Least to Most: Bruce – Darkness on the Edge of Town

“For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside,
That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive
I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me
I wanna find one place,
I wanna spit in the face of these… BADLANDS!”

Here we go then; my favourite and most-played Bruce Springsteen album and likely up there as a favourite album full stop, Darkness on the Edge of Town.

The history surrounding Born To Run‘s follow up is well covered: following internal conflicts and examining of contracts, Springsteen and his former manager Mike Appel entered a legal battle that would prevent Bruce from recording any new material until its resolution in May 1977. It’s a strange one to consider given how successful Born To Run had become but, after the protracted break from recording, Springsteen found himself in a make-or-break situation for the second time in a row. He now needed to prove that a) he still had it and b) Born To Run wasn’t a fluke and, for the record company too, that he was a viable artist.

When he did hit the studio, Springsteen was overflowing with ideas and songs and the sessions for Darkness on the Edge of Town marked the first of many protracted recording periods where more songs would be recorded than released – as proven by the wealth of strong material left off the album and included on Tracks and The Promise. I could just as easily play ‘best non-album Darkness track’ to ‘best Darkness track’ such is the quality of the cut songs.

Acknowledging that the “music that got left behind was substantial”, Springsteen has said that ““Darkness was my ‘samurai’ record, stripped to the frame and ready to rumble.” In order to filter through the thirty plus songs – in a recorded and ready state, not to mention those in other stages – numerous ‘track listings’ and sequences were plotted* before the final selection and sequence was made ready for release in June 1978**.

As the now-released tracks show, the recording sessions found Bruce running through almost every conceivable structure – from gorgeous pop songs to old school R&B. When it came time to the crunch, though, the excess was cut, the songs were honed down to their essentials and the arrangements tight*** – a vast contrast to the Wall of Sound employed for Born To Run – with the songs recorded by the full E Street Band, tight and honed after touring since 1975, at once. Steve Van Zandt would earn a co-producer credit for helping Bruce tighten the arrangements.

Darkness on the Edge of Town is Springsteen’s best guitar album. Whereas Born To Run was written mostly at the piano, Darkness is clearly a six-string job and sees a return for those chops that had started to get space on The Wild, The Innocent… before being lost in the mix. Check out every live version of ‘Prove It All Night’ or the angst-driven ‘Adam Raised a Cain‘ or ‘Candy’s Room’:

Yes, the songs on Darkness are more serious – Springsteen, flush from Born To Run‘s success having returned home to find those he grew up with struggling with the blue-collar life he’d escaped had also weathered a lengthy and unpleasant lawsuit having realised that the wool had been pulled over his eyes- but they’re very well written and is perhaps the best example of his marrying the rousing (‘Badlands’) with the minimal (‘Factory’). Oh, and it also contains what I consider his finest lyrics on his finest song: “Some guys they just give up living, and start dying little by little, piece by piece”:

There’s a lot of fun on the album, too. I reckon if you get to a Springsteen show and they pull out a  rave-up on ‘Prove It All Night’ then nobody will be heading to grab a beer, they’ll be there singing along:

Darkness on the Edge of Town is Springsteen’s first album of maturity. It takes in and refines  everywhere he’d been and serves as a signpost for everything he’d go on to record later.

An album of defiance in the face of struggle that cracks along with an urgency and taut electricity. It’s my favourite Springsteen album and brings this Least to Most exploration of Bruce to an end.

*A look through the (very much worth investment) box set The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story will show just how many.

**Recording sessions were finished early January ’78 with mixing dragging on until late March with a number of mixes being toyed with and one (‘The Promised Land’) being changed as late as April.

***For evidence see the difference between Darkness‘ ‘Racing in the Street’ and ‘Candy’s Room’ vs ‘Racing in the Street (’78)’ and ‘Candy’s Boy’ from The Promise.

Least to Most: Bruce – Born To Run

“One day I was playing my guitar on the edge of my bed, working on song ideas, and the words ‘born to run’ came into my head… I liked the phrase because it suggested a certain cinematic drama that I thought would work with the music I was hearing in my head.”

There’s probably very little I could add to anyone’s knowledge or appreciation of Born To Run, an album that’s undoubtedly at the top of many a list and is very likely many people’s favourite album of all time. ‘Born To Run’ may have taken six months to write but it and Born To Run changed everything for Bruce, both in terms of sales / success and writing. This was the album that lived up to the promise of ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’, maintaining its excitement and drive “while delivering it’s message in less time and with a shorter burst of energy. This was a turning point, and it allowed me to open up my music to a far larger audience.”

It was this song that made sure the world would become aware of Springsteen in more ways than one. Neither his début or The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle had achieved the level of success that would make a record company throw money for studio time at him. He had to write something that would get him his last shot. He may be somewhat flippant about its origins (if not its impact) now but writing ‘Born To Run’  in early 1974 got him that chance – it was recorded during touring breaks (with drummer Ernest ‘Boom’ Carter*) and an early mix was released to radio in November of the same year. It’s popularity on radio meant previous Springsteen singles began picking up more airplay and gave him validation to get to work on the rest of the album.

