classic number would have been The Price You Pay, which features here with a completely different second verse to its eventual incarnation. The Spectoresque I Wanna Marry You is almost identical to the final version.

Loose Ends appeared later on Tracks with a few minor changes. This is another good track inexplicably omitted from the final product. Although I like the song, I do not revere it as many Springsteen aficionados seem to do.

Then we get the tracks that didn't make either album. A lot of these tracks date from early to mid 1979 and have quite a different feel to them to a lot of the ones from 1980. They are edgier, tougher and more piano-driven. There is a homogenous sameiness about them, however, a sort of rocky, new wave-influenced sound that finds me having trouble differentiating between them, no matter how many listens. On many of them, despite not being bad tracks at all, the hooks aren't there. Had these been released as the album instead of those that were chosen, the reaction to it and its subsequent place in Springsteen history would have been completely different. Although many of them are musically and lyrically superior to some of those eventually chosen for the album, you can understand why Springsteen opted for the hookier numbers, to an extent.

Meet Me In The City is a lively, piano-driven rocker that has early hints of 2008's Radio Nowhere in places. It was resurrected as a show opener for Springsteen's The River tour in 2016. It has a killer Clarence Clemons saxophone solo. Again, it is a far superior song to some of those rockers that appeared on The River

The Man Who Got Away is a pounding, drum-powered number with similarities to Roulette. It contains some Elvis Costello & The Attractions-style organ breaks.

The fast-paced rocker, Little White Lies sounds a lot like Graham Parker, who Springsteen was recording with at around the same time.

The Time That Never Was has a big, Spector style drum beat and a mournful Springsteen vocal over a throbbing bass line a sonorous backing vocals. It is a track with potential, but some of the vocal parts are a bit indistinct. A great saxophone solo lifts it high up, however.

Night Fire features Roy Bittan's piano prominently. It is another with that Roulette vibe to it. Very much the sound of Springsteen circa early/mid 1979.

Now we move on to 1980 with Whitetown and you can tell, for there is far more of a River-sound to it, with vague hints of I Wanna Marry You lurking in its otherwise dense-ish melody. This is one of the first songs to find Springsteen trying out his falsetto vocal that he would come to use more in later years.

Chain Lightning starts with a bass riff like Nebraska's State Trooper. The track's menacing, bluesy groove is something quite different to anything else from this period. There are a few bits that sound like 1984's Pink Cadillac. It is a big grinder of a track. Clemons's saxophone is far more beguiling than his usual bullhorn blare.

Party Lights is a return to that jangly Searchers-style guitar-driven rock that featured on The Ties That Bind. Some of the lyrics from Point Blank and vague references to the lyrics of Sherry Darling turn up in here.

Paradise By The "C" is a jaunty rock'n'roll saxophone-powered instrumental that is known to those who bought the "Live 1975-1985" box set, as it was performed on there. 

From April 1980 is the quietly sad and brooding Stray Bullet, enhanced by some excellent evocative,  jazzy tenor saxophone. The bass/piano/guitar/saxophone bit near the end is superb. This is one of the first sombre songs that Springsteen had done. Iceman and Meeting Across The River being others. Subsequent years would find him doing many more. This was a really good track and should have appeared on an album.

Mr. Outside is the only track that has that raw "demo" acoustic feel to it. It is a lively Paul Simon-esque number that we will never get to hear in a full band version.

Photo below © Joel Bernstein.

On to the songs that previously appeared on TracksRoulette contains some of Max Weinberg's finest rolling drum sounds. It is an intense song about the perils of nuclear power. 

Restless Nights is a similar song to Loose Ends in some ways, with a strong piano, drum and bass backing. It is pretty typical of Springsteen's 1980 rock output. Danny Federici' s organ solo is excellent. 

Where The Bands Are is a 1979 out-and-out fun rocker with a bit of a The Ties That Bind feel to it. Clarence Clemons contributes a typically rousing saxophone solo. 

Another frantic Searchers-riffy rocker is Dollhouse, which is absolutely packed full of energy. Similarly ebullient is the very enjoyable Living On The Edge Of The World. Some lyrics appeared later on Nebraska's State Trooper and Open All Night. It is one of Springsteen's fastest tracks, the pace just doesn't let up.

Take 'Em As They Come is a regular pace rocker that has never particularly stuck in my mind. It is in the style as a lot of this material - dominated by its jangly guitar riff and Weinberg's gunshot drum rolls. 

