The tale of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘lost album’ The Promise

A look back in fear and anger
The tale of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘lost album’ The Promise is full of heartache and legal drama. There is lovely pop here, but it’s not the pop of its time
Harry Browne:The Sunday Times

“Remember,” says Bruce Springsteen to a bandmate, “there’s always room to throw out.” The black-and-white footage shows an astonishingly beautiful young Springsteen in the studio. He is slowly driving his fellow musicians crazy with his capacity to write new songs, record them and then toss them away. The album to be born in June 1978 is Darkness on the Edge of Town, and its gestation appears to be a process of elimination as much as of creation.

Even when it comes to the songs he plans to keep, Springsteen — whose three previous albums had swelled with lyrical and musical excess — is intent on stripping them down. “Roy, you playin’ any fills?” he asks his piano player Roy Bittan. “If so, they’re out.” The tone is mock-Bossy, with a hint of mincing, but he’s clearly serious.

These moments appear in Thom Zimny’s recent documentary, The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, which — along with other home-movie clips and live footage — fills no fewer than three DVDs in an extraordinary (and pricy) new box set with an annoyingly similar name.

For many fans, this set evokes a lyric from Darkness: “. . . if dreams came true, oh, wouldn’t that be nice”. The album holds a special place in our hearts; without the hype of Born to Run, the mega-popularity of Born in the USA or the scattergun eclecticism of The River, Darkness is the pure stuff, unadulterated Springsteen at his creative peak. In my own New Jersey adolescence, it was the first record, by anyone, that I fully inhabited, and I’ve heard of a fair few Irish adolescences in which it played a similar role.

As Springsteen describes it in the recent interview that anchors Zimny’s film, Darkness was a “tone poem” of “power, directness and austerity”. The documentary relates Springsteen’s obsessive pursuit of a relentless drum sound. “Stick!” he would scream, annoyed at hearing the drumstick rather than the primal crack-boom of Max Weinberg’s drums. Many songs on the album are so austere that the “melody” consists of little more than whatever note Garry Tallent’s bass intones whenever the bass drum sounds.

With all that stripping clean and throwing away, what was left out? And why was Springsteen only just getting into the studio nearly two years after being the magazine-cover face of record-industry hype with the release of Born to Run in 1975? The answers to these questions go to the heart, not only of this autumn’s “new” release, but also of the special place Springsteen holds in the history of the business — as opposed to the art — of rock’n’roll.

For most of the gap between Born to Run and Darkness, Springsteen was hamstrung by a lawsuit with his former manager that kept him out of the studio. Although it was settled quicker than, say, Muhammad Ali’s ban from boxing eight years earlier, it has taken on some of the same weight for fans. We revel in his defiance of “the Man” — but we still wonder what might have been, if he hadn’t been kept out of the ring in his late-twenties prime.

The Promise, tantalisingly, purports to give an answer, in the form of a double CD of 21 songs — Springsteen’s “lost album”, the one he says “could have/should have been released” in those gap years. (Just to cement the confusion, this album is also called The Promise, with a different ­mouthful of a ­subtitle.)

Springsteen is hardly the only big old star to root through the archives or rejects for Christmas stocking-fillers. Yet he and his PR machine are uniquely playing “back to the future”, magically trying to recreate the “missing” Springsteen album. The vaults were full of unfinished works, so on this album about half the songs are substantially revised, with vocals, instruments and even lyrics that weren’t there at the time. In the liner notes, he writes absurdly: “I did what I would’ve done to them at the time and no more.” Not even “what I think I would’ve done”. No, the 61-year-old Bruce knows the 27-year-old Bruce so well he can reproduce exactly what his younger self “would’ve done”.

Tampering aside, the claim that is this is the “lost album” is demolished when we recall a handful of the best outtakes from this period appeared in 1998 on the four-CD album Tracks and are not repeated here.

Nonetheless, the two discs of The Promise comprise a good old/new Springsteen album. From the opening piano and ­harmonica of Racing in the Street (78) — like the version on Darkness itself but in a less monotonic voice and fatalistic key — to the moving lament of the title track, it often seems a more deliberate successor, or response, to Born to Run than ­Darkness itself does.

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