Story 1988-06-21 Villa Park, Birmingham, England (Part One)

Tunnel Of Love Express stops in England

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Greetings Facebonkers. The Bruce Springsteen spring and summer UK tour anniversaries are coming to an end now, but I have one more epic tale left. Having wrapped up the "Born In The USA" tour on Sunday, I'll now turn my attention to its follow-up, the Tunnel Of Love Express Tour in summer 1988, when Bruce performed five UK stadium shows in Birmingham, London and Sheffield. At first, my intention was to focus only on these shows, but I just kept on typing and researching and I've ended up with a two-part history of the entire tour, in my usual fine detail, that's being posted exactly 32 years after the Sheffield gigs. Don't you hate it when that happens?

The tour was one of Bruce's most unusual undertakings, but as you'll read, while there was a lot of love going on at the front of the stage between him and Patti, things weren't quite so harmonious behind the scenes with the E Street Band. Again, most of the basic framework for this story came straight out of my head, but I also used a number of sources to double-check the facts and obtain additional info, which I'll list at the end. Hope you enjoy this post as much as all the others, whether you were at the shows back in the day, or only found out about them last week. I should point out that all opinions expressed herein, particularly those in relation to "BITUSA", "Spare Parts" and Patti Scialfa's backing vocals, are my own. Of course, you're entitled to disagree, but you may be completely wrong.

Saunders over and out.

BEHIND THE SCENES IN THE TUNNEL OF LOVE
PART ONE

When the "BITUSA" world tour (the first to see Bruce appear in Japan and Australia as well as Europe and the USA) ended in October 1985, there was a sense that now he'd reached the mountaintop, he wanted to descend to the foothills. "I'd had enough of the big time for a while and looked forward to something less" he revealed in his autobiography years later. "BITUSA" was primarily a fun rock and pop album that went viral before social media was invented and was the focus of a marketing campaign that aimed to conquer the known universe. However, apart from the widely-misinterpreted title track, the social commentary of "My Hometown" and maybe one or two others, the material had little depth or substance. The album was finely-crafted, expertly-produced Bruce-lite that worked on the radio, was exciting live and had massive commercial appeal, but it was not his finest hour as a writer, unless you measure artistic success in terms of units sold and profit earned. Bruce later described it as a "grab-bag". He felt the title track stood by itself, but the rest of the album was "a group of songs about which I've always had some ambivalence". In contrast, Bruce's 1987 follow-up album is acknowledged as one of the best of his career. While "USA" was recorded in famous New York studios with the E Street Band, "Tunnel Of Love" was primarily a solo effort, made at Bruce's new home studio with minimal input from the band.

Bruce played a variety of instruments, synthesisers, a drum machine and whatever else he could lay his hands on. It was a thinking man's record, relationship-based, personal and introspective, with not a fist-pumping anthem in sight. There were no Waynes in the lyrics either, but there was a Bobby who forgot to pull out into moving traffic. At least I think that's what it means. It should have come with a big sticker that warned: "Contains material that is unsuitable for stadiums". More on that later. Apart from the 12 songs on the album, two more, "Lucky Man" and "Two For The Road" were released as B-sides to the "Brilliant Disguise" and "Tunnel Of Love" singles. In the UK at least, these were both released in 7" and 12" vinyl form, and the "Disguise" 12" included a free poster.

Bruce revealed that, as with his first solo LP, "Nebraska", he "hadn't planned to do any touring" for "Tunnel Of Love" but changed his mind when "Brilliant Disguise" was a "left field" hit and the album made it to the top of the Billboard chart. "Sitting at home while a record containing some of my best and freshest writing went untended didn't seem right". His decision was inspired by a desire to re-connect with his core audience but could also have been forced upon him by financial circumstances. In his 1999 biography "Springsteen" author Christopher Sandford suggests that a solo tour was originally planned, but it was "nixed by an unholy mix of marketing and management sorts" and probably also by accountants. He suggests that Bruce was one of the millions affected by the Black Monday stock market crash in October 1987, the month that "Tunnel" was released, so it's possible that he was short of a few bob and actually needed to hit the road whether he wanted to or not. Wikipedia states that a solo tour of 3000-seat venues was booked, but Bruce chose not to go ahead, deciding that the tone would be too dark. It was replaced by a US arena tour with the E Street Band. Announced in early January 1988, it would be followed by a series of dates in Europe that were still being planned. (Bruce finally launched his first solo tour seven years later and this lost original plan was filed under "Alternative Springsteen Tour History - US/1988/Solo". We can only imagine what the set lists might have included).

