It was 40 years ago Sunday (November 8th, 1980) that Bruce Springsteen's fifth album, The River, started its four week ride at Number One. The album, which was released the previous October 17th, marked “The Boss'” first chart-topper and double album.
The album was co-produced by Springsteen, manager Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin, and Steve Van Zandt — the same team that would be behind the boards for 1984's multi-platinum Born In The U.S.A. collection. The River also gave Springsteen his first self-performed Top 10 hit, with the album's lead single, “Hungry Heart” — featuring backing vocals by Flo & Eddie, which peaked at Number Five. The album's second single, the ballad “Fade Away,” topped out at Number 20.
Sessions for The River took place at Manhattan's Power Station and ran from April 3rd, 1979 through May 9th, 1980. At one point Springsteen — confident that he had a followup for 1978's Darkness On The Edge Of Town — actually delivered a single-disc collection to Columbia Records for release, titled The Ties That Bind — before pulling the album back and undertaking even more sessions with the E Street Band throughout 1980.
In 2015, in celebration of The River's 35th anniversary, Bruce Springsteen released his latest box set, The Ties That Bind: 'The River' Collection. The four-CD/three-DVD package features the full 1980 The River double album, the original 1979 The Ties That Bind single album Springsteen originally intended to release — but scrapped, two full CD of outtakes — a handful of which have made their way out on various Springsteen collections, a new documentary by Thom Zimny, and a live concert DVD filmed and recorded on multi-track on November 5th, 1980 in Tempe, Arizona — plus pre-tour production rehearsal footage.
Bruce Springsteen explained how for the first time in his career, by recording a double album for The River, he could finally incorporate all the colors of his musical pallet onto vinyl: “The River was a lot wider open. In other words, a lot of different kinds of things were going to fit. Y'know, 'Cadillac Ranch,' 'Sherry Darling' — those things were now going to fit onto the record, I decided. How I chose in the end. . . That was a record where I could've switched a lot of things around. A lot of things that ended up as outtakes easily could've made it on to the record, or I could've taken some things on the record off, y'know?”
We caught up with Steve Van Zandt and asked him about Springsteen bumping him up from merely buddy and second guitarist in the E Street Band to co-producing The River: “At that point Bruce asked me to co-produce because it was time to make a real band album. And we had suffered the comparison between our records and our live show all along, and it was just time to fix it, y'know? It took us five albums to really figure out how to capture that live thing on record. And part of it was recording live — but that wasn't as live as Born In The U.S.A., which was literally live.”
Following the creative issues of 1975 Born To Run, and the audio troubles surrounding 1978's Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Van Zandt was adamant that the band — who had toured extensively over the previous four years — perform the new material as a single unit rather than overdub their parts: “We wanted to go back to something that felt live. So, I had experimented and had somebody do some research and found a live room, which was that Power Station room. My wife (Maureen) actually recommended this guy Bob Clearmountain, who she knew, who was famous for working very quickly, y’know? So, I recommended Bob Clearmountain. And then we mic’d the thing in a way that that used the room; and that combined with certain things, like the way the drums were tuned — we got it on 'Hungry Heart' I remember the day we got it; we were using the overhead (mics) and I had Bob just push the overheads up higher than he’d ever push them before, ’till you heard that sound. And that sound was the sound of the room.”
Bruce Springsteen explained in the recent documentary on The River, The Ties That Bind, that some of the material that made the final cut wasn't particularly the best that he had, but more specifically the perfect combination of songs: “I mean, I like all the outtakes from this record, but I wanted things that represented the glorified bar band that we are; I wanted to get that stuff on, and then I had a lot of ballads. Now, the ballads were the, kind of the heart and soul of the record — 'Point Blank,' 'Stolen Car,' uh. . . 'The River,' 'Independence Day'; those are the ones that are very cinematic, but they're all slow. They're all slow, y'know? And so, y'know. . . you couldn't have that many slow songs on a single album. You had to spread it out over a couple of albums, y'know?”
One track that did make the cut on The River was “Two Hearts” — which has turned into a blood brother love fest duet between Springsteen and Van Zandt onstage: “Yeah, I think it’s become important in a way that I don’t think we recognized at the time. Y’know what I mean, when we cut it, it was another one of (laughs) those 75 great songs, y’know what I mean? I mean, I don’t think we were really focused on it and then we kinda made it our showcase thing between me and him through they years, y’know? (It) kinda became a thing, where. . . y’know, bigger than maybe what we had pictured when we first cut it, y’know what I mean? So, y’know, that stuff’s nice when that happens.”
E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren recalled being with Springsteen the day that he finally signed off on The River: “This is back (in) 1980, 'living in L.A. and at the Sunset Marquis, I kept running into Bruce, and y'know, one morning, he said, 'We just finished mixing The River, its a double album, I'm going to listen to the latest, final mix — wanna tag along?' And I did. He put me down in a chair between two beautiful stereo speakers and listened to the whole double album and I thought it was beautiful. I thought it was a real step forward. Some of the live stuff, they've always done live, which I'd seen them through the years, they brought to the record. A little more, y'know, loose, reckless — but still, of course, great songs, great band.”
Steve Van Zandt told us that he's particularly thrilled that Springsteen fans will finally hear what he considers among the best music the E Street Band ever laid down on tape: “Every single outtake on The River was a lost argument. I was fighting for every single one of ‘em, y’know? I mean, he wrote, basically, three fantastic albums. Y’know, and we put out a double album, but there was that whole outtake album, which is the best E Street Band album, ever — on Disc Two of Tracks — and now, they found another, whatever it is, eight or 10. . . and wait ’til you hear the quality of these things. You can not believe the quality!”
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band’s 140-date tour behind The River started on October 3rd, 1980 in Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Crisler Arena and wrapped on September 14th, 1981 at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum.
The tour played four legs — three in North America and one in Europe that took in 34 shows marking Springsteen’s first major overseas outing.
The River tour was the last to solely feature the classic 1975-1981 lineup of the E Street Band featuring Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt, Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, Gary Tallent, Roy Bittan, and Max Weinberg.
Shorty after the release of The Ties That Bind box set, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band hit the road performing The River in its entirety. Between January 16th, 2016 and February 25th, 2017 “The River Tour” played 89 shows over four legs, hitting North America, Europe, and Oceania.