When Bruce Springsteen Began His First Major European Tour
By 1981, Bruce Springsteen had spent very little time outside the United States – despite having been a major rock star for six years. That changed on April 7, 1981, when he brought The River tour to Europe at the Congress Centrum in Hamburg.
Springsteen and the E Street Band had only been overseas once before, supporting Born to Run with four shows – two in London, with Stockholm and Amsterdam in between – over a one-week spell in November 1975. This time was a full two-month stretch, with multiple dates in several major cities.
But there was a snag. They were originally supposed to begin with 12 shows in the U.K. starting on March 17. But the grueling North American leg, which began in October 1980 and ran virtually nonstop through March, took its toll on Springsteen. As it was, two dates in February (Indianapolis and Lexington, Ky.) had to be postponed and rescheduled for the end of the leg due to Springsteen's exhaustion. In order to give him more time to recuperate, the U.K. nights were rescheduled.
Dave Marsh's Bruce Springsteen on Tour: 1968-2005 said that it took a while for the reserved West German audience to give the band the reaction it was used to in the States. They didn't get to their feet. in fact, until the last song of the first set: "Badlands," which was introduced by pianist Roy Bittan playing Ennio Morricone's theme from Once Upon a Time in the West. They continued through the second set and the encores, which closed out with a cover of John Fogerty's "Rockin' All Over the World."
But the highlight, according to Marsh, came two weeks later at the Palau Municipal Deportes in Barcelona. Six years earlier, the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco ended his fascist 40-year reign and the oppression of the region of Catalonia. Springsteen was the first American rocker to play Barcelona.
Marsh recalled what he saw: "You could smell freedom busting loose in the air, the yearning the Barcelonans had for what Americans took for granted, [to] feel the desire out there to win something I'd have a hard time defining because I never spent my life being denied it. ... [N]o crowd I've ever been around has proved it all night the way that that one in 1981 did. Not in Barcelona, and not anywhere else. ... It wasn't freedom, it was liberation."
Springsteen and the E Street Band continued through Europe, making up the postponed dates in England and Scotland between May 11 and June 8. They returned to the U.S. to play an anti-nuclear benefit at the Hollywood Bowl a week later. In July, they began another two-and-a-half month tour of the U.S., beginning with the first-ever events at the Brendan Byrne Arena in E. Rutherford, N.J.