Ricky Wants A Man Of Her Own is a slightly amusing fast rock 'n' roll number about a teenage girl growing up driven along by some rocking organ and piano. 

I Wanna Be With You has its origins back in 1977 but finally got properly recorded in 1979. It has a guitar/drum/piano stomping intro that was successfully used as a show opener on the 1999 E St. Band Reunion Tour. Once again, it is a solid song that more than deserved an album place.

Mary Lou is an early version of Be True which doesn't quite flow as cohesively as its eventual replacement. It is still not a bad song, though, and I have always liked it. 

Held Up Without A Gun is a short, punky rocker that appeared as the 'b' side to the Hungry Heart single. It last just over a minute and is Springsteen's shortest ever song. 

From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come) is a rockabilly song that Dave Edmunds covered. It is a lively bassy number full of good rockin'.

Also floating around from the same period are two sombre numbers in A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Wages Of Sin. These two may have put a different complexion on the eventual album had they been used.

As I have said before, how some of this material could be rejected is a never-ending mystery. There is some real quality stuff here. I guess the fact that I have written more about these tracks than those that comprised the original album has to say something.

Nebraska (1982)

Nebraska/Atlantic City/Mansion On The Hill/Johnny 99/Highway Patrolman/State Trooper/Used Cars/Open All Night/My Father's House/Reason To Believe 

"I'm gonna record these songs, and if they sound good with just me doin' 'em, then I'll teach 'em to the band" - Bruce Springsteen         

After the somewhat bloated, rock 'n' roll-influenced exercise of 1980's The River, in 1982, Springsteen stripped literally everything back to basics and recorded this marvellously evocative album of songs in an upstairs room of an old house, with only his acoustic guitar and a tape recorder for company. It came as something of a shock to both long time fans and new-found ones alike as it was an acoustic, dark folk album with not a drum beat or saxophone anywhere within earshot although its brutally stark atmosphere and meaningful, socially-aware lyrics soon made it popular with Springsteen connoisseurs. For some it is his best album. There are convincing arguments to be made that suggest that in this album's pensive, often fatalistic, doom-laden sentiments can be found the very quintessential Bruce Springsteen. 
Showing the artists's willingness to record what he wanted to and hang the commercial consequences, it is a remarkable collection of songs bleakly narrated in the first person, often delivered in the slightly deferential "sir" or "mister" form of addressing the listener, from a succession of characters (it seems) from America's "Badlands" (Nebraska), criminals (Johnny 99), honest working guys gone wrong (State Trooper), cops (Highway Patrolman), husbands (Open All Night), gamblers (Atlantic City), nostalgics (Mansion On The Hilland no hopers (Reason To Believe). They are all there, telling their largely sad stories personalised by Springsteen's quiet, yearning delivery. There was also personal family nostalgia in the moving Used Cars and the less personal, more dream-inspired My Father's House. This was Springsteen's "great American novel". The lyrics and the imagery are that good. I could quote line after line but in the interest of brevity I will simply say that one listen to the songs will suffice to invite them into your bloodstream and, despite the apparent despondent pessimism expressed in many of the songs, there is also a redemptive faith at the end of even the most trying day that gives us a reason to believe. Characters such as the protagonists of Highway PatrolmanUsed Cars and Reason To Believe personify this innate goodness and reassuring belief.

Songs like Highway PatrolmanUsed Cars,  My Father's HouseMansion On The Hill and Atlantic City are up there with some of the best songs Springsteen has ever written. No question. If you want tub-thumping anthems, you certainly won't get them here. This album will not lift your spirits, but it will certainly make you think. It is also important to remember that it was recorded at a time when there was a contemporary popular music culture of synthesiser-dominated pop and ostentatious costumes with floopy hair to match. Here we had a hard-hitting folk album that was in complete contrast to anything else put out at the time. This was no Culture Club, Duran Duran or Michael Jackson offering. It was also a year into Ronald Reagan's economically harsh presidency and the songs' baleful messages were ones of not much hope, its unlucky, downtrodden and sometimes feckless characters the same - the people that "Reaganomics" would trample all over.
Musically, Although the acoustic vibe is a nost evocative one, I would love to hear a “full band” version of all these songs, though. When played live with such arrangements, they have invariably been excellent. Indeed Springsteen said that "I'm gonna record these songs, and if they sound good with just me doin' 'em, then I'll teach 'em to the band".

