Here is a new piece, part of my continued enthusiasm for the music of Bruce Springsteen
“Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland”. How many times have countless Bruce Springsteen fans been thrilled by the evocative opening words of the Darkness on the Edge of Town album? While Born to Run and Born in the USA are the most famous records in Bruce’s career, a substantial body of opinion regards the Darkness album as his masterpiece. Across the thirty seven years since the release of his first discs, through many peaks, and some disappearances from view, Bruce has enjoyed the support of loyal fans. For many of these people the apex of Bruce’s career was 1978, a year that saw the release of Darkness on the Edge of Town, and a lengthy tour across North America, while Bruce has often spoken of the Darkness album as a crucial part of his music and life.
Re-winding five years, Bruce’s debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., and its follow-up, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, had both arrived in 1973, when he was aged 23, achieving a fair degree of critical and commercial success. The real breakthrough was Born to Run, which appeared in 1975, amidst much hype. This proved to be well-founded, as Born to Run is still held by critics to be one of the greatest albums in the history of rock music. Bruce suddenly achieved fame across the USA, being simultaneously featured on the front covers of both Time and Newsweek. The following year, Bruce’s career was put on hold, as he sought to extricate himself from an unfavourable deal with Mike Appel, his manager and record producer. Bruce asserted his position in a lengthy legal battle with Appel, that was not resolved until May 1977.
On June 1 1977 Bruce returned to recording, with John Landau, who had joined the production team for the Born to Run album (and was destined to become Springsteen’s manager), now at the helm in place of Appel. Within a few days of arriving at Atlantic Studios, in New York, Bruce and the E Street Band had recorded versions of 20 songs for possible inclusion on a fourth album. A few months later Bruce had an album’s worth of material nearly ready for release, but he was not satisfied with this, and the record was shelved. There was a change of studio from Atlantic – Bruce was not happy with either the sound or facilities there – to the Record Plant, also in New York, during October. Bruce continued to write and record new songs so that eventually about 70 pieces, some of them variants on other songs, were worked upon for the album. Bruce sought perfection, and continually re-worked his material, as the sessions drifted into 1978. At one point Bruce planned to call the album American Madness – a title borrowed from a 1932 film, directed by Frank Capra, about the Great Depression. Bruce worked through his own madness in the studio, with able support from John Landau, the two men being joint producers of the album, and Steve Van Zandt, who was credited as an assistant. Chuck Plotkin joined in the latter part of the process, to provide important help with the mixing, alongside Jimmy Iovine. After much consideration by Bruce of both song selection and sequencing, a group of recordings from the Record Plant sessions were chosen to be his fourth album.
The album cover featured stark photos, taken by Frank Stefanko, of Bruce stood in a bedroom – although this is not obviously the location. After a trip to the printers to approve the album cover, Bruce returned to the studio for a late remix of The Promised Land, which delayed the appearance of the record. Darkness on the Edge of Town was finally released on June 2 1978. The album contained a new lyrical approach from Bruce, with a hardness in the writing. Out of the dozens of songs recorded across many months, Bruce presented a set of ten tracks which portrayed the lives of working people, struggling amidst a gathering recession in the USA, but living lives of decency, and hoping for a better future. The overblown music of Born to Run was replaced with a leaner instrumental sound, which Bruce subsequently revealed had been influenced by the recent emergence of punk rock.
This collection of songs, each of which Bruce sang in the first person, was given unity by several recurring themes. The words “darkness” / “dark” appear in six of the tracks, while nine of them feature the “night” / “tonight”. “They” are mentioned in eight songs, with a general suggestion of nameless people who exert a negative influence (admittedly on The Promised Land “they” are “the dogs on main street”). “Work” / “worked” / “working” form part of six songs, and so do the words “dream” / “dreams”. Six is also the number of songs in which Bruce and his characters are found “driving” / “racing” / “riding”, or mentioning the names of cars. There are references to “blood” in four of the tracks, and the same number of songs use the word “born”. There is also time for “love” / “loved” in four of the songs on the album.
