Continuing a trend that started with the Born to Run 30th Anniversary Edition in 2005, Bruce Springsteen today released The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, a re-release of the original 1980 double album, along with some other goodies, the most important of which for this piece is the single album that he was going to release in 1979 called The Ties That Bind, and 22 outtakes from the River sessions, 11 of which had previously been unreleased.
A Little Springsteen History
First, a hugely abridged history lesson of early Springsteen. Springsteen released his first two albums in 1973 and neither sold well. On the verge of being dropped by Columbia, Springsteen released Born to Run in 1975, appeared on the cover of Newsweek and Time during the same week, and became a star. Instead of capitalizing on the success, Springsteen next sued his manager, Mike Appel.
This is the part of the story in which a manager discovers a talented artist and signs him or her to an unfair contract and exploits the artist. The reality in this case (and maybe in many cases) is probably more complicated, but Springsteen sued Appel and once the action was settled on May 31, 1977, Springsteen was no longer under contract to Appel and he owned his own music.
An Aside About Mike Appel
A few comments on Appel and the lawsuit. One, there is no question that Appel helped make Springsteen a star and deserves tremendous credit. Springsteen is the talent but may never have made it without Appel. Note that in his induction speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Springsteen thanked Appel specifically.
[Carl “Tinker” West] introduced me to Mike Appel, and Mike kicked the doors down when they needed kicking, and I consider him my friend; I want to say, Mike, thanks for everything. Mostly everything. And thanks for being my guest here tonight; I’m glad you’re here with me.
Two, while I don’t know the details of the contract that Springsteen signed with Appel, it wouldn’t surprise me if it gave Appel a big interest in Springsteen’s music. Appel was betting on the potential and was probably out-of-pocket on things for years before Springsteen made it. I’m not saying the contract was fair, only that I don’t think a contract that gave Appel rights to Springsteen’s music was automatically unfair.
Three, I find it interesting that the anniversary releases began with Born to Run and that Tracks, the box set of outtakes released in 1998, is very light on pre-Born to Run material. It makes me wonder what, if anything, the settlement specifically stated about those first two albums.
Back to Some Springsteen History
So Springsteen, famously prolific in those days, released three albums in 962 days and then, following his breakthrough album, doesn’t release any new music. Springsteen doesn’t even go into the studio during that time, although he toured. Finally, in June 1977, Springsteen went back in the start working on a follow-up to Born to Run. The new album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, was released on June 2, 1978, 1,013 days after Born to Run. To say that Springsteen had a backlog of songs is an understatement. In addition to the ten songs on Darkness, there are the 21 songs from the Darkness sessions that Springsteen released The Promise in 2010, as part of the Darkness anniversary. There are also at least five songs from the Darkness sessions on Tracks. That’s a lot of songs for one album.
The Ties That Bind and The River
Springsteen and the band toured in support of Darkness from May to December in 1978. Springsteen kept writing and in April 1979 the band went back into the studio. Again, there were a lot of songs. The band worked quickly and Springsteen assembled a new album of ten songs for a December 1979/January 1980 release. The album was to be called The Ties That Bind. At the last second, Springsteen pulled the album. Springsteen wrote about this in Songs.
After some recording we prepared a single album and handed it in to the record company. When I listened later on, I felt that it just wasn’t good enough. The songs lacked the kind of unity and conceptual intensity I liked my music to have. So we went back into the studio and another year went by.
The new box set has the original album. Seven of the ten songs from The Ties That Bind made it on to The River (albeit some in different versions). The rest of the songs, along with multiple albums worth of material, went into the vaults. Sometimes that stuff turned up. “Be True” was the B-side to “Fade Away”, the second single from The River. “Loose End”, the closer to The Ties That Bind, was eventually released on Tracks.
In addition to “Loose End”, Tracks featured about eleven other outtakes from The River. When The Essential Bruce Springsteen was released in 2003 the third disc of bonus materials included two more songs from those sessions. All this is to say that although fans were certain there was more from these sessions it was still a pleasant surprise when Springsteen announced he would be releasing a River box set, which would include the original album (remastered?), the original The Ties That Bind plus 22 outtakes, of which 11 had never been released.
