“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.
Frustratingly, 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.