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 – Tunnel of Love

“Then the lights go out and it’s just the three of us
You me and all that stuff we’re so scared of”

In June 1984 Bruce Springsteen released Born in the USA. It was the most successful album in America in 1985 (the year following its release), shifted over 30 million copies, spawned SEVEN Top Ten singles, saw Springsteen shift from selling out arenas to stadiums and launched Boss Mania. Just as America’s celluloid heros took the form of muscle-bound Vietnam vets, a gym-enhanced Springsteen preached his own unique take of Heartland Rock to the masses from the radio to stages around the world and MTV as Bruce embraced the video format.

So how do you follow that? If you’re Bruce Springsteen, you demur from the expected. Exhausted and, according to many a report, changed by the success of USA (how you could you not be?), Springsteen took something of a break by his standards and focused on his personal life. At the peak of Boss Mania, Bruce met and married actress Julianne Phillips and sought the settled down personal life that had thus far eluded him. He kept a low profile living on the west coast for a year then, in 1986, logged a series of solo sessions in his home studio, Thrill Hill West. But, with a market and fan base hungry for new product, those sessions were abandoned and focus shifted to preparing his first live album. Live 1975-1985 was released against advance orders of 1.5 million.

As 1987 got under way Bruce headed back to New Jersey and began work on his next studio album, cutting three songs in one day. This time round, though, the writing took a different direction and most of the recordings were completed alone and with little involvement from the E Street Band*. Springsteen made a conscious decision to step back from the bombast.

“I really enjoyed the success of Born in the U.S.A., but by the end of that whole thing, I just kind of felt “Bruced” out. I was like “Whoa, enough of that.” You end up creating this sort of icon, and eventually it oppresses you….So when I wrote Tunnel of Love, I thought I had to reintroduce myself as a songwriter, in a very noniconic role. And it was a relief.”

Tunnel of Love is often referred to as the point at which Bruce began writing about men and women in relationships. That’s certainly not true – he’d been doing so for most of his career – only those relationships were more ‘fairytale’ (bleak or joyous) and told from the somewhat distant standpoint of the loner image Springsteen’s previous lack of commitment in the arena had afforded him. No; Tunnel of Love is Springsteen’s first set of truly nuanced, intricate, intimate and mature relationship songs that handle adult relationships and, yes, chiefly, marriage.

In focusing on his own relationship and putting those thoughts to song, Bruce created his most personal album to that point. It was clear that for the most part, these songs – besieged by inner demons – were based on personal experience. Of course, this inward focus didn’t please all. When he played the opener (the sparse ‘Ain’t Got You’) to Steven Van Zandt, it led to one of the biggest fights the pair had had- “I’m, like, ‘What the fuck is this?'” recalls Van Zandt. “And he’s, like, ‘Well, what do you mean, it’s the truth. It’s just who I am, it’s my life.’ And I’m like, ‘This is bullshit. People don’t need you talking about your life. Nobody gives a shit about your life. They need you for their lives. Thats your thing. Giving some logic and reason and sympathy and passion to this cold, fragmented, confusing world – that’s your gift. Explaining their lives to them. Their lives, not yours.'”

For an album opener, Ain’t Got You, is an odd one. I imagine it was sequenced in that way to give as clear an indication as possible that this isn’t Born in the USA 2. But it’s ‘Tougher Than The Rest‘ that sets the tone for the album – layered, synthesiser-heavy sound with a bit of menace and shot through with personal lyrics.  For my money (and my blog), that personal insight adds a truth and grit to these songs that had erstwhile been absent from Springsteen’s relationship songs and look for a larger goal. No longer do Bruce’s characters jump in a car and go looking for a promised land, Tunnel of Love (as with Nebraska) finds them dealing with the fact that the answers to their troubles lie with themselves. In ‘Cautious Man’ Bill Horton even heads down to the highway but “when he got there he didn’t find nothing but road”.

The album isn’t entirely without the sheen and polish that would lure radio, though and Springsteen threads his quieter, more subdued and introspective songs around a roster of FM-friendly tunes. The album’s centre piece ‘Brilliant Disguise‘ (which Springsteen has referred to as containing the real crux of the album in its lyrics) was a Top Five hit and a further four of its songs were released as singles** including the album’s sole out-and-out rock tune ‘Spare Parts. Personally, my favourite of those is ‘One Step Up’ – that simple but effective melody that ticks away throughout just clicks perfectly for me.

