A mega box set compiling Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” and much of the rejected and contemporaneous live material has just been released. “The River” was where I got into Springsteen, probably in 1981, my curiosity piqued whilst reading my music newspaper about this bloke who came to Wembley and knocked the crowd out with epic four hour shows. “The River” was out of kilter with much of what was popular in the UK at the time but my teenage taste loved it. It sounded like Bruce had been listening to “London Calling” and wanted to capture the sounds of his youth and that was just fine by me. He admitted as much when he opened a gig at Hyde Park a few years ago with the Clash’s title track.
In terms of the Springsteen discography, what came next was the bleak but wonderful “Nebraska” in 1982 followed by the game changing “Born In The USA” two years later.
What actually followed was two albums where Bruce took a backseat to one of his musical heroes, Gary U.S. Bonds. Springsteen has always worked cover versions into his live sets and one of the most frequently played songs was Bonds’ “Quarter To Three”. According to the Setlist.FM, he has played it 193 times at least, the last time being as recent as May 2014. The earliest was in Galaxy Night Club in Union City in 1974. Now take a step back in time – wouldn’t it have been wonderful to see Springsteen in somewhere called the Galaxy Night Club just as he had released “The Wild, The Innocent And The E-Street Shuffle”.
In any event, the song’s a keeper in Bruce’s eyes, up there with “Twist and Shout” and Eddie Floyd’s “Raise Your Hand” in the most played covers statistics.
“Quarter To Three” was a hit in 1961 for Bonds, just as Springsteen was about to hit his teenage years. It got to number one on the Billboard charts and number eleven in the UK. He had a few more hits in the early sixties including “New Orleans”, others connected with The Twist craze but nothing much thereafter.
Dion ripped off “Quarter To Three” for “Runaround Sue” and ended up covering Springsteen on the “Deja Nu” album in 2000. It’s just one big circle!
Now 76, Bonds was born in Florida and grew up in Virginia. He started singing in churches like so many of his peers and struck out with a band called The Turks. He was picked up by Frank Guida’s Legrand records, Guida being one of the writers of “New Orleans”. Guida added the U.S. to Gary’s names, hoping that hearing “U.S. Bonds” on the radio would remind the listeners of a public service announcement, sticking in their mind and ultimately getting more sales. After his hits, he toured Europe with the Beatles, later turning a very soulful take on “It’s Only Love”, from “Help!”.
With Bonds’ career on the slide, in the late seventies, Springsteen introduced himself to Bonds in an Atlantic City cocktail bar called the Hanger and asked if he could sit in with Bonds’ band. The crowd went wild but Bonds didn’t know of Springsteen and was bewildered by the audience’s reaction. He was pleased when Springsteen offered him a song that he had been working on during “The River” sessions. It took Springsteen a couple of years to get back to Bonds though but when he did he came back with three songs, the offer of studio time and the use of the E-Street Band.
Working with additional musicians including some of the Asbury Dukes (including La Bamba who I blogged about here), Ben E. King and Chuck Jackson and adding a selection of cover versions that included The Beatles’ “It’s Only Love”, Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender” and Dylan’s “From A Buick 6”, “Dedication” was released in 1981, a year after “The River”. Miami Steve Van Zandt produced and offered up one his own compositions, “Daddy’s Come Home”.
One of Springsteen’s song broke big for Bonds. “This Little Girl” reached number 5 in the US charts and got considerable airplay in the UK. I recall hearing it on early evening Radio One and being hooked by the similarity to much of the material on “The River”. It had the same good time feel as “Out On The Streets” and “Sherry Darling” and swung like hell.
The album was a great little rock and roll record with Bonds soulful voice working tremendously well with Springsteen’s band, particularly Clarence’s saxophone which took Bonds back to his sixties roots.
The LP did well and a second record “On The Line” was recorded. This record had seven Springsteen originals. The record faired less well but actually sounded more like a Springsteen record, unsurprisingly due to the substantial amount of material he provided. It shows how prolific Springsteen was at the time that none of these songs crop up amongst the twenty or so outtakes that appear on “The River” boxset, although “Rendezvous” was included on 2010’s “The Promise” which collected the “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” outtakes.
Springsteen’s name was pretty much removed from “On The Line’s” credits, apparently at the behest of his record label, CBS. I can only presume that this was because Bonds’ albums were released on EMI and CBS were unhappy at their rival label benefiting from additional revenue via Springsteen’s association.
I’ve just dug a pile of vinyl out of my parents loft and these two albums were in the box, along with “The River”. Neither of the U.S. Bonds LP’s are going to win any prizes for innovation but they have a very easy going charm and taken on a much greater level of significance when one considers Springsteen’s involvement.
I’ve had a look around on t’internet for contemporaneous footage of Bonds playing with the E-Street Band. All of the available clips appear to be from recent gigs where Bruce invites Gary to join him on stage.
I’ll go with this then which is from 1981. The band do a passable version of the E-Street band and you get the raw power of Bonds as a soul singer with a dry sound somewhat reminiscent of Bobby Womack. Three of the songs are written by Springsteen for the “Dedication” LP plus Miami Steve’s “Daddy Come Home” and finishing with “Quarter to Three”.
I don’t normally recommend the universal use of Spotify but given that the “The River – Ties That Bind” boxset is so expensive, I doubt anyone but the most hardcore of Boss fans will buy it.
Here’s a couple of playlists that I’ve created.
Firstly this is the single album of “The River” that Springsteen had created. This is obviously much more concise than the double version and actually feels in some ways a more direct fit between the soul searching of “Darkness” and the rock’n’roll aspects of “Born In The USA”, particularly “Working On The Highway” and “Darlington County”. These sound like close descendants of the alternative version of “You Can Look But You Better Not Touch”. The alternative version of “The Price You Pay” is more guitar focussed. Some songs such as “The River” and “Hungry Heart” are identical but are now in a different setting. The new songs are worth a listen, especially “Loose Ends” and “Be True” which have both appeared regularly in the live sets.
The album works as a stand alone single album although I’m not certain it is better than the double version. The title track has a slightly more raw vocal but retains that thrilling key change after the Big Man’s sax solo which ramps things up a notch. I love a key change (think “Young Americans” but it is an under-used mechanism these days. “Hungry Heart” up as the third track keeps the momentum going. The version of “Stolen Car” doesn’t do it for me though. The double version has the bleakness that bled into the subsequent “Nebraska” album. This version has the latino touches that much of “The River” has and for me it is over-egged. “Be True” gets things moving again but I find the production a bit lightweight. The rockabilly version of “You Can Look” is fantastic though. A real good time number with a fantastic piano part by Roy Bittan. “Loose Ends” closes the album. It is good but not the full stop that other Springsteen albums finish with.
The second playlist is the Outtakes. There are a couple of things that are interesting for me here.
Firstly, most of the outtakes are rockers. It is evident that their inclusion would have substantially shifted the balance of the original album if they had replaced the slower material such as “Independence Day” and “Drive All Night”. You are therefore into a slightly subjective argument as to whether “Where The Bands Are” is better than “Jackson Cage”, which is all a bit pointless. Just enjoy them for what they form – a rocking set of new songs.
The second point is just how finessed these songs are. Most outtakes on such boxsets are barrel scraping demos or unfinished work. These tracks though are all fully produced and are living and breathing complete songs. Springsteen and his team’s workrate during these sustained periods must have been incredible and there is little to no let up in quality.
I can only think of Prince as a similarly prolific artist and as much as I love him, I’m not sure the quality control is there.
In the meantime, Springsteen has been touring “The River” played as a complete album start to finish. If he brings the show to the UK, I’ll be there and are open to anyone who wants to join me.