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10 of the Best Bruce Springsteen Music Outtakes

There's more to the Boss than big hits. Here's what die-hard fans know

spinner image bruce springsteen at home playing guitar
Photo by Danny Clinch

| In the early days of his career, Bruce Springsteen famously produced a flood of material, overwhelming the painstakingly curated groups of songs that made it onto canonical records like Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River and Born in the U.S.A. For fans who knew something about all those outtakes, it sometimes seemed as though the Boss was squirreling away at least as many albums as he was releasing.

In later years, Springsteen opened the vaults (most notably for the mammoth, career-spanning 1998 compilation Tracks), giving casual fans an opportunity to hear these works for the first time and die-hards a chance to replace crackling, muddy bootleg versions. On the upcoming Letter to You, his 20th studio release, Bruce sends three more of these long-locked-away songs — “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest” and “Song for Orphans” — out into the world. For those without encyclopedic knowledge of Springsteen's deep and versatile catalog, here are 10 of his best outtakes or B sides (remember B sides?) you might not have heard.

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"Be True” (1979)

The song's narrator tries to make an honest bargain with someone who's been built up and let down too many times ("Well baby, don't do it to me, and I won't do it to you"). Recorded during the sessions for The River and released as the B side of “Fade Away” (and on The Ties That Bind: The River Collection in 2015), this is a generous-hearted song, perfect for when you need a dose of human kindness in dark days. Also catchy as heck.

"The Fever” (1973)

A long (7 minutes, 41 seconds), languid rhythm-and-blues meditation on lost love, recorded in 1973 but not released until the 1999 sampler 18 Tracks — although you could hear it in the 1970s if you listened to the right radio stations. An early example of Springsteen trying on a different genre and nailing it, and an absolute gem.

"Frankie” (1982)

Embedded in this gorgeous arrangement — recorded in 1982 for Born in the U.S.A. but not released until 1998 on Tracks — is the story of a dying town and two young lovers who live there. Frankie is muse to a narrator “winging down the street in search of new games.” But it's really not as sad as all that: The last 2 1/2 minutes of the song's 7:25 running length have the harmonica, saxophone and keyboards trading off the lead in a big Phil Spector-ish finish.

"From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)” (1979)

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Another River outtake, “From Small Things” was eventually released in 2003 on The Essential Bruce Springsteen and again 12 years later on The Ties That Bind: The River Collection. A somewhat bizarre but incredibly fun rave-up about an ambitious small-town girl who marries young, has kids, then dumps her family to run away with “a real estate man” whom she later kills because “she couldn't stand the way he drove.” The song ends with her first husband, dear Johnny, praying for her parole.

"Johnny Bye-Bye” (1985)

Recorded during the Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. sessions and released as the B side of “I'm on Fire” (and on Tracks), “Johnny Bye-Bye” weaves together scraps of lyrics that Springsteen had been noodling with, plus a couple of lines from Chuck Berry (who gets a cowriting credit), to create a short, sad lament for Elvis Presley. It starts in Johnny B. Goode territory ("Leaving Memphis with a guitar in his hand / On a one-way ticket to the promised land") and ends in a bathroom in Graceland ("They found him slumped up against the drain / With a whole lot of trouble, yeah, running through his veins").

"Roulette” (1979)

"Roulette” was recorded during the River sessions, after the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant disaster. It was released as the B side of the 1988 single “One Step Up” (from the Tunnel of Love album) and included on Tracks. Sinister, urgent and pulsating, “Roulette” is about a man forced to evacuate his family to safety after a nuclear power plant accident ("I've got a house full of things that I can't touch"). But more broadly, it's about the toll exacted on those who must confront a tight-lipped and indifferent power structure while trying frantically to protect their loved ones. Eerily relevant in a pandemic.

"Seeds” (1986)

Written and possibly recorded for the Born in the U.S.A. sessions, then released as a concert track on Live 1975-85, “Seeds” could be narrated by the protagonist of “My Hometown,” who packs up his family and heads south to look for work but finds nothing but “seeds blowing up the highway.” They sleep in their car, “parked in the lumberyard, freezing our asses off.” With nowhere to go, they are ignored by the rich, harassed by the cops. An appropriately angry song for an unequal and angry era.

"Shut Out the Light” (1984)

Released as the B side of the “Born in the U.S.A.” single, “Shut Out the Light” is a quieter, more interior account of a PTSD-stricken vet's homecoming than its better-known counterpart. “Born in the U.S.A.” is a howl of anger from a man betrayed by his country; this is a piteous portrait of dislocation and brokenness, set in a more spare arrangement.

"Take ‘Em as They Come” (1980)

Recorded in 1980 for The River and later released on Tracks in 1998 and The Ties That Bind: The River Collection in 2015, “Take ‘Em as They Come” tells a story of two people who may or may not be fugitives and who see threat all around them ("Better bring along your switchblade / ‘Cause for sure some fool's gonna wanna fight"). But it's the arrangement and playing that stand out. If you like Tom Petty or Byrds-style guitar mastery, you should listen to this.

"Thundercrack” (1973)

A centerpiece of the E Street Band's early live shows, “Thundercrack” was recorded in 1973 during sessions for The Wildthe Innocent and the E Street Shuffle and released in 1998 on Tracks (and showed up on a lot of bootlegs in the intervening 25 years). Long (8:28) and shaggy, it's a great example of the young band's improvisational, fun style. If you like “The E Street Shuffle” or “Kitty's Back,” you'll probably like “Thundercrack.”

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