The most fun part of doing this series with Matt Springer has been coming up with a concept for each phase of Bruce Springsteen’s career, then coming up with a way to justify it so that it would come across as plausible to even the most obsessive-compulsive Boss fan. For the two of us to speculate on how Springsteen would act is absurd to begin with (and admittedly creepy), but that’s also why we enjoy it so much (because it’s absurd, not because it’s creepy).

Throughout this series, we’ve tried to stay within the boundaries of our perceptions of the real-life Springsteen, and that the only thing different about him is that his the volume of his released output approaches that of his recorded output. However, there are times when our ideas don’t work out as we had hoped, and the rationalizations, even within our own Land Of Make Believe, strain credibility.

Our original intention was to follow Be True with a straightforward rock album culled from the recording sessions held between October 1979 through June 1980. Our justifications made perfect sense artistically. Since he didn’t tour behind Be True, he went back and delivered an incredible dose of blistering arena-friendly rock. He would follow that up in 1981 with a folk-rock record similar to The River album we described in our last installment, which would easily pave the way for Nebraska.

The problem was that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were on the road for nearly all of the first two-thirds of 1981. We didn’t feel it made sense to release our version of The River in the middle of a tour, and Bruce wouldn’t want to spend time after the tour sequencing and mastering an album out of a year’s worth of outtakes. After all, the man deserved a break!

The solution was to put out The River on October 17, 1980 – the same day as the original – and release the rock album in the summer of 1981 while he was on the road. So now we had to justify it in our universe. As we hinted in the previous installment, The River lacked a hit single, and while the album was critically praised, it failed to build upon the commercial success of Be True, even with a huge tour to drive sales. Top 40 radio simply wasn’t interested in these sparse, brooding songs. “Take ‘Em As They Come” had a nice amount of AOR success, but sandwiched in between fellow CBS acts Journey and REO Speedwagon, it failed to stand out to the consumer.

Springsteen had a month off before the European leg of the tour was to begin in April 1981. During this time he and Jon Landau met with CBS in New York, where there was plenty of back-clapping over the success of the River tour, but a sobering view of record sales. The label knew about up-tempo party songs like “Sherry Darling” and “Out In The Street” from live performances, and they wanted a record like that to push for the remainder of the 1981 tour. The request was polite but firm: We need some product, and we need it now. Here’s where I picture Walter Yetnikoff acting like Tom Hanks in That Thing You Do! saying, “And none of this folk-rock, hard-times crap. I want something peppy, something snappy.”

Springsteen’s initial reaction was as expected–firm and not-quite polite refusal. He had spent his career building a mutual trust and respect with his audience, and he felt this would destroy it in a heartbeat. Landau wisely brought the meeting to a quick and cordial conclusion before escorting Springsteen to the nearest burger joint for a pow-wow.

We have material in the can that fits this bill, Landau said. We recorded it and liked it well enough, but it didn’t fit with Be True and it certainly didn’t fit with The River. Stevie’s been itching to put out “Where the Bands Are” since the night we recorded it. Let’s get this music out there and build the audience a little bit more.

Besides, Landau concluded, when we deliver it, I’ll make sure CBS knows they owe you one. That could be a valuable chip to cash in later.

And so, Where The Bands Are was born.

Before you start telling me about how Bruce would never rip off his fans with a cash-in like that, let’s look at a few facts. First and foremost, Springsteen has always sought out new ways to expose himself and his music to new listeners. This is the guy who interrupted his electric greatest-hits set at the Super Bowl to pimp his latest single, “Working on a Dream,” with tickets for his tour going on sale a few days later. In the recent HBO documentary about Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce says, “More than rich, more than famous, I wanted to be great.” He’s always equated that “greatness” with reaching, building, and sustaining an audience.

Yet as true as that statement may be, rich and famous were pretty damn high on his list, too. He may have sued for Mike Appel for complete control over his music and career, but the suit came about when he discovered that the huge success of Born To Run had failed to dent his bankbook accordingly.

And let’s look at how he thanked the powerful law firm of Grubman Indursky & Shire when he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1999:

“These are great and complicated and misunderstood Americans…entrusted with a very, very important task. For the folks that don’t know, the money man goes to the record company, and he’s in charge of bringing back the pink Cadillac. Well, when Allen and Artie go, they bring back the pink Cadillac … and the blue Cadillac … and the yellow Cadillac … and the red Cadillac … and the pink Cadillac with the whitewalls … but then they take the blue Cadillac … and they take the hubcaps off the yellow Cadillac … but that still leaves you with a few Cadillacs. And they make sure that neither you nor themselves, of course, are gonna be broke when you’re riding in the black Cadillac.”