Tracks that didn't make it on to the album but were recorded at its sessions were the original, slow bottleneck blues strains of Born In The USA (a completely different type of song to its eventual incarnation); a short, evocative Elvis Presley tribute in Johnny Bye Bye and a service veteran's recurring nightmare in the stark and unnerving Shut Out The Light.

Born In The USA (1984)

Born In The USA/Cover Me/Darlington County/Working On The Highway/Downbound Train/I'm On Fire/No Surrender/Bobby Jean/I'm Goin' Down/Glory Days/Dancing In The Dark/My Hometown

"The title track more or less stood by itself. The rest of the album contains a group of songs about which I've always had some ambivalence" - Bruce Springsteen
This was the big one, the one that, unfortunately for those of us that still viewed Springsteen as a "cult" artist, saw his albums sitting in the record collections of those whose only other albums were ThrillerBrother In Arms and Face Values. This horrified me. This was when Bruce Springsteen was taken from me and given to the masses. For this reason I have never had much time for this album. Somewhat unfair, I know. Even now, looking back on it, it is certainly no classic, by any means. It is simply twelve radio friendly rock songs of varying potency and quality. It is not the glory of Born To Run, the streetwise romance of The Wild, The Innocent & The E St Shuffle, the angry hopelessness of Darkness On The Edge Of Town or most certainly not the haunting melancholy of  Nebraska, by any stretch of the imagination. Not at all. 

For many, however, this was their first introduction to the wonderful artist that is Bruce Springsteen, and therefore it has a real emotional meaning for them. I understand that completely. For me, though, I was seven years down the line and viewed its appearance and almighty success somewhat differently. Just a personal thing. Yes, some of the tracks did it for me, but many of them, if I was honest, were a bit underwhelming. There was nothing remotely like BadlandsJunglelandIncident On 57th Street or Racing In The Street on here. Compare those gargantuan tracks with the somewhat banal ordinariness of Cover Me or, for me, the pop fluff of Dancing In The Dark - the difference is seismic. Another important point became obvious many years later, upon the release of the Tracks box set in 1998. I realised then just how much quality material Springsteen had left off this album. Like Dylan, Springsteen made some positively awful choices when it came to track selection. For example, This Hard Land or Brothers Under The Bridges didn't make it, yet Cover Me and I'm Going Down did. 

After the acoustic bleakness of Nebraska, Springsteen brought the E St. Band back to provide a full on backing, and a much fuller, richer one than the tinny sound of The River. This is unashamedly a commercial, rock album. From the bombastic, anthemic, but often totally misunderstood Born In The USA (the bottleneck blues original would have put the point over far more convincingly, with no ambiguity) to the rockabilly fun of Working On The Highway and the cowbell riff-driven Darlington County to the bleakness of I'm On Fire and My Hometown, there is still some enjoyable stuff on here. That said, I have reiterate (at the risk of repeating myself) that it is nowhere near the album that Darkness On The Edge Of Town is, absolutely nowhere near.

My own personal favourites are the rousing guitar and drum attack of No Surrender and the sax and piano singalong Bobby Jean, which has a Spectoresque/Clarence Clemons sax solo appeal, very typical E St. Band. 

Downbound Train has a dark message to it, worthy of the Darkness On The Edge Of Town album. It is probably the album's bleakest track and stands alone from most of the good-time rock of much of the rest of it, with its lyrics about losing a job and a girl and getting "laid off down at the lumber yard". While No Surrender is my favourite, Downbound Train is probably the album's standout track in terms of Springsteen credibility, with the familiar honest working man character who "had a job, had a girl..." now finding himself metaphorically on that downbound train to no future, staring off into space.

However, two of its most popular tracks, Dancing In The Dark and Glory Days have never done much for me. The latter a somewhat embarrassing lament for days gone by that were probably never as glorious as the protagonist makes them sound. (Admittedly, that is the whole point of the song). Neither have the rock-by-numbers tracks like Cover Me and I'm Goin' Down. I would definitely put the previous six albums ahead of this one.

For many, though, this is his best album, so who am I to disagree?

Maybe the last word on it should go to Springsteen himself, who has expressed some mixed feelings about the album, feeling that Nebraska contained some of his strongest songwriting, while this album did not necessarily follow suit -

"...The title track more or less stood by itself. The rest of the album contains a group of songs about which I've always had some ambivalence."

