Inspired to pick up the guitar after watching Elvis Presley perform on television, Bruce Springsteen began his rock and roll career leading his first group, the Castiles. Upon entering a battle of the bands contest, Springsteen met future bandmates Vini Lopez (who was playing with rival band Sonny & the Starfires) and contest judge Vinnie Roslin. After disbanding the Castiles, Springsteen formed a heavy power trio with a couple of other guys from the local community college. Calling themselves Earth, the g-b-d three-piece soon added a fourth member on organ. Though this band would not be very long lived, Earth’s instrumentation would be the foundation for Springsteen’s next project, Child.
Child formed after Springsteen, while still with Earth, was approached by Lopez, who had come looking for a new guitarist. A week later, on February 21, 1969, Springsteen, Lopez, Roslin, and Lopez’ bandmate Danny Federici played for the first time under the name Child. The band crafted its trade along the Jersey Shore with the occasional jaunts to Richmond, VA. After one such Richmond show in November 1969, the band, after being mistaken for another act out of New York also named Child, changed its name to Steel Mill. Springsteen has referred to Steel Mill as a Humble Pie-type band, and with reference to that band’s heavy blues-rock foundation, the comparison is understandable. However, upon actually listening to Steel Mill (at least in the live setting), they come across more like an American Traffic crossed with the psychedelic nature of H.P. Lovecraft (the band, not the author).
After playing and touring together along the East Coast for nearly a year, Steel Mill received an invitation to play at the Matrix in San Francisco. Opened in 1965 by the Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin, the Matrix was one of the venues responsible for what became known as the “San Francisco Sound”, often hosting such artists like Big Brother and the Holding Company, Santana, the Dead, and, of course, the Airplane (effectively the venue’s house band). Another such artist featured regularly at the club was Boz Scaggs, an early member of the Steve Miller Band and Bay Area mainstay. Steel Mill’s invite to the left coast would be as Scaggs’ opener for a three-day run in January 1970.
Even the sun shines on a dog’s ass some days, and for Springsteen, one such day was January 13, 1970. When Scaggs called in sick at the last minute, what was to be the first night of a three-night run opening for Boz Scaggs instead became a Steel Mill showcase. As the sole act on the bill, Springsteen et al delivered a monumental hour-plus long performance to a small but attentive audience, one of whom was journalist Philip Elwood. As music critic for the San Francisco Examiner, Elwood showed up that evening to review Boz Scaggs and instead ended up being blown away by four Jersey boys, referencing Springsteen in his column: “I have never been so overwhelmed by a totally unknown talent.”
Listening to the seven-song set is an eye-opening experience, showing a side of Springsteen that I personally never knew existed – that of a grooving, bluesy, semi-psychedelic rocker. The band opens the set with the anti-war themed “The War Is Over” and its haunting two-minute, ever-winding, slowly climbing guitar intro. As Springsteen arrives at his fuzzed out peak, the remaining members announce themselves and suddenly what began as an experimental solo is now a full on psychedelic blues rock explosion. After the shock and awe of the band’s entrance, the song descends from on high, leaving Federici and his organ to set the mood. The first lyrics are sung in a soft, somewhat gentle voice over what sounds like a lute.
With lyrics about kings and queens and castles, and a voice that didn’t correlate to what I thought this young Springsteen would sound like, I was initially afraid that this recording was actually of the English prog rock band Steel Mill. However, with the second stanza came the growl: that screaming, not quite a vibrato but more like a gurgle, sound from way back in his throat that I had come to associate with Springsteen. All the passion, all the rage was here.
As Springsteen mourns, “You can murder in the name of freedom but you just can’t hide,” the band breaks down into what becomes more or less a bluesy jam, similar to Traffic or The Doors. As the bass/drum combo provides the groove, Springsteen tears it up on his guitar. Federici’s organ just adds fuel to the Boss’ flames. Almost 15 minutes later, the song fades out, and you hear a faint “Thank you” over a smattering of applause. Lyrically, the song speaks to the American involvement in Vietnam and how the American public was distracting itself from the realities of the situation, a sentiment that most certainly resonated with many in the audience. This sentiment was echoed on “America Under Fire”, played later in the set.
“Lady Walking Down By the River” is the first time that we see a hint of the future. As Springsteen begins to sing, and especially when they all sing the titular refrain together, it isn’t hard to see the “Rosalita” Springsteen that was to come, smiling, while giving it everything he had. Once again, the band extends into a blues jam a la Cream meets a bit of Blue Cheer’s heaviness, ending with the band singing the title over and over almost a cappella. With barely a pause, Federici lights it up, announcing “Jeannie I Want to Thank You” with the intensity of Santana’s Greg Rolie, leading the band into a hell of a groovy blues number that is maybe best described as Steel Mill at its most Traffic-like.
Seriously slowing things down with “America Under Fire”, Springsteen returns to the anti-war theme. A song filled with harsh and cynical lyrics condemning the war, Springsteen lays it all out, ending the song with half the band singing “America the Beautiful” and the other half singing the theme to the Mickey Mouse Club. As the band thanks the audience, you can hear one of the members say, “That was for those of you that read.”
“Guilty” is another Federici-fueled number, with his furious keys all over the song’s intro. Also credited as “He’s Guilty”, “Send That Boy To Jail”, and “The Judge Song”, Springsteen apparently wrote this song after being arrested for not paying an entrance fee at the Jersey Shore. One of the more lighthearted tracks of the set, elements throughout this song would definitely reappear later in the evolution of Springsteen and his band(s). The same could be said for the next number, “The Train Song (aka Long Time Riding)”. A little ditty in a country-sway vein, this song could have easily been done up by the likes of the Byrds or the Flying Burrito Brothers and along with “Guilty”, was one of three songs the band recorded a month later for their Bill Graham funded demo.
The final track is a 17-minute bluesy rocker, “Going Down Slow”. To say that this is some funky shit is a bit of an understatement, with organ work like this usually reserved for the likes of Big John Patton or Al Kooper, while he was with Mayall. After a series of sick solos and Springsteen’s vocals, the band breaks down into something along the lines of Take Five+ Kind of Blue a la Van Morrison. The jazziness of the piece would be heard in many of Springsteen’s future songs, especially when played live. Not to get too dragged into the jazz, the organ’s determination is felt and the band returns to the hard-rocking blues that has been the ongoing theme of the night.
Is this show as revolutionary as Ellington’s comeback at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, or the Beatles’ Aug 15, 1965 performance at Shea Stadium, or the Sex Pistols’ Manchester gig in the summer of ‘76? Probably not, but between a glowing write up and strong enough buzz generated by the three-night run in January, the band returned to San Francisco a month later and once again opened a three-night run with Boz Scaggs. While there, a suitably impressed Bill Graham recorded a three-track demo with the band in his Pacific Recording Studios. Having just formed his label Fillmore Records, Graham offered the band a contract for $1000, which the band declined. After the band returned back east, Roslin, possibly upset due to not signing with Graham, left the band and was replaced with Steven Van Zandt.
By January 1971, Springsteen and the crew stopped using the name Steel Mill, and continued to play together under various names: Bruce Springsteen & The Friendly Enemies, The Sundance Blues Band, Dr. Zoom & The Sonic Boom Band, and The Bruce Springsteen Band – all of which would evolve into one of the most impressive and dynamic groups in the history of rock, the E Street Band.