Story 1985-07-03 Wembley Stadium, London, England

35th Anniversary of the Final UK Shows of the Born in the U.S.A. Tour

Greetings Facebonkers. Hope you had a great Independence Day, American citizens or not. I'd intended to post this story yesterday but didn't finish it as quickly as I hoped. It's time to mark the 35th anniversary of the final UK shows of Bruce Springsteen's historic "Born In The USA" European tour back on July 3, 4, 6 and 7, 1985. A month ago, I told you the story of our momentous trip to see his opening salvo of shows at Slane Castle in Ireland and St James' Park in Newcastle. That summer, the UK and Irish dates bookended a series of concerts in mainland Europe. Four weeks after Newcastle, Bruce returned to finish the tour with a three-night stand at London's Wembley Stadium and a final show at Roundhay Park in Leeds. For those of us who'd been lucky enough to see Bruce over here in 1981 or even 1975, these huge mega concerts were a shock to the system and (in E Street terms) the shape of the future, with very few exceptions. Having been accustomed to seeing him indoors in the dark in comparatively small venues, we now had to contend with watching him in daylight with thousands of newcomers who thought Pink Cadillac Ranch was a gay nightclub in Texas.

But it wasn't like that in June 1984 when the LP first hit the shops. Back then, Bruce was a mere superstar. He didn't earn the right to the prefix "mega" for another year. Nevertheless the album reached the top of the Billboard chart (Number 2 in the UK) and Bruce began a huge 94-date US arena tour that kept him occupied until the end of January 1985. At that point he was still playing roughly the same size indoor venues that he had at the end of the "River" tour in 1981, but this time there were a lot more of them. The itinerary included ten gigs at the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford in his home state of New Jersey, six at the Philadelphia Spectrum and seven at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, which ensured that over 400,000 people saw Bruce in just three cities. The final two gigs took place at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, still indoors, but with a capacity of 40,000 each night, the largest audiences of his career at the time, but they were about to get a whole lot bigger. After Syracuse, Bruce went straight to LA to record his vocals for the "We Are The World" single and then had seven weeks off before playing eight shows in Australia and another eight in Japan between mid-March and mid-April, the majority of which also took place indoors.

The UK tour came together a lot easier than it did in 1981. Back then, dates were added at intervals over a three month period, which was followed by a postponement and yet more dates. This time, three months of rumours preceded one final official announcement, but the delay was equally frustrating. In early February, just after the US tour had finished, the first rumours of possible UK gigs began to circulate and at least to begin with, it appeared that Bruce would be playing indoor venues over here as well. The NME revealed that his "eagerly awaited British visit will take place in September, when he will play a string of concerts, possibly a week, at London's 15,000-capacity Earls Court. It's known that dates have already been reserved and that plans are under way to organise coach trips from outlying areas". A week later, they said that the Earls Court season could now be brought forward to June. Dates were being held at the arena in both months until a decision was made. In early March, Melody Maker said that wheels were in motion to bring Bruce here in June/July and that it was likely that the itinerary would include "four nights at Earls Court, followed by a show at Wembley Stadium". Also on the cards was a gig at Dublin RDS on June 22. These tour rumours came during a major sea change in Bruce's career, in which he forgot about the remaining rungs on the ladder of fame and jumped straight to the top. In the UK, this sudden transition to the stratosphere has often been attributed to a report from the US tour on the "Old Grey Whistle Test", but it's hard to believe that one TV show could have had such a massive impact. It may also have been influenced by radio airplay, MTV video rotation, a major promotional campaign, heavy interest in the dreaded Arthur Baker remixes on the club circuit, Big Daddy's cover of "Dancing In The Dark" or a similar kind of persuasive word-of-mouth publicity that ensured demand for his 1981 shows outstripped supply by three-to-one, although he'd not played in the UK for more than six years. Bruce was now mentioned in the same sales meetings as Michael Jackson and Madonna, was featured in pop magazine Smash Hits and became a tabloid hero with an average of ten references to "The Boss" per square inch.

