Released June 2, 1978
42 min, 55 sec
The aftermath of Born to Run was both a blessing and a nightmare.
On one hand, Springsteen had finally, finally made his name in the wider music industry. Front cover of Time and Newsweek in the same week. No longer would he have to toil in the dirt to keep himself alive – Born to Run was a bona fide hit, and the title track became an anthem for millions. The band toured more than ever, playing larger and larger venues in response to their growing popularity.
But the other side of the coin hit just as hard. Mike Appel, Springsteen’s manager, jealous and feeling spurned by Springsteen’s success with producer (and future manager) Jon Landau, sued Springsteen and attempted to wrest creative control of his music from him. What followed was a lengthy, costly, and disastrous legal battle in which Springsteen came out on top, though the experience made him angry and bitter. Forced to tour all throughout 1976 and 1977 to make up for the legal costs and the lost royalties from Born to Run, Springsteen wrote extensively on the road, and made a habit of premiering songs at random, many of which would be played once or twice and never again. Springsteen wanted desperately to enter the studio once more and begin work on a follow-up to Born to Run to ensure his continued success, but the battle with Appel kept him out and on the road. The Born to Run tours ended up stretching over four calendar years, from 1974 to 1977.
Finally, Springsteen reached a settlement with Appel and permanently severed their professional and personal relationship, bringing in Jon Landau on a permanent basis instead. Now, the sessions for Darkness could begin, and they began just four days after the Appel settlement was reached. With a gigantic notebook of songs in various states of completion, the band entered the studio to record for the next six months.
What followed was, in conservative terms, a difficult set of recording sessions. Springsteen’s perfectionism had only grown in his absence from the studio, and he was incredibly unsatisfied with the studio’s acoustics, particularly when recording drums. They tried to move to the studio Born to Run was recorded in, but were stuck in their previous studio for over a month to fill out the financial commitments they’d made, and to ride out the already booked studio time in their preferred studio.
The Darkness sessions are notorious for the sheer amount of music produced – likely near a hundred were considered at one point or another. Out of those near hundred, as you know, there are ten on Darkness. This was Springsteen at his most meticulous, refining the album to a fine point to ensure that the album’s tone and message were exactly as he wanted them to be, with little room for interpretation on any end. The result is a powerful, tightly wound album – stripped to the bones.
As for the rest, the Darkness sessions have become incredibly well-known and mythical, with outtakes from the Darkness era treasured above all else in the Springsteen canon. The mystery of the sessions has often been fed into by Springsteen himself, who teased fans with the scarce four outtakes from Darkness on the box set Tracks in 1998, especially compared to the ridiculous amount of post-1984 material on the same box. He eventually indulged fans with the deluxe Darkness reissue in 2010 that included the 21-track The Promise, something that we’ll cover separately because of how expansive it is in its own right. As for the rest, many Darkness outtakes live on in bootleg collections of varying quality, and continue to elicit immense amounts of interest to this day.
The album itself, however, leaves nothing to the imagination. The Springsteen that emerged in the wake of legal hell was a changed man, stripped of his songwriting whimsy. No longer did he compose ridiculous tuba-driven songs, or songs with verses so long that he could barely spit them out in time with the music. No, the expansive, larger-than-life worlds of Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle, and Born to Run were gone, replaced with a stark, bleak realism in songs like “Badlands,” “Racing in the Street,” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” That’s not to say that Springsteen had become boring – never – but he did become far more in touch with the working man image that he cultivates to this day. The stories he told were not of characters, but of ordinary people – the workers, the ones that resort to street racing to feel alive. Men like his father, the focus of “Factory.” Where Born to Run captivated audiences for the tall tales Springsteen told, Darkness pulled in a different kind of fan – the average man that needed an escape, or a voice to tell them they understood. Darkness was a record about regular people, for regular people.
Everything about the album reflects this mentality. Appel’s “wall of sound” production is gone – the songs feel full, but there’s space between each instrument as well. Very little is heard beyond the core band – even Clarence Clemons, one of Springsteen’s most prominent performers, is only heard on three songs (“Badlands,” “The Promised Land,” and “Prove it All Night”), though he makes his presence known on all three tracks, pounding out powerful solos on each. The album’s cover art is stark – two portraits of Springsteen in a bedroom, clean-shaven, with a t-shirt, jeans, and a jacket. Springsteen chose the images himself from photographer Frank Stefanko’s sessions; he noted, “When I saw the picture I said, ‘That’s the guy in the songs.’ I wanted the part of me that’s still that guy to be on the cover. Frank stripped away all your celebrity and left you with your essence.”