The show that Bruce created around the "Tunnel" material turned his old set structures inside out. Cornerstones were dropped and rarities "Be True" (only played once in the past) "Roulette" (never played) and "Part Man, Part Monkey" (not even known) were introduced. The obscure "Light Of Day", previously only played at a few club shows, now occupied the set-closing, pre-encore spot. Familiar and obscure covers "I'm A Coward", "Have Love Will Travel", "Boom Boom", "Sweet Soul Music" and "Love Me Tender" were added and the remainder of the set was comprised of material that fit the theme of love, sex and relationships, like "Cover Me", "I'm On Fire" and "She's The One". The latter returned to regular use for the first time since the "Darkness" tour, as did "Adam Raised A Cain" and "Raise Your Hand", while "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)" was recalled to active service for the first time since 1981, in its original rockabilly guise. Bruce also made space for socio-political commentary ("Seeds", "War" and "Born In The USA"). The last three were holdovers from the "USA" tour and appeared incongruous in a set that was more personal than political. "Adam" seemed out of place as well, because of the fathers and sons angle, but all four provided powerful counterpoints to the "Tunnel" material and would be played with an intensity that made them highlights of the show. Several hits were retained for the encore section, although "Born To Run" was reworked as a solo acoustic ballad. Old favourites "Rosalita" and the "Detroit Medley" appeared in this spot for a while, but were eventually dropped. The show was radically different to those on previous Springsteen tours. Material was picked to adhere to a specific theme, and most of it was either new, obscure or hadn't been played in years.

The broad concept of this new show was, as Bruce described it, "love as a scary amusement park thrill ride". A rock version of a fairground Tunnel Of Love ("This Is Not A Dark Ride" was a theme of the merchandise) to which the audience and the band (via a ticket booth when they came on) paid the price of admission. Apart from the revamped setlist, there were various changes onstage. The blue jeans and sweatband of three years before were gone. Bruce "wore a suit for the first time in a while", repositioned the band members (who also "dressed up"), brought Patti Scialfa (now big-haired and mini-skirted) to the front to be a "sexy female foil" and added the five-piece Horns of Love, which comprised Mario Cruz and several Asbury Jukes and Disciples of Soul veterans (La Bamba, Mark Pender, Eddie Manion and Mike Spengler). Every aspect of the show was new, designed to "signal to the audience that they should expect something different".

Tour rehearsals took place on a military base in New Jersey, and Little Steven was brought in to help compose the horn arrangements. (Rolling Stone said backing vocalists may be added, and that Steven might join Bruce on tour for a while. The former was more plausible than the latter, but in the end, neither happened). In keeping with Bruce's wish to downsize after the "BITUSA" years, the Tunnel Of Love Express Tour of the US (the first with the E Street Band to have an official name and the last to have a mid-show break) consisted of only 43 concerts, which was the lowest number on Bruce's home turf since 1977 (the last time that he'd used horns with the E Street Band, but not as much as he would in 1988). Unusually credited to Bruce Springsteen "featuring The E Street Band" as though they were just guests at their own gig, the tour began with three concerts in Worcester (near Boston) in late February and ended with five at Madison Square Garden in New York in May. En route, there were five more at the LA Sports Arena, 12 two-night stands and six one-nighters. The UK music press featured several reviews as the tour progressed across the States and Rolling Stone magazine ran two features.

To coincide with the new tour, a third single was released in the US only, pairing "One Step Up" with "Roulette", the first time this famous bootlegged "River" sessions outtake had officially seen the light of day. This was a big deal because there were comparatively few non-album Springsteen songs at the time and a new addition was welcome, especially that one. Back in the day, "Tracks" was a decade away and fans had to collect such rarities by hunting down single B-sides. This was the final single from "Tunnel" in the States, but two more would follow in Europe.
Because of its length and the fact that Bruce had chosen to play indoor arenas again, the tour didn't cover the country as comprehensively or reach as many people as before, so predictably demand was high and black market prices were higher. The set lists remained comparatively static as the tour progressed, in keeping with the tightly choreographed nature of this travelling circus, which had more pre-planned routines and moments of pure theatre per square inch than any previous E Street outing. Garry Tallent later said that the tour was "unlike anything we'd ever done in that so much of it was staged. There was really no spontaneity. We had our parts and we needed to stick to them if the show was going to make sense". His comment masked deeper concerns but I'll deal with those at the end.

