The paperback edition of LGTBOF just came out. Here’s an excerpt, which gives a taste of some of what was going on in NYC music 35 years ago this month.
The videos above are:
1) A live version of “The Promise” from 1977, a song that says a lot about where Bruce’s head was at the time.
2) An amazingly high-strung early version of “Tentative Decisions” from Talking Heads: 77, recorded at CBGBs in December 1975.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band began a marathon recording session at the Record Plant on September 30th; by the wee hours of the following morning, they had filled four reels of two-inch tape, which engineer Jimmy Iovine stacked up in boxes next to the mixing desk.
There was a lot to record. Springsteen has written 70 songs during the lawsuit period, the lyrics worked out in the spiral-bound notebooks he always carried with him. The song selection for his fourth album was still changing from day to day. Just as Larry Harlow studied old Cuban 78s, Springsteen and Landau had been poring over the early scrolls of rock and pop: Phil Spector’s girl groups, the British Invasion bands, Stax r&b. Some of the new songs were direct homages: “Sherry Darling” and “Ain’t Good Enough For You” were doo-wop flavored goofs as catchy as mid-‘60s AM radio singles. On “The Little Things My Baby Does,” Springsteen went for Roy Orbison-style vocal drama. When he wrote “Fire,” a perfect Elvis Presley manqué, it was initially with thoughts of submitting the song to Presley’s management for the King to record. That was out of the question now. For a dark ballad titled “Come On (Let’s Go Tonight),” Springsteen wrote the line “The man on the radio said Elvis Presley died.”
In the two years that had elapsed since Born To Run, however, New York City rock had become “punk rock,” and the music was being mirrored back from the U.K. Springsteen admired some of it; he was especially struck by the Clash, whose first singles came out in the spring: “White Riot,” “Complete Control,” “Remote Control.” He admired how stripped-down they were, their power and conviction, their seriousness. He had no interest in punk’s nihilism and romance with decadence, spent no time in CBGBs. But he wasn’t interested in making an oldies record, either. Springsteen would turn 28 in September. The image of Elvis—bloated, spent, irrelevant, dead at 42—haunted him.
He thought about the guys he grew up. They weren’t rock stars; they were holding down shitty jobs with kids to support and dreams that were largely shut down. There but for fortune. These were his roots, this was the audience he cared about—not a bunch of slumming junkie New York City bohemians. How might Woody Guthrie have handled being a superstar? What if Phil Ochs had become as big as Elvis? The question for Landau and Springsteen, in the wake of Born To Run’s mega-success and the collapse of the singer’s relationship with Mike Appel, was not just how to present Springsteen as an artist. It was how to protect his soul.
No longer did his characters represent mainly as hustlers, hoodrats and hungry hearts crossing the bridges between Jersey and Manhattan. As the new songs evolved, those regional signifiers dissolved as the cars headed south into farm country, north and west to the rust belt. “The Promised Land” begins in the Utah desert. Other songs could be set anywhere from Tuscaloosa to Bakersfield, Eastern Long Island to Louisiana.”Badlands,” which begins announcing that there is “trouble in the heartland,” was about “workin’ in the fields ‘til you get your back burned.” “Come On (Let’s Go Tonight),” about life in a factory town, tried to capture some of the fatalism of Hank Williams. It also made him think about his father, who lost his hearing working in a canning factory.
As a voice, Springsteen was morphing into an Everyman for America’s New Depression. It would be by this record—not Born To Run, for all its success and accolades—that his persona would be defined: not as a heroic, irresponsible street punk, but as a heroic, working man with a sound moral compass. The kind of persona a musician could become an adult it, mature in, and not devolve into a self-parody.
# # #
Jimmy Iovine had become a producer now. No surprise: he was an ambitious guy. He had begun work on Patti Smith’s third record at the Record Plant, working in the studio next door to the one that Springsteen and the E Street band were holed up in. Sometimes, Iovine would be darting back and forth between sessions in the two studios. Iovine had always imagined Smith and Springsteen might collaborate on something. They were friends, came from similar backgrounds. Listening to Springsteen sing about hardscrabble working folks, Iovine thought about Smith’s first single, “Piss Factory.”
Springsteen and Landau’s vision of the new album had become so laser focused, it seemed like all the catchiest songs—the fun ones, the romantic ones—were being abandoned. Iovine asked Springsteen if he had something that might work for Patti’s voice. He had the beginnings of a love song that he thought might be something. It was unfinished, just a chorus, really. But he gave Iovine a demo cassette, and the engineer passed it on to Smith.
Smith listened to it over and over one night alone in her apartment at One Fifth Avenue. She was waiting for a call from Fred Smith. “Love is a ring, the telephone,” she wrote. Her romance with Tom Verlaine had ended, her relationship with Alan Lanier fading as their paths forked. She finished the lyrics quickly that night, and brought them into the studio the next day, where Lenny and the band worked up an arrangement. The song, “Because The Night,” fused Springsteen’s earthy physicality (“Because the night/Belongs to lust”) with Smith’s mystic ecstasy (“love is an angel disguised as light”).
The song was amazing, no doubt; it was arguably as great a song as either Springsteen or Smith had produced. If the band was going to have a hit, this would be it. Patti suspected that the collaboration with Springsteen might strike some of the downtown crowd as a sell-out. But she’d heard that accusation before, and at this point, couldn’t care less.
# # #
Richard Hell and the Voidoids began a British tour in October, opening up for the Clash. They came off stage most every night covered in spit. Hell was junk sick for much of the trip, despite visiting his pals Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan in London whenever he had an off day. He was pissed that the Voidoids debut hadn’t been released in the UK yet, and while he was very proud of it, he was—after forming three culture-tilting bands in four years—ready to throw in the towel.
