By Erik Flannigan
Performing under pressure can bring out the best in us, but it can also skew perception. The long-standing narrative surrounding Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s four-stop European tour in 1975 was that response to opening night in London on November 18 was mixed, in part because the hype leading up to the show was at Second Coming levels — too much for anyone to live up to, even Springsteen.
The official release of that show in the Born to Run box set on video and subsequent standalone audio blows the myth out of the water, as the performance is excellent and every bit as good as the gigs Springsteen played in the States in the weeks prior.
But the London ’75 narrative was a two-parter, the other half being that the response to the first London show motivated an extraordinary second performance by Springsteen and the band at Hammersmith Odeon six days later, on November 24. Whether or not there is a causal relationship between the reception to the first gig and the resulting second show, the myth is right about one thing: London 11/24/75 is brilliant.
After performing 16 songs at Hammersmith 1, Bruce and the band unleash 22 killer cuts at Hammersmith 2, making eight overall changes to the set, a whopping seven of which are cover versions. The mindset seems to be, bust out the full arsenal and hit ’em with everything we got. Boy do they ever, giving a musical history lesson in the process and performing some of the best live versions of material from Springsteen’s first three albums, shifting effortlessly between full tilt and slow, nuanced majesty.
The latter aptly describes the show opener, “Thunder Road,” with just Roy on piano, Danny on glockenspiel, and Springsteen on vocals. It remains a bold and vulnerable choice to start a show, and the performance is sublime. (Five points to the first person to identify who introduces Springsteen to the stage.) The shift to breakneck pace is on full display as the E Street engine turns over and Bruce pushes the gas pedal to the floor on “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out.”
Jon Altschiller’s mix, taken from Plangent Processed, 24-track analog master reels, moves beyond HD to something closer to 4K, not merely widescreen but razor-sharp, with tremendous spatial depth and ideal balance between band and fans. It’s a step above “you are there.”
Many pixels have been spent on the topic of Archive releases of shows that “we already have in great quality,” with some questioning the need. True, a mostly complete two-track soundboard recording of Hammersmith 2 has been in circulation for many years. But if there were ever a demonstration of the merit of putting out the best shows out in the best quality, London 11/24/75 is it. Comparing the old bootleg to the new multitrack edition is like comparing Charli D’Amelio to Misty Copeland. Sure, they both dance….
The London audience roars its approval as Bruce shifts the setting to New Jersey for “Spirit in the Night,” with the band warmed up and soaring, Stevie Van Zandt and Max Weinberg notably in fighting form. Bruce is getting into it, too, and his vocal intonation gets more expressive by the middle of the second verse as he sings, “By the time we made it up to Greasy Lake.”
“Lost in the Flood” made its tour debut at Hammersmith 1, and this night is one of the song’s finest live outings. The swirling sound of Danny Federeci’s Leslie speaker sets the haunting mood, and Roy comes in ever so delicately on piano. As the song grows and expands, striking guitar work slices through the tension before the flood crests at 5:23 with Springsteen’s high-pitched scream, the crescendo before Roy’s final melodic refrain.
Hammersmith 2 moves briskly from song to song and doesn’t feature lengthy chatter. “She’s the One” and “Born to Run” are examples of letting the music do the talking. The former is played at a humming clip, the latter goes full Wall of Sound, especially Springsteen’s rapid fire guitar in the bridge. “Growin’ Up” and “Saint in the City” serve to catch up the crowd on the early chapters of the Springsteen story.
“Pretty Flamingo” takes the place of “E Street Shuffle” from Hammersmith 1 but retains its soulful spirit. The languorous version allows us to hear the room and the audience as they clap along, embracing the vibe. “Backstreets” is straightforward and strong, then we shift back to fifth gear as “Sha La La” attempts a land speed record, kicking up delicious guitar licks in its dust.
Perhaps as a result, “Jungleland” struggles to find its bearings but ultimately delivers drama and impact. “Rosalita” closes the set with a sense of release that sets up what’s to follow — but only after a bit of fun. When Bruce shouts, “Gimme ten!” in the breakdown, listen for a guitar note that seems to bend into a question mark. The band hangs there for longer than we expect. The audience goes nearly silent, unsure what happens next. Finally, chiming guitar chords and the onslaught continues, pounding the crowd with E Street power, Stevie and Max again leading the charge.
We move to a jaw-dropping encore that opens with an evocative version of “Sandy,” resplendent with Danny’s accordion and the Big Man’s baritone sax. Bruce paints a picture with his words, singing every line with vivid conviction. This is as good as “Sandy” gets.
From there, it’s time for an E Street Jukebox session that is the stuff that built the legend. The tour debut of “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck” gets us started, with Bruce turning up the juice on the Elvis Presley tune (written by Bert Carroll and Moody Russell). This is the first release of the storming song in the Archive series and one of only 14 known performances.
Next, we’re on to the “Detroit Medley” and a special disco dance lesson, as Bruce teaches Londoners the “New Jersey Hustle.” That wraps the first encore. The band leaves the stage and Bruce returns for a solo piano performance of “For You.”
Over the course of nearly nine rhapsodic minutes, Springsteen reinterprets “For You” to wonderous effect. Everything changes, from vocal intonation to phrasing to tempo. “You could laugh, you could cry, in a single sound” — I’ve never heard Bruce utter the line quite like this before, and similar reimagining happens throughout the performance. The clarity of the recording is remarkable.
It isn’t just his singing, either, as he thrillingly speeds up the piano behind lines like, “Your strength was devastating in the face of all these odds,” and later when he concedes, “So you left to find a better reason than the one you were living for.” This first appearance of the solo piano “For You” in the Live Archive series is an essential addition.
“When You Walk in the Room” brings pure elation, the Searchers cover soaring and showing the UK group’s influence on the E Street sound, which can be heard all the way up through the River sessions.
The encore continues with “Quarter to Three,” and whatever audience uncertainty was there in “Rosalita” is gone. Springsteen has Hammersmith eating out of the palm of his hand. The show could have easily ended with the Gary U.S. Bonds classic, as many Springsteen shows have before and since, but no. Turns out there’s gonna be an after-party, and Bruce and the band are gonna pull out ALL the stops.
Bruce says he learned to play “Twist and Shout” “out of a Beatle book,” and he uses it to work up the crowd even further as he stops mid-song on “doctors orders,” only to be revived by his bandmates.
Two minutes of sustained applause compels a third encore, and pushing the C1 button brings up Chuck Berry’s “Carol” in its final 1975 appearance. Stevie Van Zandt seizes the occasion for more guitar heroics. That sonic depth noted above can be especially felt when Bruce calls for Clarence’s “big notes” on baritone sax.
Do yourself a favor this holiday season and put a proper stereo on your wishlist. Computer speakers, AirPods, and — God forbid — the speaker on your phone are no way to listen to Bruce Springsteen live.
The epic Hammersmith performance seems to be over, but Springsteen can’t quite walk away, calling out the key of A and breaking into a spontaneous version of another Berry classic, “Little Queenie.” Collectors know the song’s famous premiere at the Milwaukee “bomb scare” show in October 1975; this one shares that same ragged-but-right spirit, along with an unmistakable sense that on this climatic night in London, the end of Bruce’s first-ever visit to Europe, he simply didn’t want it to end.