Like, I’m sure, it was for many, ‘Born To Run’ was the first Bruce Springsteen song I was aware of. Specifically the 1987 video from a performance shot during Boss Mania. What strikes me most about the song, and the album as a whole, is the poetry of the lyrics. How many other FM rock songs used a lyric like the “the amusement park rises bold and stark” or “beyond the Palace, hemi-powered drones” found in ‘Born To Run’? And if we’re talking lyrics, let’s look at how the album kicks off:

“The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves. Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.” Or what about the “One soft infested summer” of ‘Backstreets’ or ‘Jungleland’ with it’s “In a bedroom, locked. In whispers of soft refusal and, then, surrender”? Bruce may have claimed that “the poets down here don’t write nothing at all” (I’ll admit the double negative still bothers me some) but from a lyrical point of view, Born To Run saw the volley of words on Greetings.., the romance of The Wild, The Innocent… turn into something much more direct and universal (earlier characters and scenes were much more specific, that ‘screen door’ could be anywhere) and coupled with a new-found confidence from years of honing his act on the stage to produce some of Springsteen’s most evocative and memorable lines.

Work on the album is something of a legend in itself – Springsteen aware that it’s his make or break shot, agonising over takes and layering track upon track (there’s close to a dozen guitar tracks on the title song) as he struggled to explain the sounds he heard in his head, it lead to a changing of both studio location and began the changing of the guard with Appel vs Landau when the sessions got bogged down… or even the number of takes it took to get Clarence Clemons’ finest performance just right…

The thing is that such ardent efforts can sometimes lead to something that just sounds overworked**. In Born To Run though, it equals magic. You don’t hear what must have been a stressful session in those closing minutes of ‘Jungleland’ or the fact that it took nearly 14 months to record an album that fades out less than forty minutes later than a harmonica swept it in. What you hear is an album of meticulous detail and ambition underpinned by a songwriter hitting his stride and not holding back.

It’s packed with moments of magic – the intro of ‘She’s The One’*** giving away to the Bo Diddley beat that Springsteen admits he wrote just to hear Clarence blast all over, the jazzy film-noir intro for ‘Meeting Across The River’, the “hiding on the Backstreets” refrain, every single second of ‘Jungleland’ but especially it’s mid-point swing and ‘this ain’t over yet’ sax break….

Every song on this album works on its own. The biggest ‘hits’ from Born To Run – the title track, ‘Thunder Road’ ‘Jungleland’ – all stand as great songs in their own right but (and I urge you to go and do so) work best when played in sequence, they belong together. They ebb and flow as a story across one magnum opus and create one of the greatest albums ever made.

I will say, though, that it’s worth making sure that you get a decent master of this album. The first one I had… the remastering for CD was pretty crap. The version (that I guess is now in standard production) that came with the 30th Anniversary box really jumps out at you.

*If you’re only gonna be on one Bruce Springsteen song….

**Ahem; Human Touch

***Bruce wasn’t even sure if he should put this one on the album

Least to Most; Bruce – The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle

“This boardwalk life for me is through
You know you ought to quit this scene too…”

thewildtheinnocentWhat a difference six months can make. After his début failed to propel him to the dizzying heights hoped for by his signing as a ‘new Dylan’, Bruce Springsteen entered 914 Studios in New York to record his second album. This time, though, things would be a little different. For one, Bruce wanted more control of the sound and production. For another, and perhaps prompting the former, Springsteen was fired up about playing with his embryonic E Street Band and had reignited his passion for a big, full-band sound that was absent from Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ.

Everything on here is aiming for epic – the sound, the instrumentation and even the characters. Before he started singing about the less fanciful Marys, Wendys and Joes his New York and New Jersey characters were more colourful than a ‘gang meeting’ on Hill Street Blues. On The Wild, The Innocent… there’s Power Thirteen and his girl Little Angel, Sandy, Kitty, Big Pretty,  Catlong, Missy Bimbo, the Flying Zambinis, Margarita, Sampson, Tiny Tim, Spanish Johnny, Puerto Rican Jane, Billy, Diamond Jackie, Little Dynamite and Little Gun, Jack the Rabbit and Weak Knees Willie, Sloppy Sue and Big Bones Billy all amidst a maelstrom of boy prophets, Latin lovers and hard girls on Easy Street. Not to mention a certain girl called Rosie. All within just seven songs.

And what songs they are. Here Bruce ditched the rhyming dictionary and attempts to sing a novel at speed in every verse, embraced the opportunity offered by the band and delivered a set of songs with more ambition in terms of lyrics and scope than you’d have guessed possible of him just six months earlier. While personally I’ve never been hugely fond of the opening cut (it’s down to that phunk keyboard line dancing all over it like some platform-shoed drunk disco elephant) there’s no denying its quality. Other than that, every other song here gets a five star rating from me.

With its wistful tale of Madame Marie, ‘4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)’  alone shows the strides Springsteen took as a songwriter between albums and the benefits of road-testing songs before getting into the studio. It’s easy to see why Federici asked to play this showcase on his last performance with the band and this most romantic of Bruce’s songs remains a live highlight decades later.

‘Kitty’s Back’ is a monster of a tune, clocking in at over seven minutes and showcasing Springsteen’s guitar chops (again absent through Greetings..) and proving what a wild, R&B/Soul/Jazz/Rock powerhouse outfit his band was. I’ve heard criticism that ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ takes itself too seriously but to that I say “arseholes”. It’s a cracking, fun little tune and contains a great lyric: “the runway lies ahead like a great false dawn”. It’s odd but I think that Springsteen’s lyrics often get overlooked as some of the real nuggets like this one are often missed when reflecting on the overall story of the song. At just 23 Bruce was already coming up with some great lines.

