Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’: 10 Things You Didn’t Know
“There is a certain frightening aspect to having things you dreamed were going to happen happen, because it’s always more – and in some ways always less – than what you expected,” Bruce Springsteen told Rolling Stone in 1987, recalling the genesis of his classic 1978 album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. “I think when people dream of things, they dream of them without the complications. The real dream is not the dream, it’s life without complications. And that doesn’t exist.”
Springsteen’s rock & roll dreams had come true in 1975 with the release of his third album, Born to Run. Wildly praised by critics, the album rose all the way to Number Three on the Billboard 200 – with the title track making it to Number 21 on the singles chart – landed Springsteen simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek, and firmly established him as a new rock hero for the 1970s.
But with Born to Run‘s success came a deluge of headaches and hassles, all of which would significantly color the tone of his next album – as well as delay its recording. “Born to Run had earned me a Steinway baby grand piano and a 1960 Chevrolet Corvette with Cragar wheels I bought for six grand from a kid behind the counter at the West Long Branch Carvel ice-cream stand,” he wrote in his 2016 autobiography, Born to Run. “There wouldn’t be much else but bills – studio bills, instrument rental bills, bills from all the folks Mike [Appel, Springsteen’s manager] had stiffed to keep us rolling; there would be lawyers’ fees, back taxes and tiresome fighting.”
In addition to the above complications – and the pressure that typically comes with having to follow up a hit album – Springsteen and the E Street Band were legally forbidden to enter a recording studio without the approval of manager Mike Appel, whom Springsteen was suing at the time to extricate himself from the contracts he’d signed with Appel’s Laurel Canyon Productions in 1972. While Springsteen and the E Streeters had tentatively planned to start recording the follow-up to Born to Run in June 1976, they wouldn’t actually begin laying down tracks for what became Darkness on the Edge of Town until June 1977, after Appel and Springsteen finally settled out of court.
Darkness hit the streets a year later, on June 2nd, 1978, revealing an artist whose sound and vision had changed drastically in the nearly three years since Born to Run had been released. Gone were the verbose epics, the widescreen homages to Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” and the characters striving for freedom at any cost; in their place were tense, compact songs that sounded tougher than anything Springsteen had previously recorded, which told stories of people pinned down by the same working-class realities that Born to Run‘s characters had desperately tried to escape.
“Darkness was my samurai record, all stripped down for fighting,” he wrote in Born to Run. “My protagonists in these songs had to divest themselves of all that was unnecessary to survive. On Born to Run, a personal battle was engaged, but the collective war continued. On Darkness, the political implications of the lives I was writing about began to come to the fore and I searched for music that could contain them.”
In honor of the album’s 40th anniversary, here are 10 things you might not know about Darkness on the Edge of Town.
1. Darkness was the first Springsteen album recorded live in the studio by the E Street Band – though that didn’t mean it happened quickly or efficiently.
By the summer of 1977, the E Street Band – then consisting of guitarist Miami Steve Van Zandt, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, pianist Roy Bittan, organist Danny Federici, bassist Garry Tallent and drummer Max Weinberg – had become a road-hardened unit capable of bending almost telepathically to any of Springsteen’s musical whims, so it made perfect sense for Springsteen to record the songs for Darkness live in the studio with his band. Unfortunately, Springsteen’s endless search for the ultimate sound completely counteracted any efficiency that might have otherwise resulted from such an arrangement. Unhappy with the sounds they were getting at New York’s Atlantic Studios, Springsteen moved the recording sessions to the Record Plant, where he, co-producer Jon Landau and engineer Jimmy Iovine spent interminable weeks trying to capture the perfect drum sound.
“Days went by with the only sound emanating from Studio B at the Record Plant was the dull, endless thwack of Max’s drumstick on a tom-tom,” Springsteen wrote in Born to Run. “At bottom, we were amateur producers and simply failed to understand the basic physics of getting sound to tape,” he admitted in the book. “Recorded sound is relative. When the drums are forceful but moderate, they leave room for a big guitar sound. When the guitars are powerful but lean, you can have drums the size of a house. But you can’t feature everything, for in effect you’re featuring nothing.” Between the sonic challenges and Springsteen’s overflowing songbook, recording for the album wouldn’t wrap up until March 1978.
2. Classic American films like The Searchers and East of Eden heavily informed the album’s songs and overall flow.
Though Darkness on the Edge of Town wasn’t a concept album in the classic sense, Springsteen wanted the album’s songs to have a cinematic feel – a desire born out of hours spent watching films like John Ford’s The Searchers and the film noir crime dramas of the 1940s and 1950s.
“There’s no settling down, no fixed action,” he explained to Rolling Stone‘s Paul Nelson in 1978, shortly after the album’s release. “You pick up the action, and then at some point–pssst!–the camera pans away, and whatever happened, that’s what happened. The songs I write, they don’t have particular beginnings and they don’t have endings. The camera focuses in and then out.”
