Bruce Springsteen arrived in London for the first time in 1975 and promptly freaked out.
Already more than wary of the hype surrounding him and suggesting he'd be the "new Dylan" back in the States, the scruffy, Bohemian ragamuffin showed up at the Hammersmith Odeon, saw posters and handbills littering the place suggesting his arrival was akin to a second coming, and tossed a serious fit. He tore posters down in the lobby, ran around the theater disposing of handbills, and generally made it clear that the whole "London is finally ready for Bruce Springsteen" campaign was something that seriously messed with his own sense of integrity and threatened his most precious personal commodity -- absolute control of his music, his career, his image.
Not the most auspicious arrival for the great white hope, a man ready, with his mighty E Street Band, to drop the ultimate paean to rock redemption, "Born to Run," and set off down a road unparallelled in rock for its intensity and authenticity.
"Hammersmith," as it has been known to hardcore Bruce fans in its bootleg version for decades, has been a concert of mythical proportions for ages. For Springsteen, it was just another show, one he felt hadn't been particularly transcendent. Though the whole gig had been captured beautifully in both audio and video formats, the man never bothered to watch or listen to the performance for 30 years after the last chords of "Quarter to Three" had been absorbed by the Odeon's walls, and the last London promo man's hand had been grasped at the after-show meet-and-greet.
When he finally did look back, at some point following the tour behind "The Rising," Springsteen realized what fans -- the few thousand who were actually there that night, and the thousands and thousands familiar with the show through shoddy audience recordings on the bootleg market -- knew all along; this was a few hours of pure rock 'n' roll magic.
At this point, the E Street Band still had plenty of the boardwalk romp and calliope crush that it had absorbed from the Jersey shore. Springsteen rightly calls the sound "near punk soul" in the liner notes of the twin-disc "Hammersmith Odeon. London '75," out today.
The tempos, held in check while still flirting with complete abandon by new recruit, drummer Max Weinberg, were blisteringly fast. The sound -- a rich blend of early rock 'n' roll, Memphis soul, Van Morrison-esque R&B, and what no one was yet really referring to as punk -- soared on the wings of twin keyboardists Danny Federici and Roy Bittan, the forward propulsion offered by Weinberg and criminally underrated bassist Gary Tallent, Clarence Clemons' throaty sax, and Steven Van Zandt's clean, funky, sympathetic guitar work.
The set list is one of the finest in the history of rock music, from the stripped-down working class opera of "Thunder Road," to the insatiable soul of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," "Spirit in the Night" and "The E Street Shuffle," to the baroque, hair-raising grandiosity of "Backstreets" and "She's the One."
Springsteen is a man possessed here. The DVD of this show, included in the recently released "Born to Run" 30th Anniversary box set, shows him to be almost oblivious to the crowd, eyes closed tightly, clothes rumpled and hanging off his wiry frame as if thrown on as an afterthought, an oversized wool cap flopping on his skull, as he directs the band through its ecstatic motions.
This wasn't really a band, of course; it was a gang, a bunch of misfits who'd found a collective voice in Springsteen's stunningly imagined songs, tales of desperate losers, outcasts, misfits, all unified by a blind faith that things could be better and an indelible romantic idealism. This is a far cry from the figure who, 10 years later, would be writing arena rock large in stadiums across the world during the "Born in the USA" tour.
Soon, Springsteen would strip his music back, trimming away the virtuosity, sense of swing, jazzy inflections, and near avant-garde boardwalk-funk he and the band had created. As he became an increasingly adept storyteller, and his characters grew into fully actualized renderings, all of this might've gotten in the way of the raw nerve that continues to run through the man's music.
But on this night, this group, so far away from home for the first time, so terrified of the mighty engine they'd strapped a harness on, so incredibly young, gifted, and passionate, exploded. Live rock 'n' roll simply gets no better than this.
One quibble: Since the program on this twin-disc set is identical to that offered by the "Born to Run" DVD edition, it would've been nice to have expanded artwork here. "Hammersmith Odeon" is aimed squarely at the sort of Springsteen freak who will buy everything the man releases, and thus, already owns the box set. As one of these folks, I would've appreciated additional artwork and fleshed-out packaging.
That aside, you'd have to be dead to avoid succumbing to this record's fire.
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of 4)