Listening back through these albums has meant I’ve been discovering little gems that I’d almost forgotten and that’s certainly true of ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’. It also means my young son has been getting introduced to these and along with calls for this one (the “Elephant Song” based on Gary Tallent’s tuba blasts) he’s surely one of precious-few three year old’s calling out for “Rosie!”

Ah yes, ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’. There’s no getting away from just how fucking good this song is. Described by Bruce as an early ‘Born To Run’ but with more humour, this is a real indicator as to where Springsteen’s sound was going. Just listen to the mix of sax and guitar around the 5:10 mark, you half expect “the highway’s jammed…” to come barrelling in. In this instance, it goes back to the party instead. Rolling Stone have described this song as “a raucous celebration of desire.” It is a big, beautiful and triumphant song and easily one of Springsteen’s best and does remain the album’s biggest sign post as to what’s to come both in terms of it’s “it’s time to bust out of here” and it’s sound, made especially arresting by it’s sequencing.

The prototype of Bruce’s ‘busting outta here’ song sits between his two most unabashed and wonderful epics; ‘Incident on 57th Street‘ and ‘New York City Serenade’. ‘Incident on 57th Street’ is a massive song in terms of Bruce’s song-writing. It’s like listening to the sound of all the pieces aligning properly as Bruce steps aside and delivers one of his finest – and earliest – songs sung from an observational point that’s far greater than the sum of its parts.

Why I mention sequencing, though, is that the sound of the final, gentle tickle of piano notes is quickly blasted away by the sheer force and power of ‘Rosie’, making the juxtaposition between the two styles all the more evident.

And then there’s ‘New York City Serenade’. You know there’s a few, a small few songs that I’ll listen to where the opening bar is so immediately ‘right’, so ‘spot on’ and tuned to me that it affects me to the core. It’s like an instant high. ‘New York City Serenade’ is one of those. That hammer of the piano strings, the cascade of notes that follows. Sometimes you’ll hear an intro that’s perfect and you’ll think ‘ok, how’s this gonna get marred?’ because not everything that follows can be as good. With ‘New York City Serenade’ everything works beautifully, the arrangement is so perfectly put together that every element just flows into the next in a way that makes it seem like effortless poetry. There’s not a single bum not or misstep in the entire song. Bruce Springsteen was 23 when he wrote and arranged ‘New York City Serenade.’ When I was 23 I though it was a good idea to call a band ‘Wookie Cushion’*. I’ve played this song to people who thought they knew what to expect from a Springsteen song and they’ve always had to question whether it was really “that Born in the USA guy”.

One of my all-time favourite songs.

img_1456 What this also means is that Side B of this album might just be the finest 25 minutes of music put to vinyl.

Easily Springsteen at his most expansive, poetic and romantic, The Wild, the Innocent & The E Street Shuffle is a beautiful embrace of and gentle kiss goodbye to his boardwalk life as he takes his characters and breaks them out of their surroundings in pursuit of a new dream.

Oddly, though, his record label didn’t agree that the album was up to scratch. When Springsteen handed it in, the allies he’d had at Columbia were no longer in place. Instead of receiving the great feedback he’d hoped for, Bruce was instead told that the players were sub par and it was suggested that he re-cut the majority of it with professional studio musicians. Of course, this wasn’t an option. Unfortunately, sticking to his guns meant that Columbia buried the album. No release fanfare, no promotion, little distribution. Bruce would play shows in towns where they had no idea the album had even been released.

Thankfully, though, Bruce still had what it takes to cut it live and lay down a killer show. This lead to two things. The first was catching the eye of Jon Landau and the infamous  “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen,” review that would lead to the pair’s friendship and Landau becoming Springsteen’s manager.  Secondly, Springsteen took to taking aim at his record company during his on-stage patter. One particularly embittered voicing of his frustration happened at a college where the son of the label’s boss happened, unknown to Bruce, to be in attendance. Legend has it he called his father, explained just how much of an amazing act Springsteen was and what was being said and the head of the label soon sat down with his charge and said words along the lines of “what can we do to get this working?”

With Landau and his record label supporting him, it would be time to shed the mythic tales and follow The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle with a last chance power drive…

Highlights: ALL OF IT

 

*You’d sit on it and it would go “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrgh!”

Least to Most: Bruce – Tracks

“The alternate route to some of the destinations I travelled to on my records.” Bruce Springsteen

“Every song on Tracks is a lost argument”. Steven Van Zandt.

Strap in, this one is a long one…

bruce_springsteen_tracksIn 1998, with eleven studio albums to his name, close to 75% of Springsteen’s work remained in the vaults. His mammoth studio and recording sessions from Darkness on the Edge of Town onward meant that he’d essentially written four albums worth of material for every one that was released. His production and arranging partner for much of this time, Steven Van Zandt, would get frustrated by this practice – especially when he had to work so hard for his own songs – as many of his favourite tracks would end up shelved despite being the sort of thing other acts could make a career from but has referred to this period as Bruce’s “hundred song phase”. Not many artists are capable of such sustained writing periods, let alone when the material was so solidly strong.

