The Boss Underscores the Completion Principle

Bruce Springsteen’s Tracks turns 20

Bruce Springsteen Tracks, Columbia 1998

It’s rather ironic how the four CD set simply entitled Tracks served two distinctly different purposes. Although obviously intended for the completist and fully fuelled Springsteen collector, it seemed a somewhat moot point, given that the truly ardent Bruce fan (read fanatic) likely had most of the tracks on Tracks to begin with, courtesy of trades, tapes or bootlegs. On the other hand, the majority of the 66 song set were never officially released, meaning that if you were a diehard devotee you’d probably need the complete box regardless.

Of course Springsteen’s always been an ambitious artist to begin with, and the number of songs that he’s written and never released constitutes a sizeable part of his catalog. His loyal legions are known to have a certain obsession with collecting those efforts, and while in reality Tracks represents only a minimal percentage of those uncovered gems, it still offered the first legitimate compilation that was readily accessible even to the most casual collector.

Still, it was just a start. While the demos, B sides, alternate versions and unheard recordings were varied and valuable, it could easily have totalled several dozen discs, given all the unused material that Springsteen had accumulated over the years. When the project was initiated earlier in the year, he had already amassed some 350 songs that hadn’t made the cut for any of his albums’ initial release. To his credit, Springsteen opted not to simply include any songs on Tracks that left them in their rudimentary condition, choosing instead to remix the majority, and in some cases, add essential instrumentation to flesh them out fully.

Initially, Tracks was intended to be a six CD set boasting at least 100 songs, but by the time the project was completed in September–two months before its final release-? the decision was made to limit the amount of material. Because some songs were unavailable due to legal restrictions, it eliminated a number of some of the more essential early recordings, including instead various actual album cuts intended for release but which never saw the light of day.

Still, those offerings that were included constituted a diverse compilation of some superb Springsteen songs. Some were drawn from bootlegs, while others were once available only on he flip sides of his  45s. There were other numbers that had been performed in concert but never recorded, and several others that were wholly unknown until Tracks’ release.

Springsteen would eventually give several of the songs renewed life by including them in his set lists, and the box proved popular enough to enter the top 30 on Billboard’s top 200 album chart. Granted, that’s only a modest showing for a Springsteen release, but considering the fact that it was a box set selling for a higher cost than usual, the results were respectable regardless, It did mange to attain platinum sales in the U.S., ensuring that the Boss’ track record — pardon the pun — remained unblemished.

Tracks was subsequently condensed into a single album dubbed 18 Tracks, a proviso for the economically challenged. However, it also added three cuts not on the original box.  Which means the completist was obligated to spend more money regardless.


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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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