2020 Album Draft- Round 14 Pick 8- Box Sets- Music City Mike Selects- Bruce Springsteen- Tracks.
Selecting my favorite box set wasn’t easy. I wound up in a dilemma about how to approach my pick since it seemed that there were several ways to look at this.
First, the Bob Dylan “Bootleg Series” by far wins the prize as the best collection of previously unreleased music ever assembled. But for me to pick one out of the 15 released so far would be impossible. Sonically, the recent Giles Martin Blue-Ray reissues of several Beatles records sound so amazing that they give me chill bumps when I listen to them. Finally, as for aesthetics, the recent Kinks’ box sets are just bewildering beautiful and packed full of cool goodies. I was stuck.
My thoughts then turned to my favorite artist, Mr. Springsteen. My first thought was how thankful I was for the Born to Run box set and its inclusion of a live DVD from London in 1975. It’s my go-to watch to remind me of how great the live show of that era was and how blessed I was to have seen him play back then. But then, I realized that if I were to judge a box set by new musical content, my hands-down favorite would be Bruce’s 1998 4-CD box set of 66 songs simply titled Tracks.
When I ponder Springsteen as a recording artist, I think of how prolific he is while at the same time how cautiously slow he is about what he releases. It’s nothing for him to run up the recording studio bill to get something just the way he wants it. He also puts aside tracks that other artists would salivate over. Sometimes he gave them away and then other times they just sit in the vault for 20 years or so before we get to hear them. Well, that’s not totally correct.
In the late 70s, I was active in trading cassette tapes and wound up hearing several of these unreleased studio tracks that somehow were leaked to collectors. Some songs also made it to bootleg LPs mostly from early live FM broadcasts, the Main Point club on WMMR in Philadelphia being a prime source.
As for the Tracks content, I had gotten to know and love the old Springsteen band blazing through extended live workouts of “Seaside Bar Song,” “Santa Ana” and “Thundercrack.” I also was very familiar with the first LP outtake of “Zero and Blind Terry” and the live “Bishop Danced” that came from a 1973 King Biscuit Flower Hour radio show recorded at NYC’s Max’s Kansas City.
There also were the four songs from the leaked 1972 demo tapes that Bruce recorded for the legendary John Hammond that led to his signing with Columbia Records. Other songs like “Rendezvous,” “Don’t Look Back” and “Frankie” had become personal favorites after hearing them live in 1977.
I loved all this stuff and it was so great to have them all in such great quality and in one place.
Tracks also brought together some great B-sides that up until this point could only be found on the back of vinyl 45’s. “Roulette,” “Be True,” Janey Don’t Lose Heart” and “Shut Out the Light” remain to this day some of Springsteen’s best work.
Another delight to the Tracks box was getting to hear many great songs for the first time. While according to the liner notes, they were all remixed and some were touched up, these are for the most part polished songs worthy of inclusion on an LP. What’s even more remarkable is that the 66 tracks were whittled down by Bruce from a possible 300! OK, you will hear some familiar lyrics indicating that some that were early sketches of things to come, but these are for the most part, all a treat to hear. I will admit however that some from the early 90s just don’t match the quality of the earlier songs (e.g. “Part Man, Part Monkey”)
A year later, this box was followed up by a single CD titled 18 Tracks for which the marketing geniuses at Columbia got us to buy by including three additional tracks. It was a crime that they held back two of them, ‘The Fever” and “The Promise” from the original box set since from live performances, they were both well-known and loved.
Thanks to this exercise, it was a thrill to revisit this collection and hear some songs that I had simply forgotten about. Since I spend a considerable amount of time these days listening to official live Springsteen recordings from his Archive series (which includes all of his 2014, 2016 and 2017 shows), its also quite cool to hear the Tracks songs live since he has taken the challenge upon himself to perform 44 of these 66 songs live in concert.
What’s next to come? Tracks 2 has been long talked about and is supposedly something we might see in 2021. In addition to the many leftovers from the first set, its likely that there may be another several hundred songs in the vault that were recorded since then. I can’t wait and hopefully Bruce will realize that we ain’t getting any younger and this release is just what we need to brighten our pandemic- stricken lives.