In early April, Melody Maker was the first UK music paper to print specific dates, which were in bigger venues than were suggested before:

  • Newcastle St James Park (June 4 and 5)
  • London Wembley Arena (July 3 and 5)
  • Leeds Roundhay Park (July 7)

Although there was still no official confirmation and CBS were denying everything, this rumour was so strong that the shows were announced on Breakfast TV and Radio One. Two gigs at Earls Court (May 28 and 29) were still under consideration, as was a show at Slane Castle in Ireland on June 1. They later retracted the Wembley Arena rumour because it had already been block-booked by Dire Straits. Their source probably meant Wembley Stadium. The same week, the NME added fuel to the fire, suggesting that Bruce may play Cardiff Arms Park on May 27 as well as Birmingham NEC and Edinburgh Ingliston. They also said that dates were still pencilled in at Earls Court in both June and September.

In mid-April, Melody Maker revealed that "the popular view" was that Bruce would play the following dates in the UK and Ireland:

  • Slane Castle (June 1)
  • Newcastle St James Park (June 4 and 5)
  • London Wembley Stadium (July 6 and 13)
  • Leeds Roundhay Park (July 7)
  • London Earls Court (July 8, 9, 10, 11)

This was a strange blend of massive-to-medium outdoor venues and an indoor arena, although it was unlikely that Bruce would have agreed to play six consecutive nights from July 6 to 11 inclusive.

In the end, Harvey Goldsmith completely bypassed the UK music papers by announcing the official tour dates live on "The Old Grey Whistle Test" on April 23, just after they'd gone to press, ensuring that they wouldn't be able to print the news for a week. "Thanks for nothing Harvey" said the headline in the NME, who saw this as "the latest in a string of dirty tricks" played on them by various promoters. This may have been a deliberate snub or simply an acknowledgment of the show's role in boosting Bruce's profile. Either way, the BBC switchboard had a major meltdown after the broadcast.
The only dates that Goldsmith actually released were:

  • Newcastle St James Park (June 4 and 5)
  • London Wembley Stadium (July 3 and 4)

The Leeds Roundhay Park gig on July 7 was confirmed soon afterwards and the concert on June 1 at Slane Castle got the go-ahead once local residents were placated. Amazingly, the first of the shows was only six weeks away, which seems like a huge risk. Nowadays artists announce big stadium shows months, possibly up to a year, in advance. Approximately one million requests were received for less than half that number of tickets. Again, demand beat supply by a three to one ratio. As a result, the NME later said it was hoped that Bruce's arm could be twisted into playing more shows, but in the end, the mid-May addition of one more gig at Wembley on July 6 was the only extra date. No additional requests would be accepted because there were enough unfulfilled applications for the first two shows. Tickets were £14.50 in Newcastle and Leeds and £15 in London, very expensive back then. Included in the cost was a controversial 50p "booking fee", introduced on this tour. Limited to six per person, they were available by post (cheques or postal orders with SAE) from a London PO Box address and buyers were asked to allow five weeks for delivery, which was cutting it fine for Newcastle attendees. In the pre-internet and credit card hotline years this tedious and prolonged process was all there was for shows by visiting US megastars. Send cheque, wait and hope. Nowadays you print your own. For a small fee. Where did Harvey Goldsmith's envelope stuffers go after the WWW was invented? Maybe the "admin fee" we're routinely charged pays their pensions.

The final itinerary was a little disappointing to say the least. No Earls Court shows (it would be 14 years until Bruce played that concrete cavern), nothing in Wales or Scotland, less than half the amount of shows that he played in 1981 and a huge rise in venue capacities. They all sold out of course, which is a perfect example of how his audience had grown. When he returned for the Wembley and Leeds gigs, "BITUSA" topped the album chart a year after it came out, five of his other six records made the Top 50 and "Nebraska" got to number 60.
Once the tour dates had been set in stone, we began making plans to attend all seven gigs in the UK and Ireland. Actually other people did. I'd just met Dan French and tapped into the Springsteen fan network and relied mostly on them to organise tickets, transport and accommodation. I was new to the travelling game, hence the reason I only saw Bruce play in Brighton and Wembley back in 1981. I'd never been north of London before. I was grateful to Dan and many others I met in 1985 for introducing me to the wonderful world of Bruce touring. This was just the start of a lifelong adventure which began with the unforgettable trip to Slane and Newcastle that I told you about last time.

