Unravelling the Springsteen ties that still bind

Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen

Standing at the counter of the record shop, buying my boxed set of ‘The Ties That Bind - The River Collection’ we couldn’t help but admire it. It was, said the sales assistant, a thing of beauty.

Indeed.

It’s remarkable to think that an album so often overlooked in Bruce Springsteen’s career should blossom once more, over three decades on.

‘The River’ was my introduction to the Boss and it really came alive when he hit the stage at the Playhouse Theatre in Edinburgh, back in ‘81.

I can still recall the sonic boom of Clarence Clemons’ sax solo on ‘Independence Day’ knocking me back into my chair, the sheer joy of him and Springsteen sliding on their knees to meet in the middle of the stage, and of the secret pleasure of peering through the windows of the stalls doors to watch him finish what was reportedly a three-hour soundcheck.

To paraphrase Jon Landau, this was my rock ’n’ roll future - mine and 3000 others packed into the Playhouse that night. Row Z, seat 49 slightly to the left of the stage with perfect sight lines.

Bruce Springsteen The Ties That Bind: The River Collection box set cover

Bruce Springsteen The Ties That Bind: The River Collection box set cover

For me’ The River’ had a carefree swagger and joyfulness that pretty much stands the test of time even three decades on.

You cannot surely resist the energy that threatens to burst from ‘Sherry Darling’ - possibly the E Street Band at their loosest - while the spine of this album remains in many of Springsteen’s live sets to this day; Ramrod, Cadillac Ranch, You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) are superb short, sharp rockers which can be stretched to double their length in a live setting.

And of course the towering bookend ballads, Independence Day and The River, songs personal to Springsteen but which also reflect on the changing world sweeping away everything a previous generation has known and creating a gulf that is often hard to bridge

But for me, ‘Drive All Night’ was the ballad which utterly hooked me on first hearing; an eight minute long howl into the night - a song of loss and desolation, and a determination to get through to the other side. Of all the tracks, this is the one I ‘d love to witness live on stage.

Pic Greg Macvean 16/05/2013, Weekender Nostalgia column... protests against Maggie Thatcher / Mr Boni's ice cream advert / Bruce Springsteen performing at The Playhouse advert - May 1981

Pic Greg Macvean 16/05/2013, Weekender Nostalgia column... protests against Maggie Thatcher / Mr Boni's ice cream advert / Bruce Springsteen performing at The Playhouse advert - May 1981

As double albums go, ‘The River’ is as tight as they come with precious little filler - so to hear it as as a single disc as part of this glorious, beautifully curated box set, really takes something of an 
adjustment.

The single disc version has tracks whose titles are familiar, but whose arrangements are radically different.

There’s a piano based ‘Stolen Car’ with a slightly different tempo, and a real rockabilly-esque ‘You Can Look’ which has Springsteen sounding as close to Elvis as he ever has!

And then there are the out-takes - there’s an album’s worth in there alone, and every play reveals another undiscovered gem.

How on earth can a cracker such as ‘Meet Me In the City’ sound so fresh 30 years after failing to make the final cut?

That tight, almost old school 50s rocker approach comes through time after time with just a hint of punk - the piano on Doll’s House is almost Costello-ish in sound, while Mr Outside has an almoost nonchalent busking feel to it.

And then you find yourself making the connections as ‘Paradise By The C’ - an instrumental I last heard on his ‘75-85 live triple album - crops up. It’s almost a throwaway number, but it still has your feet tapping as Clemons’ sax acts as a call to action to get up and dance.

And he wraps it up with a rollicking ‘From Small Things Big Things One Day Come’ a song that has lit up many a live gig in stadiums across the globe.

Like all box sets, this one has so many gems buried deep within it, you almost don’t know where to start.

The presentation takes me back to the days when you sat examining the album sleeve, reading the notes before even dropping the needle on to the vinyl; a ritual denied to a generation of Ipodders and downloaders.

There are a batch of DVDs featuring rare concert footage, interviews and scenes backstage.

And then there’s a quite magnificent 200-page bound book which fleshes out the story of the album and the inspiration behind the music.

It’s one for any Springsteen fan to genuinely savour - stunning photography from the stage to the studio which hurls you back to that glorious night 36 years ago, and a narrative that brings the whole experience to life once more.

Three decades on and ‘The Ties That Bind’ remain strong.

This is a thoughtful, measured and honest revisiting of an album that really is central to the Springsteen story.

And, without a shadow of doubt, it is indeed is a thing of beauty.