Live albums by Bruce Springsteen are nowadays easy to find on his website, which acts as an incentive to buy more, albeit judiciously. Wembley Arena, June 5, 1981, one I always wanted, was made available earlier this year and, imported from the US, dropped through my letter box last weekend, thus becoming my sixth live Bruce record but only the second from a series of shows where I was actually present, following on from my first, a quadruple vinyl bootleg of the Wembley Stadium, July 4, 1985, show I acquired that same year. In many ways that better-than-you’d-expect audience recording was negated by Live 1975-85, the triple CD set that came out the following year and offered similar songs, albeit some additional ones and a few in different arrangements.
This was the first official Springsteen live recording, of course, and I well remember wandering into the Virgin megastore at the eastern end of Oxford Street and slapping down my cash. Much anticipated, it was piled high in the entrance but after a few listens I now feel my new Wembley Arena recording, recorded four years earlier on The River tour, is the superior. There are 31 tracks across three CDs, a complete, uninterrupted show, unlike Live 1975-85. In Neil Cossar’s Springsteen book in the I Was There series, a fan called Jean Stevenson writes of this show (or at least one in the series of six he played at the Arena that week): “I’ve been to hundreds of gigs but seldom have I seen a gig where the artist was there for his enjoyment as much as ours.”
Listening to these CDs I know exactly how she feels. Bruce is simply electric, genuinely delighted to be in London again and delirious at being up on stage with his drilled-to-perfection E Street Band. The River tour opened in America the previous year, with 75 show over two legs that stretched into 1981, and there were a further 26 European shows before it reached London, so he and the band are fighting fit. Their confidence is reflected in how, instead of keeping it back for an encore, they open up by blasting into ‘Born To Run’, Bruce’s best known song, a brash, in-yer-face start if ever there was one, and this segues smoothly into ‘Prove It All Night’ and ‘Out In The Street’, both played back to back without a breather. The tempo then drops alarmingly for ‘Follow That Dream’, an Elvis song from the film of the same name. Elvis’s version is chirpy and feel good, almost sing-along, but Bruce infuses it with a deeper connotation that chimes with his mission to inspire fans to make the best of themselves, and in this respect its mood is more in keeping with the version of another dream song, ‘Dream Baby Dream’, the Suicide song he released on High Hopes in 2014.
Similarly, ‘Independence Day’ is prefaced by a mournful rap about Bruce’s unhappy dad and the need to keep your spirits up no matter that the world seems against you. It was a recurrent theme of the shows in this era, as if Bruce felt some moral duty to use his growing popularity to spread a message of hope. I think he succeeded, at least for the duration of this show. Pacing was key to the concerts and from then on the sequencing of songs moves in waves, up and down, fast and slow, profound and frivolous, like life itself.
This was only the second time that Bruce had visited the UK, getting on for six years since his London debut at the Hammersmith Odeon in November of 1975, so he was on a crusade to impress those in Europe who’d read about him but hadn’t yet had the opportunity to judge him for themselves, and, of course, to promote The River. He certainly succeeded in the latter, playing 12 of the double LP’s 20 tracks, with the rest of the set mostly an assortment from Darkness On The Edge Of Town – but, sadly, no ‘Racing In The Street’ – and Born To Run. A 15-minute ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’ is the only nod to the more distant past, extended by effusive band introductions, and there are five covers, including his ‘Detroit Medley’ as a closer, and three songs that might at the time have been labelled curiosities: ‘Fire’ which wasn’t released until 1987, as a single; ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, Bruce’s melancholy Elvis tribute which first saw the light of day on record as a B-side in 1985; and ‘Because The Night’, until then associated with Patti Smith, for whom it was a UK number five hit in 1978.
That’s 31 songs in all, a long concert by anyone’s standards, split into two halves between ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Hungry Heart’. I was surprised that the latter was already morphing into a singalong, with the crowd belting out the first verse while Bruce remains silent, but this merely reflects the audience enthusiasm for the show which is palpable throughout all three discs. Indeed, there’s over three minutes of clapping between ‘Rosalita’ and ‘I’m A Rocker’, the first of four encores that add over half an hour to the set.
Of the covers, ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain’, the CCR song, is a tour-de-force, all swirling organ and pumped-up righteousness, as is ‘I Fought The Law’, a fast and furious reading, the guitar lines more Bobby Fuller than The Clash. ‘This Land Is Your Land’, with mournful harmonica, is a solo spot, Bruce accompanying himself on guitar with no trace of the band, slow and an appropriate overture for ‘The River’ which follows, the band joining in as this song of fading dreams expands and gains pace; ‘Jole Blon’ swings like a roller-coaster, a Bayou waltz turned into an E Street Band romance; and ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’, also a solo vocal, is another nod to Elvis and the third in the four-song encore that begins with ‘I’m A Rocker’, Danny Federici’s organ pumping along like Paul Tesluk in Johnny & The Hurricanes’ ‘Red River Rock’, followed by a lengthy ‘Jungleland’ with Clarence in the solo spotlight.
‘Come on now,’ yells Bruce, rousing his troops for one final assault, the full-tilt ‘Detroit Medley’, 12 breathless minutes of manic rock’n’roll to bring the night to a close. ‘Devil With A Blue Dress’ is followed by ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’, ‘CC Rider’, ‘Jenny Jenny’, ‘Shake’ (the Sam Cook song), all punctuated by some fine old school soloing, before they leap back into ‘Blue Dress’, then ‘Sweet Soul Music’, a false ending or two during a third flat-out sprint through ‘Blue Dress’ and a thunderous finish.
This was the first time I’d seen Bruce in the UK, 38 years ago now but I can still remember it well. A friend called Sharon Wheeler who worked for CBS Records had given us two tickets and I was there with my then girlfriend, name of Jenny, who was seeing Bruce for the first time. She loved it, a fan for life, like me. We were up on the side, on the left facing the stage, a few rows back, a perfect view of a perfect show. So as the nights grow dim and the coming winter brings with it a touch of what Bruce was trying so hard to dispel all those years ago, I can think of no better cure than reliving memories of him at Wembley in 1981.