So although he’s never compromised his artistic integrity, he has always had commercial considerations on his mind. And in our alternate Springsteen-verse, this justifies the Boss agreeing to CBS’ request. He hits the Power Station in NYC with Stevie, Landau, and occasional E Streeters for overdubs. In just over three Coca Cola-fueled weeks, he assembles ten hot cuts from the previous year’s recordings and delivers it to CBS, delaying the start of the European tour by a few weeks in the process.

Where the Bands Are
Released May 12, 1981

Side A
Where The Bands Are
It wasn’t even fair for Bruce to open with this song. You just dropped the needle and, before you’ve even sat down, get hit with “I hear the guitars ringing out again.” You don’t get a fighting chance, and those background vocals are simply gratuitous. On the other hand, it’s impossible to listen to this and stay seated anyway.

Sherry Darling
Perhaps Springsteen’s ultimate frat-rock party song, from the opening cheers of the E Street Band to the frequent references to drinking and driving. He’s got some beer and the highway’s free; he’s that swerving guy I always change lanes to avoid when I’m driving with my kids. Don’t miss the rollicking piano/vocals version featured in the recent Promise documentary, where Bruce and Steve Van Zandt debut the song for Barry Rebo’s cameras.

Crush On You
Our disagreement about this song were laid out in the post for Be True, so I was prepared to fight with Matt for its inclusion. He must have known I would never give in because it appeared on his first draft at the track listing, and never moved.

Two Hearts
A perfect three-minute blast of power pop, this tune was a centerpiece of The River in our universe and serves a similar role here…although since you couldn’t find a lyrical theme on Where The Bands Are with a high-powered microscope, it’s a centerpiece solely because it rocks to such an unholy degree. Gained new life on the 1999-2000 “Reunion” tour as a showpiece for the thirty-year bromance between the Boss and Miami Steve.

Fade Away
One of those songs that, like “Dark End Of The Street,” comes from the place where country meets the blues. That’s probably why, when it was released as a single, it was popular in Atlanta and nowhere else. Matt and I fully admit that, musically and lyrically, this does not fit on this album. But it’s such a gorgeous song that there was no way we could leave it out of all three albums from the River sessions.

Side B
Out In The Street
I’ve always thought of this as Bruce’s take on “Five O’Clock World” by The Vogues, where the narrator busts his ass all week so that he can party as soon as the whistle blows on Friday. This has been an integral part of every E Street Band tour except the Tunnel Of Love Express Tour, always coming at the moment when you’ve been sitting too long and it’s time to get back on your feet and pump your fist in the air with 20,000 of your best friends.

Held Up Without A Gun
This is a 1:30 song about the outrageous price of gas.

I’m A Rocker
Forget the intentionally silly lyrics and concentrate on what Max Weinberg is doing. His fills, especially the one before the final pre-chorus, simply explode, lifting the song well beyond its status as a Mitch Ryder knockoff. And Danny Federici’s solo is pretty damn hot, too.

Cadillac Ranch
There’s not much on the bones of Where The Bands Are when it comes to profound thoughts; “Cadillac Ranch” is as close as it gets to a deeper meaning, and only because it’s a twangy shit-kicking metaphor for death as auto junkyard.

Jole Blon
The earliest recording of what we know today as “Jole Blon” is believed to have taken place in April 1929 in Atlanta, GA. It’s a cajun standard that was made famous for pop listeners by Roy Acuff and later covered by Gary U.S. Bonds on his 1981 record Dedication, co-produced by…wait for it…Bruce Springsteen. Though a loose rehearsal recording exists from the River sessions, the Detroit live cut presented here offers much clearer sound, approximating what a studio version may deliver.

Almost Made the Cut:

“Jackson Cage”: When we left it off Be True and The River, we were sure it would inevitably find a home on the pure arena rock record. But this mix of dark, dark lyrics with driving power pop is a tough fit for any record. We also realized that it shares a verse with the title cut, thus making it ineligible.

“You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)”: It was this or “Held Up Without A Gun.” We went for the one about the outrageous price of gas.

Mock cover art courtesy of Popdose’s own Dw. Dunphy.

Read more from David Lifton at Wings For Wheels and more from Matt Springer at Pop Geek.