Given the events that followed its release, Tunnel of Love is mostly viewed as Springsteen’s ‘divorce album’ – he’d soon part ways with both his wife and the E Street Band – and so it tends to be signposts for this that are looked for in the lyrics. Certainly ‘One Step Up’ with “we’ve given each other some hard lessons lately
but we ain’t learnin” fits that mould but to single-track the album in such a way would be way off as it’s much more of a multi-dimensional album than that. Songs like ‘All That Heaven Will Allow’ and ‘Valentine’s Day’ are those of a man still looking for the salvation of love (“They say he travels fastest who travels alone, but tonight I miss my girl mister tonight I miss my home”).

Still, with the hindsight of history, the gruff “Thanks Juli” in the liner notes, it’s going to be hard for Tunnel of Love to be seen as anything other than an insight into the state of the Springsteen’s marriage. Slipping into the jet stream from Boss Mania meant that Tunnel of Love did well upon release though Springtseen’s own attempts to pare down the hysteria, the hushed atmospherics of the album and the retreat from the limelight that followed has meant that this has become one of his most over-looked albums and one barely touched upon live any more. Perhaps that’s down to it’s meaning for Springsteen himself – as Bob Dylan said of his own similarly-themed album Blood On The Tracks: “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album, it’s hard for me to relate to that. You know, people enjoying that type of pain.”

For me Tunnel of Love is one of Springsteen’s very best – that’s why it’s up here in the list as it’s listened to so very often. Lyrically I don’t believe he’s ever been so sharp and insightful. Yes, the production is a little 80’s but it’s nowhere near as over punched as USA – hell, at times the vocals are clearly cut in a small room – and there’s so much more to this album than often considered and more revealed with each listen and the passing of time and experience. One summary I found while putting this together gets it right on the nail so I’ll finish with that and urge all to give this gem a fresh spin: “The songs are about men and women who flirt, have sex, fall in love, get married, get bored, have sex with other people, and wind up stuck in the middle of that dark night from the second disc of The River.”

*While Tunnel of Love was the first real studio album to name the band, the E Street barely feature – Clarence Clemons’ sax is missing completely and his only credit is for backing vocals on ‘When You’re Alone‘ (I guess he’s somewhere in the mix). It marked as big a change to his established sound as Nebraska did and was part of Springsteen’s belief that he’d achieved all he could with the E Street Band’s sound – even on the following tour he swapped positions around to try and mix things up.

**Though not all were released in every territory, Springsteen perhaps wary of over exposure following USA.

Least to Most: Bruce – Nebraska

“I saw her standing on her front lawn just twirlin’ her baton.
Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died.”

bruce_springsteen_-_nebraskaIt opens like countless Springsteen songs before (and since) with a guy and his girl going for a ride but with that opening verse’s change in direction to the dark, it’s clear that Nebraska is is a very different entry in the Springsteen catalogue.

It was the precursor to the lo-fi, bedroom recording fad would inform countless imitations in years to come as every singer/songwriter who fancied their salts as a ‘serious artiste’ grabbed an acoustic and holed themselves up with a four-track recorder in an effort to make their own Nebraska. But, in doing so, they’re overlooking the one key factor about this album which means that they fail in that element – Bruce never set out to record an album of such intimacy; the songs on Nebraska were meant as demos which he then went on to play to his band and try and capture full E Street versions.

After the mammoth sessions for previous albums like The River and Darkness On The Edge of Town, Springsteen realised that a huge amount of time was being spent in the studio working on song ideas. He’d go in with songs half-written or ready, record, take a break, write some more…  So he asked his engineer to find him some way of recording at home, so he could get down his demos ahead of the studio and reduce (expensive) session time.

As was the way with Bruce at the time, he was in a writing storm and cut a lot of demos – more than would make it to Nebraska. His manager was the first to hear them all, he got a cassette containing ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, ‘Starkweather’ (which would become the title cut), ‘Atlantic City’, ‘Mansion on the Hill’, ‘Born in the USA’, ‘Johnny 99’, ‘Downbound Train’, ‘Losin’ Kind’, ‘State Trooper’, ‘Used Cars’, ‘Wanda (Open All Night)’, ‘Child Bride’ (which would go on to become ‘Working On The Highway’), ‘Pink Cadillac’, ‘Highway Patrolman’ and ‘Reason To Believe’. Songs that he said “were so dark they concerned me on a friendship level”.

