Monday, September 07, 2020

Bruce Springsteen - American Madness (1976)


Bruce Springsteen released his breakthrough album, Born to Run, in August 1975, through Columbia Records. It came after two highly critically acclaimed albums that sold poorly, and cemented his status as one of the greatest songwriters of the '70s, as well as giving him the financial stability he so deserved. It was a last-ditch effort by him and his label, who gave him a large budget to make the best album he possibly could. He produced BTR alongside music critic Jon Landau, who would later go on to become his manager. Before that, all his albums were produced by manager Mike Appel, with whom Springsteen argued constantly during sessions for the record, and planned on making him play a much smaller role in his career from then onwards. Born to Run's success was followed by a successful year-long tour, divided into two legs, which only ended in May 1976. After the tour's end, Bruce planned on entering the studio in August 1976, with Jon Landau as his producer and the then year-old "classic" lineup of the E Street Band, to record the much-awaited followup to Born to Run. In preparation for the sessions, he and the band held daily rehearsals at his barn in Holmdel, New Jersey in the early summer, testing out arrangements and rehearsing some material Bruce had been writing on and off since at least January 1976, during breaks in their touring schedule. However, things went south for Springsteen and his plans before he managed to even set foot on a recording studio.

Excited with the sudden success of his client, manager Mike Appel had pretty ambitious plans for Springsteen, planning out a live album, to be made out of recordings from December 1975, as well as a tour to be played in a circus tent, of all places, later in the year. Fortunately, Landau convinced Bruce that it was both too early for a live LP, and the circus tent was simply a stupid idea and logistical nightmare, which angered Appel, who now thought Landau had too much influence over his client. Coupled with the fact that Bruce wanted to renegotiate the ownership of his songs and wanted to have more control over his own songs, their relationship finally broke down, and matters ended up being resolved in court, where it was decided he couldn't enter the studio until this matter was resolved. Unable to record, he went back on the road, embarking on the very ironically titled "Lawsuit Tour" that August. Accompanied by the Miami Horns, the band played some fantastic songs during the almost year-long tour, which in addition to keeping Bruce and the band busy, helped pay for almost all of the legal costs in his ongoing court case. Bruce kept on writing material during the tour, debuting a very different batch of tracks in the final months of the tour in early 1977. Finally, the lawsuit was settled on May 28, 1977, with the judge finally allowing Bruce and the E Street Band to enter the studio and start work on their fourth album. Wasting no time, they entered Atlantic Studios in New York City just four days later, almost a full year later than he had intended.

By then, he had written some 30 new songs and would write even more during the sessions, inspired by his disillusionment with the recording industry, the recent rise of punk rock, and the massive hype for a follow up to the classic he had released two years prior. All of that led to a change of direction, with less operatic, more direct, and stripped-down music, with darker lyrical themes and concepts, according to some presenting the grim reality behind the escapist dreams of Born to Run. Because of that, many of the songs he had considered key tracks and conceptual centerpieces only less than a year before were completely abandoned, while others were adapted and changed in both arrangement and lyrics to fit in with the new concept, replaced with newly-written tracks. After some seven months and almost fifty tracks were recorded, Darkness on the Edge of Town was finished in April 1978. Praised by many as Springsteen's greatest recorded achievement, it was a very different album than many were expecting, which led it to it having some lackluster sales, when compared to what came before. But with its glowing reviews and the legendary tour that followed, it has more than deserved its place in rock and roll legend. However, many of the people who saw the early Lawsuit Tour shows and became enamored with numbers such as "Frankie" and "The Promise" wondered what would've happened had things gone differently, and he made the album he intended to make at first.

So, with all of that, the question remains: what if Bruce had managed to get into the studio in August 1976? In order to answer that question, we need to set up some ground rules first. Only songs debuted live or known to have been written before December 1976 will be included. That means songs debuted late into the Lawsuit Tour, such as "Don't Look Back", cannot be included, as they're outside the period such an album would be culled from. Similarly, songs from before January 1976 and BTR outtakes are not included for the same reason, even though "Linda Let Me Be the One" from August 1974 was included in some of the first tracklists for Album #4, alongside "Frankie" and "Darkness on the Edge of Town". Such an album would be recorded from August to September 1976, be produced by Jon Landau at the Record Plant in New York City, and feature some eight tracks, since there are some pretty long songs under consideration. In accordance with the way both Born to Run and Darkness were sequenced, the so-called "four corners" approach. We start and end the album sides with the most extravagant and thematically important tracks, and fill in the sides with the lighter, simpler pop songs. Considering Born to Run also featured eight tracks, we can try to mimic its track sequence as much as possible, drawing parallels between the songs we have and the songs on the album. Anyway, not to stretch this out any more than we already have, here's our tracklist for today:

Darkness on the Edge of Town (Darkness)
Rendezvous (The Promise)
Candy's Boy (The Promise)
Racing in the Street (The Promise)
-
Frankie (Tracks)
Save My Love (The Promise)
Something in the Night (Thrill Hill Vault)
The Promise (Thrill Hill Vault)

Bonus tracks:
Talk to Me (The Promise)
Sherry Darling (The River)