When Tracks was released in 1998 it had already been whittled down from six discs of material to four and the 66 tracks ran from Springsteen’s 1972 audition tapes for Columbia through roughly chronological order to the late 90’s, divided up (as illustrated by the covers given to each of those discs inside the box) into what Bruce saw as the sections of his song-writing arc. Given that it came at the end of an otherwise sparse decade for Bruce fans, it was embarrassment of riches; of the songs included a handful had been released as B-Sides, some had leaked out on bootlegs and some had been heard live but never released. Plenty of them though had never even been heard of.

Those audition tapes kick proceedings off but, given the bare-bones approach to their released versions, don’t offer anything other than a passing interest and ‘Bishop Danced’ isn’t all that good if I’m honest. The first disc is made up of out-takes that, for the most part, it’s clear to see why; the songs are good ideas but don’t really make for strong contenders. I couldn’t imagine much debate went into ‘Zero & Blind Terry’ vs ‘Incident on 57th Street’ but the songs are good examples of Bruce working out ideas in the studio, with many a part stripped from one and dropped into another – albeit a couple of decades later with ‘Seaside Bar Song’s “the highway is alive tonight” lyric. But that’s because, up to, and including, the Born To Run sessions, Bruce’s writing hadn’t hit its stride (in terms of prolificacy not quality) and I imagine the constraints put upon him by the record label meant the time to do so wasn’t afforded to him in the way the Appel lawsuit would force it. For once the first disc reaches ‘Rendevous’ and the sublime ‘Iceman‘  we’re jumping into songs from Bruce’s most fertile period and the quality kicks up into a different gear. The leap is noticeable between ‘Linda Let Me Be The One’ and ‘Don’t Look Back’.

Now, in the same way the The Promise represents a lost album, the second and third discs of Tracks are nigh on faultless and could easily make up three classic albums from tracks completely omitted from The River and Born In The USA. Just take the breathless joy of Disc 2 opener ‘Restless Nights’ as Danny Federici whips up a dervish on his keys before Bruce’s guitar rips into it a minute and a half in:

Tracks like ‘Roulette‘, ‘Dolls House’, ‘Where The Bands Are’, ‘Loose Ends‘, ‘Living on the Edge of the World’ are pure, perfect three/four minute pop songs. Van Zandt was aghast that these were shelved – believing an album of these, plus ‘The River’ would be been a great thing. He’s not wrong. ‘Living on the Edge of the World‘ perhaps sounds strange but that’s because Bruce would take a few of it’s lines and strap them to altogether different beats for Nebraska‘s ‘Open All Night’ and ‘State Trooper’. Oh and there’s the absolute classic ‘Take ‘Em as They Come’ which just bounds along on a stellar beat that surpasses many a released song.

Slipped just before ‘Take ‘Em..’ is a Born In The USA out-take whose existence was previously unknown;

‘Wages of Sin’, another Bruce classic, is the first hint of what’s to come on Disc 3; a wealth of tunes that were recorded between 1982 and 1984 in that protracted recording period that lead to Bruce’s biggest-selling album. As big as that album was, the tracks that didn’t make the cut could easily be put together into an alternative album that would’ve been as good if not better. Just picking a handful of those tracks, say: ‘Wages of Sin, ‘Rockaway the Days‘, ‘Shut Out the Light’, ‘This Hard Land’, ‘Frankie’, ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Pittsburgh)‘, ‘Lion’s Den’ will give you a strong album, if you were to add ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down‘, which breezes and rocks past plenty like on Born In The USA then you’ve got a classic and that’s without even mentioning another previously unheard of song – ‘Brothers Under The Bridges ’83’:

More than an ‘alternate route’ there’s alternate albums here. Oddly enough, Bruce even toyed with yet another album approach between Nebraska and …USA. Buoyed by the positive reception Nebraska‘s stripped-down sound received he headed back and laid down a few more tracks in a similar bare-bones, minimal approach before abandoning and heading back into the studio with the full band. Of those recorded during those sessions the soft tribute to Elvis, ‘Johnny Bye Bye’ and ‘Shut Out The Light’ would end up released as b-sides for ‘Born in the USA’ and ‘I’m On Fire’ before their inclusion on Tracks.

It’s not only ..USA that could’ve taken a different theme – just take a look at the difference in themes on those songs recorded during the Tunnel of Love sessions. ‘The Wish‘ is perhaps most known of these- a song Bruce wrote for his mother but felt unable to release officially given its sentimentality – while ‘The Honeymooners’ (a home-recording with the sound of dog barking captured in the background), ‘Lucky Man’ and ‘When You Need Me’ give a different insight to the men & women relationships that album tended to lean toward. Hell, ‘When You Need Me‘, similar in its uncomplicated sentiment as ‘Two For The Road’ is as content as Bruce would get this side of Lucky Town: “When you need me call my name, ’cause without you my life just wouldn’t be the same”.