While his manager wasn’t so sure, Springsteen was convinced he had the basics of his next album. But – as always – there was some time to spent before they’d be released. First he and Steven Van Zandt produced a second album for Gary U.S Bonds (for which Bruce wrote another seven songs) before trying to capture the songs with the E Street Band*. Legend has it that he walked around for weeks with the 4-track recordings on cassette in his back pocket as he tried, and failed, to capture versions of those songs that he was happy with. According to Steven Van Zandt it was he who intervened:

“I said to him, ‘Listen, I know this is a bit strange but I honestly think this is an album unto itself and I think you should release it.’ And he was like ‘What do you mean? It’s just demos for the band.’ And I’m like ‘I know you didn’t intended for this to be recorded but I just know greatness when I hear it, okay? It’s my thing, it’s why I’m a record producer and that’s why I’m your friend and I’m just telling you I think your fans will just love this and I think it’s actually an important piece of work. Because it captures this amazingly strange, weirdly cinematic kind of dreamlike mood. I don’t know what it is. All I know is I know greatness when I hear it and this is it, okay? And this deserves to be heard I think people will love it and I think it’s a unique opportunity to actually release something absurdly intimate.'”

Thinking about it, the folks at Columbia must have had some inkling as to what was to come after this one to have taken that bet – after the success of The River and ‘Hungry Heart’ to get them to agree to put out such a non-commercial album, even without any fanfare, as-is must have meant Jon Landau’s negotiating skills were at the forefront, promising the next one would be a hit maker.

From Nebraska, though, only two songs would be released as singles – ‘Atlantic City’ and  ‘Open All Night’ and those would only be released in the UK and Europe.

My introduction to this album outside of ‘Atlantic City’ on Greatest Hits (I always loved the line “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back”) came via the closing credits on an episode of The Sopranos in 1999 as ‘State Trooper’ pulsated hypnotically over the credits. I found it hard to connect the sound I was hearing to the man behind ‘Born In The USA’. I went and bought Nebraska (bundled in a ‘Nice Price’ double with Darkness On The Edge of Town that still barely leaves my car) the next day and it served as my first Springsteen album (compilations excluded) and a real introduction to brilliance of his craft.

I think Nebraska‘s beauty certainly lies in its recording, the rawness and immediacy make for a great listen and their relative brevity (by Serious Springsteen standards) mean that listening to the album in one sitting makes for an absorbing 40 minutes that isn’t as austere of heavy as, perhaps, the cover might suggest with songs like ‘Johnny 99’ and ‘Open All Night’ adding some upbeat, urgency to proceedings.

Nebraska saw those characters that Springsteen had, with Born To Run, put into cars on a journey to the promised land confront the hard, bitter truth that not everybody arrives and some have to deal with the fact that “there’s just a meanness in this world” that his narrative had, thus far, only skirted. It was the full album realisation of the writing paths he began walking with some of The River‘s more serious songs and would continue to return to (less successfully) later in his career when he felt the need to explore beyond the confines of a full-band sound. This was Springsteen bringing new, literary influences into his songwriting and not blinking in the face of harsh realisations. It’s a slab of brilliance that, three and a half decades later, still sounds vital and compelling especially as, despite it all, at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.

 

*The Electric Nebraska sessions have become something of a Holy Grail amongst Springsteen devotees. At times it varied between just how many songs were tackled but, in 2010, Max Weinberg confirmed the band had tackled every one of them, he also said the album was “killing”. In his own book Springsteen, too, confirmed the existence of Electric Nebraska but has, previously, also said that the fan-given title for the sessions in misleading. In his book, Songs, he pointed out that they weren’t all “rock” arrangements – Max would play a light percussion on some or Roy Bittan a synth pad.