Chuck Plotkin, who mixed the album, recalled in the 2010 documentary The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town that Springsteen wanted the album to be similarly cinematic in the way it flowed from song to song. Regarding the transition from the opening “Badlands” into “Adam Raised a Cain,” a song whose cynical lyrics were influenced by Elia Kazan’s 1955 film East of Eden, Springsteen told Plotkin, “Here’s what I want you to do. Imagine you’re in a movie theater, and on the screen is two lovers having a picnic. And then the camera shock-cuts to a dead body. Every time this song comes up on the album, this song is that dead body.”
3. The album’s sound and attitude were partly inspired by British punk.
“I was after a leaner sound, a little bit of an angrier sound,” Springsteen recalled in The Promise, explaining his decision to buck the successful “formula” established on Born to Run, which everyone from Columbia Records (Springsteen’s label) to co-producer Jon Landau expected him to return to for Darkness. “I wanted to toughen up the songs. I wanted the record to have a very relentless feeling.”
While a tougher, angrier sound certainly suited songs like “Badlands,” “Adam Raised a Cain” and the title track, Springsteen was also picking up the gauntlet being thrown down by British punk bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash. “Darkness was also informed by the punk explosion at the time,” he told the audience during his keynote speech at the 2012 SXSW Festival. “I went out and I got all the records – all the early punk records – and I bought ‘Anarchy in the U.K.,’ and ‘God Save the Queen’ … They were brave and they challenged you, and they made you brave. And a lot of that energy seeped its way into the subtext of Darkness. Darkness was written in 1977, and all of that music was out there, and if you had ears you could not ignore it. I had peers that did. And they were mistaken. You could not ignore that challenge, you know?”
4. Springsteen’s newfound love for country music helped shape the album’s lyrics.
If punk impacted the album’s music, the lyrics of Darkness – especially songs like “Factory” and “Prove It All Night” – revealed the increasing influence of country music on Springsteen’s writing. Having long ignored classic country, he now found himself drawn to the deceptive simplicity of its lyrics, the gritty nature of its subject matter and its often-fatalistic attitude.
“In country music, I found the adult blues, the working men’s and women’s stories I’d been searching for, the grim recognition of the chips that were laid down against you,” Springsteen recalled in his SXSW keynote speech. “It was ‘Working Man’s Blues’ – stoic recognition of everyday reality, and the small and big things that allow you to put a foot in front of the other and get you through. I found that country’s fatalism attracted me. It was reflective. It was funny. It was soulful. But it was quite fatalistic. Tomorrow looked pretty dark.”
5. The two biggest hits from the Darkness sessions came via songs he left off the record that were covered by other artists.
The period between Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town was one of Springsteen’s most prolific as a songwriter. He wrote so many songs for the album – estimates range from 52 to well over 70 – that several other artists wound up benefiting from his surplus; Southside Johnny, Robert Gordon, Greg Kihn and Gary U.S. Bonds all recorded songs from this period that Springsteen felt didn’t jibe with the album’s bleak mood. But while “Prove It All Night” was the only single from Darkness to crack the Top 40 (it peaked at Number 33), two artists enjoyed massive smashes with his Darkness castoffs: The Pointer Sisters went all the way to Number Two with their recording of “Fire” – a song Springsteen claimed to have originally written in 1977 for Elvis Presley – and Patti Smith scored the biggest hit single of her career with “Because the Night,” which reached Number 13 in the U.S. and Number Five in the U.K.
Smith, who was recording her album Easter with Jimmy Iovine at the same time the latter was working on Darkness, took the unfinished “Because the Night” and added a verse inspired by her long-distance relationship with future husband Fred “Sonic” Smith. “I knew that I wasn’t going to finish the song, because it was a love song, and I really felt like I didn’t know how to write them at the time,” Springsteen recalled in The Promise, explaining his decision to give the song to Smith. “A real love song like ‘Because the Night,’ I was reticent to write; I think I was too cowardly to write at the time. But she was very brave. She had the courage.”
6. “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Racing in the Street” and “Badlands” were written title-first, with Springsteen filling in the rest of their lyrics later.
Perhaps owing to his increased fascination with cinema, Springsteen found himself trying a different method of writing songs for Darkness, in which he’d scribble out dramatic-sounding song titles in his notebooks, and then attempt to flesh them out into full-fledged songs. “When you pick a song title like ‘Racing in the Street,’ that’s a hard song to write,” he told Rolling Stone in 2010. “But that was sort of the local culture of Asbury in the Seventies, which was still deeply enmeshed in car culture. If you went to the Stone Pony, it was a constant circle of souped-up muscle cars on Saturday and Sunday …
“So I came up with titles, and I went in search of songs that would deserve the title. ‘Badlands,’ that’s a great title, but it would be easy to blow it. But I kept writing and I kept writing and I kept writing and writing until I had a song that I felt deserved that title. Same with ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’ I had that title and said, ‘Well, I’d better come up with something that deserves that title.’ That’s what I was always very, very good at – I didn’t have any problem thinking really hard about what I was doing.”