The album is greater than the sum of its parts, and the songs speak louder than a commentary, but a track-by-track review may provide some illumination of Darkness. The record opens with Badlands, a song destined to become one of Bruce’s concert anthems, with the enigmatic suggestion that “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive”. Adam Raised a Cain, one of Bruce’s songs about family, is given a wider context with Biblical allusions. Something in the Night sees Bruce struggling against some faceless oppression. Candy’s Room is one of Bruce’s many songs about girls, but different to those of the past – Candy being a hard girl from Easy Street. In the old days of LPs, the first side closed with Racing in the Street, as Bruce hops into a 69 Chevy with a 396, to ride with his partner Sonny, and then an un-named girl. The instrumental passage at the end of the song is a moment of warmth – which has been powerfully extended in live performances. The second half opens with The Promised Land, a stirring tale of optimism and dignity, which echoes Badlands. Factory is the shortest song on the album (at 2 minutes 17 seconds), and understated, but an affecting tale about the rigours of work. Streets of Fire depicts a dramatic struggle against un-named forces. Prove It All Night is a great rock’n’roll love song, but one in which the battle against people lurking in the background – defined as “they” – is still real. The record closes with Darkness on the Edge of Town, the title track being the defining moment of the album, the tale of a man who seems to be fighting a losing battle in his life, but resolves to keep the struggle going. Bruce explained the outlook of the Darkness album in an interview with Tony Parsons, for the New Musical Express: “The characters ain’t kids, they’re older – you been beat you been hurt. But there’s still hope, there’s always hope. They throw dirt on you all your life, and some people get buried so deep in the dirt that they’ll never get out. The album’s about people who will never admit that they’re buried that deep”.
On May 23 1978, shortly before the release of Darkness, Bruce and the E Street Band set off on a tour of the USA, plus a few hops across the border to Canada, that was to stretch until the first day of 1979. Liberated from the pressures of the recording studio, and back performing in front of their fans for the first time since March 1977, Bruce and the band provided epic entertainment, with shows stretching towards three hours. The concerts received rave reviews, and led to a growth in Bruce’s reputation. A recording of Prove It All Night, from Berkeley on July 1, with the instrumental Paradise by the Sea, from the same show, as the B side, was prepared for a promotional single. Prove It All Night was a great version, with a lengthy instrumental opening, in which Bruce’s powerful guitar work was prominent. Paradise by the Sea used the melody of So Young and In Love, a Darkness out-take. The promotional record was cancelled, but the two recordings were issued to radio stations, and film of Bruce and the band performing Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), at Phoenix on July 8, was subsequently released to television companies, bringing footage of the exuberance of the live show to a wider audience.
Initial excitement about the album was tempered by disappointment, from the perspective of fans, that several major songs were omitted from Darkness, as Bruce felt they did not fit in with his concept. The inclusion of some of these songs, either in a double album, or as replacements for lesser tracks (Something in the Night and Streets of Fire spring to mind – both being made a bit over-dramatic by Bruce’s hollering) could have improved the record. The most significant omission was The Promise, which Bruce thought was too personal, as a song about himself. This tale of hopes and dreams which have been thwarted – or even betrayed – was a brilliant sequel to Thunder Road from the Born to Run album. There were suggestions that the song was a comment upon Bruce’s legal struggle with Mike Appel, to which Bruce responded by saying “I don’t write songs about lawsuits”. The Promise, which was first performed in August 1976, can be seen as a wider comment upon the way in which Bruce’s innocent dreams of rock’n’roll stardom were betrayed, starting with the hype surrounding Born to Run, before the culmination of the legal struggle with Appel. Dave Marsh, in Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, published in 1979, suggested that The Promise deals with “the price everyone pays for success – and the dangers of settling for anything less”. Marsh added that the song may possibly have been inspired by Greil Marcus’ book Mystery Train, an exploration of the place of rock music in the culture of the USA. Marsh is married to Barbara Carr, a member of Bruce’s management