By Erik Flannigan
Though they performed four concerts there in 1975 to promote Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s 1981 European Tour was the first proper visit to the continent. Those three months and 33 shows would go on to form a bond between band and fans that persists to this day.
“Most of the audiences we played to spoke English, at best, as a second language,” Springsteen writes in Born to Run. “It didn’t seem to matter. We played to crowd after crowd who let us know they felt about music the way we felt about it….Playing for our fans overseas was, and continues to be, one of the greatest experiences of my life. It fully started in 1981, and it’s never stopped.”
European audiences had been waiting years to see Springsteen on stage, hungry to witness what their ears had only heard, indoctrinated by bootlegs of the ‘78 radio broadcasts as much as by the official catalog. They kept the faith when the UK leg, scheduled as the start of the tour in March, moved to May, and bought enough tickets to warrant second shows in Stockholm and Rotterdam.
Springsteen had been waiting, too. Promotion of his 1975 London dates spurred some antagonistic press outlets to question the hype surrounding him. Despite playing what in hindsight were two great shows in London (one of which has since been officially released), Bruce and the band left on a bit of a sour note. Shows outside the U.S. were never seriously considered on the Darkness tour, so after a nearly six-year gap, Europe remained unconquered and unfamiliar territory when the tour kicked off in Hamburg on April 7, 1981.
Many of us have eye-opening experiences the first time we visit other countries. Viewed through the lens of a new culture, that which we call home can look quite different. Based on quotes and comments made by Bruce at the time and thereafter, Europe ‘81 catalyzed an already evolving perspective on the country and culture that shaped him.
At his first show in Paris, Springsteen altered the familiar introduction to “This Land Is Your Land” and spoke not of Woody Guthrie, but of Elvis Presley, telling a condensed version of the “jump the fence at Graceland” tale before reflecting on the last time he saw Presley in concert. There, he didn’t play his “rocking stuff,” but instead songs like “How Great Thou Art” and “American Trilogy.”
“In the end,” Springsteen told the French audience, “it seemed like the songs that were closest to him and that he sang with the most heart [were] about the land that he grew up in and…the God that he believed in, who I guess he hoped would save his soul. This is a song about freedom, [about not] having to die when you’re old in some factory or…in some big million-dollar house with a whole lot of nothing pumping through your veins.”
The next show, again in Paris, an introduction to one of Bruce’s most personal songs, “Independence Day,” also evolved, as he spoke of reading Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States and gaining insight into “how things got to be the way they are today and how you end up a victim without even knowing it.” Seemingly inspired by his own comments the night before, Springsteen opened that second Paris show with a new interpretation of Elvis’ “Follow That Dream.”
Nine weeks later on June 5, 1981, Bruce and the band took the stage for the final night of a six-show stand in London forever changed by the experience of the tour. It’s a triumphant performance that summons up everything which had justifiably earned Bruce his reputation up to that point along with a sense of realtime awakening and fresh perspective fostered on the stages and streets of Europe.
The night gets off to a cracking start with “Born to Run” straight into “Prove It All Night,” the latter notable for the kind of heightened vocal (listen to Springsteen reach for a higher register in the second verse and chorus) that usually signals a special show. The invitation of “Out In The Street” is met with the full support of the crowd and then we downshift to the aforementioned “Follow That Dream.”
Springsteen’s “Follow That Dream” completely re-imagines Presley’s song of the same name (written by Fred Wise and Ben Weisman), transforming the King’s lightweight ditty into a stark, meditative hymn. Bruce blends new lyrics with lines from Presley’s cut, interpolating strains of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” along the way to create a striking new original.
The London performance captures all of the song’s evocative power and reinforces how Springsteen’s Europe ‘81 performances show early signs of where his songwriting would go next with Nebraska and the demos for Born in the U.S.A., for which he would cut “Follow That Dream.” Its chant-like quality also echoes the Devils and Dust tour’s set-closing cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream.”
Three songs later, after a stirring “Darkness On the Edge of Town” and “Independence Day,” Bruce’s reflections on Elvis’ final days and the “whole lot of nothing pumping through your veins” from the first Paris show have spawned a new song in its own right, “Johnny Bye Bye.”
Like “Follow That Dream,” Springsteen’s eulogy to the King is a pastiche of musical sources, combining lyrics from Chuck Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny” with music and several lines from his own Darkness outtake “Come On (Let’s Go Tonight)” (later released on The Promise box set) and recently penned words. “Johnny Bye Bye” would eventually be recorded with an revamped melody and a faster tempo for Born in the U.S.A. (where it was issued as the B-side to “I’m On Fire”), but the original live arrangement bears poignancy and solemnity not retained in the later version.
The new songs are but two highlights in a stalwart first set that also features superb covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop The Rain,” Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and “I Fought The Law,” the latter almost certainly a tip of the cap to The Clash, who so memorably covered the song made famous by the Bobby Fuller Four (and written by Sonny Curtis) two years earlier.
The second set provides a showcase for uptempo River songs, plus the underplayed “I Wanna Marry You” (replete with its “Here She Comes” intro) and a rich “Point Blank” which highlights the interplay of Roy Bittan’s piano and Danny Federici’s organ. Bootleg favorites “Because The Night” and “Fire” are perfectly rendered crowd pleasers. If that wasn’t enough, Springsteen debuts his ardent arrangement of the traditional Cajun song “Jolé Blon,” having recently played on and produced Gary U.S. Bonds’ version from the 1981 comeback album, Dedication. Riding infectious lead vocals, “Jolé Blon” is one of Springsteen’s most charming and perhaps underrated covers.
Springsteen is in complete command as a spot-on “Ramrod” leads into “Rosalita” where Jon Altschiller’s mix neatly positions the audience response with the band introductions, including the always appealing “Spotlight On The Big Man” vamp. Kudos as well to Bruce for putting a UK spin on Rosie’s signature declaration: “This is his last chance, for his daughter to get down, ‘cause the record company, Honey, just gave me the big pounds.”
High-spirits carry over to the encore via an impeccable “I’m A Rocker,” while “Jungleland” provides the show its epic denouement. From there, one last nod to the King with brief, earnest cover of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” and finally “Detroit Medley,” augmented by welcome sprints through “Shake” and “Sweet Soul Music.”
Somewhere near the end of the “Medley,” the multi-track recording of Wembley runs out and a fan recording fills in the rest of the song. It seems fitting that this outstanding performance wraps in the hands of a fan, someone who undoubtedly waited those six long years for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band to come home to Europe.