Over the years Bruce Springsteen has been a frequent visitor to London. In fact it’s difficult to think of a place he hasn’t played in London: Wembley Arena, the O2, the Royal Albert Hall, Brixton Academy, Crystal Palace Athletics Stadium, Wembley Stadium, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the Emirates Stadium, Hyde Park, Milton Keynes Bowl, Earls Court, LSO St Luke’s, not forgetting the Stanhope Arms at 97 Gloucester Road, London, SW7. On 24 May 1993 he apparently jumped up and sang Jumping Jack Flash at their Karaoke night.
And of course at the Hammersmith Odeon, where he played his first ever show outside the US on 18 November 1975, 40 years ago today. He played two shows, six days apart, another on 24th, with a trip to Sweden and Holland in the middle, and was under immense pressure, after a massive, massive promotional campaign designed to make him a star but instead heaped masses of pressure on him. It’s odd to think of him under the cosh or commercially unsuccessful or critically unappreciated, but that was the situation in November 1975.
Playing in bands in New Jersey from 1964, he was finally spotted in 1971 by an ambitious manager named Mike Appel – described as ‘Ed Sullivan meets Joseph Goebbels’ who became his manager and who got him an audition in May 1972 with legendary A&R man John hammond at CBS, the man who had signed Bob Dylan, Billie Holliday, Leonard Cohen and Count Basie, at the CBS Building in New York. As it happened, Dylan had just left the label so they were looking for The New Dylan and Bruce was it
His debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. came out in January 1973, to great critical acclaim but no sales. It’s a folk album, very lyrical – CBS used the line “More words in some individual songs than other artists had in whole albums” in early publicity campaigns. His second album The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle had a bit more R&B about it, but still no one bought it. For a while he was known as Hammond’s Folly.
Then just as he was getting over the Dylan thing, he played a sold out three night stint at a club called Charley’s in Cambridge MA in April 1974. The first night was reviewed ecstatically in the local papers and the second was attended by heavy-hitting rock journo Jon Landau, who liked what he saw. Then next month, Springsteen was back in Beantown, this time if you can believe it, opening for Bonnie Raitt on the condition he did his full two hour show. She may have regretted that decision as he went down a storm and half the audience left when Springsteen finished.
For Landau too it was a transcendental moment. He went straight home and wrote a review on called Growing Young With Rock and Roll, which included the deathless lines: Last Thursday, I saw my rock ‘n’ roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.
The future of rock and roll line is one of the most infamous lines in rock and roll journalism. CBS Records liked it so much they used it as the headline in press ads for the latest album. It turned out to be a bit of a millstone for Springsteen. Over the next few months, every critic In America (and the UK) gave Springsteen the greatest reviews. CBS were obviously keen to capitalise as well and get a new album out there, given it was a year since the last one and in those days artists released one, sometimes two a year.
There was huge pressure on Bruce to make a record as good as the live review. So he started recording and pretty soon had one song recorded called Born To Run, which CBS wanted to release it as a single but at four and a half minutes it would get played on top 40 radio. They tried to edit it but could never agree which bits to edit out so nothing happened.
His first album had taken 3 weeks to make, his second 2 months but they had been trying to record the album for 8 months before Jon Landau was invited to join in in the studio. At that point, they thought they needed two more months; it took six, from March to the end of July 1975, with the sax solo in Jungleland the last thing they recorded, three weeks before the Born To Run album was released. Springsteen obsessed over details and if he was pushed he would say the release date is one day; the record’s forever. He fussed to the last moment and nearly scrapped it all because he didn’t like it. The cover shot, a black and white photo of Bruce Springsteen and sax player Clarence Clemons taken on 20 June, was one of 700 frames snapped in his two-hour session.
The album received highly positive reviews. Rolling Stone said that Springsteen enhances romanticized American themes with his majestic sound, ideal style of rock and roll, evocative lyrics, and an impassioned delivery. Someone else said that anyone in America with a chip on their shoulder can accept these stories. And these stories add up to one big story: about a boy and a girl getting through a long tragicomic day.
CBS, keen to get some of its investment back, launched a huge promotional campaign, spending $250,000 on ads. His music was everywhere and the album went Top Ten, which he’d never achieved before. It went gold – 500,000 sold – very quickly, amazing given the last album sold no more than 150,000. By Christmas 1975, Born To Run had sold 1 million units and the single was in the Top 20
There was an outburst of interest from the serious press for interviews, indeed the demand was so great that Mike Appel only said yes if they’d put Bruce on the cover. It all reached its apotheosis on October 27, when both Time and Newsweek put him on their covers, making history by becoming the first rock star to land such an honour. Bruce was rather overwhelmed by it all, and whilst he reasoned that the effect on his career could only be positive, he could the pressure and a backlash building. Luckily he had a great album and an amazing stage show to back it up.
Bruce Springsteen’s first ever show outside the USA (he and the E Street Band had not even played Canada at this point) was on Tuesday 18 November 1975 at the Hammersmith Odeon in Queen Charlotte Street W6. History records it as a disaster, a rattled artist with an aggressively unimpressed audience and he considers the show one of his worst. Still, on the weight of the promotion alone, the show had sold out quickly so a second was added the following Monday, once he returned from two concerts in Europe, one in Stockholm and one in Amsterdam.
Springsteen described the trip as descending into hell. After the Time/Newsweek hype, there were posters all over town proclaiming him the future of rock and roll. Even the marquee of the Odeon said ‘Finally London is ready for Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’, as captured in a wonderful Chalkie Davies photo (below) from that week’s New Musical Express.
The legend is that he went round London ripping down posters with his bare hands. Not quite true, although he did tear down a poster at the front of the Odeon. He did however go round the whole of the auditorium and remove all the flyers the record company had put on every seat in the venue advertising his new album. The pressure was getting to him. London was strange, none of them had been here before, London had barely got its first McDonalds so you couldn’t get a cheeseburger anywhere but Wimpy’s. And the beer was warm.
Which clearly all affected his performance on the 18th. He was sombre, downbeat and not the usual live wire. He was 45 minutes late on stage. He wore a thick woollen hat pulled down over his eyes for the whole show. His mood was perhaps most evident in the introduction to “The E Street Shuffle”. Normally a rambling tale, he tails off after just a few sentences, going straight into the song. Having said that there were 3 encores, finishing with his rocking version of Gary US Bonds’ 1961 hit ‘Quarter To Three’
The return show a week later though was a completely different affair. He played for three hours and nine encores, including Elvis’s “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck”, “Pretty Flamingo”, “When You Walk In The Room”, “Twist And Shout”, and “Little Queenie”. And there was no woollen hat.
Despite this, the press were not convinced. The NME said Bruce Springsteen, when he was finally ready for London, was wonderful. Sounds was less gushing: When they were good they were very very good, and when they were bad they were so-so. There was an immense feeling of strain about this show, following a press and publicity campaign of unparalleled intensity. Make your own mind up. Thirty years later, in February 2006, a recording of the first week’s show was released as a live album called Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75 and a video of the concert was released as a DVD as part of the Born to Run 30th Anniversary Edition package.
In the meantime he didn’t come back to the London for six years, until six nights at Wembley Arena in May/June 1981, missing out London shows around the next album Darkness On The Edge of Town. He joked that it was he couldn’t find any cheeseburgers. And he only played Hammersmith again 30 years later, one night in May 2006 on The Seeger Sessions tour. I paid a small fortune on eBay for a ticket and 30 years on, it may just have made me feel young again.