Remember When: Bruce Springsteen Cuts the E Street Band Loose and Forms “The Other Band”

He’s been associated with them for so long, that it’s understandable if many people believe Bruce Springsteen’s driver’s license actually says “Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.” Yet there was a time when the Boss made the decision to temporarily break up this rock and roll gang in favor of new collaborators, both for studio recording and touring purposes.

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Eventually, Springsteen reformed the E Street Band, and they’ve been going strong ever since. But what made him decide to make the original decision to work with others? Who were the new band members? And how did fans take to these changes? To answer all these questions, we have to start by going back to Springsteen’s most commercially successful decade: the ‘80s.

Leaving E Street

In an era when superstars reigned, Bruce Springsteen stood tall as rock music’s most successful artist of the 1980s. His 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. spat out hit singles like a vending machine on tilt, the tour supporting it was a record-setter, and a compilation of his most incredible live performances with the E Street Band added to the juggernaut.

Yet Springsteen only used the band sparingly on his 1987 album Tunnel of Love, and after touring that album and making some more appearances with his longtime group, he decided to make a change. In October 1989, he called the band members one by one and essentially told them they were free to work with others for a while, because he was planning on doing the same. In a 1992 interview with Rolling Stone, the Boss explained his rationale:

“At the end of the Born in the U.S.A. tour and after we made the live album, I felt like it was the end of the first part of my journey. And then, for the Tunnel of Love tour, I switched the band around quite a bit. I switched where people had stood for 15 years, just trying to give it a different twist.

“But you can get to a place where you start to replay the ritual, and nostalgia creeps in. And I decided it was time to mix it up. I just had to cut it loose a little bit so I could have something new to bring to the table. I wanted to get rid of some of the old expectations. People were coming to my shows expecting to hear ‘Born to Run’ or stuff that I wrote 15 or 20 years ago. And I wanted to get to a spot where if people came to the show, there’d be a feeling of like, well, it’s not going to be this, it’s going to be something else.”

[RELATED: 5 Key Members of Bruce Springsteen’s Legendary E Street Band]

The Other Guys

The first order of business for Springsteen was new studio music, which came via Human Touch and Lucky Town, a pair of albums released in 1992. While Lucky Town was largely a one-man-band effort (except for Gary Mallaber on drums), Human Touch featured a core band of Springsteen on guitar, Randy Jackson (yes, American Idol’s Randy Jackson) on bass, and Toto’s Jeff Porcaro on drums. E Streeter Roy Bittan was the one member of the old band invited to the party, as he provided keyboards on the record.

Despite a massive media blitz, these records generally underperformed compared to their predecessors in Springsteen’s catalog. Although Human Touch’s band was assembled with the intent of adding more of a rock edge, the overall sound was a tad sterile. And Bruce didn’t exactly come through with a batch of his best songs. (The stripped-down, more intimate Lucky Town was much more effective.)

Next up came the 1992-93 world tour, which again only featured Bittan from the old gang. Bruce beefed up the core group for this tour, including guitarist Shayne Fontayne, bassist Tommy Sims, drummer Zach Alford, and a slew of backing singers. But, notably, Springsteen employed no organist or saxophonist. (Multi-instrumentalist Crystal Taliefero would take the “Born to Run” sax solo made famous by Clarence Clemons.) 

The box office was typically boffo. But the reviews were mixed. And that came from fans as well. When he brought the show to the U.S. with a residency in Summer ‘92 at Brendan Byrne Arena in his home state of New Jersey, Springsteen faced some boos from the faithful, especially when his stage patter revealed his then-current residence as being on the West Coast.

The official live document from that era was also tainted with some controversy. In September of ’92, Springsteen and his new band headed to a Los Angeles studio to deliver an edition of MTV’s famous Unplugged series. But after just one song played acoustic, Springsteen and the band plugged in and played as if it were any other show. Bruce has never given any indication why the switch was made, although many have speculated that he wasn’t pleased with how the acoustic rehearsals went.

In any case, the show was released as In Concert/MTV Plugged. Listening to it now, it’s clear the band acquits itself well on the material (especially on a furious “Light of Day”). You can make the argument that Springsteen and company sacrificed some soul in their quest for heft in those performances, but those musicians certainly weren’t lacking in any way.

Still, there was no way they could hope to replace the E Street Band in the hearts of long-devoted fans of the Boss. When Springsteen toured again, he went out solo. A 1995 greatest hits package included some new songs on which the E Street Band was featured, and a full reunion tour took place in 1999. 

Will we see an Other Band reunion someday? Perhaps not. But they will live on as a fascinating footnote in the career of one of rock’s most beloved musicians.

Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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