Many critics have argued, as Landau stated “the right version of Nebraska was released” – drawing their argument from the live versions of those songs like ‘Atlantic City’ or ‘Johnny 99’ that would feature full band versions. BUT… I’ll argue that to analyse it in that way is a mistake. The band are playing fleshed out versions of the arrangement that was released. A song wouldn’t necessarily have taken the same arrangement in a full-band casting. Take ‘Born In The USA’ and its evolution from demo to stadium thumper, or pretty much any Springsteen song’s evolution. Even ‘Blood Brothers’ has numerous arrangements. The shape and arrangement these tracks may have evolved into with further Electric Nebraska session (there’s arguments that poor recording experience on the side of the engineer for these sessions was also to blame for their curtailing) will likely never be revealed though.

Least to Most: Bruce – The River

the_river_bruce_springsteen_front_coverIn 1979 Springsteen set about making the follow up to The Darkness on the Edge of Town. He had some hold overs from that album’s sessions (‘Sherry Darling’, ‘Ramrod’ and ‘The Ties that Bind’ for starters) but at this point he was  writing songs at the same frequency most pass gas.

It was meant to be a single album that lead away from the more severe sound and approach of its predecessor and showcase the breadth of styles and joyousness of his band’s live sets of the time. Ten tracks, in, out and released late 1979 with a tour to follow, of course. And it almost was. A ten song album, The Ties That Bind was prepared and ready but then… Bruce held back. Because perched at the end of that single album was ‘The River’.

It’s a monumental song. When I got into Bruce via the 1995 Greatest Hits it was this one that caught my ear and made me pay attention. It still does. As with most of the more serious songs on The River the lyrics and themes aren’t as poetic as he’d written before but it’s the belief with which he sings them, the genuine investment which he puts into them that makes them so essential – these aren’t pop songs that can just be sung or waltzed trough, the material demands presence over phoning it in and if you try to sing these songs without giving it your all it will tell. From ‘The River’ to ‘Point Blank’ there’s no argument for a second that he isn’t 100% IN these songs and even after performing them countless times, live it’s clear that this is still the case . That’s why they reverberated at the time and why they continue to do so.

Writing what would become the title track of the eventual double had opened a new avenue, and Springsteen would go on to write more songs about men and women, their relationships and coming to terms with life’s hardships and would develop a much larger album to contain what he saw as the paradoxes of life; the joy and celebration of rock ‘n’ roll, but also its hardness. He wanted an album that continued the stories and themes he’d begun writing about on Darkness but one that didn’t wallow in them and would let in the light with the music that made his concerts such a revelation. He wrote so many more songs that three of those from the original single album were consigned to vaults (including ‘Loose Ends‘ much to Van Zandt’s chagrin). *

For my money it’s a good thing Springsteen did pull back the single album. That first one didn’t contain tracks like ‘Point Blank’ or ‘Independence Day’ (both further holdovers from The Darkness on the Edge of Town) and those other songs like  ‘Fade Away’, ‘Drive All Night’ and ‘Wreck on the Highway’ rank among his finest. I’ve already said that ‘Point Blank’ is one of my favourites elsewhere so will instead leave ‘Drive All Night’ here, one that I discovered via the underrated film Copland.

As important as I think those more serious songs are, the album’s duality is what marks it out in Bruce’s catalogue. There’s nothing really like it in terms of the full-spectrum or in terms of its sound. After years of sessions, agonising over track listing and capturing the right sound in the cavernous room they were recording in, the album that arrived was something much rawer than its predecessor. Gone were the wall-of-sound theatrics of Born To Run or the tense energy of Darkness.. in their place was a looser, more raucous garage-rock style (Van Zandt with a much larger production role) with a raw, jubilant sound and some of Springsteen’s finest vocals.

While there’s a couple of less-than-classics on the first half,  (but even Crush On You has a catchy-as-a-cold riff)  kicking off with ‘The Ties That Bind’ there’s a run of pure gold on it: ‘Jackson Cage, Two Hearts, Independence Day, Hungry Heart, Out In The Street (“oh oh oh oh oh!”) that makes for a near unbeatable half-hour of listening and was his most unabashed run of rock music to date.

