One month and 20 shows into his 1980 tour, Bruce Springsteen took a turn east, from Los Angeles to Arizona. The River, his new two-LP set, was set to top the charts as his first #1 record, which should have put anyone in the best of moods. And even though he was about to play to a Phoenix audience that had supported him going back to 1974, something must not have been sitting well with him as the sun came up on November 5. On stage that night in Tempe, he would tell the crowd, "I don't know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it's pretty frightening." It was the day after the landslide election of Ronald Reagan.
That historic event and the performance it helped inspire have been central threads in the Tempe 1980 story. Another is the knowledge that footage of the legendary concert existed, the missing counterpart to the multi-track audio used just once, for "Badlands" on Live/1975-85.
Now, for the first time anywhere, 35 years later to the day, fans can see a complete song from the fabled concert. The film itself, part of the anniversary box set The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, comes out on December 4. In an exclusive first look, we present an excerpt from that two-hour-and-40-minute Tempe 1980 concert film: not "Hungry Heart" or "Badlands," but "Ramrod."
"Ramrod" has always stood out. It was among the first River songs Bruce Springsteen performed (in Pittsburgh, one of the last stops on the 1978 tour), and it was the last great stretch of rock on the album. Its concert arrangements have varied, from straight-down-the-middle on the River tour, to acoustic rave-ups, whether solo in 2005 or with the Sessions Band in 2006. As recently as last year, anyone who wants to know the time will find out soon enough after Bruce tells the E Street Band, "Let's roadhouse!"
On The River, Springsteen set up "Ramrod" not as a rambunctious, pile-driving encore, but as the lead in a series of goodbyes, casting that entire LP side — the last of four, rather than the two he had intended only a year before — as "summational." Until that detail was revealed in the initial coverage of the new box set, one might never have put two and two together quite that way. But it was that attention to detail, sometimes woven into songs that might otherwise come off as simple rockers, with which The River cut a deep bed.
Few songs typify the 1980 E Street Band better than "Ramrod." To the car, the girl, and the story arc, Bruce joined a live-in-the-studio sound he'd been seeking, including a rich Clarence Clemons solo and the complementary work of Roy Bittan and Danny Federici. Max Weinberg called it his favorite song to play. As the tour went on, "Ramrod" gained prominence, often serving as the set-up for "Rosalita."
Watching it 35 years later, the first thing one notices about "Ramrod" is the array of wonderful viewing angles. Director Thom Zimny says that a four-camera crew captured the evening's proceedings. Numerous vantage points, including wide shots from the back of the floor, show a vintage performance in ways no other video release has before Tempe. One might easily conclude more than four cameras were present: they seem to be everywhere.
That results in stunning moments, from a zoom to the audience through the Big Man's wide stance, to a close-up of Bruce and Miami Steve at the mic and Bruce's fancy footwork at the end. The interplay between the band members is remarkable, and so is the plain-as-day fact that they're having fun up there. For any longtime fan, the ability to watch what was previously only a listening experience is astounding.
In part, Tempe's legend stems from its availability: a decent soundboard recording of this night has long circulated among fans (though it can't compete with Bob Clearmountain's new juggernaut mix from the original multi-track audio tapes). And speculation about the existence of a video component has bolstered its reputation. But the show's rep (Springsteen performed 18 of the new LP's 20 songs in Tempe), and a clamoring for footage, ultimately comes down to the intensity of the performance.
As he's told it over the years, Springsteen wasn't exactly enthused about being filmed, fearing interference with his audience. But it's good that he tolerated it to the extent that he did; 35 years later, we have a treasure on our hands. Tempe captures a transition, a moment where Springsteen was still largely content to let the music do the talking for him.
Watch "Ramrod" a time or two, and that becomes apparent. A film crew can't hurt, it turns out; elections and hit songs come in handy, too (at the time, "Hungry Heart" was well on its way to becoming Bruce's first Top Ten hit). More than anything, what shines through is the pure, unadulterated joy of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band playing rock 'n' roll, like they could do it 'til half-past dawn.
- Jonathan Pont reporting
The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, which includes the Tempe 1980 concert film with more than two-and-a-half hours of the 11/5/80 performance, is just one month away. Click here for more details about all of the box set's contents.
Update/reminder: Tickets are now available for our November 17 The Ties That Bind Preview Screening, featuring a special one-hour big-screen cut of Tempe 1980 presented by Thom Zimny himself. Click here for details.
Pre-ordering now from Backstreet Records not only guarantees you quick delivery of the box at 5% off list price, you also get an exclusive set of postcards featuring portraits of Springsteen by The River photographer Frank Stefanko [image detail below], outtakes from the cover session. The postcard pack is FREE with all pre-orders, and only from Backstreets.
Pre-order The Ties That Bind (DVD) with exclusive postcard pack
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- photographs by Frank Stefanko