As news of the US tour slowly filtered through (there was no interweb back then), UK fans kept their eyes peeled for any indication that the Tunnel Of Love Express might be pulling into a few stations over here. They didn't have to wait long and were soon confronted by a regular series of conflicting reports, shifting options and differing scenarios which took two whole months to resolve. The first rumour of a UK date came as early as January. The NME reported that promoter Harvey Goldsmith was trying to get Bruce to play the new Docklands Arena in London, which was due to open in the autumn. "If Goldsmith pulls off his scoop," they continued, "it seems likely other provincial shows would be added". The idea sank without trace, but other rumours soon replaced it. As the tour got underway, the NME waded in again with a story that Bruce had "lined up a series of British shows in July and August. It is believed Springsteen will play around a dozen concerts in arena-sized venues, thus avoiding massive capacity stadia like Wembley".

This was very promising news. A series of indoor shows was preferable to another swing around football grounds, parks and an Irish hillside. The report then suggested that the gigs would feature an hour's worth of solo acoustic performances and two hours with the band. This didn't ring true because Bruce had already established the format for the shows and it was unlikely to alter in Europe.

This report could have been a version of Q magazine's story that Bruce had considered an acoustic tour at first and then thought about "supplementing it with a band set". They also speculated that "it would seem practical for him to start off indoors in America, come to Europe to play outside and return home to make the most of the late summer to do the same". Sounds questioned whether the show would retain its intimacy if it went outdoors in Britain. "Of course not", it concluded. "No one can rock 60,000 with the lid off as well as 18,000 under a roof. The "Born In The USA" tour proved that if it proved anything".

In mid-March, Melody Maker brought the less encouraging news that Bruce's "extensive tour this summer" would now include "indoor AND outdoor venues". Several nights at Wembley Arena in mid-June and a concert at Cardiff Arms Park on June 22 were possibly on the cards, as were an extra date or two back at Wembley Stadium "to accommodate the expected huge demand", even though "rumours say the Boss has a downer on playing large stadia". The NME mentioned the Cardiff gig and suggested there would be three nights at Wembley Arena and maybe a similar number at Birmingham NEC. There were also "strong rumours" about two shows at St James' Park in Newcastle.

Meanwhile, the national press got in on the act by reporting that Bruce would be playing at Wembley Stadium on June 24 and 25 and that "other dates in August will be announced later." They said the concerts had been brought forward "for maximum impact" in advance of Michael Jackson's seven nights at the stadium. Some kind of announcement looked imminent, then suddenly the grapevine fell ominously silent, without explanation. A month slipped by without any further news and all enquiries to CBS or Harvey Goldsmith were met with "a deafening silence".
In mid-April, the NME reported that the tour was still expected to comprise "around a dozen dates" in late June and early July, but that most would now be in "large outdoor venues". The following shows were likely to be included:

  • June 22 - Cardiff Arms Park
  • June 23 - Wembley Stadium
  • June 24 - Wembley Stadium
  • July 9 - Knebworth Park
  • July 10 - Knebworth Park

Jon Landau reportedly flew in to check out "several venues" the previous week and Harvey Goldsmith had successfully argued for music to return to Knebworth after a fatality in 1986. He'd assured the local council that the artist he had in mind would "attract a more mature audience" and they'd issued a licence for July 9/10. A third Wembley gig was still an option, as were concerts at Newcastle St James' Park and Edinburgh Murrayfield. Other reports on Capital Radio and in the national dailies were said to be groundless and that no shows had been confirmed.
The official announcement of Bruce's 1988 gigs finally came in late April. It seemed that all known venues in the country had been under consideration at some point, but the final list bore little resemblance to any other version, even including two venues that hadn't been mentioned before:

  • June 21 - Birmingham Villa Park (Aston Villa FC)
  • June 25 - Wembley Stadium
  • July 9 - Sheffield Bramall Lane (Sheffield United FC).

These would be Bruce's first appearances in Birmingham since 1981 and his first shows in Sheffield. The first of these dates was only seven weeks away, but demand was high, which ensured quick sales. Tickets cost £17 (plus 50p booking fee), were limited to four per person and could be ordered by post (cheques or postal orders with SAE) from a London PO Box address or via several credit card hotlines. Sounds mentioned the chance of an "additional venue which could be confirmed in a week or two". Another Wembley gig (June 24) was also an option, but neither happened. Instead, another show at Bramall Lane (July 10) was announced in mid-May (tickets by post and phone and via other agents in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Nottingham, Middlesbrough, Hull, Newcastle and Bradford) and a second date at Villa Park (June 22) followed at the end of the month, little more than three weeks before it was due to happen. Because of this, tickets were available directly from the Aston Villa box office and various agents (including Birmingham Odeon and NEC, Leicester Town Hall, Coventry Poster Palace, Oxford Apollo and others) as well as via the usual credit card hotlines.

