“Darkness was my samurai record, all stripped down for fighting.”
This is how Bruce Springsteen described his approach to recording his iconic album ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’ in his acclaimed autobiography Born to Run back in 2016. This month the album celebrates its 40th birthday, thus giving Clash a reason to roll back the years and delve into one of Springsteen’s most important records of an illustrious career that has seen him pack out stadiums the world over. An album that displayed a maturity and innate darkness in the themes it explored. Springsteen’s Chevy had well and truly left Thunder Road but it had found itself out of gas, stranded on a lonesome highway a few miles outside New Jersey.
It’s fair to say that forging the follow-up record to 1975’s all-conquering commercial breakthrough ‘Born To Run’, was arguably the toughest feat of Springsteen’s career. A rollicking record of blue collar ambition, heart-on-sleeve emotion and enough vigour to see the capital canvassed in huge promotional posters hailing that "finally London is ready for Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band" ahead of his live British debut at the Hammersmith Apollo. Being billed as the biggest US musical export since Elvis brought with it an air of expectancy and the thrust of a global spotlight was a heavy weight to bare for a working-class New York twenty-something.
In many ways, the three-year gap in albums offered Springsteen some breathing room and much needed time to compile a series of song filled with that sense of awareness and detailed imagery that made ‘Born To Run’ such a runaway success, with adoring fans pouring over his vivid descriptions of life on the streets of New York City. Springsteen’s perfectionist nature has been well documented.
E-Steet band saxophonist Clarence Clemons spoke of how “Bruce would write five songs to get just one.” The years between 1975-78 were a particularly prolific period for Springsteen who scribbled his observations on reams of pages pulled from a plethora of scabby notebooks. For 'Born To Run' there were nine songs, eight made the album.
For ‘Darkness On The Edge of Town’ Springsteen and his band had approximately 70 fully fledged songs recorded. Many of which would find their way into the public domain through friends, such as Patti Smith taking on ‘Because The Night’ for her album 1978 record ‘Easter’, as well as several tracks from the session going on to form the basis of the 1980 classic ‘The River’.
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Over this rigorous recording process ‘Darkness On The Edge of Town’ evolved into a sound far less grand than its predecessor and most notably far more insular. Something reflected in Frank Stefanko’s simplistic, grainy solo image of Springsteen standing with his hands in his pockets in a rundown apartment, embodying that raw image of the record.
Springsteen sought to rein in the gleeful optimism and replace it with a degree of cynicism and weariness, claiming that he wanted these new songs to resonate as he grew older as well as appear more emblematic of the state of the USA in 1978 and its increasingly class-driven divides. His writing began to take a more solemn tone as he embarked on a set of themes that saw his once youthful and hopeful characters become victims of circumstance, particularly on ‘Racing In The Street’ and the album’s title track.
“Along with the class-conscious pop of The Animals, early 60s beat groups and the punks, I began to listen seriously to country music and I discovered Hank Williams,” Bruce claimed in his autobiography. An inspiration that lent a certain gravitas and world-weariness to his songwriting and musicianship that can be clearly heard on the country-indebted parable of working life on ‘Factory’ and emotionally downtrodden ‘The Promised Land’ with its sapped scream of “blow away the dreams that break your heart.”
It’s this meticulous songwriting craftsmanship and knack for capturing a setting and a mood with such eloquence and vibrancy that sets Springsteen apart from other lyricists. Relatable yet utterly imaginative. From his use of biblical references to illustrate the sense of inheritance handed down from a father to his son (‘Adam Raised A Cain’) to the simple innocence of sharing racing stories after a day’s work with your friends (‘Racing in the Street’) Springsteen steered away from his previous escapism to paint a picture of the beauty, but also more often the melancholic hardships that lie within the mundane and familiar.
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Musically the record segues between the anthemic pomp of old (‘Badlands’ and ‘Prove It All Night’) and the slower burn of his reflective anecdotes (‘Streets of Fire’) that helped Springsteen find a place in the hearts of many, yet this time with a sharper edge and grit. The E-Street Band flex their muscle in a more sustained way on ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, without the frills of extended instrumental sections as seen on ‘Born To Run’s ‘Jungleland’ or ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’ from 1973’s Jersey Beat extravaganza, ‘The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle’.
Their skills are used in shorter impactful bursts from the shrill tremolo picking intro of ‘Adam Raised A Cain’ to the twinkling piano of ‘Candy’s Room’ via Clemons’ iconic saxophone interludes (‘Prove It All Night’), thus permitting Springsteen’s lyrics to take centre stage and tell their story.
40 years on ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ remains a resilient listen. The sound of an artist honing his craft and telling the stories he wants to tell with refined maturity and musical flair as he grapples with themes of power, loss and the working-class psyche. This is an album of blood, sweat, tears and a whole lot of heart. A masterpiece that deserves the same level of attention as the euphoric ‘Born To Run’, politically astute ‘Born In The USA’ and even the poetic solitude of 1982’s ‘Nebraska’ which has itself recently received an amount of revisionist spotlight.
As Springsteen himself put it, “by the end of darkness, I’d found my adult voice.”
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Words: Rory Marchum
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