The album’s central theme is working through adversity, even when it threatens to crush everything you have. Each song is about powering through the bad to get to the good, even when it looks like the good will never come; songs like “The Promised Land” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” exemplify this theme in their lyrics. Darkness is an album about holding on to a single glimmer of hope and making it more than that. The result is, perhaps, a more powerful album than Born to Run, an answer to that album’s aggressive optimism, and, perhaps, an answer to Mike Appel, the man who tried to take everything from Springsteen.
Darkness did not sell as well as Born to Run, expectedly, as it could not produce the infectious radio singles that Born to Run did. However, it received immense critical praise, and is commonly cited as being Springsteen’s absolute greatest album; it and Born to Run commonly trade off in the top two spots on many best-of lists for Springsteen, and the following tour is frequently cited as Springsteen’s greatest tour, the absolute epitome of what Springsteen wanted from his music and career. Emerging from the lowest lows of his professional career, many saw Springsteen as reaching his highest highs in the very next year.
Reverence for Darkness continued for decades after its release, and there was frequent talk of a deluxe reissue and an opening of the Darkness vaults, so that fans could obtain official, professional copies of the bootlegs they’d traded amongst each other for so long. With the 30th anniversary of Born to Run, the expectation ramped up even more, and fans were ecstatic when Landau noted that they were working on a Darkness reissue. Though the scope of the project resulted in it arriving two years past the album’s 30th anniversary, the result was spectacular.
The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story is a 3-CD/3-DVD (or Blu-ray) collection, centered around the remaster of Darkness and the brand new collection The Promise, which revealed several previously unknown Darkness tracks alongside professional masters of many fan favorites. Alongside a documentary on the making-of sessions and several live extras, the collection was bound in one of the set’s many highlights – a direct recreation of Springsteen’s notebook used for the writing and recording of the album. The collection is gorgeous, and it’s fascinating to flip through Springsteen’s journal and be able to pick out things he’d talked about in interviews – the film, Badlands, that inspired the track, the dozens of song titles, working lyrics, potential track lists, and countless photos from the recording sessions.
The actual remastered copy of Darkness is, like Born to Run, a faithful recreation of the simple sleeve and liner notes of the original vinyl issue, but the CD does not have the same vinyl-replica treatment that Born to Run received, for some reason. Nonetheless, it looks and feels very nice, and the remaster makes the album pop even more than before.
The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town is a good documentary, along the same lines as Wings for Wheels. You can see a lot of the disagreements mentioned, and Springsteen’s insight into his mindset during the album’s recording is great. It’s a short documentary, but it’s worth watching once or twice to catch everything that happens.
The second disc contains one of my favorite parts of the entire set – an empty-theatre performance of Darkness, from beginning to end, using just the members of the band that were around in 1978 (including Charlie Giordano in place of the now-deceased Danny Federici). The performance is gorgeous – amazingly shot, sounding almost note-perfect. It’s shocking, honestly, to go from this performance, filmed in 2009, and into the archival footage included on the rest of the disc, taken from various live performances and rehearsals from 1976 to 1978. That’s what thirty years will do.
The last disc of the collection is, like Born to Run‘s set, a complete live show from 1978 in Houston. The difference here, however, is that the footage shown is directly from the feed shown on screens on either side of the stage, as opposed to being the original footage of the show itself. As a result, the angles are limited, and much of the focus is on Springsteen, but the concert is fantastic nonetheless.
Darkness on the Edge of Town has a legacy matched by nothing else in Springsteen’s catalogue, and rarely matched outside of it. Springsteen reinvented his persona here, and not only retained his fanbase, but grew it. His concerts continued to be the best in the business, and songs from Darkness remain iconic staples of Springsteen live shows to this day. With Darkness, Springsteen established that he was not the one-hit wonder that many expected of him with Born to Run‘s release and the subsequent gap between albums; instead, he established himself as one of the greatest American musicians of all time, and continued to deliver on that reputation for decades.