team, and we can be confident he knows more about these things than most people, but the link to Mystery Train has seldom been taken up as an explanation of the song. Sometimes an artist’s motivations are sub-conscious, and it is possible to see the words “all my life, I fought this fight, the fight that no man can ever win” as an example of Bruce battling with his obsessive methods. Bruce recorded Because the Night, but decided not to use it. A tape of the song was passed to Patti Smith, working on her Easter album at the same studio complex as Bruce, by Jimmy Iovine. He was multi-tasking (or multi-tracking), as engineer on Bruce’s album and producer of Patti’s record. Patti wrote some changes to the lyrics, with Bruce’s approval, and had a major hit with her version of Because the Night, which was released in the Spring of 1978, a few weeks before the arrival of Bruce’s album. Bruce’s songwriting collaboration with Patti Smith, the “High Priestess of Punk”, would have strengthened the musical theme of the Darkness record. Fire was a song that Bruce submitted to Elvis Presley shortly before the latter’s death. Bruce subsequently passed the torch to Robert Gordon, who released Fire as a single in 1978, with Bruce playing piano. A cover version by the Pointer Sisters arrived later that year. Hearts of Stone and Talk to Me were recorded by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, featuring on their Hearts of Stone album in 1978. A couple of other songs from the Darkness sessions, Frankie and Rendezvous, were known to Bruce’s fans from live performances. The next few years saw the appearance of bootlegs covering out-takes from the Darkness sessions, and also concerts from the 1978 tour. The studio bootlegs showed that Bruce had recorded many impressive songs that were omitted from Darkness. Drive All Night, Independence Day, Ramrod, and Sherry Darling were each subsequently re-recorded, and released on The River in 1980. Other great recordings from the Darkness sessions included Don’t Look Back, Outside Looking In, Preacher’s Daughter, Spanish Eyes, and The Way. There were also Candy’s Boy and The Fast Song, two pieces which merged to become Candy’s Room.
As far back as the mid-1970s, fans had been asking Bruce to release a live album. In 1984 Bruce, interviewed by David Hepworth for a BBC The Old Grey Whistle Test profile, said that the absence of a live album stemmed from his belief that the excitement of a concert could not be caught on a recording. Bruce did, however, express an interesting alternative view: “There are songs that I want to re-record, that I was unhappy with the original studio recordings of. Mainly the Darkness album, which was a record that I thought had some of my best songs, but I always felt was a little dry recording-wise. I felt we kinda underplayed and oversang a little bit. That stuff sounds quite a bit different in performance, and I’d be interested in getting different versions of some of those songs”. A live album finally arrived in 1986, in the form of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band Live / 1975-85, a brilliant five LP box set (or three CDs for those who had moved on to the new format). Six songs from Darkness were included (the omissions being Something in the Night, Factory, Streets of Fire, and Prove It All Night), but only Adam Raised a Cain was a recording from the 1978 tour. The remainder of the Darkness songs were performances from 1980, 1981, and 1985 – including a version of Badlands that Bruce used to open a show in Arizona on the night after Ronald Reagan won his first Presidential election. The live set brought the first official release of both Fire and Because the Night (from concerts in 1978 and 1980 respectively). Non-Darkness songs from 1978 tour included Backstreets and Rosalita (Come Out Tonight). There was also a version of Paradise by the ‘C’ recorded at the Roxy in Los Angeles, six days after that planned for a promotional single, with a slightly new spelling of the title. The appearance of Paradise by the ‘C’ was paradoxical, given that the promotional version of Prove It All Night was omitted from the live box set – the latter recording has still not been officially released. Following the appearance of the live album, Bruce declared himself pleased with the results, as the concert versions gave a new perspective on his music: “I was never completely satisfied with any of the recorded versions of things we did – certainly not before The River. I never felt the band learned to play in the studio before The River. On Badlands or Darkness, the live versions are the way that stuff was supposed to sound. And we couldn’t have ever got that in the studio, even if we had been playing well – because the audience allows you to attack something with a lot more intensity, and if you did it the same in the studio, it would sound overdone or oversung”.