The final disc loses the momentum a little with a lot of bass-heavy songs cut during the Human Touch sessions weighing it down. “I wrote about half a record on the bass, where you had a note and you had your idea. The only one that made it to release was ‘57 Channels,’”… indeed, and on Disc 4 there’s the remainder of those cuts – all exploring similar themes (internal dialogues working out psychological or relationships as Bruce himself was at the time) but none that really stand out as worthy of going further. That being said I’d rather something like ‘Gave It  A Name‘ or ‘When The Lights Go Out’ had seen release over the aforementioned Human Touch cut itself.

There’s still plenty to enjoy, though. In ‘Songs’ he explains that to shake off his writer’s block, Bruce started sessions for Human Touch by experimenting with different styles he “had always liked: soul, rock, pop, R&B”.  If you ask me, removed from much of the heavy-handed production that spoilt that album, they shine brighter here. One such song ‘Sad Eyes‘ is a cutting tune that’s better than most released on that album (and features David Sancious who also plays on ‘Part Man, Park Monkey’), ‘Seven Angels’ is back to the rock but undercut with more humour and looseness than anything that made the cut and ‘Gave It A Name’ – the master take couldn’t be found so Bruce and Roy Bittan recut the track in ’98 – is masterful in it’s minimalism. Oh, and there’s also ‘Happy’ the sole out-take from Lucky Town omitted only, I guess, because it shared the “gold and diamond rings…drug to ease the pain that living brings” line with the superior ‘My Beautiful Reward’.

The box is rounded out by the then-latest omissions. ‘Back In Your Arms‘ features the E Street Band and was recorded during the Greatest Hits sessions – like ‘Secret Garden’ it was originally one intended for Bruce’s shelved ‘Philadelphia’-style album – while ‘Brothers Under The Bridge’ is a beautiful out-take that was, exasperatingly when you considered what it could’ve replaced, omitted from The Ghost of Tom Joad and brings the set up to what was then Bruce’s most recent studio sessions. A story about a homeless Vietnam veteran living “who has a grown daughter that he’s never seen, and she grows up, and she comes looking for her dad. And what he tells her.” It would be performed live after ‘Born in the USA’ or ‘Shut Out The Light’ to place it within Bruce’s Vietnam arc and its one of those songs (like ‘The Promise’) whose live rendering meant fans were puzzled by its omission from the record.

Not everything on Tracks is brilliant but a lot of it is, much of it is very strong and some of the songs are absolute Bruce classics that stand above many in his catalogue. That’s why it’s on this list and why it’s on this list in this place; if I were talking to a Bruce newbie I’d recommend many of the songs on here well before a lot in his catalogue.

While many box-sets merely curate already-released material with a smattering of live cuts or offer up b-sides that are clearly inferior to their As, Tracks represents a much deeper fleshing out of the Springsteen narrative and emphasises just how strong a songwriter he is; even those tracks omitted from his albums piss all over many artist’s hits. Four discs and 66 songs is a lot to get through but it’s worth it. If you’re pressed for time then Discs 2 and 3 contain enough gold to make sure the box is worth of inclusion as an essential addition to a Springsteen collection / discussion.

Highlights: ‘Iceman’, ‘Don’t Look Back,’ ‘Restless Nights’, ‘Roulette’, ‘Take ‘Em as They Come’, ‘Shut Out the Light’, ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’, ‘Frankie’, ‘Rockaway the Days’, ‘Brothers Under the Bridges ’83’, ‘Seven Angels’, ‘Gave It A Name,’ ‘Happy’, ‘Brothers Under The Bridge’

Not-so-highlights: The omission of ‘The Promise’. This actually lead to many a complaint from fans. A new recording of it would be slapped on the single-disc-sampler/cash-in 18 Tracks along with another couple of ‘new old’ tracks – ‘The Fever’ and ‘Trouble River’. 18 Tracks, intended for fans who didn’t fancy the full box, actually fared worse than Tracks in terms of sales and charting; Tracks was something of a hit for Bruce, hitting the Top 30 and shifting plenty of units, defying expectations for a Box Set in much the same way as Live: 1975-85 had a decade earlier.

Least To Most: Bruce – “halfway to heaven and just a mile outta hell”

Ok, so I’ve just looked at my (much revised, scrawled over and rewritten) list and realised we’re at the half way point in my rambling about Bruce’s albums in Least to Most Favourite order. We’re ten down with ten to go and that feels like a good point to take a breather* and talk about some Springsteen songs (a couple of favourites amongst them) that wouldn’t otherwise get a mention and take a look at those releases that don’t qualify for the list.

Compilations 

Bruce was twenty three years into his recording career before he decided it was time for a compilation. 1995’s Greatest Hits oddly didn’t get the best reviews – many felt that by omitting anything prior to Born To Run, Bruce was cutting out an important part of his history (“no Rosalita?!” was a common cry in reviews I’ve found in archives**) and others suggested that these songs simply didn’t belong together and performed better in their original album sequencing… though isn’t that the case with all such compilations? Seems like a trite comment to make.

Personally, this was my introduction to Bruce Springsteen so I’m a little biased. I was a little put-off by the sounds of ‘Born In The USA’ and it’s kin (this was 1995, after all, and such sounds weren’t ageing well) but there was no denying the draw of songs like ‘The River’ and ‘Atlantic City’ which were the big hook for me.

