Least to Most: Bruce – The Promise

“When the promise is broken you go on living
But it steals something from down in your soul
Like when the truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference
Something in your heart goes cold”

Three years separated the release of Springsteen’s star-making Born To Run and its follow-up Darkness on the Edge of Town. If you look at it on paper, even factoring in the long tour for BTR, that’s a big chunk of time for an artist that needs to prove he’s more than a Newsweek and Time double cover and hype. But, due to legal and contractual malarkey with his former manager Mike Appel, Bruce was forbidden from entering a recording studio and releasing new music.

bruce_springsteen_-_the_promiseFrustratingly, this was also right at the point that Bruce was hitting his prolific stride in terms of song writing. So when, four days after his lawsuit with Appel was finished*, he finally hit the studio in May 1977 he was over-flowing with ideas and laid down eight songs in the first night alone. The take of ‘Something in the Night’ from this first session made the album. By the time recording for Darkness on the Edge of Town finished in January 1978 , Jimmy Iovine estimated that some thirty songs had been recorded and readied for release (and probably just as many in a less-refined state) – a huge increase in output when you consider that there were perhaps seven out-takes for BTR and albums prior, most of which only ever made it to raw mixing stages.

So what happened to those other songs? For a long time nothing. Some (‘Don’t Look Back’, ‘Hearts of Stone’, ‘Iceman’, ‘Give the Girl a Kiss’) were released twenty years later on Tracks. ‘The Promise’ was played live a couple of times and caused uproar when it wasn’t released on that box set (Bruce recorded a ‘new’ version in 1999 for 18 Tracks as partial recompense) along with a handful of others which became solid bootleg items but, for the most part, nobody outside of the group heard ’em.

Until 2010 when, while putting together a slightly-late retrospective package for Darkness on the Edge of Town, the songs were revisited. Most of the 22 (there’s an uncredited one at the end) are presented as-is, some had new vocals added and one was completely re-recorded by Bruce and the Darkness era E Street band, making the chiming, delightful ‘Save My Love’ the final recording session for Clarence Clemons.

‘The Promise’ was written as something of a sequel to ‘Thunder Road’ and appeared on likely track listings for Darkness almost until the last minute. One of his most-revered out-takes, Bruce felt it too soon after the release of ‘Thunder Road’ and that it threatened to over-shadow the rest of the album as well as not finding it in tune with the general theme of Darkness.

Originally released as part of  the box set The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, then later as a stand-along (though the box set is well worth investment) The Promise is more than a compilation of ‘lost songs’. More a ‘lost album’ in my opinion – it’s not only packed with previously unheard gems but really shows the evolution of Bruce’s songwriting. The choices he’d make in terms of cutting and refining down to get the sound he wanted for Darkness as well as showing the range of directions he could’ve gone down and just how comfortable he was with each.

There’s gorgeous pop songs in ‘Gotta Get That Feeling’, ‘Rendezvous’ and ‘The Little Things (My Baby Does)’ that must’ve been a massive delight for Steven Van Zandt when they finally saw the light of day. The slashing guitar player believes it’s “just full of some of my favorite things ever in Bruce’s history. That is now neck-and-neck with my favorite E Street album, which is the second disc of the Tracks box set”.

There’s the old-school R&B feel with songs like ‘Ain’t Good Enough for You’ (with a shout out to the up & coming Iovine) and even his recording of the the song he wrote for Elvis Presley – ‘Fire’ – which he and Steve jammed up in about 20 minutes (The Pointer Sisters would have a huge hit with it) and his own ‘Because The Night’.

This album also showcases just how much of a craftsman Bruce is – the early versions of songs that would make Darkness here demonstrate just how determined he was to work a song to get it to perfection. Take ‘Racing in the Street ’78’ as an example, how many other artists would release the version included here once they’d hit it? Not Bruce; he refined this further, working on the details until a line like “Other guys do it cause they don’t know what else they can do,  well and they just hang around in an empty home, waking up in a world that somebody else owns, and tonight tonight the strip’s just right…” became that beautiful punching line “Some guys they just give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece. Some guys come home from work and wash up, and go racin’ in the street”.

It’s also a real insight into the creative process to hear ‘Candy’s Boy’ as something of an E Street waltz before Bruce took his axe to it and turned it into the turbo-charged (really been listening to a lot of The Boss’ car songs) ‘Candy’s Room’ for Darkness or the ‘Come On (Let’s Go Out Tonight)’ would be similarly parred down into ‘Factory’. Not only that but, in the same way as Tracks would reveal, Bruce would take a ‘discarded’ song and strip it for parts when he needed to make another song work. Any fan listening to ‘Spanish Eye’s for example is going to sit up in their car seat (or comfy chair) and say “hang on a bloody second”**…

But… but BUT. Here’s the thing. They all work in these versions too. The Promise is a fantastic album not just because it shows the different paths Bruce and these songs could’ve taken after Born To Run but because these songs are so fucking good as they are; they’re peak-period Springsteen songs recorded and mixed to a releasable state backed by one of the finest bands of its time. They could all just as easily made up an album and it would still be a solid contender. I’ve had this album spinning in my car again for the last week and I still keep stumbling across moments that make me go “shit, how did I miss that on first listen?”