Bruce disbanded the E Street Band in 1989, and embarked on a new phase of his career, which proved to be far from prolific. After releasing Human Touch and Lucky Town as simultaneous albums in 1992 (nearly five years on from their predecessor, Tunnel of Love), Bruce toured with a new, and nameless, band in both 1992 and 1993. An MTV special from 1992 was released as the In Concert: MTV Plugged live album the following year, featuring a new version of Darkness on the Edge of Town. There was a brief reunion between Bruce and the E Street Band in 1995, for a recording session that provided some new songs for a Greatest Hits album. The only track from the Darkness set in this collection was Badlands, with Bruce writing in the liner notes: “This was the record, Darkness on the Edge of Town, where I figured out what I wanted to write about, the people that mattered to me, and who I wanted to be. I saw friends and family struggling to lead decent, productive lives and I felt an everyday kind of heroism in this. Still do”. Columbia expected long-time fans of Bruce to buy a CD that was mostly old material, that they presumably already owned, in order to obtain four previously unreleased tracks, but the return of the E Street Band was pleasing. Bruce and the band filmed some promotional videos together, but a few months later Bruce released The Ghost of Tom Joad as a virtually solo album (although there were some contributions from other musicians, including Danny Federici, Patti Scialfa, and Garry Tallent). Bruce also set off on a lengthy solo tour, with the E Street Band left at a loose end.
Tracks, the quadruple CD set released in 1998, brought together out-takes and rarities from across Bruce’s career. Similarly to the live set that appeared in 1986, this was something that aficionados had wanted for many years, and the Tracks collection was an outstanding alternative route through Bruce’s music. There were, however, some rather odd choices, in terms of both inclusions and omissions. Five out-takes from Darkness appeared in the collection, namely Give the Girl a Kiss, Iceman, So Young and in Love, Hearts of Stone, and Don’t Look Back. There was also a live version of Rendezvous, but from a concert on The River tour in 1980. This still left many songs from the Darkness sessions unreleased, and there was widespread surprise (to put it mildly) that The Promise had not appeared on Tracks, while space had been found for many lesser songs. Bruce explained he was not happy with a recording he had of The Promise from the Darkness sessions, feeling it was “plodding”. The release of Tracks prompted the appearance of one of best of the Bruce bootlegs, Deep Down in the Vaults, a triple CD of unreleased studio and live tracks spanning Bruce’s career to date. There were five pieces from the Darkness sessions, including a previously unknown version of The Promise, which was slow, stark, and awesome.
Tracks was followed in 1999 by 18 Tracks. Four years after Greatest Hits, fans of Bruce were given the choice by Columbia of buying an album that was mostly taken from Tracks in order to acquire three previously unreleased recordings. Many people did so, as 18 Tracks featured The Promise, with the song finally being officially available. It was not, however, a version of The Promise with the E Street Band from the Darkness sessions. Instead it was a new solo recording, from 1999, with Bruce simply singing and playing a piano. Bruce had carried out some overdubs for the recordings on Tracks, and touchingly recalled Vincent Lopez, sacked from the band in 1974, for a beefing up of Thundercrack. Lopez immediately returned to relative obscurity of playing with local bands in New Jersey, but the box set re-appraisal of Bruce’s career was followed by another revival of the past. High hopes of a lasting reunion between Bruce and the E Street Band, planted in 1995, reached fruition with a world tour during 1999 and 2000. Live in New York City, released in 2001, was a double CD of recordings from a couple of shows at Madison Square Garden the previous year. This included Badlands and Prove It All Night (this live version was nowhere near as good as that from 1978), plus Don’t Look Back. The DVD of the concerts had some extra songs, among them Darkness on the Edge of Town and The Promise, the latter being performed by Bruce as a solo piece with piano.
The Rising, Bruce’s response to the tragic events of September 11 2001, was released in 2002, being his first album of new material since The Ghost of Tom Joad, seven years earlier. The next few years saw regular record releases and concerts by Bruce, including The Rising world tour with the E Street Band, during 2002 and 2003. Columbia issued The Essential Bruce Springsteen in 2003, this being a triple CD retrospective, in which the first two discs featured 30 of Bruce’s best recordings across his career. These two discs were basically an expanded update of Greatest Hits, with 12 songs appearing in each collection. The 2003 compilation featured three pieces from Darkness, namely Badlands, the title track, and The Promised Land. In his liner notes, Bruce mentioned a few omitted songs that fans might think should have been there, with Racing in the Street being one of these. The disc of rare or previously unreleased material that completed The Essential Bruce Springsteen could be seen as an extension of Tracks, but the earliest material came from 1979, and there was not anything there related to Darkness.
