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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

December 05, 2005

The Filmed Century

It was my birthday on Saturday, and one of my sisters gave me the 30th Anniversary box set of Born to Run, which was a record I first bought when I was 16 or 17, in 1979 or 1980. When I first heard it, I remember being a little bit disappointed, in the way you often are when you've read a lot about something in advance. I'd also heard some of Darkness on the Edge of Town, and I was expecting Springsteen to sound like he did on that album: raw, passionate, electric.

But the songs on BTR were written at the piano, so it's not really a guitar album in the way that Darkness is, or in the way its own cover suggests. So it took a while for me to warm to it, and the truth is I prefer any number of other Springsteen records.

This 30th Anniversary set has got a remastered CD of the album, a documentary making-of DVD, and a DVD of his "legendary" Hammersmith Odeon concert of 1975.

I haven't listened to the CD or watched the documentary, and I don't have a Fi that is Hi (or a Hi that is Fi), so I will not be able to tell you how it sounds - unless I sit and listen in my home studio through my reference speakers, which is just not going to happen.

Of all the things in the box, the Hammersmith Odeon concert interested me most, because it is something I have read about many times, and it was probably something I read about before buying BTR for the first time.

The back story, for the non-Springsteen fan, is that Bruce was signed to CBS in the early 70s by John Hammond Jr., the self same man who had signed the young Bob Dylan 10 years earlier. Springsteen had auditioned solo, with his acoustic guitar, and was labelled a "New Dylan" before he'd recorded a note. The "New Dylan" label is a millstone that has dragged down the careers of many.

In Springsteen's case, he diffused it by turning up to record with a band, a kind of pick-up crew of his New Jersey cronies, which evolved over the years and only really cemented - on disk - for 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town. Born to Run, so it goes, wasn't recorded with the full line-up of the E-Street Band as it became. He was in transition between drummers and keyboardists, and Steve Van Zandt only appears as a credit for the horn arrangements. He joined the band afterwards as guitar player - allowing Springsteen to perform some songs without his guitar.

Anyway, some time between albums 2 and 3, some fool journalist (Jon Landau) gushed about Springsteen, and landed him with another label: the future of rock 'n' roll. He carried this burden with him to London in 1975 for his first overseas dates. The burden was compounded by a UK record label who splashed posters everywhere with the words: "At Last: London is Ready for Bruce Springsteen."

This upset him at the time, and he tore a few of them down.

The rock history books I've read said of this concert that, overburdened by these expectations, Springsteen hadn't performed well in London, and it was a few years before he really fulfilled his promise. According to the sleeve notes on the DVD, he felt the same way. Had no real memory of the gig, just charged through it and wrote it off as a bad job.

So I didn't know what to expect really. Live records from the 70s are typically pretty bad, and the adrenalin problem often caused bands to play too fast, which is what I was more or less expecting. But from the opening few bars of "Thunder Road," it's clear that not only did Springsteen perform well that night, but he absolutely nailed it.

Maybe London really didn't know what to expect, thinking it would be some kind of guitar hero saviour who walked onto the stage, instead of the little guy in the silly woolly hat, with his band of fashion-disaster uglies, who look like extras from Mean Streets. Maybe they were expecting him to blast into some good time rock 'n' roll and blow the roof of the Odeon. Instead he steps up, in the dark, and performs "Thunder Road," accompanied only by Roy Bittan on piano, and slowly builds up to the climactic and extended "Kitty's Back in Town," "Detroit Medley" and other encore-friendly numbers.

The band is so tight and the performances note- and tempo-perfect, so much so that it's more like one of today's slick, give-em-what-they-want DVD products than it is a blast from 1975. The one thing that tells you that it was the 70s is the lighting, which was probably okay for the audience, but was clearly hopeless for filming.

The disk doesn't include any of his famed extended stories, which again makes it seem contemporary, but it does forever destroy the myth that Springsteen let London - and himself - down.

Certainly the best example of Springsteen on film I've ever seen - and it would pay anyone to see the E Street Band in its first flush as opposed to the post-Sopranos live stuff you can get, which shows an older and fatter band which doesn't quite generate the same level of excitment.

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