“It’s completely clear that I’ve lost interest in rock and roll,” he wrote in a diary entry dated November 1, in the hardbound journal Patti Smith gave him back in ’73. “I think I’ve learned this much—that ambition for public acknowledgement of my abilities is utterly foolish. It constituted a lot of my incentive for entering r&r and I’ve received enough of it to know it’s entirely hollow.”
Still, the Voidoids shows were hot. Lester Bangs, working on what became an epic, three-part Clash feature for NME, thought the band never sounded tighter, and praised Bob Quine’s guitar playing in the essay, noting Quine’s obsession with the electric guitar sounds on Miles Davis’ On The Corner and Agharta. (Of course, Quine was Bangs’ guitarist, too.)
As for the Heartbreakers, the bond between Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan had crumbled, between the stress of non-success and the debacle of the L.A.M.F. recordings. The album, muddy sound unimproved, was released to mixed reviews. Nolan quit the band, rejoined to help out on a few gigs, then left for good. The Sex Pistols’ Paul Cook sat in on drums for one show; Terry Chimes, the Clash’s first drummer, auditioned for the gig and got it. The new Heartbreakers played a couple of shows, then went into the studio to make some demos on December 17. They tracked “Too Much Junkie Business,” and “London Boys,” a sneering, mimicking answer song to the Sex Pistols’ New York Dolls-baiting “New York” from their debut, Never Mind The Bollocks, released in October. When Thunders’ bandmates left town for the holidays, the band drifted into on again-off again limbo.
On Christmas Day, the Pistols played two shows at the Ivanhoes Club in Yorkshire, a few hours north of London. The first was an afternoon show for needy kids—young teens from broken homes, or those whose parents were on strike or unemployed. Sid Vicious stepped to the mic and sang two Heartbreakers songs: “Chinese Rocks” and “Born To Lose.” His band was scheduled to begin its first U.S. tour in a matter of days.
Talking Heads: 77 was released September 16. It sounded like a pop record, sort of. The first song, “Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town,” sounded like an old Motown number. The singer squealed “I’m not the people that you read about in books.” There was a steel pan solo. The songs were short, minimally apportioned, full of hooks. Unlike the Ramones’ debut, there was space, air around the instruments. The rhythms were spasmodic. It was the sound of a panic attack massaged into a way of life—alternately (often simultaneously) funny, frightening, ecstatic. “Psycho Killer” was actually a pretty good dance track.
Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth had gotten married over the summer—Byrne sent a photo of the newlyweds into the Voice, who actually ran it, just like a New York Times wedding announcement. The band played the mandatory Bottom Line record release show on Thursday night, October 27. With Jerry Harrison on second guitar, the group looked almost like a normal rock band. David Byrne declared from the stage: “It sure is fun to be here!” Writer Roy Trakin from the Soho Weekly News was both exhilarated and disturbed at how commercial-sounding the band had become. It sounded to him like the ‘80s had already begun.
Talking Heads toured colleges around the Northeast through the fall; at some shows, the crowd would heartily sing along with the “tweet tweet tweet”s on “Love -> Building On Fire.” In December, they did a two-week stretch of gigs in California. When they came home later that month, they pondered how best to approach their second album.
They already had a stash of songs. One was called “Warning Sign,” a fast, funky number which they’d demoed back in ’75 using the sound of a zipper as percussion. Another, called “Stay Hungry,” which featured Jerry Harrison played a burbling, disco-style wah-wah guitar, had been recorded for Talking Heads: 77, but was ultimately left off. The album’s co-production team—Tony Bongiovi and Lance Quinn—was great in theory: they were industry hit makers, and Bongiovi’s track record with the Disco Corporation of America (the production team behind Gloria Gaynor’s ’74 remake of the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye,” among other club hits) impressed the Heads, who saw themselves as a dance band, albeit a high-concept one. As a bonus, Bongiovi had also produced the Ramones Leave Home. But Talking Heads didn’t vibe with him, and they had other things in mind for their own second record.
Brian Eno had finished work on David Bowie’s Heroes album, left West Berlin, and moved into an apartment on 8th Street. Robert Fripp had gotten a place on the Bowery earlier in the year, and back in May, when Eno was crashing on his couch, the two took Bowie to see an unsigned Midwestern band called Devo at Max’s Kansas City. Now Eno would stroll lower Manhattan like a native New York flaneur: he might see Philip Glass eating fries at Phoebe’s, chat a bit with the composer, then drag him to CBGBs to see a band. There he might run into David Byrne, and head off with him for a nightcap.
Eno had completed a new album of his own, Before and After Science. The title of its most frenetic song, “Kings Lead Hat,” was an anagram for “Talking Heads.” He’d written the song in hopes that the band might play on it. It didn’t work out due to scheduling. But during a discussion one afternoon at Tina and Chris’ place in Long Island City, Talking Heads and Eno decided to work together on the Heads next record.
Chris and Tina’s loft building was a hive of musicians. One day, Eno met their upstairs neighbor, Don Cherry, who had just released three LPs of world music-influenced free jazz within in a few months: Don Cherry, Eternal Now, and Hear & Now. Ever the producer, Eno tried to convince Cherry to use more repetition in his solos. Cherry was as interested in rock music as he was in all other world folk music. Last December he had been invited by Lou Reed, a devoted fan of the classic Ornette Coleman Quartet, to sit in on a show Reed was doing at the Roxy in Los Angeles. The two men exploded Reed’s New York City punk dramas into heady jazz-funk journeys: one moment the music sounded like Springsteen’s “Rosalita,” the next like Miles’s Bitches Brew.