Two years later another re-packaging arrived, as Born to Run: 30th Anniversary Edition was issued in 2005. A digitally remastered CD version of the album was combined with two DVDs, one being Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run, which was a documentary, while the other disc was film of a famous (or infamous) concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, from a few weeks after release of the original album. The DVDs were excellent, but the lack of any new music in CD form was disappointing. Admittedly few songs other than the eight featured on the album had been recorded, but there were some extra tracks available, plus interesting alternative versions of the songs that appeared on Born to Run.
Fans hoped that an expanded version of Darkness would follow to mark that album’s thirtieth anniversary. When 2008 arrived, Bruce had a hectic schedule, touring and recording Working on a Dream, plus campaigning for Barack Obama in the US Presidential Election. Plans for a Darkness reissue were put on hold, although at the start of 2009 John Landau confirmed that a re-release was intended when time permitted. For the moment, there was a different reissue of material, as in January 2009 a second Greatest Hits album was released, this time billed as by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. The album was initially available in the USA, Canada, and Australia, featuring just 12 tracks. An expanded version, with 18 tracks, was released in Europe in June 2009. The collection was doubtless bought by completists, who already owned some of the individual recordings several times. The new Greatest Hits featured tracks starting in 1973 and concluding in 2007, but there was an eighteen year gap between 1984 and 2002. Part of this chasm was due to Bruce’s split from the E Street Band from 1989 to 1999, but the gap could have been lessened with tracks from the 1987 album Tunnel of Love, and Live in New York City, recorded in 2000. A further bridging of the gap with something from Bruce’s 1995 session with the band for that year’s Greatest Hits collection would have been a neat touch. Both the initial and expanded albums featured Badlands and Darkness on the Edge of Town. The inclusion of Because the Night and Fire (from Live / 1975-85) on the expanded version meant that 4 of the 18 songs stemmed from the Darkness-era. This was testament to the importance of Darkness in Bruce’s career, and possibly an admission from Bruce that he should have made more of Because the Night and Fire.
At the end of 2009, John Landau specifically said that a Darkness box set was 93 per cent complete. Landau’s figure subsequently proved to be misfounded, due to a return of perfectionism from Bruce, who went into Thrill Hill Recording during the Summer of 2010, to add overdubs to some of the Darkness out-takes. In August, Columbia announced details of a Darkness box set, the large scale of which had fans excited. The next few weeks saw the cinema release of a documentary film, which would be included in the box set, and the trailing of both audio and video clips from the collection on the Internet.
The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, released on November 15 2010, is an incredible box set, featuring three CDs, three DVDs, and a book. In one of the most audacious re-packagings of material in the history of rock music, Bruce’s masterpiece, a 43 minute album, has been expanded into discs that stretch to eight and a half hours of music and film. This is story-telling in the grand manner. The presentation is impressive, with the box holding the book, into which the individual discs are inserted at intervals. The CD of Darkness on the Edge of Town is a digitally remastered version, produced by Bob Ludwig on June 2 2010, thirty two years to the day after the original album was released. There is a clear improvement in the sound quality on the new version. Amidst the continuation of a severe world recession, that had been triggered by a crisis in the banking system in 2007, the lyrical themes of Bruce’s Darkness album remain as relevant as they had been back in 1978.
The original record is followed by The Promise, a double CD, which was simultaneously released as a stand-alone album. This is a hypothetical album that could have been released between Born to Run and Darkness. The Promise features 22 songs, which were outtakes from the Darkness sessions, with several tracks having been partly re-recorded, apart from Save My Love, which was a new recording in 2010 of a song written ahead of Darkness. The highlights of the album are the title track and Because the Night. The appearance of The Promise meant that a version of this song from 1977-78 had finally received official release, but there were flaws, as one verse was missing without explanation, while the addition of a string arrangement detracted from the starkness of the original design. Because the Night had Bruce singing Patti Smith’s lyrics, which suggested a new vocal track from 2010, given that Bruce had consistently used his lyrics in live performances. Racing in the Street (’78) was a rougher alternative to the version previously released, with some different lyrics (the 69 Chevy being swapped for a 32 Ford). Come On (Let’s Go Tonight) was a prototype for Factory, and Candy’s Boy later became Candy’s Room. The studio original of Fire was longer than the live track from 1978, with the former lacking some of the greatness of the latter. On the other hand, the studio Rendezvous was as good as the live version from 1980 that had appeared on Tracks. The Promise also delivered top quality recordings of several other songs known to fans for many years, such as Gotta Get that Feeling, Outside Looking In, Spanish Eyes, and Wrong Side of the Street. The Way featured as a hidden song at the end of the album, on the same track as City at Night. The five songs from the Darkness sessions that appeared on Tracks were not used again on The Promise. At the end of the process, there had still not been an official release of Preacher’s Daughter or The Fast Song.
