My photo today of Wembley Arena (née Empire Pool) where I saw Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band play in 1981; its once-proud and innovative construction is now submerged amongst the redevelopment of the Wembley Stadium area
Chris showing his Springsteen tour t-shirt in Switzerland on our July 1981 Inter Rail trip
The night I went to a Bruce Springsteen concert - Wembley Arena, London, 5th June 1981
Chris got these tickets as a birthday present to me. We’d been mates for a year or so, going to the central London music venues: Marquee, Music Machine, Electric Ballroom and so on. Wembley Arena was far bigger than those, about 10,500 seats in a sports hall building looking something like an aircraft hanger. So we were massively further away than we were used to, even in old theatre venues like Hammy Odeon. And we were in seats, not standing. I’m pretty sure we had beers in plastic glasses in our hands, with a spare under the seats. This was June, it was warm.
Amazingly, a professional recording of that very night survives in good quality. There are bootlegs from some of Bruce Springsteen’s American gigs of “The River” tours but things seem to have been tighter in Europe.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band hit the stage hard with a cracking “Born to Run”. This one’s good. The multitrack was rolling from the start and we get it in full quality, all the detail that isn’t there on so many live Springsteen recordings. Straight on to “All Night”, with Stevie Van Zandt partnering in the vocals both on his own mike and sharing with Bruce. Clarence Clemons’ sax solo bites through the big E Street sound in this new mix.
Stereo’s good too on this new mix. Stevie Van Zandt and his guitar panned hard right, Clarence Clemons’s sax far left. Drums (Max Weinberg) very narrow or mono. But it’s fantastic having Springsteen’s vocals in clean audio and on a modern compressor which shows off his expression and vocal talent. The photos show it was the usual microphone type of the tour, maybe an EV 664. Ditto Springsteen’s guitar sound is superb, this is revolutionary hearing live rock from this era in a modern remix off a good 32 track: we’ve endured years of poor quality bootlegs and no band plays like this any more.
This English crowd know and sing along with the songs, at least the previous ones, including “Thunder Road”, “Jungletown” and “Hungry Heart”. But the acoustic “Follow that dream” is heard attentively, Springsteen singing serious Presley.
Roy Bitten is playing a real piano (tuned rock) and it’s properly miked as well, we hear both hands and all the range of the notes evenly. It’s not always so on the live recordings of The River tour from the US venues. He’s panned half right. Danny Federici (organ) is panned centre, Garry Tallent (bass) is half left.
A monumental rendition of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” follows without introduction (or the tape was being changed so it was not recorded) and has the best instrumentals that I can remember hearing of that track live. Glockenspiel pointing the beat.
We get the band tuning mostly and some of Bruce’s calling the names of the songs. “Independence Day” gets a spoken introduction, this is a long version about his Old Man. This introduction has changed a lot over the years, Wembley 1981 got a version which sounds pretty much true to the words of the lyric. Roy Bittan’s piano playing adds especial beauty to the pathos this time.
Wonderful interleaving of the sax and harmonica solos in “I believe in the Promised Land”.
The harmonica solo that starts “The River” is greeted with applause and a cheer, which is rewarded with a fast version. This is about the only song performance I think I can remember directly from back in 1981. Bruce pays a slightly syncopated harmonica solo that I rather liked on the night, for being very expressive. The modern mix is more subtle with the counter-play with Roy Bittan’s piano made clear. This performance rings true to me in a way that the LP version never fully did, it’s simple and strong and gets a big cheer. It’s followed by a foot-stomping cover of the Sonny Curtis song “I fought the law and the law won”, popular again in 1981 in a version by The Clash. Springsteen’s chat before is lost but maybe it was a nod to the various agitprop marches and labour demonstrations of that time after two years of Thatcherism. The song got an even bigger cheer than “The River” had. Rock’s vocabulary included political expression in those days.
I never heard this set list again while Chris was still around. The fan databases show a bootleg emerged in Italy in 1990 but this remix is completely new on me. It’s great, far far better sound than on the night in Wembley Arena. I expect there’s been some patching to tidy things up, I think the chats between the songs have been shortened - I remember one remark about “How are you doing over here” which we took as American condescension, that comment’s not on the finished mix. But overall this is a treasure, particularly to me as I was there that night.
