On Backstreets, the Springsteen online fanzine, the thread on what should be included in the ‘Darkness’ boxed set for it to be considered to have been done properly ran to 480+ pages and 7,000+ posts by the time the set hit the streets – a remarkable achievement considering that the threat starter (some fifteen months in advance of the release) got the final content pretty much spot-on in his original post. The ‘Darkness’ album is the one that most Springsteen fans eulogise most, and the tour the one that most would make their first destination once time travel machines are invented, so the set has been keenly anticipated.
The box which eventually emerged last month is a marvellously produced collection of a pleasingly compact amount of material for a six-disc (three CDs, three DVDs) set, with all the discs inserted in a facsimile of one of Springsteen’s (in)famous song notebooks. On flicking through, several times I catch myself running my fingers over the creases in the pages, the tape (or rusty-looking paperclips) pinning new pages or photos in, the ‘shadows’ underneath taped-in cassette cards, the yellowing sellotape and the stains and tears, only to find them running over nothing other than smooth paper (and even though I know what it is). There is a wealth of material here from song ideas through which you can trace the development of particular songs, or spot lines that were to appear in songs recorded later, to photos to handwritten instructions regarding the stage lighting on the tour, to several running orders for the album and debates about the songs which should be included on it – both a fascinating document and a superb production.
On to the music itself, and starting with the remastered version of Darkness – well, it was completed in a single day (an ironic reflection of the time originally spent in the studio) and, to be honest, I can’t hear a great deal of difference: yes, Max’s drums crackle and snap, Garry’s bass is much more up in the mix and Bruce’s guitar sounds cleaner, sharper and harder edged. Apart from that, Springsteen’s acknowledged over-sung vocals, which wreck ‘Something in the Night’ and ‘Streets of Fire’ and come close to spoiling ‘Adam Raised a Cain’, remain overwrought. Evidently, remastering can do little about that, but there remains a hiss on the recording and, listening closely, there are evident tape drop outs. That’s a little disappointing, and I had expected a rather cleaner product.
That apart, it is evident that the Paramount Theatre as-live performance of the album – recorded late last year in only two takes and including just the members of the band that were involved in ’78 (Charlie Giordano subbing in for Phantom Dan Federici, and without an audience other than the cameras) – is Springsteen’s re-statement of the album as it should have sounded. That he can still do this 32 years on from the original is testament enough to Springsteen’s ability not just to believe in his music but to live it, and in the first two numbers in particular, he appears particularly pumped up (what must he have been listening to before going on stage?). The two takes provides an ironic comment on the time taken to record the album in the first place (painstakingly reproduced on the ‘The Making of…’ DVD, also broadcast in an edited version on BBC1 this week (the opening shots of Springsteen engaged in jaw-breaking yawns tells of the difficult times in the studio)). Intense, emotionally raw and ferociously angry, but also brooding and with moments of great beauty, this is the album as it should have been heard and it might just, perhaps, stand as Springsteen’s best work.
The double CD of ‘The Promise’ (which has its own separate release) remains, even with some additional recording, mixing and production carried out earlier this year, a collection of out-takes of mostly complete songs, or alternative versions of songs that did make it to the album, and songs with different lyrics to some familiar melodies or titles. It’s clear that, with the final selection of songs for Darkness, they got it right pretty much 100% of the time – it does remain the ‘right’ single album out of the dozens of songs recorded at the time: there is a coherence to that album (for all its production faults) and a lot of these additional songs, many of which feature the nucleus of the Miami Horns, have a party feel akin to the first side of ‘The River’ (or else a lot of the core content of what would have been ‘The Ties That Bind’, the ‘lost’ album) and would have sounded out of place on ‘Darkness’. Whoever slowed down ‘Racing In The Street’ for the album was a genius (though the line about ‘waking up in a world that somebody else owns’, which doesn’t appear in the album version and which never made it anywhere else in Springsteen’s lyrics, is an unfortunate loss): it casts greater shade on the rest of the album than would otherwise have been the case from the faster version, and there are clear benefits to the beauty of the song from the more relaxed vocal approach.
That said, some songs clearly got away – ‘Because The Night’ is a great song (though only hinting in the studio version here at the fire breathing monster it became on the tour) and would have fitted the album well (Springsteen’s reasons for not finishing it are honestly explained in one of the most interesting moments in the ‘Making Of…’ DVD), as would ‘The Promise’ (known not only for its appearance in a different guise on the short version of ‘Tracks’ but also in a bootleg sneaked out of the production studios in 1978), which remains a haunting follow-up account some years on of the runaways of ‘Thunder Road’.
Stripped to a final selection of 10-12 tracks, and including some songs recorded at the time and which later appeared on ‘The River’, ‘The Promise’ would have been a decent immediate post-Darkness album, based around a theme of young working class males with a growing sense of responsibilities surrounding their working lives but still with time to spend growing up. But then, we already know this from the tracklisting that would have formed ‘The Ties That Bind’.
Finally, the live ‘house cut’ DVD is an interesting choice of gig to put out: a couple of live bootleg films from the tour have been circulating for some time while from gigs that are, perhaps, more apparently representative of its energy and the dynamism of Springsteen’s own performance on it – otherwise evident thus far only in the plentiful and good quality music-only bootlegs. This is a touched-up version of what was a lo-fi film (befitting its origin as a ‘bootleg’ recording from the theatre’s own recording system): it’s dark and grainy, there are drop outs and out of focus shots, and some of the action is, simply, missing. Some elements have simply been cut. The sound is great, mind. But, in that it doesn’t represent the physicality of the tour that well, the DVD helps to build its aura that bit more while, at the same time, contributing to the clamour for the Springsteen organisation to dig that little bit deeper into the vaults for other, better, more representative, live films to release. But it’s still a very watchable performance of a decent gig and, until that time machine is invented, this (and the touched-up clips, continuity problems and all, from another ’78 gig on the Paramount Theatre DVD) is about as close as we’re going to get.
Will the set bring any converts? – well, not at £80 in the shops for a set featuring already released material or stuff from deep down in the vaults, it won’t. Sales are reported to have been disappointing, and I can only imagine what non-fans buying the separate release of ‘The Promise’ make of it all unless they know some of the history. Me, I’d have paid £80 just for the Paramount Theatre DVD alone – but then that could just be me. But, did they do it properly? Definitely.