A Short Review of the Box Set
So what about The Ties That Bind? Should Springsteen have released it or was he right to wait and release The River a year later?
Looking back almost forty years, there is no doubt that Ties is an overall stronger album than The River. For one, Ties doesn’t suffer from the filler that The River (and almost every double album) suffers from. The weakest spot is probably the rockabilly version of “You Can Look (But Better Not Touch)” which is inferior to the version that ended up on The River. Compensating for that is “Be True” and “Loose End”, two of the best songs ever to be left off a Springsteen album. (“The Promise” is also on that list.) The other new song, “Cindy”, is fine, not an all-timer but also not as poor as, say, “Crush on You” on The River. (Yes, I get that the songs serve different purposes on their respective albums.)
All that being said, from this distance it’s no longer possible to appreciate what Springsteen was after with that album. What is clear now from listening to The River is that Ties would have been an incremental step from Darkness while The River was that step, plus laid the groundwork for Nebraska and Born in the USA (and the massive success that followed the latter). Again, from Springsteen in Songs.
All the years of performing, I’d often start the show with something that sounded like it came out of the garage. In the past, these were the kinds of songs that fell by the wayside when we went into the studio to record. For The River, I wanted to make sure this part of what I did wouldn’t get lost.
[A]fter the seriousness of Darkness, I wanted to give myself a lot more flexibility with the emotional range of songs I chose.
Again, because of its length it is not as tightly focused as Springsteen’s other studio albums. Human Touch and Lucky Town, which were released on simultaneously in 1992, has a similar issue if viewed as a double album. But even with the lack of focus, The River still has great moments. The title track is one of Springsteen’s best, “The Price You Pay” is one of the most underrated Springsteen songs, plus “The Ties That Bind” and “Hungry Heart” are great.
Now all those songs, plus the excellent “I Wanna Marry You” are on Ties so what else do we get on The River? Springsteen writes in Songs that the ballads and story songs that give the album emotional depth, while the club rockers give the album its energy. The next album, Nebraska, would be almost all emotional (although “Open All Night” rocks). On Born in the USA, Springsteen takes the idea of making pop songs, an idea that starts on The River, about as far as he can. The River marks Springsteen starting to think bigger, expanding his idea of the kind of music he wanted to make. I don’t love The River as much as some other Springsteen records, but I love the ambition.
The Outtakes From The River Sessions
Did Springsteen make the right decisions about what to include on The River and what to leave off? Of course not. There are always songs that don’t make it that are better than what’s on the album. The good news about the new outtakes is that there is nothing in there that is so good that it would have been anything than better filler.
“Meet Me in the City Tonight” could slide in for “Out in the Street” with no drop-off in quality. “Stray Bullet” could replace “Drive All Night”, a song I like but have always felt goes on too long. The rest of the songs range from decent (“Whitetown”) to what sounds like an Eddie and the Cruisers deep cut (“The Time That Never Was”) to a demo (“Mr. Outside”). For the most part, the new songs are for completists, among which of Springsteen fans there are plenty.
One theme for most of the new songs is that they feel lyrically unfinished. The tune may be there but the lyrics aren’t strong enough. In some cases, the lyrics were refined and used elsewhere (from “Little White Lies” to “Loose End” and “Party Lights” to “Point Blank”) while something like “The Man Who Got Away” has the seed of a good idea but doesn’t develop it enough. Other than “Meet Me in the City” and “Stray Bullet”, the new songs are outtakes for good reason.
A Different (Better ?) Version Of The River
So including the outtakes that have now been released, what would the best version of The River look like? Here’s my take.
The Ties That Bind
Out in the Street
I Wanna Be With You (replaces Crush on You)
You Can Look (But Better Not Touch)
I Wanna Marry You
Loose End (replaces Point Blank)
Be True (replaces I’m a Rocker)
The Price You Pay
Stray Bullet (replaces Drive All Night)
Wreck on the Highway
Note that I don’t have anything against “Point Blank” or “Drive All Night”, I just want to fit “Loose End” in and I mentioned earlier my thoughts about “Stray Bullet.”
What are your thoughts?