While the songs here certainly point the way to what Darkness on the Edge of Town would become, they represent a ‘lost’ album, highlighting what was a very productive time for Bruce. It really isn’t just a collection of off-cuts, it’s a real insight into a creative genius hitting its stride and I’d gladly recommend that any ‘Springsteen newbie’ check out the songs on these two discs to discover what he’s all about than many a weaker studio album ‘proper’.

Highlights: ‘Racing in the Street – ’78’, ‘Gotta Get That Feeling’. ‘Wrong Side of the Street’, ‘Save My Love’, ‘It’s A Shame’, ‘Breakaway’, ‘The Promise’.

Not-so highlights: Again, pretty much into solid gold rankings now.


*Appel got $800,000 and retained 50% of rights to songs from up to and including BTR.

** or the less-British version. Interestingly the lyrics listed for this one on Springsteen’s site are nothing like the version on The Promise which begs the question as to how many versions of ‘Spanish Eyes’ there are.

20 thoughts on “Least to Most: Bruce – The Promise

  1. Ok, I guess I was asleep that year. I never heard of this album. So, some serious listening to do. This is the week before XMAS and so, not much else to do other than wrap presents.

  2. You know, at the great risk of being drummed out of the “Bloggers Bruce Springsteen Fan Club,” it may take me longer to get to this than I expected. I started to listen to it and I think I’m just burned out oh the Bruce sound and thus, unable to adequately judge. Some of the ones you have upcoming I can comment on without listening. But this one is gonna take a while I’m afraid.

  3. I needed a Bruce break but decided to listen to some of this last night anyway. Got about as far as “Because the Night” and so not yet ready for complete commentary. But I wanted to just jump in here and say that there may be no more quintessential Springsteen song than “Racing in the Street.” But that I don’t mean it’s the best per se. Great song. But if somebody had never heard Springsteen and wanted me to hand them a song that captured the essence of his sound, this would certainly be high on the list.

    • Racing In The Street has it all… I especially love the “just give up living line”. I think the version on here shows that as good he is at refining a song down to its very essence the original ‘draft’ isn’t all that rough either

      • Ooh blimey. That’s a question and a half there. I think it would be something from this era, maybe Racing or BtR… I think, though, given his range it’d be tough to whittle it town to one. I think you’d need three.
        In terms of lyrics this one is up there. I am taking a Bruce Break but I could easily see a favourite Springsteen lyrics. I think lines like “the runway lies ahead like a great false dawn” are often overlooked

      • Ok. I will make my way through the remainder of the album and report back, likely by the weekend. I will also think about my three quintessential Bruce songs and perhaps some choice lyrics. Enjoy your well-earned Bruce break and I look forward to the next batch. This is a tough job but, well, somebody’s gotta do it. -D

      • It’s all metaphors for Bruce I think. I have finally started reading his autobiography. It’s interesting that he wasn’t even able to drive when they made that death-defying, hilarious-if-it-wasn’t-so-damn-scary drive to California in an old truck. Shades of, of … Tom Joad! 😀

  4. “The Promise is more than a compilation of ‘lost songs’. More a ‘lost album’ in my opinion” – Exactly so! This is a fantastic release that further cements Springsteen’s place in the Rock firmament.

  5. Finally made my way through this today. What a terrific album! In some senses, more reminiscent of the earlier albums. When ‘Darkness’ was released I feared that Springsteen was getting too heavy, taking himself a little too seriously. So I wish he had perhaps used some of these songs and/or made it a double album a la The River. There’s a real strong late ’50’s, early ’60’s feel to some of this stuff. I LOVE ‘Ain’t Good Enough For You.’ Alas I am lukewarm on ‘Wrong Side of the Street.’ It just seems like Bruce has a hundred songs that sound like it. I don’t own ‘Darkness’on CD so at some point I’ll pick up the box set. Thanks.

    • The box set is definitely worth it. There’s some early River songs (Point Blank) in their live debut and the documentary footage is genuinely insightful – if only for Bruce’s afro.
      Another example of just how many songs he has to choose from when it comes to putting out the final track listing.

      • On its face, there’s no question its worth it. But the questions I always ask myself are: where does THIS hundred bucks come from and will I really even listen to it as much as I’d want. I think I may have mentioned this already but I bought the September 2016 Springsteen show I went to. I downloaded it for twenty dollars. It’s a four-hour show. Four months later I have listened to, I think, five songs. So, as with everything, it’s time and money.

      • I’ve tried to explain to my wife that we need a ‘concert/CD box set/rock biography/travel to UK to see Clapton’ fund but she, apparently selfishly, remains unconvinced. 😀

  6. Pingback: Least to Most: Bruce – Tracks | Mumbling About…

  7. Pingback: Least to Most; Bruce – I’m just around the corner to the light of day | Mumbling About…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s