This is The River tour at a peak. Springsteen’s Hammersmith Odeon concert in 1976, which was filmed, was also a triumph although Bruce and the band never really relax, never let go in the recording, maybe there was too much at stake. They’re much more relaxed and confident on this 1981 gig. Maybe the best place to hear that is “Thunder Road” which closes Set 1. And there was plenty more music before I rode my XS750 back out home to Maidenhead.
The band play well and very tight but with all the detail: this sounds to have been a happy gig for them.
What else were we going to at this time? Top of the Pops was still just about watchable but it didn’t have reggae, very little late-punk and the New Romantics were just beginning to surface and we weren’t sure if they were having us on. Friends were into Queen but I wasn’t. AC/DC, Saxon, Rainbow and Judas Priest also Pink Floyd and Genesis were some of the big names whose LPs we bought and shared but you no longer got to see them live. In the clubs it was disco: Village People and the gay disco sounds that became HiNRG after Miami Sound Machine spearheaded the crossover. But the names of the here-today-gone-tomorrow rock bands that we saw day-to-day in the pubs and clubs are mostly lost.
After “Thunder Road” ended Set 1, Chris and I struggled back to our seats for Set 2 with a couple more plastic glasses and moaned about the rip-off prices of the beer. But the series was a sell-out, we were lucky to have been there. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band gave good value, three different sets that night in Wembley on Friday the 5th June 1981. I remember we went home well-rocked as well as ears ringing from the PA. I wrote at the time Loud though muddy sound. He played 1 hr 10 mins, then another 1¼ hrs, then ¼ more, which ain’t bad. Those timings support my recollection of more chat than there is on this tape, it would have been good to have it for the atmosphere but maybe that’s when they were changing reels of multitrack tape out in the Mobile One recording truck.
Chris has gone now but the final time we met, we reminisced about that birthday present. He reminded me that he packed the t-shirt that he’d bought at the concert in his rucksac for our Inter Rail trip together a month or so later. That t-shirt design is still around: the inset on my main photo shows a modern version. Springsteen meant more to Chris than to me, the working class hero aspect of, particularly “The River” songs, resonated with him as the son of a miner from Morpeth in Northumberland. Chris would have been wearing one of his Father’s miners leather belts on his jeans to that concert and also in the photo with his Springsteen tour t-shirt on our hike up the path to the Fründenhutte and the Rothorngletscher in Switzerland, one of our last days on our Inter Rail trip. We were camping at Brig those nights. I’m wearing an LWT (London Weekend Television) t-shirt, where I worked.
Thanks again for a great birthday present Chris: rest in peace after all that you went through.
Hiking the path to the Fründenhutte above Kandersteg and the Oeschinensee - new scan of the full frame of my 35 mm negative
I revisited Wembley today to see again Wembley Arena. Its name has changed again and this once-proud and innovative construction now submerged amongst the redevelopment of the Wembley Stadium. There is a footprints hall of fame, not including The Beatles or Bowie or Bruce Springsteen, who’ve all played here. No mention of the Olympic sportsmen and women either. At least the venue is still capable of welcoming bands, unlike its contemporary Earls Court, now demolished.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play Wembley Arena, London - 5th June 1981
1. Born to Run
2. Prove It All Night
3. Out in the Street
4. Follow That Dream
5. Darkness On The Edge Of Town
6. Independence Day
7. Johnny Bye-Bye
8. Two Hearts
9. Who'll Stop The Rain?
10. The Promised Land
11. This Land is Your Land
12. The River
13. I Fought The Law
15. Thunder Road
1. Hungry Heart
2. You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
3. Cadillac Ranch
4. Sherry Darling
5. Jole Blon
7. Because the Night
8. I Wanna Marry You
9. Point Blank
10. Candy's Room
12. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
1. I'm a Rocker
3. Can't Help Falling In Love
4. Detroit Medley
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Wembley Arena - 5th June 1981
Bruce Springsteen - Lead vocals, guitar, harmonica
Roy Bittan - Piano
Clarence Clemons - Tenor and baritone saxophones, percussion, backing vocal
Danny Federici - Organ, glockenspiel
Garry Tallent - Bass, backing vocal
Stevie Van Zandt - Guitar, backing vocal
Max Weinberg - Drums