Michael Jackson takes years to make albums. Guns N’ Roses take years to make albums, then make two. Bruce Springsteen takes years to make albums, makes two, then puts out not one but two introductory singles — ”Human Touch” and ”Better Days” — at the same time. These will finally be followed by Human Touch and Lucky Town (due in stores on March 31), Springsteen’s first new albums since 1987’s Tunnel of Love. Fans are starting to line up.
But not everyone. Echoing several other retailers, Stephen Bergman, president of Schoolkids’ Records in Ann Arbor, Mich., says, ”We’re just not sure where his market has gone. We’re not sure how many of the young people coming up are Springsteen fans, and how many of the older fans have perhaps grown a little distant, because we haven’t had strong catalog sales (of old Springsteen albums) like we used to.”
At KLOS-FM in Los Angeles, music director and hard-core Springsteen fan Rita Wilde says that after her station began playing both new tracks heavily, the reaction was ”mixed, to be real honest. You’ve got a lot of people who are major Springsteen fans who absolutely love the stuff and can’t get enough of it. Then you have people who are sick of him.”
Is the dual release, then, such a brilliant marketing maneuver? Don’t ask Columbia, the Boss’ longtime record company. While never the most forthcoming of labels, Columbia has steadfastly refused to discuss any details of its marketing plan. But, though Columbia president Donnie Ienner told Billboard magazine he would rather ”focus on the substance than on the selling” of the albums, the selling itself looks mighty interesting. Although Columbia is generously offering music retailers the albums at a 3 percent discount, it’s also limiting the number that store owners can initially purchase — ostensibly to prevent a marketplace surplus of Springsteen.
Here’s another wrinkle: Industry sources speculate that yet another long- awaited album — British heavy-metal band Def Leppard’s follow-up to 1987’s 10.5 million-seller Hysteria — may get a surprise early release the same week Springsteen’s new pair hits the stores. (Def Leppard’s label would not reveal the release date; a spokesman for Mercury Records would officially confirm only that it was ”a spring release.”) But even if Def Leppard’s album comes out, does killer business, and pushes Springsteen out of a potential No. 1 spot, Columbia has created a fallback position for itself. Big deal, they’ll say, Springsteen’s got two albums to sell, and besides, retailers all over America say they can’t get enough of him.
How different will he sound? Though the dual packages don’t feature the hallowed E Street Band, keyboardists Roy Bittan and David Sancious — the latter a long-ago E Streeter-drummer Jeff Porcaro, and bassist Randy Jackson make appearances on Human Touch, as do trumpeter Mark Isham and vocalists Sam Moore (Sam and Dave), Bobby Hatfield (the Righteous Brothers), Bobby King, and Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa. Lucky Town, recorded at Springsteen’s Beverly Hills home, again features Bittan, Jackson, and drummer Gary Mallaber. (The tour is expected to happen in late summer, probably in arenas, but nothing — including a band lineup with any of the musicians above — has officially been announced.)
And the new music’s content? ”Now a life of leisure and a pirate’s treasure/Don’t make much for tragedy,” go some of the lyrics from ”Better Days,” whose singer has remarried and had two children (Evan James, 19 months, and Jessica Rae, 3 months) since last heard from. It may be too soon to say whether the good life has taken its toll on the music, but Charles R. Cross, editor of the respected Springsteen fanzine, Backstreets, doubts it’ll have much effect. ”What we’ve seen of his last two records (1984’s Born in the U.S.A. and ’87’s Tunnel of Love) is him saying it doesn’t matter if you have a house in Beverly Hills, two kids, and a ’64 Corvette in the driveway. Whatever you’ve got, you’re still facing the same darkness in your soul.” Darkness on the Edge of 90210 — doesn’t it have a nice ring to it?