BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – Only The Strong Survive

I remember... I was introduced to soul music through Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band whose 1966 album Hand Clappin’ Foot Stomping’ Funky-Butt… Live! retains a cherished place in my diminishing LP collection, and back then I always headed for the dance floor at the sound of Stax and Motown. That album formed the basis of sets performed by The Black Sheep, the premier band in my home town of Skipton, and no one sat down as they raced nonstop through ‘Ride Your Pony’, ‘Up Tight’, ‘Hold On I’m Coming’, ‘You Don’t Know Like I Know’ and a dozen more soul classics. 
        It was somehow very cool to like soul music in those days and on the cover and accompanying artwork of Only The Strong Survive, Bruce Springsteen looks fabulously cool as he leans against a cucumber-green Pontiac GTO*, its lines as sleek, smooth and retro as the music within. Like the music, this model Pontiac was produced in the sixties, between 1963 and 1974; a classic car to frame 15 classic soul covers, a few well-known, most not so, all performed with affection and enthusiasm, a lockdown inspired left turn from Bruce’s role as leader of the E Street Band, though their horns feature prominently, alongside producer and multi-instrumentalist Ron Aniello and engineer Rob Lebret. 
        It was a labour of love for this trio, of course. Their respect for this music is evident from the attention to detail – the arrangements don’t stray much from the originals – and the depth of feeling Bruce injects into the songs. On Graham Norton’s BBC TV chat show last Friday night, looking a bit uneasy alongside an eye-catchingly underdressed Anya Taylor-Joy, star of The Queen’s Gambit, he explained how soul music was his musical education, and how it has informed his work ever since. Come to think of it, the E Street Band has always played more like a soul revue than a basic rock unit. Nowadays there’s at least ten of them, often more if you count the fluid brass section. The Black Sheep only managed six, but they did have Kevin on trumpet.

        “I remember,” the opening words of the opening title track, sung by his female backing vocalists, sets the scene for all that follows, in this case a nostalgic wander down memory lane to where music made largely within a 100-mile radius of Memphis somehow managed to combine romantic heartbreak with a pulsating beat drawn from gospel churches where praising the Lord was and remains a serious business. The more enthusiastic the congregation, the more likely they were to ascend their stairway to heaven. 
        Bruce’s covers are immaculate, as you would expect, the music uplifting, joyful, a free and easy journey into Bruce’s treasure chest of favourites. There’s no attempt to update or put his own stamp on the original recordings and the emphasis is on Bruce’s vocals. He’s joined by Sam Moore on a couple but on his own for the rest, singing like a soul veteran with a direct line to the spiritual origins of Wilson P, Eddie F, Joe T, Otis R and all the rest of those guys who ushered us on to the dance floor in the sixties.
        Of the songs with which I am most familiar, ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shone Anymore’ doesnt stray from the arrangement used by The Walker Brothers but loses the theatrics; ‘7 Rooms Of Gloom’ lacks The Four Tops’ silken vocals but adds drama; ‘What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted’ is throatier than Jimmy Ruffin but just as despairing; and ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’, the closer, is chock full of longing, just like Diana.
        Of the rest, I’m now a fan of ‘Nightshift’, the Commodores elegy for Marvin and Jackie, and ‘Do I Love You’, the Northern Soul classic originally recorded by the little-known Frank Wilson, for which Bruce has filmed an energetic video with a gospel choir. But the truth is every track is a winner on a gloriously uplifting side project from the man who simply doesn’t know how to stop.

*I am indebted to my old pal Frederic Manby for identifying the make and model of the car, though he had to consult another car expert, Phil Huff. Frederic and I worked together long, long ago and he went on to distinguish himself as the long-serving motoring correspondent for the Yorkshire Post. He, too, danced to The Black Sheep back in the day. 

1 comment:

m said...

-swansea-like skipton had local bands playing early stax\tamla covers-most became psyc mid 67-but kept some soul(eg simon dupree becoming dantalians chariot)
a pre man band even incorporated andy williams were almost there in to a psyc\soul\pop medley
they were heady times-i think the four tops are due a major re appreciation-amongst others