35 Years Ago: Bruce Springsteen Releases ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’
After two acclaimed but commercially under-appreciated albums, Bruce Springsteen finally got the mainstream success he wanted with 1975’s ‘Born to Run.’ However, he learned about the darker side of his dreams when it came time to record the follow-up, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’ which was released on June 2, 1978.
The delay came as a result of a bitter legal dispute with manager Mike Appel. ‘Born to Run’ may have been a smash hit, but Springsteen’s contract with Appel’s Laurel Canyon Productions paid him minimum royalties and none of the publishing rights. Springsteen filed suit in July 1976 to break the contract, and Appel countersued, getting an injunction preventing him from entering a recording studio. The litigation was settled out of court in May 1977, and Springsteen was now free to record again, this time with Jon Landau, his new manager.
Sessions began only a week after the settlement, but initial sessions at New York’s Atlantic Studios didn’t go well, largely as a result of an inability to get a suitable drum sound. By September, they had moved to the Record Plant, and continued through January 1978.
Then came the process of figuring out which of the 52 songs they committed to tape would wind up on the album. Many of the tracks reflected Springsteen and the E Street Band’s roots in ’60s pop and soul. But Springsteen wanted a darker, grittier album and removed all the upbeat songs from consideration. He gave ‘Fire’ to Robert Gordon, ‘Don’t Look Back’ to the Knack (who left it off their debut album) and an unfinished ‘Because the Night’ to Patti Smith, which she completed and took to No. 13 on the charts. Two other songs, ‘Hearts of Stone’ and ‘Talk to Me,’ were later recorded by his good friend Southside Johnny. A good portion of these songs were eventually released on 1998’s ‘Tracks’ box set and the 2010 ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ reissue box set.
What remained was a stripped-down, guitar-based rock album that was miles removed from the urban romanticism of ‘Born to Run.’ In its place were the small towns, factories and deserted highways of rural America, where life lessons come at a price and lead to a struggle for one’s soul. This is reflected in songs like ‘Badlands,’ ‘Something in the Night,’ ‘Racing in the Street’ and the title track. Springsteen’s own issues with his father’s struggles were manifest in ‘Adam Raised a Cain’ and ‘Factory,’ and a desire to connect with the American ideal wound up in ‘The Promised Land.’ Springsteen would continue to revisit these themes throughout his career, including his most recent album, ‘Wrecking Ball.’
Released one week after his tour in support of the album started, ‘Darkness’ reached No. 5 on the Billboard album charts. Its two singles, however, did not fare as well. ‘Prove It All Night’ hit No. 33 and ‘Badlands’ just missed the Top 40. But many of its songs – and ‘Because the Night’ – have remained highlights of Springsteen’s concerts to this day.