Clarence Clemons, Springsteen, and Stevie Van Zandt playing live in Sept. 1976

We start the album off with the first of our four epics, "Darkness on the Edge of Town", which was also one of the songs rehearsed at the Holmdel barn. Although it wasn't performed live in the Lawsuit tour, it started being written that January, and was included in his first "Album #4" sequence early in the year, making it a great opener for this album, with a 30-second piano and organ intro added in, of course. Filling in the four corners with more easily digestible material is "Rendezvous", which from its first live performance in August 1976, was virtually unchanged from its officially released studio counterpart, so no changes are needed. Up next is another shorter song, "Candy's Boy", which is also unchanged between its "barn version" to the version released on The Promise, so then again there's no rearranging needed. Finally as our side-closing epic, a song Bruce started to write right after New Year's Eve 1975, "Racing in the Street". It was also rehearsed alongside all of the other tracks on this reconstruction in his NJ home, but unfortunately, no recordings exist of said versions, so we're left to speculate on what it would sound like. Personally, I believe a 1976 arrangement of RITT would be more much bombastic and produced than the more subdued, stripped-down version of it we got. So, the alternate arrangement from The Promise, which is slightly more quick-paced and has Bruce on the harmonica, would fit like a glove here, and provide a fantastic, and very emotional finale to side one. I would, however, remove the violin track David Lindley added to it in 2010, to keep the song as vintage as possible.

Starting side two on a more optimistic note is "Frankie", a fan favorite which was first debuted live in March 1976. While the only available studio version we have of the song comes from 1982, six years after this album was supposed to be recorded, it's funny to notice that the live versions from the Born to Run tour are much more similar to the version from Tracks than the unfinished, 1977/78 takes of the same song! Sure, it's slightly slower, and some lyrics have been changed, some of them being used instead on a different song on the album, "Candy's Boy", but this version of "Frankie" is pretty close to what we would've gotten back then. Another song recorded way after the fact is "Save My Love", which was rehearsed at the Thrill Hill barn and considered for his fourth album, but inexplicably wasn't even attempted during the sessions for Darkness, so it was left unfinished until Bruce and the E Street Band tracked it in 2009 for inclusion in The Promise. I include it here as the arrangement is unchanged from the rehearsal to the finished version, and it was performed by the exact same musicians. Up next, functioning as the "story song" of the album, much like "Meeting Across the River" in Born to Run, is "Something in the Night", live in August 1976. This earlier version was quite shorter and much simpler in its arrangement, sometimes even resembling a spoken word track, just like its BTR counterpart, and functions as a fantastic introduction to the final epic of the album.

And said epic is "The Promise", which was first performed live in August, during one of the first dates of the Lawsuit Tour. Here, it's featured in its unedited band version, which clocks in at about 7 minutes long. Sometimes, Bruce would play the song solo on piano live, as he did with "Thunder Road" too, but I have no doubt the song would feature a band arrangement had he gotten into the studio. As with "Frankie", some of the lyrics changed between its live debut and the final, studio take of it, but that's honestly for the better, and since no absurd changes were made, we can include this version without much changing. A very emotional finale to a great record, with a song that could very well be its' title track. And as for bonus tracks, we can include the two more "doubtful" tracks from this time period. "Talk to Me", which he later gave to Southside Johnny, had some of its lyrics used as an intro to "She's the One" in live performances during the year, and we're not sure if that means the song already existed, or if it was just an idea he hadn't given a home to yet. With "Sherry Darling", we see that Bruce introduced it as "from two summers ago" when playing it in '78. Does that mean the song is from mid-1976 or is Bruce just bad at math? We can't be sure, so a bonus track it remains. We end up with an album that mimics BTR's format (be it with the four epics opening and closing sides, the unusual opener, the spoken-word track just before the closer), with the quality to match it.

Clocking in at about 39 minutes, with one 18-minute and one 21-minute side, American Madness is a great record, managing to stand as an equal to both the album that came before it, and the one it would become due to the circumstances. It acts as a midway point between two very different directions, a sort of transitional record that would ease the stark differences between Born to Run and Darkness. It's not quite as good as BTR, but succeeds in pointing the way to a new direction without alienating his present audience, which is something DOTEOT couldn't quite do. Its title comes from one of the two working titles of his 1978 album, Badlands and American Madness. Since The Promise was never considered as a title, and Badlands is the name of a track that hadn't been written yet, I chose the latter, especially considering it would've been released on the year of the American Bicentennial. And as for the cover, I used a picture of Bruce with his guitar from late 1976, similar to Born to Run, made it darker, and used the typewriter font from Darkness to write the album title and artist. Luckily, this album has plenty of potential singles we can choose from, but I'd go with the safer option, "Rendezvous", with "Save My Love" as a potential follow up, depending on the former's commercial performance. We honestly can't complain about how things went down, but it would be interesting to see this album released during such an important transitional period for Bruce, which could go on to change his very career.

Sources:
Bruce Springsteen - The Promise
Bruce Springsteen - Darkness on the Edge of Town
Bruce Springsteen - Thrill Hill Vault 76/78
Bruce Springsteen - Tracks
Bruce Springsteen - The River