7. The main riff of “Badlands” was lifted from the Animals’ recording of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
Throughout his career, Springsteen has repeatedly paid tribute to the Animals – whether singing their praises in interviews, or covering the band’s gutsy British Invasion hits “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life” in concert. “For some, they were just another one of the really good beat groups that came out of the Sixties,” he explained during his SXSW 2012 speech. “But to me, the Animals were – they were a revelation. I mean, the first records with full-blown class consciousness that I had ever heard.”
During his keynote speech, Springsteen also cited the band’s influence on Darkness on the Edge of Town (“‘Badlands,’ ‘Prove It All Night’ – Darkness was filled with the Animals, you know?”), before playfully demonstrating how he’d directly lifted the main guitar riff of “Badlands” from the band’s hit 1965 recording of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” “It’s the same fucking riff, man,” he said, playing the intros to both songs back-to-back on his guitar. “Listen up, youngsters: This is how successful theft is accomplished, alright?”
8. The album was originally called Badlands – and the Columbia Records art department even created cover art for it.
Though Springsteen and the E Street Band had taken a few passes at the song “Darkness on the Edge of Town” during the album’s early stages of recording at Atlantic Studios, the song wasn’t actually completed until March 1978. Badlands had been the album’s working title for much of the recording sessions, and Columbia Records – desperate to roll out new Springsteen product – had even ordered its art department to mock up an album cover under that title in October 1977.
The track listing for this early version of the album included “Badlands,” “Streets of Fire,” “Promised Land,” “Prove It All Night,” “Candy’s Room” (under its early title “Candy’s Boy”), and “Racing in the Street,” all of which would end up on Darkness. It also featured two songs that wouldn’t make the final cut: “Don’t Look Back,” which was replaced by “Darkness on the Edge of Town” (and which wouldn’t see an official release until 1998’s Tracks), and “Independence Day,” which would end up on 1980’s The River along with “Drive All Night,” “Sherry Darling” and “Ramrod” – three other songs that were originally written and recorded during the Darkness sessions.
9. Clarence Clemons’ iconic “Badlands” sax solo was actually a last-minute addition.
As the songs for Darkness began to take shape, Springsteen realized that the harder, angrier sound he was looking for would require a more guitar-centric approach than he’d utilized on previous records – even though this would mean a less prominent role for longtime saxophonist and (onstage foil) Clarence Clemons. “The guitar on Darkness came around because the music had moved to a somewhat less urban area, and I said, ‘There will probably be less saxophone, that makes room for a little more guitar-playing,'” he told Rolling Stone in 2010. “The sax is warm and melodic, the way we’ve used it, and we use it very orchestrally. If I wanted something that was just going to be nasty and burn, that’s the guitar. For that group of material, I wanted the aggression, I wanted the harshness of the guitar, and I got a chance to play.”
Darkness got to the mastering stage before Springsteen realized that the album actually needed a little more sax – so he called Clemons in to add his now-famous solo to “Badlands”. “We had mastered the record with no sax solo on ‘Badlands’ – it was just a guitar solo,” Springsteen recalled in The Promise. “At the end of the record, I didn’t think we had enough saxophone on the record. Took the guitar out, and Clarence played over that.”
10. The cover photos for both Darkness and The River came from the same 1978 session with photographer Frank Stefanko.
“I’d gotten to know Patti Smith a little through our work together on ‘Because the Night,'” Springsteen recalled in Born to Run. “When I visited her during one of her performances at the Bottom Line, she gave me the name of a South Jersey photographer and said, ‘You should let this guy take your picture.'” The photographer’s name was Frank Stefanko, and his stark visual sensibility meshed perfectly with the raw contents of Darkness on the Edge of Town. Springsteen loved the results of their four-day photo session for Darkness so much that he used images from it for the album’s cover, and then went back to it two years later for the cover of The River.
“Bruce was out in California working on The River,” Stefanko recalled to Rolling Stone in 2017. “He called me up, and he had a complete duplicate set of contact sheets from all the Darkness sessions. He was looking through them. For two weeks we had these marathon sessions where he would call me up from California 2 a.m., Eastern Time, and just said, ‘Pull out sheet 28, look at negative number four. Can we make that a little darker on the right side?’ And I’d go into the darkroom all night and then FedEx everything to him. For two weeks we were going back and forth over shots until he finally settled on [a] close-up portrait shot, with the same plaid shirt that was in ‘Corvette Winter’ [the Stefanko photograph used on the book cover of Born to Run] and that was the cover of The River.”