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2023/4 Albums Thing 330 - Bruce Springsteen “Darkness On The Edge Of Town”

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Following the arrival of Jon Landau as producer of “Born To Run” and subsequently as his manager, replacing Mike Appel, Springsteen sued Appel in July 1976 to win back ownership of his work. The court case had the knock-on effect of preventing Springsteen from recording for a year, during which time he and the E Street Band played every 2nd and 3rd rate venue and town in America. The legalities were settled in May 1977 and he was ready to record again.

During the absence from the studio Springsteen wrote up to 70 new songs and sessions began on June 1st 1977 for what would become “Darkness On The Edge Of Town”. These sessions were far from quick and far from easy. The lawsuit with Appel was settled on 28th May 1977 and Springsteen and his band started recording 4 days later. The sessions ran until March of 1978 across two studios (Atlantic and the Record Plant) with Springsteen demanding perfection from his bandmates while giving them very little idea what he actually wanted.

Of the reported 70 songs written for these sessions 32 are known to have been recorded. 10 made it to the album, three (“Independence Day”, “Sherry Darling” and “Ramrod”) were held over for his next release and many of the others were gifted to other artists: "Hearts of Stone" and "Talk to Me" to Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, "Because The Night" to Patti Smith, "Fire" to Robert Gordon, "Rendezvous" to Greg Kihn, "Don't Look Back" to the Knack and "This Little Girl" to Gary U.S. Bonds. Many of the leftover songs (22 of them in fact) were finally released in one form or another in 2010 as the album “The Promise”***. 

“Badlands” kicks things off with a drum roll and a classic Roy Bittan piano intro but the opening lyrics aren’t telling us of bucolic scenes and visions of Mary, things are altogether less idyllic “Light's out tonight, Trouble in the heartland, Got a head-on collision, Smashin' in my guts, man, Caught in a crossfire, That I don't understand”. A darker scene is set for what is to follow.

“Adam Raised a Cain” is the first installment in Springsteen’s look at relationships between a father and a son, a subject he would return to again and again. “Something In The Night” begins as though we’ve broken through some clouds into the bright sunlight but the lyrics tell a different story of being alone, drinking, driving listening to the radio and always coming back to “something in the night”, a metaphor for depression (?), something Springsteen has admitted to wrestling with for years. 

Side One closes with with one of my absolute favourite of Springsteen’s songs, “Racing In The Street”. The chorus is based on Martha & The Vandellas “Dancing In The Street” (“Summer’s here and the time is right for racing in the street”) the song however is so much less upbeat than any Motown. The two main characters could easily be the boy and girl from “Thunder Road” or “Born To Run” but instead of showing a little faith or busting out of here their lives have taken another turn. He races cars while she, instead of dancing, “sits on the porch of her Daddy’s house” where “all her pretty dreams are torn”. These aren’t the hopeful dreamers anymore, these are people upon whom the world has settled its woes and started to crush them. It’s an utterly beautiful song and Roy Bittan’s closing piano offers hope that their lives will be better after they’ve been to sea “to wash these sins off our hands”. I’ve been waiting since I first saw Springsteen in 1981 to hear it live again, if that happens in Cardiff on Sunday (he has been playing it on this tour) there might be tears.

“The Promised Land” opens Side Two with a title that seems to offer something a little less ominous, and indeed it begins on a more optimistic note with our subject working hard and ready to take charge of his life. But by songs end he can see the dark clouds and the approaching storm, hoping it might “Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and broken hearted”. In a glimmer of hope though he still believes in a Promised Land.

“Factory” transforms “Born To Run”s “Mansions of glory” into ”mansions of fear” and “mansions of pain” in a song generally about working men yet specifically about his Dad and the effect factory life had on their family. “Streets of Fire” is desparate, it doesn’t like itself, it’s the sound of loneliness and giving up. Bruce’s voice and Danny Federici’s swirling Hammond organ at the start give it the sound of a funeral dirge to go with lyrics like “I live now, only with strangers, I talk to only strangers, I walk with angels that have no place”.

“Prove It All Night” was this albums lead single and has become an important song in Springsteen’s cannon. It was the 2nd song on the set list the first time I saw him, it was the 3rd song on the set list the last time I saw him 42 years later. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how well you do in life, you gotta prove yourself over again every time, the never ending struggle is  what is being related. The album closes with its title track. Again, like “Racing In The Street”, our protaganists could well be the boy and girl from “Thunder Road” or “Born To Run” but the ensuing years have dragged them down. They’ve parted, she has moved on, he is resigned to a life alone. It’s a beautiful if tragic song with another wonderful performance by Roy Bittan.

“Darkness On The Edge Of Town” is structured very much like “Born To Run”, each side is bookended by big statement songs (“Badlands” and “Racing In The Street” on side 1, “The Promised Land” and title song on side 2) while the other songs fill in the details between. But if “Born To Run” was built from pure romantic fantasy, “Darkness On The Edge of Town” presents the flipside of harsh reality. 

The sound of “Darkness…” is markedly different to its predecessor, where “Born To Run” was made in cinematic, widescreen technicolour “Darkness…” is smaller, more claustrophobic, taughter (more taught ?), it’s all very tense, not quite black and white but definitely closer to sepia tinted. I’m not saying it sounds rushed but there is a feeling of urgency about it. Some drum parts sound unfinished, there is a hint of out of tune-ness about some guitar parts. It has an air of “we’ve done that let’s get on to the next thing” about it all. The mix is very dry and flat (well that’s what it sounds like to me).

The clue is right there in the title isn’t it ? “Darkness On The Edge of Town” is dark. If “Born To Run” was the early morning sunlight and the bright lights of the city then “Darkness…” is the dusk followed by endless night. It’s not asking you to take chances, it’s telling you how your life might be after living out those dreams, the characters are less carefree and definitely feeling the pressures of what their lives have become.

Springsteen said of this album in a 1987 interview “That whole Darkness record was about that [what happens after you realise the dream]. I wanted to come back and confront some things. What had happened after “Born to Run” ? Where were my friends ? Where were the people that mattered to me ? My frivolous little trip–okay, it was fun, but in and of itself it just didn’t hold enough to keep me very fascinated.”

Racing In The Street - https://youtu.be/cm9UuM3UXdc?si=1dgtV9Oc9aFU5T0u

*** A quick note on my feelings about “The Promise”. It seems to be regarded these days as an “official” Springsteen release rather than a compilation of unreleased material (see “Tracks”). It’s one of the very few Springsteen official releases I don’t own on vinyl (“Live In New York City”, the plugged in Unplugged album and “Only The Strong Survive” among them). I do own “The Promise” on CD and I’ve listened to it quite a lot in an attempt to discover what it is about it that sends some of The Bosses fans into absolute raptures. To me it sounds like exactly what it is which is, with very few exceptions (“Because The Night” and “Fire”), a collection of substandard demo’s and outtakes. I can’t think of anything on “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” that I would lose to be replaced by anything from “The Promise”.

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