I’ll also make a fight for the new songs included here that many a critic argued were weak. I think ‘Blood Brothers’ remains an essential Bruce Springsteen song and both ‘Streets of Philidelphia’ and ‘Secret Garden’ are strong tracks and that’s without the dusted-off and revisited ‘Murder Incorporated’ (which saw Steven Van Zandt return to the fold for the video and would become a real blazer on the Reunion Tour) and ‘This Hard Land’ – both Born In The USA cuts that didn’t make selection, the latter of which was Max Weinberg’s favourite tune. For a one-stop sampler of Bruce Springsteen V1***, Greatest Hits is still a damn good start for any Bruce newbie.

Strangely enough, just two studio albums later and with the successful launch of Bruce Springsteen V2 cemented, it was time for another compilation.

This time more space was allotted to it and the selection was allowed to span out across two discs so that The Essential Bruce Springsteen kicked off with ‘Blinded By The Light’ and wrapped it up with cuts from Live In NYC and The Rising making sure to include ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’, all the hits, some fan favourites like ‘Jungleland’ and ‘Nebraska’. Of course, the fans would already have all of these so a limited run with a third disc of rarities was offered and some of those are none-too shabby either. I particularly enjoy Springsteen’s live take on ‘Trapped’:

Odder still, in 2015 the track listing was revised. Out went ‘Jungleland’ and ‘Tunnel of Love’ and in came ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’ and ‘One Step Up’ and a handful of other tracks were shuffled / cut in order to make space for a couple of bolted-on post-The Rising tunes. Bonkers, if you ask me; cutting ‘The Darkness On The Edge of Town’  to make space for something from High Hopes?! Why bother?

On the ‘Why Bother’ list is the 2009 Greatest Hits which was billed to Bruce and The E Street Band (is that only their second billing? Though they didn’t get the US cover) which strips it all back to one disc and adds a couple of newer tracks – presumably released to catch the newer casuals after Superbowl and festival appearances.

Chapter & Verse was released this year to coincide / accompany Bruce’s Born To Run book. It’s somewhat linear and obvious in its song selection and only really stands out in as much as being more ‘personally’ selected than the above comp and featuring a handful of pre-Columbia Recording Artist Bruce. The best of which being ‘Ballad of Jesse James’. I’ve yet to add this to the shelves as they’re not what you’d call ‘required listening’ for anything other than an intro to the origins story.

Live

In terms of live albums, while there’s certainly a couple listed on Bruce’s discography, Live 1975-85 is inarguably the best way to get a take on what makes Springsteen live so legendary. Sure, Live In NYC is a good capture of the reunited E Street Band (and the best place to hear its new songs) but it’s strange sequencing and fading out have hampered it and interrupt the flow.

Live 1975-85 contains 40 songs recorded with the band in its prime, a wealth of classics, Springsteen pre-song story telling and, in ‘Seeds’ another great original:

It’s only downfall – and one that was much picked up on by fans I’m given to understand – was that it didn’t include ‘Prove It All Night’ in the live reshaping (or at all, in fact) that had acquired a massive fandom. So here it is:

Worth mentioning that Bruce is more than savvy to the current musical buying trends and has made many a current and classic concert available for download at http://live.brucespringsteen.net/

EPs

1988’s Chimes of Freedom was released to tie-in with the Human Rights Now! tour. The live rendition of ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ is suitably girded by the E Street Band’s backing, ‘Be True’ is a decent enough tune but the flip side with Bruce’s take on Dylan’s ‘Chimes of Freedom’ and the acoustic ‘Born To Run’ and still captivating stadium-size crowds is the strongest, in my opinion:

Blood Brothers originally came with the film of the same name (in a very limited pressing) that documented the mini-reunion of the E Street Band. While the tracks included are certainly interesting there’s nothing really here other than curiosities – like the ‘alt’ version of the title song.

Which brings us to the last release of new Bruce Springsteen material – American Beauty. Now, if High Hopes was made up of songs that didn’t make the cut for The Rising or Wrecking Ball then an ep of songs that didn’t make the cut of THAT might be stretching it a bit….  Indeed it is. Nothing on here is particularly essential in its listening and there’s chunks of all that were salvaged and better used elsewhere, it’s release remains something of a mystery to me, almost an example of a big artist and major label slapping something together to cash in on Record Store Day and it pains me to say that as a fan. That being said, ‘Hey Blue Eyes’ is a very good song and I do play it a fair old bit on stream. One of Springsteen’s angry Bush-era political songs that isn’t mired by over-production – almost demonstrating in on four-track EP how clearly Brendan O’Brien is the better set of hands for Springsteen’s songs over Ron Aniello.

 

*Whether I’ll manage to finish this series by the New Year remains to be seen.

**Bruce made reference to this in the linear notes for The Essential and, if you watch the accompanying ‘Blood Brothers’ DVD, there was plenty of discussion against the inclusion of earlier tracks

***Bruce Version 1 extends from his debut up to the conclusion of The Reunion Tour. The Rising marked the emergence of Bruce Springsteen Version 2.0

Least to Most: Bruce – Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J

“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
With a boulder on my shoulder feelin’ kinda older I tripped the merry-go-round”

Pardon?

greetings_from_asbury_park_njGreetings From Asbury Park, NJ feels exactly like a debut album should: it’s full of energy, enthusiasm and awash with ideas – essentially what happens when an act has been working up these songs long before getting a deal and let into a recording studio. So here we find Bruce Springsteen at the tender age of 23, in thrall still to his idols, making his recording début not as a frontman for a rock band but, essentially, a solo artist with a few band members on a couple of tracks.

