Greasy Lake

Reissues and compilations keep the world turnin� around

Published 2014-10-03
Karsten Stanley Andersen
By Karsten Stanley Andersen

Last week Bruce announced the release of The Albums Collection Vol. 1 (1973-1984) containing the first seven studio albums in remastered versions. Fans were, as always, divided in their reception. Some thought it was about time that the early albums got a much-needed soundlift. Others were furious that the much talked-about River boxset had been postponed. But if anyone should feel cheated, it would be the people who bought the 2010 release The Collection, 1973-1984 containing - you guessed it - the first seven studio albums, but in plain, non-remastered versions.

Since Bruce Springsteen entered the reissue/compilation market for real in 1995 with the release of Greatest Hits, his output in that category has been the subject of controversy among fans. The 1995 Greatest Hits album was blamed for ignoring the first two albums (not that they produced any hit singles), including a song that had never been a single, let alone a hit (“Thunder Road”... not that anyone minded), and including bonus material that 1) forced fans to invest in a whole album for the sake of four songs, and 2) weren’t all that great. That is, the re-recorded version of “This Hard Land” wasn’t nearly as good as the outtake fans had been listening to for years through the magic of bootlegging, and “Murder Incorporated”, although not re-recorded, just wasn’t the right version. Not to mention “Secret Garden”, which didn’t utilize the E Street Band properly. Of course, the fact that the E Street Band had been reunited for this project at all, helped pour oil on troubled waters.

Despite the objections from fans, the mass-consumer market didn’t care. Greatest Hits is now Bruce’s second best selling album and can be found in more than 13 million homes.

In 1998 Bruce released the four-disc Tracks box set. In itself a compilation of 90% previously unreleased outtakes, it hardly counts as one the way it flows like four regular albums. Still, despite making the wet dreams of countless fans come true, Tracks had one major flaw: where was “The Promise”? Bruce’s most famous and most cherished unreleased song was missing. How could that be?

In interviews Bruce mumbled something about not being able to find a proper recording of it. But he did try to make up for it five months later by releasing a single-disc compilation of Tracks called 18 Tracks and including a re-recording of “The Promise”. That, of course, was not enough to satisfy fans, who longed for the full-band, desperate-sounding version from the Darkness sessions that had been circulating for years on bootlegs. Not a modern rehash by a 50-year old, happily married, content elder statesman of rock.

And that wasn’t the only thing wrong with 18 Tracks. As with Greatest Hits, the inclusion of bonus songs made some fans complain that they now had to buy 15 songs that they already owned just to get the three bonus songs, which of course is the whole point of bonus songs. There were also those who thought the 18 Tracks compilation should have been released at the same time as Tracks, because they would never have shelled out all that money for Tracks if they could have gotten the highlights for a third of the price. Of course, this was assuming 18 Tracks actually included the highlights of Tracks, which not many fans would have agreed with. Can you say “Lion’s Den”, anyone?

It would be four years before the next compilation was released. The Essential Bruce Springsteen from 2003 tried to correct the points of criticism that Greatest Hits had been the victim of. All albums were represented, and a song’s importance was the main criteria rather than its hit status. Of course, they still managed to leave out “Backstreets” and include as many songs from The Rising as from Born to Run, which didn’t correspond with how most fans would have prioritized. Still, this was a much better representation of what Bruce was all about. Even the bonus disc of rare and unreleased material was received with nods of approval… except for that dreadful version of “Countin’ on a Miracle”, of course. What was that about?

By 2005 Bruce had been releasing albums long enough to justify looking into the trendy market of reissues. Take an old, classic album, remaster it, and put it in a box with a bunch of bonus material. The Born to Run 30th Anniversary Edition was the first of such efforts, and the bar was set high from the beginning. The bonus material consisted of a full, uncirculated show from London in 1975 on DVD and a “making of” documentary. Other than some purists’ objections to any self-celebratory initiatives, and the fact that the included London show was previously mostly known for being somewhat of a disaster (which the DVD disproved), the Born to Run box was received extraordinarily well; so well, in fact, that demands for a Darkness reissue soon started to emerge.

That would take another five years. First Bruce spent several very productive years focusing exclusively on brand new material and touring. Perhaps it was this focus on other things that made him commit one of the biggest mistakes of his career. In October 2008 it was announced that Bruce and the E Street Band would be performing at the Superbowl in January of 2009. The prospect of having a billion TV viewers from all over the world watch the band proved too big of a temptation to someone in Bruce’s organization. Of course, the one billion viewers myth is just that...a myth; the actual figure is nowhere near that. Still, 100 million viewers is also a bunch. And with that many viewers, wouldn’t it be awesome to have a new Greatest Hits album in the stores? In theory, not a bad idea. The way it was executed proved more problematic. Around that time several artists from Garth Brooks to AC/DC had signed exclusive deals with Walmart to sell their new album in the United States. Others, like Bob Dylan and Alanis Morissette, had made similar deals with Starbucks.

