The River - Studio Sessions - Overview


Bruce Springsteen introducing a complete performance of The River album, Madison Square Garden, November 8, 2009:
"The River was a record that was sort of a gateway to a lot of my future writing. It's a record we made after Darkness on the Edge of Town, it was a record made during a recession, hard times in the States. Its title song is a song I wrote for my brother-in-law and sister. My brother-in-law was in the construction industry and lost his job and they had to struggle very hard back in the late 70s, like so many people are doing today. It was a record where I first started to tackle men and women and families and marriage. There were certain songs on it that led to complete records later on, "The River" sort of led to the writing on Nebraska, "Stolen Car" led to the writing on Tunnel of Love. It was a record where, originally it was a single record, I handed it with just one record and I took it back because I didn't feel it was big enough and I wanted to capture the themes that I'd been writing about on Darkness, I wanted to keep those characters with me and at the same time added the music that made our live shows so much fun and enjoyable for our audience. So in the end, we're gonna take you down to The River tonight"

Springsteen finished the Darkness On The Edge Of Town tour on January 1, 1979. For the next few months he kept a low profile and focused his attention on composing new material for his next album, recording many acoustic solo demos in the process. Recording sessions for what became The River album began in late March 1979 and finished in May 1980, but mixing work at Chuck Plotkin's Clover Studios continued for months. Bruce even called in Jimmy Iovine to help sort through the problems, which were finally resolved when Bruce let Plotkin and his assistant, Toby Scott, run with the ball. Springsteen and Plotkin later agreed that Toby would be working for Bruce, which was just a technicality in the end.

Sessions for Springsteen's fifth album started with solo acoustic demo recordings made between January 1979 and June 1979 that loosely served as a basis for the March – August 1979 "first phase" of studio sessions. More demos followed in September to December 1979 that served as a basis for the October 1979 – May 1980 "second phase" of studio sessions.

These solo demos are not professionally made recordings. They were never intended to be. It seems Springsteen only used a common, run-of-the-mill cassette recorder. None of these songs exhibit a finished songwriting product; they are song fragments, both musically and lyrically. There is much stopping and starting heard as Springsteen records bits and pieces, manually stops the recorder then returns sometime later to add more ideas… and so on and so forth. Probably the most fascinating things heard on these tapes are Bruce’s attempts to write in a reggae style – these attempts can be found amongst the audio from late 1979 and early 1980. These recordings can provide an interesting, though often monotonous, glimpse into how Bruce goes about his creative writing process. But very little of this material is listener-friendly and is probably not worth obtaining unless you’re a die-hard completist. Springsteen definitely progressed some of these song fragments and ideas to completion – we have studio end product to attest to that. Songs in development here include "The River", "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)", "Two Hearts", and "Jackson Cage" to name just four. However most of these titles are likely to have gone little further than what one hears on these tapes.

All formal studio sessions (including the US Bonds sessions) took place at Power Station studios in New York City. Springsteen had been introduced to the studios after Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg and Garry Tallent had worked with English singer-songwriter Ian Hunter on his 1979 album You're Never Alone With A Schizophrenic with engineer Bob Clearmountain at the venue. Before any recording took place there were extensive song rehearsal sessions (Thom Zimny's The Ties That Bind documentary states that 104 band demos were created during this time) with the E Street Band throughout the making of the album that didn't take place at Power Station. These rehearsals took place in a converted barn on Springsteen’s Telegraph Hill Road property in Holmdel, NJ – the so-nicknamed "Telegraph Hill Studios". However it wasn't a true studio. A significant amount of the River session audio that has surfaced comes from these Telegraph Hill sessions. Unfortunately the audio quality from Telegraph Hill leaves much to be desired. It sounds as if a single boom recording mike was used. Springsteen’s vocals are buried under the instruments on virtually all these recordings, a side-effect of the lo-fi equipment used. Bruce never intended for these sessions to be heard; tapes were sold by former employees to bootleggers, including the two who created The Lost Masters series.

According to engineer Neil Dorfsman about fifty songs were recorded to a completed state during the River sessions. The Ties That Bind documentary gives us a figure of fifty-three songs. However The River, despite being a double album only included twenty songs, so about thirty-three finished songs remained in the vaults. Twenty-seven of those thirty-three "missing" recordings have since been officially released via b-sides, Tracks, The Essential Bruce Springsteen, The River: Single Album and The River: Outtakes, for a total of 20 + 27 = 47 RELEASED. Information culled from Sony's studio logs gives us another nine songs that were definitely recorded in the studio, but perhaps not to completion. This figure includes several songs that were recorded with a Springsteen vocal but later given to Gary U.S. Bonds. These nine songs are either not circulating at all (such as "Do You Want Me To Say Alright" and "I Will Be The One"), or only as poorly recorded band rehearsals from Telegraph Hill (e.g. "Under The Gun" and "Slow Fade"). There are an additional four unreleased songs from 1978 that were written after Darkness On The Edge Of Town was released; Only "The Ties Thar Bind" and "Point Blank" made it from this era. All this gives us the following list of sixty-eight songs which includes a total of fifty-three from this period that were recorded or are most likely to have been recorded and completed during The River/Bonds sessions. 21 are UNRELEASED, plus or minus!

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