Indeed a bit of a dispute arouse very early in as Bruce wanted more tracks with his band (at that time featuring Vini ‘Mad Dog’ Lopez, Garry Tallent and David Sancious) whereas Mike Appel and John Hammond wanted more of the solo artist, acoustic feel. Not only that but Hammond’s boss, Columbia Records president Clive Davis,  didn’t feel there was a single on the album and sent his new signing back to work.

So Springsteen, proving his craft, wrote two – ‘Spirit In The Night’ and ‘Blinded By The Light’* (which would mark Clarence Clemons’ entry into Bruce’s catalogue). Neither would prove a hit for Bruce but Manfred Mann’s Earth Band would take ‘Blinded…’ to the top of the charts. The two songs pushed a trio of ‘solo acoustic’ songs off never to be heard from again. I’ve never been this song’s biggest fan, to be honest. I don’t like what I feel is wordplay for the sake of wordplay and I still can’t fathom the meaning of lines like “And go-cart Mozart was checkin’ out the weather chart to see if it was safe to go outside, And little Early-Pearly came in by her curly-wurly and asked me if I needed a ride, Oh, some hazard from Harvard was skunked on beer playin’ backyard bombardier”… it’s almost as though he’s just going for rhyme over reason… but that’s just me.

 

But then if – after seventeen studio albums – your début was still considered your best you’d have to wonder what you’re doing wrong, right? He’d later start finding his own voice and stripping away all the wordiness and start matching his poetry to more muscular, tighter rhythms that really worked together. At the time, though, I think he was desperate to get his foot in the door. I think he’s even explained that he’d sit on the bed with a rhyming dictionary to help with the lyrics. It’s a fun anecdote now but I think it does kinda harm the music – Jon Landau and his editing hand were still a way off.

I think the only reason I don’t spend as much time with this as I do with later albums is probably down to the production / guiding hands behind it. The whole ‘New Dylan’ tag that Columbia was marketing Bruce behind meant that  it landed somewhere between folk and rock and not firmly in either, in amongst some that don’t really leave much of an impression are some great songs on here that would later go on to become fleshed out monsters live restrained by their studio rendering –  as though Bruce wasn’t being allowed to really bust loose with his own material. When he’d play the final album to a friend, the question was “where’s the band?”

For my money the album’s stronger tracks are those which most prominently feature a band – ‘Lost In The Flood’ is an immense song for someone in their early twenties to have penned (and features Mr Van Zandt clobbering Springsteen’s Danelctro amp to get the opening sound) remains a favourite and I’m sure it’s not just one of mine, and marks the start of those ‘story’ songs that would continue on up to ‘Jungleland’.

As I’ve said, we’re already into real strong territory on this list so I won’t say anything on Greetings is bad, more that the kitchen-sink attempts don’t always work and songs like ‘Mary Queen of Arkansas’ and ‘The Angel’ don’t really hold long in my memory after listening. There’s just not much about them to kinda hang your hat on – they don’t have the melody / hook of ‘Growin’ Up’ or ‘It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City’ which, although it’s almost drowned in the Dylanesque lyrical flood, points as to where he’d be going with his next effort in just a few months.

One of this album’s fans included David Bowie – who actually covered ‘It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City’. Initially, though, it was meant to feature on his Young Americans album but, according to Tony Visconti, after they played the cover to Bruce, David and The Boss had a tense, private chat after which work on the song was abandoned (later released on Bowie’s 1989 box set).

I think what I really love about Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J – aside from the music – is the sheer journey it started. It’s amazing to listen to this and associate it the the same artist who, just a decade later, would be muscle-bound and singing about how he “had a brother at Khe Sahn”. Here he is in all his youthful, bearded glory, searching out the avenues his music would later stride down, a little in awe to the poetry of his idols over his own voice but still, unquestionably, massively talented.

Highlights – ‘Lost In The Flood’, ‘Growin’ Up’, ‘It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City’.

*Jon Landau would pull the same method just a decade later, sending Bruce back to come up with a ‘hit’ as he felt that Born In The USA lacked one. Turns out that with the resulting ‘Dancing In The Dark’ it had seven singles in it.

Least to Most: Bruce – The Promise

“When the promise is broken you go on living
But it steals something from down in your soul
Like when the truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference
Something in your heart goes cold”

Three years separated the release of Springsteen’s star-making Born To Run and its follow-up Darkness on the Edge of Town. If you look at it on paper, even factoring in the long tour for BTR, that’s a big chunk of time for an artist that needs to prove he’s more than a Newsweek and Time double cover and hype. But, due to legal and contractual malarkey with his former manager Mike Appel, Bruce was forbidden from entering a recording studio and releasing new music.

bruce_springsteen_-_the_promiseFrustratingly, this was also right at the point that Bruce was hitting his prolific stride in terms of song writing. So when, four days after his lawsuit with Appel was finished*, he finally hit the studio in May 1977 he was over-flowing with ideas and laid down eight songs in the first night alone. The take of ‘Something in the Night’ from this first session made the album. By the time recording for Darkness on the Edge of Town finished in January 1978 , Jimmy Iovine estimated that some thirty songs had been recorded and readied for release (and probably just as many in a less-refined state) – a huge increase in output when you consider that there were perhaps seven out-takes for BTR and albums prior, most of which only ever made it to raw mixing stages.

