Saturday, October 17, 2015

Bruce Springsteen - The River

Today (October 17th) marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of The River, the double-length fifth studio album from Bruce Springsteen. This multi-Platinum 1980 release flowed to number 65 in Ireland, number 31 in West Germany, number 28 in Japan, number 8 in Australia, number 5 in Spain, number 3 in France, number 2 in the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the UK, and number 1 in Canada and Norway. Here in the US, it spent one hundred and eight weeks on the Billboard Album charts that included four weeks at the number 1 spot.

Rolling Stone magazine ranked it at number 253 of The Greatest Albums of All-Time.

Side one opens with up-tempo “The Ties That Bind” which was the album’s original title when it was slated to be a single disk release. Clarence Clemons carries us over the bridge with the first of many sizzling saxophone solos.

“Sherry Darling”, a UK only single, has a live recording sound as if played for a small crowd in an intimate New Jersey club, the type in which Springsteen first got his start. It is light and fun filler.

“Jackson Cage” is up next. It carries on a similar sound and flow as the previous two tracks so far. For me, very listenable but also quickly forgettable.

The up-tempo “Two Hearts” is a song that praises the strength and merits of being in love. As the chorus states, “two hearts are better than one”.

“Independence Day”, the first respite after the hard-hitting first side openers, is very welcomed at this point. It is more personal and relatable, as a son has a heart-to-heart with his father. Clemmons’ soulful saxophone punctuates the theme nicely.

Side two beings with “Hungry Heart”. As the lead single it rose to number 36 in the UK, number 33 in Australia, number 24 in New Zealand, and number 5 in Canada and on the US Billboard Hot 100. The song was originally written by Springsteen for the Ramones, yet he was convinced by producer Jon Landau to keep it and record it himself (definitely a smart move). This is one of those songs that was ingrained into my teenaged brain, so much so that I’ll sing right along with Bruce right from the first verse.

“Out in the Street” is another solid rocker about restless youth. Growing up and listening to the album rock station, this one often got played as a double-shot along with the previous hit track. As such, the song really stands out in my mind. I like the chorus.

“Crush on You” keeps the up-tempo party energy going. This whole first platter really has that bar band party theme to it – up-tempo music to drink and dance to.

“You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” is a raucous rocker about being cautious in life when it comes to temptations. I like the rockabilly elements to it.

The third single was “I Wanna Marry You”; it failed to make any significant impact on the charts. This is a quiet and intimate tale of a guy who wants to do right for a struggling single mother.

“The River”, also released as a Europe only single, went to number 35 in the UK, number 25 in the Netherlands, number 24 in Ireland, number 10 in Sweden, and number 5 in Norway. This powerful rock classic, only five minutes in length, focuses on the difficult economic times of the late 1970’s. It ends the first half of the record on a very high note.

Side three shoots out with “Point Blank”, which charted in the UK at number 20. This one is lighter, with an almost soft-jazz swing to its rhythm. I find this side of Springsteen different and interesting, and I am glad he experimented with this approach here.

“Cadillac Ranch” went to number 48 in the UK. It draws inspiration from the place of the same name in Amarillo, Texas, which is a sculpture of ten automobiles with their hoods buried in the ground. The up-tempo tune about once symbols of success becoming expendable is my favorite track on the record, hands down. I love the energy to it which made it a party favorite in the early 80’s. I remember dancing to it in a bar in Buffalo with a dozen of my good friends from college (on our SOS Executive Board weekend out); hearing it always reminds me of the good times with that group.

“I’m a Rocker” keeps the party moving with a song that celebrates the rocking lifestyle.

“Fade Away”, the second single, peaked at number 20 on the US Billboard Hot 100, number 19 in Canada, and number 14 on the US Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. The lyrics of this slow-swayer deal with the theme of life and love gone wrong. This is another I heard a lot growing up, and I really like it a lot.

Time for another ballad. “Stolen Car” is a strong character piece about a desperate man who commits grand larceny in hopes to get caught and make some kind of name for himself. The simple piano accompaniment with the percussion in the distance (like a thunderstorm on the horizon) helps set the perfect mood for this piece.

Side four blasts off with “Ramrod”; while not a single it did chart at number 30 on the US Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. This one is the precursor of some of the tracks that I really enjoy from Born in the U.S.A. like “Darlington County”. A tune about a pristine street machine is perfect for those road-trip mixes.

“The Price You Pay” is up next. This one is a bit average (though many artists would kill to be able to pull off an “average Springsteen” tune) for me and gets lost in the crowd.

“Drive All Night” has a quiet approach that really demands the listener to perk up his ears. Different at this point of the album (track number nineteen) is a good thing. At eight and a half minutes in length, it is the album's longest cut.

“Wreck on the Highway”, which closes the set, is a sad song about a man who has witnessed a highway hit-and-run and is haunted by it. It draws inspiration from the 1943 country song of the same name by the legendary "King of Country Music" Roy Acuff.

I did not own The River myself on vinyl as my older brother had it (and thus I was able to make a cassette of the tracks I liked if I wanted). I also heard quite a bit of the popular tracks from the local rock station and, years later, from folks in the college dorms. As such, I felt it could sit on my backburner with little urgency to acquire. A number of years back, when I was building my digital collection, I finally decided to get this one, and I have listened to it completely through about a half dozen times or so since.

For me, twenty tracks is an awful lot to digest in a single sitting. I think there is a good bit of fat on this record that could have been trimmed to make a truly perfect single disk album of forty minutes or so of music (and with the advent of playlists in our digital libraries, we each can pick and choose our favorites to do just that). Looking back over what I’ve written above, sides two and three would have made a perfectly serviceable album for me.

For more from Bruce Springsteen, click here.

1 comment:

HERC said...

The River was my introduction to Springsteen.

More specifically, the song "Hungry Heart" was my intro to The River.

Vaguely remember hearing Casey introduce the song on its American Top 40 debut (which was also its Hot 100 debut) so I looked it up to be sure and it was November 8, 1980 and here's what he said:
(Speaking over the 18 second intro to the song) "Debuting on the Hot 100 way up here at number 30 is the first single off Bruce Springsteen's long awaited new album The River. After only two weeks, that album is already the Number One LP in the country. And from The River, here's Bruce Springsteen with "Hungry Heart"

BTW, that week's Top 40 is a great one.

Dad, never a Springsteen fan, either bought the album on the basis of the retro-sounding single or forgot to send his card back into Columbia House but he got it and I taped it on a TDK D90 and proceeded to fall deeply into the music and lyrics, equally loving the rockers and the tragic ballads. Favorites include "Cadillac Ranch", "Fade Away", title track, "Point Blank", "I'm A Rocker" and of course "Hungry Heart"

It would take me a few years but by the time of Born In The USA, I had backfilled Bruce's discography. The massive Live box was my first CD purchase (even though I didn't have a CD player) and I have dutifully picked up every release, special edition or box set since.

Finally saw him live in concert (sans the E Street Band, it was The Other Band Tour behind his twin releases Lucky Town and Human Touch) twenty-three years ago this month and though he only performed two songs from this classic album, he ended his 29 song set with 'Hungry Heart" and I knew I would never need to see him perform again - he gave me all I needed in one long shot.

Its probably no coincidence that he announced on the 35th Anniversary of this album that he would be releasing The Ties That Bind: The River Collection on December 4, 2015 featuring a wealth of treasures for fans though most of us already have high quality bootlegs of the unreleased stuff so the offical stuff better not disappoint.