For Bruce Springsteen fans, hearing the two-disc Acoustic Radio Broadcast Collection will be a bit like Beatle lovers listening in on the Fab Four at the Cavern Club in Liverpool.
The recently issued set includes his very first radio appearance, on Boston’s WBCN on Jan. 9, 1973, which occurred within a week of his debut album’s release (though he performs only one number from it), plus broadcasts from May 31, 1973 (WGOE, Richmond, Virginia); March 9, 1974 (KLOL, Houston), and April 9, 1974 (WBCN again).
A little over a year after that last date, in August 1975, Springsteen would play a series of important dates at New York’s Bottom Line, release Born to Run, and ride a rocket to fame. But when these broadcasts occurred, he was struggling and little known. I talked with him in January 1974 for one of his first interviews for a national publication, and he spent a big chunk of the conversation telling me about his financial problems and how he could barely afford to pay his band members. (At the time, he was making a reported $75 a week.) At the end of our conversation, after I told him I loved his new second album but hadn’t heard his first, he offered to send me his copy because, he said, he couldn’t afford a record player to play it on.
Acoustic Radio Broadcast Collection is by no means the only surviving example of how Springsteen’s music sounded during this period. There’s an independently released collection called Before the Fame that captures even older performances—from 1972, before he signed with Columbia—and there’s vintage material on the 1998 four-CD Tracks box set. There are also lots of bootlegs. Even fans who have some of these recordings, though, will likely be fascinated by Acoustic Radio Broadcast Collection.
On these recordings, it is mostly the spoken parts that suggest we’re listening to a relative novice: talking with DJs, Springsteen sounds much less articulate than he does in later interviews and offers a lot of nervous laughter. On the January 1973 WBCN broadcast, he says, “This is my very first time on the radio, and I want to say hello to my mother, who lives in California. Hi, Mom!” Back at that radio station in 1974, he thanks it for airing his music, noting that when the band first came to Boston, they played to audiences of 10 or 20 but that now, “there must be about 50 people in the place.”
Though Springsteen had yet to achieve major success when these broadcasts were recorded, however, his music was already inventive and often fully realized—which should perhaps come as no surprise, since he had by this time been a working musician for years. The performances, which most resemble those on his Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. debut LP, include several numbers that surfaced on that record: “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” (three versions), “Growin’ Up” (two versions) and “Mary Queen of Arkansas.” Compositions that turned up on his second album, The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, include “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” (four versions, two called simply “Circus Song”); “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)”; a joyous “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight); and “New York City Serenade” (here called “New York City Song”). These last two differ the most from the versions Springsteen later released.
Other originals on these CDs include “Bishop Dance,” which you can also find on Tracks; “The Fever,” which became a concert staple for both Bruce and Southside Johnny; and the rather obscure “Song to Orphans” and “You Mean So Much to Me.” Also here are two takes of “Something You Got,” the Chris Kenner oldie (one melded with Martha & the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”), and a few surprising covers: “Sentimental Journey,” the pop standard, and Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” (four versions, no less), featuring Garry Tallent on tuba and Danny Federici on organ.
In none of these performances do I hear any hint of the sound that would emerge on Born to Run and later albums; but you can already sense in these recordings Springsteen’s love of language, musical adventurousness, and originality. Certainly, there’s more than enough here to explain why John Hammond wasted no time in signing him to Columbia.