So what happened to those other songs? For a long time nothing. Some (‘Don’t Look Back’, ‘Hearts of Stone’, ‘Iceman’, ‘Give the Girl a Kiss’) were released twenty years later on Tracks. ‘The Promise’ was played live a couple of times and caused uproar when it wasn’t released on that box set (Bruce recorded a ‘new’ version in 1999 for 18 Tracks as partial recompense) along with a handful of others which became solid bootleg items but, for the most part, nobody outside of the group heard ’em.

Until 2010 when, while putting together a slightly-late retrospective package for Darkness on the Edge of Town, the songs were revisited. Most of the 22 (there’s an uncredited one at the end) are presented as-is, some had new vocals added and one was completely re-recorded by Bruce and the Darkness era E Street band, making the chiming, delightful ‘Save My Love’ the final recording session for Clarence Clemons.

‘The Promise’ was written as something of a sequel to ‘Thunder Road’ and appeared on likely track listings for Darkness almost until the last minute. One of his most-revered out-takes, Bruce felt it too soon after the release of ‘Thunder Road’ and that it threatened to over-shadow the rest of the album as well as not finding it in tune with the general theme of Darkness.

Originally released as part of  the box set The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, then later as a stand-along (though the box set is well worth investment) The Promise is more than a compilation of ‘lost songs’. More a ‘lost album’ in my opinion – it’s not only packed with previously unheard gems but really shows the evolution of Bruce’s songwriting. The choices he’d make in terms of cutting and refining down to get the sound he wanted for Darkness as well as showing the range of directions he could’ve gone down and just how comfortable he was with each.

There’s gorgeous pop songs in ‘Gotta Get That Feeling’, ‘Rendezvous’ and ‘The Little Things (My Baby Does)’ that must’ve been a massive delight for Steven Van Zandt when they finally saw the light of day. The slashing guitar player believes it’s “just full of some of my favorite things ever in Bruce’s history. That is now neck-and-neck with my favorite E Street album, which is the second disc of the Tracks box set”.

There’s the old-school R&B feel with songs like ‘Ain’t Good Enough for You’ (with a shout out to the up & coming Iovine) and even his recording of the the song he wrote for Elvis Presley – ‘Fire’ – which he and Steve jammed up in about 20 minutes (The Pointer Sisters would have a huge hit with it) and his own ‘Because The Night’.

This album also showcases just how much of a craftsman Bruce is – the early versions of songs that would make Darkness here demonstrate just how determined he was to work a song to get it to perfection. Take ‘Racing in the Street ’78’ as an example, how many other artists would release the version included here once they’d hit it? Not Bruce; he refined this further, working on the details until a line like “Other guys do it cause they don’t know what else they can do,  well and they just hang around in an empty home, waking up in a world that somebody else owns, and tonight tonight the strip’s just right…” became that beautiful punching line “Some guys they just give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece. Some guys come home from work and wash up, and go racin’ in the street”.

It’s also a real insight into the creative process to hear ‘Candy’s Boy’ as something of an E Street waltz before Bruce took his axe to it and turned it into the turbo-charged (really been listening to a lot of The Boss’ car songs) ‘Candy’s Room’ for Darkness or the ‘Come On (Let’s Go Out Tonight)’ would be similarly parred down into ‘Factory’. Not only that but, in the same way as Tracks would reveal, Bruce would take a ‘discarded’ song and strip it for parts when he needed to make another song work. Any fan listening to ‘Spanish Eye’s for example is going to sit up in their car seat (or comfy chair) and say “hang on a bloody second”**…

But… but BUT. Here’s the thing. They all work in these versions too. The Promise is a fantastic album not just because it shows the different paths Bruce and these songs could’ve taken after Born To Run but because these songs are so fucking good as they are; they’re peak-period Springsteen songs recorded and mixed to a releasable state backed by one of the finest bands of its time. They could all just as easily made up an album and it would still be a solid contender. I’ve had this album spinning in my car again for the last week and I still keep stumbling across moments that make me go “shit, how did I miss that on first listen?”

While the songs here certainly point the way to what Darkness on the Edge of Town would become, they represent a ‘lost’ album, highlighting what was a very productive time for Bruce. It really isn’t just a collection of off-cuts, it’s a real insight into a creative genius hitting its stride and I’d gladly recommend that any ‘Springsteen newbie’ check out the songs on these two discs to discover what he’s all about than many a weaker studio album ‘proper’.

Highlights: ‘Racing in the Street – ’78’, ‘Gotta Get That Feeling’. ‘Wrong Side of the Street’, ‘Save My Love’, ‘It’s A Shame’, ‘Breakaway’, ‘The Promise’.

Not-so highlights: Again, pretty much into solid gold rankings now.

 

*Appel got $800,000 and retained 50% of rights to songs from up to and including BTR.

** or the less-British version. Interestingly the lyrics listed for this one on Springsteen’s site are nothing like the version on The Promise which begs the question as to how many versions of ‘Spanish Eyes’ there are.