That took weeks of planning in the days when everything was done by phone or post. Seems like the Stone Age now, but it all fell together as smooth as silk and nobody got lost along the way. I wish I could tell you that the Wembley and Leeds story also involves great feats of human endurance and long late-night drives, but it was a lot simpler. In fact, I have very little recollection of the events surrounding those shows. We came, we saw, we went home.
Most of us from the Slane and Newcastle trip were there too, but we weren't always in the same place at the same time.
I have a memory of staying at my new friend Tony's parents' house near Wembley, sleeping on the floor beside other fans from far and wide and hearing bootleg tapes in the kitchen. But as for Leeds, I really have no clear idea of who I went up with, if I stayed anywhere or how I got back, but I'm fairly certain that Julian Soden (aka Max) was involved somehow.

Compared to Slane, the shows in Newcastle had felt like club gigs, but Wembley was twice as big. In 1981, Bruce played six shows at the 12,000-seat arena. Now he was appearing for three nights at the 72,000 capacity stadium for the same number of fans in one show as he did in an entire week at the arena. Things had changed, to reference Bob. I can remember going up early on July 3 with a small group of people and just wandering around to see what we could see. What we found was a large open gate that led us directly onto the pitch and it was rude not to. We stood at the back and watched Bruce and the band soundchecking something we didn't recognise until we were asked to depart the premises. It turned out to be "Seeds", which received its tour premiere later that night and appeared at all three gigs.

The three Wembley concerts (the most shows Bruce played in any city in Europe) were the centrepiece of the five-week tour and the focus of massive media attention. The stadium was certainly the place to be that week, unless you were a Dire Straits fan with tickets for one of their 13 concerts at the arena. Despite the enormity of the venue, we'd been looking forward to the shows for ages. The desire to see Bruce again overrode the fact that he was going to be playing in bright sunshine most of the evening for a crowd the size of a small town. The tickets were general admission. They got you in the stadium. After that, you could stand or sit anywhere. There were no reserved seats, no pit, no Gold Circle. It was possible to reach the front barrier if you began queueing early enough. With the Slane experience still fresh in our minds, we elected to base ourselves in seats on the right-hand side for each show. We had a clear view of the stage and were sheltered from the sun by the stadium roof. When we looked down at the heaving mass of sunbaked humanity on the pitch, moving slowly forward to increase the pressure on those at the front, we knew we'd made the right decision, especially when a big fight broke out. (An idiot clambered up the PA system and jumped up and down on the stage roof during one of the gigs. If he'd fallen through the thin tarpaulin or canvas sheet, there might have been catastrophic consequences). The gates were opened at 4pm on July 3 and 4, with an approximate concert start time of 6pm. Opening time on July 6 was 2pm, with the show due to start at 4pm. Given Bruce's habit of being fashionably late, the kick-off didn't happen until at least half an hour later than billed. Extra time was needed.

Those expecting Bruce to play material from his early albums were in for a disappointment.

The set was heavily weighted towards "Darkness On The Edge Of Town", "The River" and, of course, "BITUSA". Only "Rosalita", "Born To Run" and "Thunder Road" represented his 1973-1975 era, and while he'd included up to five songs from "Nebraska" at shows in the summer of 1984, only the rocked-up "Johnny 99" and "Atlantic City" now remained. Unreleased songs ("Because The Night", "Seeds") and covers ("Trapped", "Can't Help Falling In Love", "Twist And Shout", "Do You Love Me?") completed the set, which was largely identical from night to night, with just enough room for alternative choices, rarities and very occasional surprises.

At Wembley, four songs stand out in the latter categories. On July 4, Bruce opened with an acoustic "Independence Day". It had only appeared on four other occasions on the entire tour and he wouldn't perform it again until 1996. Later that night, he took "Pink Cadillac" for a spin for the third and last time in Europe. On July 6, he replaced "Atlantic City" with a rare "Highway Patrolman", its first appearance since January and last but one for 11 years. Finally, during the encores, he pulled out The Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man", which had been a set regular on the US tour until October. It's not been played anywhere since.

