ALBUM REVIEW: ‘The Promise’ — Bruce Springsteen (Columbia)

Bruce Springsteen's early rejects and throwaways were better than most people's A-games.

There was so much mystery about Bruce Springsteen in those days, especially if you were just an impressionable high school kid.

Bootlegs floated about in various record stores in the late ’70s — not just those of live recordings, but studio outtakes and alternate takes. Many of them. We were teased further when Dave Marsh wrote about some of these mystery non-album tunes, such as “The Promise,” in his first Bruce bio, “Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story.”

Occasionally, one of them would pop up as a hit for someone else, or at least on someone else’s album, but not Bruce’s. Most famously, there was “Because the Night,” which Patti Smith heard when she was recording in the studio next door to Springsteen and wanted to have a go at herself.

There was also “Fire,” which he gave to Robert Gordon, who cut it on his second album with Link Wray, “Fresh Fish Special.” Gordon’s career never took off the way it should have — a shame, since he jump-started the rockabilly revival three or four years before the Stray Cats — but a year later, the tune went to No. 2 for The Pointer Sisters. And “Talk to Me,” an early hit for Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes. There were also Greg Kihn’s version of “Rendezvous” and Dave Edmunds’ “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come).”

And at one dead-end temp warehouse job between my freshman and sophomore years of college — that would be the summer of ’80 — one of my co-workers,  a humongous fan, made me a cassette of some of these Bruce rejects, such as “The Promise” and “Because the Night,” along with early performances of “Seaside Bar Song,” “Thundercrack” and “Bishop Danced.” And they were such good songs, even with the poor, muffled cassette sound quality, that I always wondered why he never released them. His throwaways were better than many musicians’ A-games.

Well, he finally got the hint and released his “Tracks” box set in 1998. Just tune after wonderful tune, including many outtakes from the sessions for “The River” and some from “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” “The River” has been my favorite Bruce album since its release 30 autumns ago, but I’ve had to rethink this, since there were so many rejects I thought that were better than some of the tunes he included: “Restless Nights,” “Dollhouse,” “Where the Bands Are,” “Loose Ends,” “Roulette.”

And now, he’s at long last come around to the rest of the “Darkness” outtakes. Sort of.

The two-CD “The Promise,” sold separately and as part of this year’s big musical Christmas toy, the 30th-anniversary remastered “Darkness” CD/DVD package, does collect a lot of the essential outtakes, and many of the 22 songs here (“The Way” is an untitled track tacked onto the end of “City of Night”) hold up wonderfully. But to a certain extent, Springsteen and pals have given us a collection of overdubs and 2010 reinterpretations of several of these songs. In that regard, it’s kind of a promise unfulfilled.

*****

By far, the most creative and fertile period of Springsteen’s long career — not to mention the most crucial — was the five years between “Born to Run” and “The River,” 1975-80. Not saying he isn’t hungry anymore on a certain level, wanting to prove himself, even at 61, but Springsteen’s career — which has essentially been his life — was pretty precarious as he entered his late 20s.

For one, while “Born to Run” was a deserved smash album, there was still the potential for hype backlash, after the double-whammy of landing on the cover of Time and Newsweek the week of the album’s release. Could he live up to the astronomical expectations of the follow-up?

Also — and it’s hard to remember this now, since we know the trajectory his career has taken — Bruce was in legal limbo for nearly three years where he couldn’t release anything. He made the mistake of signing a longterm contract with his first manager, Mike Appel, on the hood of a car one night, with no idea what he was signing. The length of time it took to extricate himself from that sordid mess could have stalled — killed — a lesser career. And three years was the proverbial eternity in the career of an upcoming performer who only had three albums to that point.

The end result, “Darkness,” released in August 1978, speaks for itself. It’s still a masterpiece — still worth it just to hear the smolder of “Candy’s Room” turn into a full-on explosion — and while I have a hard time listening to some of the slow songs individually (“Factory”), the disc still feels complete, solid, just the way it is. At turns, it’s loud, it’s celebratory, it’s insecure, it’s mournful, it’s angry, it’s escapism stuck in the cement of everyday reality. It’s stark. It’s emotions on sleeve. The reckless youth of “Born to Run” was long in the rearview, replaced by an oft-sobering reality.

“Power, directness and austerity were my goals. Tough music for tough circumstances,” Bruce wrote in the “Promise” liner notes.

That was then; this is now.

This new “Promise” collection sounds the way I would hear the songs in a 2010 concert setting, not the starkness of the 1977-78 recording sessions. If anything, I wish Springsteen had released the old and new versions of the songs side by side.

In judging this album, I had to compare and contrast my feelings about “The Promise” with those surrounding Brian Wilson’s 2004 version of “Smile,” where the 62-year-old Brian tried to capture and complete the vision of a 26-year-old Brian. Brian might be my all-time favorite pop music performer, but I didn’t go near the album for six months after its release. I wasn’t ready for how I’d react were I to be greatly disappointed. Is there a double standard if I give Bruce grief for some of the things on which I gave Brian a pass?

The difference is that while many of the best songs from “Smile” (“Good Vibrations,” “Surf’s Up”) turned up on subsequent albums, and some of the many outtakes and song fragments have been heard on both bootlegs and official Beach Boys box sets, “Smile” was a complete concept and an unfinished project. Brian picked up the pieces decades later and remade/finished the album, and while it wasn’t perfect — after all, his voice isn’t what it was back when, and in the name of artifice, he settled on a version of “Good Vibrations” based on an alternate outtake — it was very well done album. It worked as a package.