The book within the box set opens with two essays by Bruce. The first, covering the Darkness album, previously appeared in Songs, Bruce’s book of lyrics, published in 1998. The second essay is a new piece from Bruce, in which he writes about the choices that led to the content of the Darkness album, and the discarding of much substantial material. With a slight exaggeration, Bruce suggests that the songs on Darkness, the relevant outtakes on Tracks, plus the songs now on The Promise could have filled four albums. Bruce also writes about the musical influences that helped shape the songs recorded during the Darkness sessions. The remainder of the book combines copies of pages in Bruce’s notebook from the Darkness-sessions (with lyric and song selection ideas), the final lyrics to that album, photos of Bruce and the band, concert posters, and a newspaper report. There is also a separate insert with the lyrics of The Promise album. The book stands as a great document, combining insight into Bruce’s working methods with nostalgia.
The DVD content starts with The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town. This is a fascinating documentary about the Darkness sessions, combining film of Bruce, the band, and the production team in the studio, with recollections from the same participants filmed in recent years. Bruce recalls that when he worked on Darkness, “More than rich, more than famous, more than happy, I wanted to be great”. In black and white film from the studio, Bruce is shown facing the frustrations of attempting to deliver his vision, something that, supported by the band and production team, he eventually achieved. The cover for the DVD has a photo of Bruce sat at a petrol station, in the night, which had been considered for the cover of Darkness. During the film, Bruce talks about his obsessive compulsive methods. Bruce expanded upon this theme in an interview with Brian Williams, broadcast on NBC’s The Today Show, a few weeks before the release of the box set. Bruce said “your OCD comes in handy” when Williams asked about the drive to make Darkness on the Edge of Town a great record. Bruce suggested: “Madness is not to be underrated. Madness in the appropriate place, and sometimes at the service of an aesthetic ideal, can help you get to higher ground sometimes”.
The second DVD features two pieces, present and past. First there is film of a performance of each of the songs from Darkness on the Edge of Town by Bruce and the E Street Band. Taking place in 2009, this is a spirited show, but its setting at an empty theatre in Asbury Park is rather unusual. The aim was to re-create the stark atmosphere of the album, by playing the songs without an audience. With the songs having developed in live performance over the years, Bruce had realised the suggestion he made about re-recording Darkness in 1984, albeit in film rather than on a record. The second half of this disc consists of Thrill Hill Vault, 1976-1978, which has film of Bruce and the band rehearsing / recording / performing 12 songs. These include a portrayal of a studio version of The Promise. The disc concludes with five songs filmed at Phoenix during 1978, including the familiar performance of Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), and a great Prove It All Night.
The final disc in The Promise set is Houston ’78 Bootleg: House Cut, the film of an entire concert, lasting a few minutes short of three hours. The quality of the film is not quite as good as at Phoenix, but the performance by Bruce and the E Street Band is amazing. The concert features seven songs from Darkness (the exclusions being Adam Raised a Cain, Factory, and Something in the Night), along with Because the Night, Fire, and Independence Day. There were also appearances from The Ties that Bind and Point Blank, new songs since the Darkness sessions that would feature on The River. Reverting to tradition, the concert included renditions by Bruce of other great material, including Spirit in the Night, Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), The Fever, Born to Run, Thunder Road, and Jungleland. The concert DVD is a fitting conclusion to a brilliant set, which belatedly, but with brilliance, tells the full story of the central sequence in Bruce Springsteen’s career. The response from fans, many of whom had been hoping for something like this for more than thirty years, was ecstatic. Across the various elements of The Promise, an amazing tale of Bruce’s artistic creation is told, expanding the mystique of “wanting things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town”.