** Take a look at the tracks that were rejected from the album's sessions a consider what the album may have sounded like - three copper-bottomed classics in the atmospheric This Hard Land, the lengthy, melodramatic Frankie and the typical E. St rock of Brothers Under The Bridges '83; some mid-pace, melodic numbers in Lion's DenCar WashMan At The Top and Rockaway The Days; some solid rock in My Love Will Not Let You Down, the brooding Cynthia, the witty, self-deprecating TV Movie and the rollicking Stand On It and a couple of excellent 'b' sides in the bluesy grind of Pink Cadillac and the catchy rock of Janey Don't You Lose Heart. In fact, that lot would make up a fine alternative album, and, for me, a better one.

Tracks Box Set

Previously unreleased material from 1972-1995

The incredible thing about this excellent box set from Bruce Springsteen is that these are all songs that he rejected from albums that he released between 1973 and 1995. The quality of many of the tracks is simply outstanding, and, in a similar way to that in which one questions Bob Dylan, you find yourself thinking “how could he have left that one off the album, yet put on x, y or z?” Another perplexing thing about the collection is that it has been spectacularly remastered to a standard that some of the original albums simply have not been (even, in some cases, after the 2014 Bob Ludwig series of general excellent remasters). I am thinking in particular about The River. Even master remasterer Ludwig could not do much with the tinny material on this album, yet, the rejects from the sessions for that album are remastered here excellently - big, full, thumping and bassy. The sound is a revelation. The quality of sound throughout this box set is the best on all of Springsteen’s released studio material. All the tracks, though, are “rejects”, which is bizarre.

Disc One.

The set begins with for acoustic demos from 1972 and, although interesting in that they gained Springsteen his first recording contract, they are probably the least essential amongst the riches that are on offer here. Funnily enough, the next track after them is the appalling Bishop Danced, which is up there as a contender for Springsteen’s worst ever track. Thereafter though, it is quality all the way. Early highlights are the extended, joyous rock of Thundercrack (does he say "boss time" in the middle?); the wonderful street anthem Zero And Blind Terry; the gorgeous, Spectoresque Linda Let Me Be The One and the end of the pier fairground fun of Seaside Bar Song, with its strident saxophone. It has the line “the highway is alive tonight” that would be used much later on 1995’s The Ghost Of Tom Joad. Not forgetting the melodious, bass and organ Latin majesty of 1973’s Santa Ana.

Next up sees the good time rock of Rendezvous and Give The Girl A Kiss and Springsteen’s original recordings of tracks made famous by Southside Johnny in The Fever and Hearts Of Stone. I am adding the three extra tracks from the shortened 18 Tracks compilation here. The wonderful The Promise is just sombre, hopeful, sad and uplifting, all at once. One of Springsteen’s best evocative tracks of all time. The rocker Don’t Look Back is a corker, too. The enigmatic, bass-thumping, atmospheric Iceman also contains some lyrics that ended up on Badlands.

Disc Two 

has many excellent tracks from The River sessions that would have graced that album - the tender A Good Man Is Hard To Find; the fabulous rocker piano-driven Loose Ends, the frenetic, ecologically-motivated Roulette; the lively Living On The Edge Of The World; the classic E. St rock of Be True and the far superior version of Stolen Car to the one that was eventually used. All seriously good stuff. You can virtually make a River 2 album out of this lot which would more than compete with the original. Oh, and there’s I Wanna Be With You which is a knockout as well. This is something that just doesn’t stop giving. What about the mournful Wages Of Sin as well.

Disc Three 

has many more gold medal contenders from the Born In The USA and Nebraska sessions - the short but lovely Johnny Bye Bye, the original bottleneck blues of Born In The USA (so different from the one everyone knows); the magnificent Frankie with its trademark Clarence Clemons saxophone at the end; the rockabilly boogie that is Stand On It and the sheer emotive exhilaration of This Hard LandBrothers Under The Bridge (83) is just archetypal E. St Band, why it was left off in favour of tracks like Cover Me or I’m Going’ Down is beyond my comprehension. Man At The Top is catchily appealing too.

Disc Four 

sees us reach the more folky, understated material of the early/mid nineties. It is not quite the sheer, effervescent joy that the previous three discs have brought, but there are still many gems - the underrated, riffy rocker Leavin' Train; the blistering rock of Seven Angels; the sad and starkly soulful Gave It A Name; the sombre, bleak Goin’ Cali'; the bluesy rock of Trouble River and one of the best saved until last - the glorious, romantic Back In Your Arms.

Overall, a fantastic collection of material from this iconic artist who never disappoints. My top five from the set? ThundercrackLinda Let Me Be The OneThe PromiseThis Hard Land and Brothers Under The Bridge (83)

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