Even the second half of the album, home to some of Springsteen’s heaviest material (just look at the lyrics to the closing ‘Wreck on the Highway’), features some of his most out-and-out direct rock music. From ‘Cadillac Ranch’ to the most obvious, daftly joyous and infectious mission-statement he’s made:

Whenever you read those stories about Bruce turning up at local shows and getting up on stage to cut loose, you know (hope) it’s going to be with those songs that represent the lighter half of The River and his catalogue. He’s not going to get up draw out ‘Point Blank’ or ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’ he’s going to strap on the guitarist’s spare and blast through those straight-ahead, life affirming songs that he does so bloody well like ‘You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)’ or he’ll give it the “let’s roadhouse” and kick into ‘Ramrod’ and the place will go fucking nuts.

So with so much pure Springsteen gold, why doesn’t it sit at the top? Personally, I think Bruce is at his best when focused. A double album is a lot to give attention to – twenty tracks doesn’t necessarily make for one session and the jarring nature of it can at times mean a slight stumble in flow. It’s a sod on vinyl but even when playing it in the car on CD, by the time I’ve made it through to the end of the second disc, the start of the album all the way back at ‘The Ties That Bind’ seems like a long time ago and isn’t as fresh in the ears as, say, ‘Radio Nowhere’ is come ‘Devil’s Arcade.’  However, it’s easily Top Five (and I’m sure it’s atop many a list) because what comes between those two distant points is so fucking good.

Even Steven Van Zandt admitted; “If it had been a single album, it would have been appreciated more, especially if he had put more of the pop-rock stuff on there. It would have been our biggest album. All you gotta do is throw on “The River” — that’s all the content you need. A little of Bruce’s content goes a long way. But he felt he had to do eight or ten songs like that.”

It was appreciated – critics fell over themselves to hand plaudits to its “weighty conclusions, words to live by”**, it topped the charts in the US and did well elsewhere too, going on to shift sufficient copies to sit immediately behind his two Born.. albums in terms of overall sales. Yet it’s often overlooked in his catalogue, not only because of its length but because, perhaps, it also sits between those two periods – it’s nestled between the breakout of Born To Run and Darkness and the massive explosion of Born In The USA.

With twenty tracks written and recorded at a period that Springsteen and the E Street Band were untouchable, it’s  got the lot: from the silly (‘Crush On You’) to the serious (‘Wreck On The Highway’), everything in between, including Bruce’s first Top Ten hit (‘Hungry Heart’). The River is the best one-stop slab introduction for anyone who wants to get a grip on every aspect of his writing.

Highlights: We’re well into 5 Star territory here so, as before: The whole bloody thing.

*these are far from the only songs recorded during this period consigned to the vaults. Most of Disc 2 of Tracks contained songs from this period whose omission boggled the brain and then The Ties That Bind: The River Collection set offered even more. My favourite:

**Rolling Stone, of course.

Least to Most; Bruce – I’m just around the corner to the light of day

So I’ve cleared the half way post. Hell, I’ve cleared the 75% mark and I’m about to go charging into the Top 5 like a hot stepping hemi with a four on the floor… *

As such I thought that, with 15 of 20 (given that I included both Tracks and The Promise) it was time for a quick re-cap of the order so far.

It’s been quite the challenge – a post per album and twenty total – but I’m happy to have managed thus far and have enjoyed the process, rediscovering many a near-forgotten gem or detail while listening to each one again and it’s served as a real reminder of just what a prolific and talented song writer Bruce is. Even on those albums that sit at the Least end of this spectrum there’s a good few songs that would make a compilation. Perhaps that’s the next compilation challenge – one, and only one, song from every release… In hindsight, while there’s a fair few bands / artists I reckon I could run this same format I don’t know that I’d go so far as a post per album. Then again, not so many acts have made the 20 album mark.

Again, this isn’t Worst to Best, this is purely personal preference and I could understand how an argument could be made for any one of these to be somebody’s favourite. I don’t think Bruce has mad a ‘bad’ album and even those at the tail end are better than many an artist at their best.

20. Human Touch (1992) Link

19. High Hopes (2014) Link

18. Lucky Town (1992) Link

17. Working on a Dream (2009) Link

16.  Wrecking Ball (2012) Link

15. Devils and Dust (2005) Link

14. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006) Link

13. The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) Link

12. Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ (1972) Link

11. The Promise (2010) Link

10. Born In The USA (1984) Link

9. The Rising (2002) Link

8. Tracks (1998) Link

7. Magic (2007) Link

6. The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (1973) Link

5. …..

 

*answers on a postcard.

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!”