So, as this seemed to be the thing to do, a deal was signed with Walmart making the retail giant the exclusive outlet of Bruce Springsteen’s new Greatest Hits collection. What could possibly go wrong? Well, if the deal had been made with Starbucks, maybe things would have gone better. But since Walmart is not only known for selling tons of cheap, crappy Chinese-manufactured products, but also for being less than generous when it comes to paying its workers and having a strained relationship with labor unions, fans started to point out this, at best, unfortunate - and at worst hypocritical - alliance between Springsteen, the pro-union working-class hero, and the flower of Republican economic thinking, Walmart.

The media, of course, lapped it up. Bloggers had a field day. Fans on fan forums were in an uproar. Bruce finally had to release a statement admitting that he and his team had dropped the ball and neglected to vet the deal properly.

By then it was too late to get out of the deal, so Walmart got their exclusive Bruce compilation. But perhaps in order to make up for the mistake a little bit, it would only be six months until the next compilation was released, this time under the title… drum roll.... Greatest Hits. And this time you could buy it in any store…. Well, except if you lived on any other continent than Europe since this was an exclusive to the European market.

Just like the Walmart collection, the European Greatest Hits was credited to Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, which ruled out tracks from Nebraska, Human Touch/Lucky Town and other solo efforts. But whereas the Walmart compilation only included 12 tracks, they somehow managed to squeeze in all of 18 tracks on the European release and still limit it to one disc. All the tracks were previously released, which meant no one was forced to buy it, so not many did.

2010 saw the release of no less than the Holy Grail, the Holy Grail in this case being a reissue of Darkness on the Edge of Town in the shape of the mother of all boxsets. Apart from a remastered version of the actual album, which was the least of it, the box included a documentary with actual footage from the Darkness sessions, a complete, uncirculated Darkness show on DVD, a live recording of the album, and a double disc of Darkness outtakes. What more could fans possibly ask for? Well, a couple of things. First, the show from Houston that was included on DVD… it wasn’t quite up there with the bootlegged Largo and Passaic shows. Sure, the picture quality was fine. Not so much the sound and the performance.

Secondly, a lot of the songs on the double-disc of outtakes were restored using newly recorded overdubs, including Bruce’s vocals. They should of course not have tampered with the original recordings and released them as they were, unfinished and all. Would they have been more enjoyable that way? No. But they would have been “real”.

In return, the Darkness box did include the version of “The Promise” that fans had clamored for in connection with Tracks. The whole box had actually been named after it. So apparently, Bruce had taken another look in his basement and found the recording that was missing in 1998. Or had he planned it this way the whole time?

This brings us up to 2010 and the The Collection 1973-1984 that we mentioned in the beginning. But the story doesn’t end here. In 2013, Bruce was, once again, touring the world and, for the first time in 10 years, Australia. This, of course, called for a new compilation to be released in Australia. No, this time they didn’t call it Greatest Hits. That would have been too confusing. Instead they called it Collection 1973-2012 - not to be mistaken with The Collection 1973-1984 or The Albums Collection 1973-1984. Nope, nothing confusing about that. Grandma will have no trouble getting you the right one for Christmas.

Anyway, Collection 1973-2012, released in Australia and later Europe, was another single-disc greatest hits type of album. This time it included both E Street and non-E Street Band songs, but was otherwise quite similar to the 2009 compilations.

So, what is in store for us in the future? Well, a River reissue boxset is definitely in the works for 2015. Of course, no one can be sure if Bruce will decide he doesn’t like it and pulls it at the last moment. If so, maybe it will be replaced with a new compilation of career highlights. Let’s see, they could call it Greatest Hits Collection 1973-2014.

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Al O'Hare writes: Great read, incisive and fair points made too. Lose a bit of cred' for this though: "Not to mention �Secret Garden�, which didn�t utilize the E Street Band properly"... says who? The story was great until you cast artistic judgement. Stick to the facts for this kinda' thing. The fact that I think SG is beautiful and Clarence's sax is utilised EXACTLY how it should be, has no bearing on this comment :-)
pauldt1969 writes: A good read but some of these things are highly subjective. The Promise (18 Tracks version) happens to be my favourite Bruce recording of all time...
David R. writes: I'm still confused between this announcement and the Mastered for iTunes release of some of these same albums. Are the overlapping albums identical? Or, are they further remastered?
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