But undoubtedly the biggest surprise of all was when Little Steven appeared for the final three encores: "Two Hearts", "Ramrod" and "Twist And Shout"/"Do You Love Me". There was no social media to spread advance rumours, so this was a genuine surprise. We'd last seen Steven playing with Bruce on the "River" tour in 1981 and as leader of the Disciples of Soul on several subsequent UK visits. Few of the new fans may have known who he was, but us old timers gave him a rousing welcome. To make the Wembley stand even more memorable, he was back onstage on July 4 and 6.

It's generally understood that Bruce's Wembley stage was left behind to be used at Live Aid a week later, but it's never been officially confirmed. My Wembley story concludes with a vague recollection of waiting for Bruce to leave after one of the shows and watching a van with tinted windows drive out of the gate without stopping. Fans around me said that they saw Bruce and any number of band members in that vehicle, but I couldn't see anything.
And so to Leeds, the last UK show and the final night of the comparatively short European tour (18 dates with only one in Italy and none in Spain). After a run of stadiums, Bruce was ending the tour as he'd begun, in a field with 80,000 friends. The backdrop-free stage with its view of the trees behind it was identical to Slane, but the similarity ended there. It was level for a start and there was only one gently sloping hill on the right-hand side, where the disabled facilities were based.

This event was considerably better controlled, except when "dozens" or "hundreds" broke down a section of the concert arena's eight-foot high fence and surged forward, causing a dangerous crush at the front and apparently extending the mid-show interval while it was sorted out, although I have no memory of that whatsoever.

It was another weekend gig, so the gates opened early at 1pm and Bruce was due on around 4pm. The local press reported traffic chaos before and after the show. One of my abiding memories is the smell of the gents' toilets (basically giant troughs) wafting across the crowd on the breeze, not for the faint-hearted it has to be said. It was another sunny day with a massive audience and I chose to stay near the back. Maybe the memory of Slane was still burning bright, or perhaps I was just tired, but I watched the gig from a safe distance in relative comfort.
The set followed the standard pattern, but omitted "Seeds" and included three songs that weren't played at Wembley; a superb "Racing In The Street" (played only three times in Europe and destined not to appear again until 1992); the only European performance of "Follow That Dream" and a final encore of John Fogerty's "Rocking All Over The World", one of only 12 performances on the entire "BITUSA" tour. (Anyone who still thinks that it's a Status Quo song should see me afterwards. There will be detention). And just when we thought Little Steven was down in London, he appeared during the encores one more time to close out the tour with his old friend. He made a total of 10 guest appearances with Bruce on the 15-month world tour and four of them were in the UK. It was a fitting end to an exciting adventure that had begun five weeks earlier on a hill in Ireland. Bruce still had two more months of stadium shows back home before he could put his feet up. These included six nights at Giants Stadium in New Jersey and four final shows at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
By the end, he'd played 156 shows in 11 countries around the globe, "BITUSA" had sold bucketloads and spawned no less than seven singles and he'd finally made a few bob.

Reminiscing about those 1985 shows 35 years later, it's clear that they were hard-rockin', fist pumpin', crowd-pleasin', baseball cap wearin', ass shakin', goofy, sweaty, horny, musclebound, heterosexual white male performances. They were designed for huge stages and equally massive audiences. Bruce's accessible, commercial songs dominated, at the expense of his romantic epics and more thoughtful and introspective material. While they were undoubtedly great fun and very successful, they only reflected limited aspects of his musical character and were a good example of how biggest does not necessarily mean best. I had as great a time as any other Springsteen obsessive who saw the seven UK and Irish shows, but there was a nagging sense that he was much better than all this, that cramming thousands into a stadium like sardines was dehumanising and dangerous and that rock music is always best heard in indoor venues. Unfortunately, his sustained level of popularity in Europe with the E Street Band ever since has meant that it's been stadiums all the way, with few exceptions. "BITUSA" defined Bruce's career to some extent for many people, and they've expected him to churn it out onstage ever since. Luckily he didn't take that route and has presented us with some very interesting musical detours in subsequent years, but songs from that album have always crept into his sets, even if he's started tours not playing them. The mid-80s were his Glory Days and they'll never fully pass him by, which is both a blessing and a curse. When he got home, he saw the tour as the end of an era, not the dawning of a new one. Next time around, according to his autobiography, he was looking forward to "something less".

By Mike Saunders via Facebook.com.
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