Review 1981-06-05 Wembley Arena, London, England

THE MEN WHO COULD

Latest First Friday archive release features Springsteen's triumphant June 5, 1981 London finale

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In 1981, six years since his last visit, London was ready for Bruce Springsteen. "Hungry Heart" was a hit, and demand for tickets to his forthcoming U.K. tour outstripped supply by a ratio of three-to-one. Yet Springsteen was approaching his appearances in the capital with trepidation. After his over-hyped debut at Hammersmith Odeon in 1975, there was unfinished business to settle. Memories of that trip haunted him for a long time; in the interim, despite little media exposure, no concerts, and only two albums, his U.K. audience had grown considerably.

Springsteen was not the only one being cautious. As if testing the water, the tour came together gradually. Three shows, scheduled for March and April, were announced before Christmas 1980. Extra dates were added weekly throughout January. In March, four days before it was due to begin, the tour was postponed until May and June because Springsteen was exhausted after completing his U.S. dates. A month after this E Street reshuffle, four more shows were added, making a final total of 16 — his longest U.K. tour with the E Street Band to date.

Following 17 shows in mainland Europe, Springsteen began his U.K. tour on May 11 and gradually worked his way towards London. There, he would play six nights at the 12,500-capacity Wembley Arena. The moment of truth was approaching, but beneath the nerves lay a commitment and determination that would see him through. In his autobiography, Bruce wrote, "We were not the naïve beach bums who stepped out of a British Airways 747 half a decade back. I knew I had a hell of a band and if we couldn't do the job, show me the men who could."

He needn't have worried. On May 29 he was greeted by an ecstatic crowd, and his performance inspired a string of superlatives in both the national press and the weekly music papers. "Any doubts he might have had about the London audience must have been dispelled the first time he held the microphone out and heard his words bellowed back at him without a moment's hesitation," reported Sounds. "This wasn't a concert, it was an event in rock music," said the Evening Standard, while the NME praised "an honourable and satisfying performance." Mission accomplished. With his fears allayed and his reputation reinforced, Springsteen could relax and enjoy the remaining Wembley gigs on May 30 and June 1, 2, 4 and 5.

Having seen three shows in the space of five days, I was hungry for a fourth. I was 23 and no stranger to live concerts, but these were unlike anything I'd seen before, setting the bar impossibly high. Succumbing to temptation, I jumped on a train. Arriving at Wembley on June 5 with nothing but faith and hope, I paid a scalper six times face value for a seat near the stage, walked in, and never looked back.

A mobile recording truck was spotted outside the arena that night, and Point Blank fanzine soon reported that a four-track "Live at Wembley" EP was due for release later that year, but the plan was eventually scrapped. "There is to be no EP, although that show was recorded," confirmed Dave Marsh in subsequent correspondence with Point Blank editor Dan French, while Capital Radio DJ Roger Scott told him, "[Jon] Landau said it had been discussed, but it would probably not be happening because of lack of time for mixing the tracks." This proposed release would have enabled fans to obtain a high-quality audio souvenir, but instead the master tapes were consigned to the vaults.

Finally, 37 years down the road, thanks to the good folks at nugs.net, Bruce Springsteen's June 5 concert at Wembley Arena — the first official archive release from 1981 — is ready for the world.

There's perhaps no greater statement of intent than opening a concert with your most famous song. Thus, Bruce Springsteen began his final London gig with "Born to Run" and maintained an energy level that didn't subside until he and the E Street Band took their bows at the end. The notes I scribbled down afterward reveal that he began the first "serious" set at 8:10pm, broke for the regular intermission at 9:20pm, returned for the second "fun" set at 10pm, and didn't walk off for the final time after the last of several encores until 11:45pm.

The 31-song set reflects how the shows had evolved since the tour began in October. Even at almost three hours, it was considerably shorter than the marathon concerts Springsteen had played at the end of 1980. Most of the album material was drawn from Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River (excluding many of the significant ballads from sides three and four). Only three songs from Born to Run appeared, and with the exception of "Rosalita," nothing from his first two records. I was struck by how these powerful live performances surpassed their recorded counterparts, and fascinated by embellishments like the piano prelude to "Point Blank" and the "Here She Comes" intro to "I Wanna Marry You," its U.K. debut and first performance since February.

One-third of the set consisted of unreleased songs or covers. Throughout the tour, Springsteen had been under the spell of John Fogerty and Woody Guthrie, as demonstrated by the appearance of "Who'll Stop the Rain" and "This Land Is Your Land." Also included were "Fire" and "Because the Night" (familiar now but a revelation then), a rare appearance of "I Fought the Law," and the live debut of "Jole Blon," from Gary U.S. Bonds' Dedication album.

In Europe, the ghost of Elvis also exerted an influence. Springsteen unveiled three Presley-related songs on the tour and played them all on June 5. The first was a slowed-down, rewritten version of "Follow That Dream," the movie's title track. Second was "Johnny Bye Bye." Developed from the outtake "(Come On) Let's Go Tonight," it referenced Chuck Berry's "Bye Bye Johnny" and was slower and more elegiac than the version later released as a B-side. Lastly, he included "Can't Help Falling in Love" (its only U.K. appearance) in the encores, providing breathing space between the drama of "Jungleland" and a riotous, 11-minute, houselights-up "Detroit Medley." "Shake" and "Sweet Soul Music" augmented the usual four-pack and inspired the audience to stamp their feet so hard that the lighting rig above the stage began to bounce gently up and down on its moorings.

It was an undisputed rock 'n' roll masterclass. My memories include Clarence Clemons walking on wearing a bowler hat like a London city gent, and Bruce clambering over PA stacks to get close to the fans in the upper tiers. He also stood on the piano, did a knee-slide along the stage, talked about his dad before "Independence Day," danced with Obie during "Sherry Darling," and introduced the band during "Rosalita." Apologizing for the earlier postponement, he thanked everyone for their support in the years when he'd been conspicuous by his absence.

As I walked out into the night, I was hoping for a swift return engagement at the arena, but fate had other plans. As we would discover, the River tour was not the pinnacle of Springsteen's career. Three years later, Born in the U.S.A. made him a megastar, and when he eventually returned to north-west London in 1985, it was to play three nights at Wembley Stadium. Although he returned to Wembley Arena with other musicians in subsequent years, Springsteen has, to date, only played one other show there with the E Street Band. That makes their 1981 shows, and the final night in particular, even more significant.

By Mike Saunders via Backstreets.com.
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