My new book, Bruce Springsteen: The Stories Behind the Songs, tells the tales behind every officially released studio recording of Bruce Springsteen’s career so far. In addition to my years of Springsteen reporting, including five interviews with the man himself, the book draws on over 60 hours of brand-new interviews with musicians, producers, and other collaborators from throughout his career (including Max Weinberg, Roy Bittan, Nils Lofgren, Soozie Tyrell, Tom Morello, David Sancious and many, many more). I’m proud to debut this exclusive excerpt here at Rolling Stone, where I’ve been on staff since 2004. Every song gets its own entry in the book; the one you’re about to read chronicles the making of the opening track of Darkness on the Edge of Town. (The “Born in the U.S.A.” entry can also be read here.)
He had a title, and some anthemic music to go with it. All he needed was something worth singing about. “I said, ‘Now I have to write something to make this real,'” Springsteen told me in 2010. “‘I’ve got to find something in me that gives the character in this song life, breath, heart, soul, spirit, experience.’ ‘Badlands,’ that’s a great title, but it would be easy to blow it. But I kept writing and writing until I had a song that I felt deserved that title. I didn’t have any problem thinking really hard about what I was doing. I didn’t have any problem spending hours and hours in pursuit of what I was after. I honored, I believed, I respected the characters in my songs… I felt they deserve my time, they deserve my greatest effort, and I will do honor by them and by myself if I do this right.”
When Springsteen and the E Street Band walked into Manhattan’s Atlantic Studios to start his fourth album on June 1, 1977, they were many months behind schedule. (Dissatisfied with the sound, they would soon move back to the Record Plant, where they recorded Born to Run.) An ugly, emotionally wrenching, year-long legal battle with Mike Appel, his former producer and manager, had left Springsteen, in essence, barred from the studio – so when he settled the lawsuit on May 28, he wasted little time. He and the band were as ready to record as they would ever be, after months of scattershot touring and relentless rehearsals of new songs in Springsteen’s house in Holmdel, New Jersey – Max Weinberg still has seventy hours’ worth of lo-fi recordings from those practice sessions.
The night of June 1st, they blasted through ten songs they had been rehearsing; “Badlands” was not among them. Instead, they captured the core of what could have been a very different album, with pop songs like “Rendezvous,” “Because the Night,” and “I Wanna Be With You.” They called the cassette from the sessions “the Star Wars demo tape,” according to assistant engineer Thom Panunzio – George Lucas’ movie had just come out a few days earlier. “That was an album, in my opinion, that was great from beginning to end,” Panunzio says. “If that would’ve been the album, I think commercially, it would’ve been a lot more successful because he gave away the hits.”
“We had great arrangements,” Springsteen told Rolling Stone’s Mark Binelli in 2002, recalling that session. “The band sounded really good. We recorded about ten or twelve songs in one night, and I realized they weren’t any good. It was terribly disappointing. I didn’t hang them on anything. They were centerless. They were core-less. So I went back to the drawing board and went from the inside out.”
By late June, Springsteen and the E Street Band had a rough attempt at “Badlands,” minus anything like final vocals. The martial music crystallized early on, down to Weinberg’s opening drum fill (which the drummer says was suggested by Steve Van Zandt and faintly inspired by the lead-ins of Motown songs, such as “Tracks of My Tears”). Springsteen would take an instrumental recording home and write lyrics over it, a process that led to a song that has never been easy to perform. “I’d go home and I’d play the tape and write the words, but I wouldn’t do it out loud,” he told DJ Dave Herman in 1978. “I’d write ’em in my head. So I’d go in the studio and I’d try to sing and I’d realize it was hard to breathe and sing it all at once.”
An early take seems to (mis)direct its shouted fury at some unfortunate woman (“I’m talking to you, baby!”). In one draft, Springsteen painted a world where “no God smiles down,” where fate might tear out your eyes. Another draft of lyrics the lyrics includes what would have been his most explicitly political line to that point, with a man on television making false promises of peace – probably a reference to Richard Nixon, who resigned three years earlier. In yet another version, it’s a singer on the radio making questionable promises about dreams – now even Roy Orbison and/or Elvis could not be trusted.
The song’s opening riff, Springsteen revealed years later, is a major-key twist on the minor-key intro to the Animals’ 1965 hit “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” (The Animals, in turn, built their riff on a string part from Nina Simone’s earlier version of the song.) The vibe of “Badlands” also reminded Weinberg of Paul Revere and the Raiders’ 1966 garage-rock burner “Hungry,” and his snare-heavy drum part recalls both “Hungry” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” On tour during the lawsuit, Springsteen would frequently sing a roaring version of another Animals hit, “It’s My Life.” That song – class conscious, with a highly particular tone of furious, defiant triumph – seemed to be a model for what he was trying to capture with “Badlands” and the fourth album as a whole.
“Badlands” was among the songs Springsteen was working on in sessions on July 13, 1977, when the infamous, twenty-five-hour-long New York City blackout began. Panunzio remembers Springsteen recording a 12-string-guitar overdub at the moment the lights went out (9:27 p.m., to be exact). First, Springsteen couldn’t hear his guitar in his headphones; then everything went black. Everyone followed the glowing exit signs and walked out onto 57th Street, where they saw block after block swathed in darkness. “Badlands” may well have acquired its opening line, “lights out tonight,” after that evening. A discarded draft strongly backs up that theory, continuing the narrative with another line about a “city in the dark” that “suddenly has new owners.”
As on “Born to Run,” Springsteen found the heart of “Badlands” by moving past gloomy drafts that flirted with despair. The finished first verse lays out the narrator’s essential dilemma in a more sophisticated fashion than Springsteen had managed before, acknowledging larger forces at work. He is “caught in a crossfire,” buffeted by historical and societal forces he doesn’t comprehend. (Springsteen took significant lyrical inspiration from a 1962 Elvis Presley obscurity, “King of the Whole Wide World”: “A poor man wants to be a rich man/ A rich man wants to be a king,” Presley sang.)
“You got to have friction and tension, something to push up against,” Springsteen told me in 2016. We were discussing one of the essential revelations of his memoir, Born to Run: His lifelong struggle with depression and how it manifested itself in his music. It was undiagnosed during the Darkness era, but lurking nonetheless. I suggested that we believe him when he sings about being saved by faith because he sounds like he was overcome with doubt the day before. “Yeah,” he said. “Or maybe barely believing right now, you know? . . . If the triumphant part of the song was going to feel real and not just hacked out, I had to have something I was pushing up against. I just understood that balance. It comes out of gospel music, which is the music of transcendence. I wanted my music to be a music of transcendence.”
“All power starts with the music,” Steve Van Zandt told Rolling Stone’s Andy Greene in 2013. “It’s a powerful song, wonderfully positive and optimistic in its own negative sort of atmosphere. A warrior sort of heroism really is present in that opening salvo – you know that it’s not gonna get better. Life is gonna be tough and then it’s gonna stay tough. And you better adjust to that really quickly, because the good times that you’ve heard about or saw in the movies or read about, they’re probably not coming back, if they ever happened. And life’s gonna be a struggle every day. So I think it has that recognition in it.”
The song’s call-to-arms saxophone solo was nearly left off; Springsteen believed the instrument evoked the city, leaving it out of place on an album set in something more like “the heartland.” But Springsteen restored the solo in the last minute, correcting what he later admitted would have been a major error. “That solo was very strong,” Clarence Clemons said in 2010. “The limited sax on that album – he used it as a tool to hammer in what he was saying. You could say it’s not enough sax.” He smiled and used what must have been a favorite line: “But too much sax ain’t good for you. You’ll become a sax maniac!”