The songs heard on “The Promise,” by contrast, are just individual songs — trimmings from a finished masterpiece — and meant to stand on their own or not, not as part of a concept. Bruce was unencumbered by having to look at the songs as part of a theme. He didn’t have to “complete” the songs the way Wilson had to in some cases. While allowing for the absolute need to remaster and sonically clean 30-year-old recordings, I was looking forward to hearing the full-on energy and the hunger and the unstated desperation of the 26, 27-year-old Bruce. I heard a good chunk of that, but also some reinterpretations by the firmly established, 60, 61-year-old legend. I wish he trusted himself, his material and his fans a little more. After all, fans dig the archival stuff as both interesting footnotes to a career and complements to the rest of the body of work.

Still, the songs, while a mixed bag, are revelatory at times. You can hear the roots of Springsteen standards here and there — an earlier take of “Racing in the Street” (with violin that David Lindley laid down back then) where Bruce’s ’69 Chevy with a 396 is a ’32 Ford with a 318. “Candy’s Boy” is a tame, lame version of what became the incendiary crowning moment of the “Darkness” album. The sprightly, bouncing “Ain’t Good Enough for You,” with its call-and-response refrain, is the missing link between “Kitty’s Back” and the comeback hit he wrote for Gary U.S. Bonds, “This Little Girl.” “It’s a Shame” has a serious Memphis-style soul groove but starts with a riff later heard in a beefed-up form on “Prove It All Night.” “Come On (Let’s Go Tonight)” is an earlier version of “Factory,” also with Lindley on strings.

And it’s a shame that the version of “The Promise” we hear here, a great unreleased epic ballad of that era, couldn’t find a place on “Darkness.” This version is a more instrumentally muscular version than what I heard back then, with a bolder vocal, and its exclusion from “Darkness” probably had much to do with its similarity in style to that album’s title song. Nonetheless, it’s good to hear it in some form of official release.

And, more than in any other period of his career, Springsteen wore his musical influences out front like so many badges on his leather jacket. “Gotta Get That Feeling” conjures the Phil Spector Wall of Sound from the opening drumroll and castanets with a touch of “Badlands” in Max Weinberg’s drumrolls. “The Little Things (My Baby Does)” also evokes the Spector/Ellie Greenwich feel melodically. “Outside Looking In” snarls over a chassis of “Peggy Sue.” Motown came up in a ballad title stolen from The Supremes, “Someday (We’ll Be Together),” while the lyrics of earlier version of “Racing” leaned more heavily on Martha Reeves’ call-out around the world. “Wrong Side of the Street” combined his street-drama sensibility of the time with a hint of power pop (though I don’t hear the Flamin’ Groovies, as a couple of fans in Webland have suggested).

As for the more familiar tunes: Back in the day I had heard an earlier version of “Because the Night” with different lyrics, as opposed to the version here with Smith’s touch-ups, but it loses none of its power. The version of “Fire” included here is a quicker pace than what we’re used to hearing, but it still smolders.“Talk to Me” sounds like the Jukes but with Bruce up front — obvious since the Jukes’ horns play on the tune — but in the end I’ll take Southside’s version. “Rendezvous” seems bulked-up and less free-wheeling than other early versions I’ve heard, though that just be the difference between young-adult ears and middle-aged ears. And the rest? Take ’em or leave ’em; there are valid reasons why they’re outtakes.

Sometimes it’s hard to discern how much of this new/old Bruce collection is the real ’70s McCoy and how much is ’10s revision. One way or another, many of the songs stand out, even if you can understand why a lot, though not all, of them didn’t make the final cut. As a big fan of his early music and someone who loves the nuts-and-bolts of music making, I would’ve loved, again, to have heard a side-by-side comparison of the ’78 Bruce and the ’10 Bruce. Oh well — he’s the Boss, right?

If you have an album (available in CD form) you think should be reviewed, contact me at franoramaworld@gmail.com. For disclosure’s sake: I bought this one.

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4 Responses to “ALBUM REVIEW: ‘The Promise’ — Bruce Springsteen (Columbia)”

  1. jmucci Says:

    Great review Fran…but I noticed you mentioned that the “Tracks” box set came out 2 years ago, when it came out in 1998. Was it re-released 2 years ago, by chance?

    Also, I didn’t realize that these recordings have been added to…I thought they were being released exactly as they were back in 1977-78. But thanks for that info. Still looking forward to getting the collection… probably the whole box set.

  2. Michael Barone Says:

    Great review Fran. I didn’t realize that The Promise was more than just remastered/cleaned up outtakes. What I mean is I didn’t know there were overdubs and 2010 reinterpretations. That kinda stinks. He should have just left it alone and released the outtakes as they were. I also liked your Costello-National Ransom review. Do you remember how wildly passionate I was for Costello once upon a time? I’ve unfortunately lost a lot of my passion for his music these days. I think your review encapsulated the way that I feel about him these days really well. MB

  3. jmucci Says:

    Hey Fran…I picked up the whole Promise box set…haven’t gotten through all of it yet..but so far, so good. From what I read, Bruce said he didn’t add all that much to the Promise outtakes…only what he would have added to them back then. What that means, I don’t know. I’m curious to hear any of these songs without whatever overdubs he may have added, to fully see what you are talking about. If I hadn’t read about the overdubs, though, I don’t think I would have guessed that anything sounded particularly “2010”-ish about them.

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