Having initially been given the impression that Bruce would be playing an indoor UK tour, fans were faced with a return to football stadiums. A strong sense of disappointment hung in the air, especially in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Northeast. For the second consecutive tour, Cardiff Arms Park and a venue in Edinburgh had been rumoured but lost out to dates in England. The explanation provided for the increased venue size was that there weren't any 20,000-seat indoor arenas in this country, so Bruce's people had to book "smaller open-air venues this time around". To be fair, this excuse carried some weight in the 80s, but is less true today. There was apparently nothing suitable at that size in London, according to a spokesperson for Harvey Goldsmith, "which is why he's back at Wembley". The "lack of suitable venues" excuse was hard to believe. Dates pencilled in at Wembley Arena and Birmingham NEC seemed to have solved the problem in the UK's largest cities. Several more shows in bigger concert halls further north (as in 1981) would have been sufficient to create the 12-date indoor tour that was originally proposed. But at some point, the decision was made to focus on outdoor gigs in Europe. It's easy to assume that the accountants won the argument and put forward a convincing proposal to take the easy option and maximise profits in the summer months.

It could be argued that apart from being a prisoner of rock 'n' roll or a prisoner of love, Bruce was also a prisoner of fame and that outdoor gigs were the only way to meet the huge ticket demand unless he doubled the length of the tour by playing multiple nights in various smaller venues. (The original plan to play 12 indoor shows in the UK would have taken three weeks, without factoring in other countries).

After finishing his US shows, Bruce had an 18-day break before opening the European tour. Back in late April, it was said to be starting in Rome on June 11 and ending in Munich on July 17. In the end, it began in Turin on June 11, wound up in Barcelona on August 3 and consisted of 24 concerts, six more than his "BITUSA" Euro jaunt in 1985, which had been unusually short for such an all-encompassing world tour. A 25th show, a second date in Turin, was put on sale but was cut due to disappointing sales. Ticketholders were allowed to attend the first night instead. Given his huge popularity in Italy and Spain, this tour was surprisingly the first to have gigs in both countries on the same itinerary and to include more than one appearance in either. Bruce had previously only played one arena gig in Spain (1981) and one stadium concert in Italy (1985). Venue capacity at the other European shows ranged from 30,000 to 50,000, but dropped as low as 20,000 in West Berlin and reached 80,000 at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on the final night. In addition, his famous concert in East Berlin attracted an estimated crowd of 120,000 to 160,000 and in theory, an audience of millions tuned in to the worldwide live broadcast (his first in 10 years) of the first set in Stockholm on July 3. Amnesty International had announced their "Human Rights Now!" world tour earlier that day, which aimed to raise awareness of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on its 40th anniversary. Bruce, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N'Dour had been recruited for the tour which was going to run for six weeks during September and October. Bruce emphasised his involvement live on the air to provide maximum publicity.

Inevitably, the move into large outdoor venues brought some adjustments to the set. During the first three weeks, material from "Tunnel" and many of the rarities which made the shows in America so unique gradually dropped out in favour of more familiar songs. "Be True" didn't make it past the first two gigs. "Roulette" was only performed three times. "Love Me Tender" and "Part Man, Part Monkey" only appeared once. By late June, "Have Love Will Travel" and "Backstreets" were gone. "Seeds" followed in mid-July. Dependable crowd-pleasers like "The River", "Because The Night", "Twist And Shout" and "Bobby Jean" were added to the set at the start of the tour. "Downbound Train", "Cadillac Ranch" and "Badlands" joined them in early July. In the final week, "Born To Run" reverted to the full-band arrangement and "Thunder Road" and "The Promised Land" turned up on two occasions. By then, the ratio of "Tunnel" to "BITUSA" songs (roughly 8 to 5) being performed had been reversed. As they often had in the past, the concerts grew ever longer and Bruce ended up playing almost twice as many encores as he did on the opening night in Worcester back in February.

While most of the additions to the set were predictable, a few were anything but. At the end of June, Bruce unearthed two more songs that hadn't seen action for a decade. One was Bob Dylan's classic "Chimes Of Freedom", which ended the first set, and the other was the instrumental "Paradise By The 'C'", which began the second set, just as it did back in 1978. Bruce and the E Street Band have always been an excellent cover band and "Chimes" was one of their absolute best and a highlight of the summer tour. Two other surprises hidden up Bruce's sleeve were once-only performances of "Quarter To Three" in Stockholm and "Follow That Dream" in Basel.

Tune in tomorrow for Part Two of "Behind The Scenes In The Tunnel Of Love", which covers Bruce's return to the UK. Well, England anyway.

By Mike Saunders via Facebook.com.
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