Springsteen’s Spare Parts: “Don’t Look Back” (1977)

Written by Music, Spare Parts

Fittingly, the first installment of our alternative look at Bruce Springsteen’s career puts its foot to the floor and doesn’t look back.

When my able co-conspirator Dave Lifton and I began contemplating this undertaking, our first idea was to envision the first post-Born To Run album as continuing the Phil Spector vibe from its predecessor, but with a much stronger soul influence. We had practically agreed on a song list and sequence, but then realized that this wouldn’t work for two reasons 1) A soul album would interfere too much with Bruce’s friend Southside Johnny, whose sound was similar, and 2) A second album steeped in rock’s past would have sealed his fate as a retro act. At a time when the nascent punk scene was giving us so much vital new music, this would have been career suicide for Bruce.

What remains is mostly a straightforward guitar-based rock album, similar to the existing Darkness, but without the search for redemption of those characters. It has moments of anger, but its less focused than the album that would follow it. Some of the songs still have that Phil Spector feel, because CBS demanded something that sounded like “Born To Run.”

If Born To Run captures the romance and potential inherent in an endless teenage night, then Don’t Look Back comes at a later hour, one where dawn is suddenly close, and where loneliness, desperation, anger, lust, and an all-encompassing thirst for freedom have taken hold. The fantasy boardwalk of Springsteen’s first three records is replaced by a world where the games are all fixed, the cards already dealt by unseen hands. “Breakaway” brings the night of Don’t Look Back to a close with a body lying on pavement that’s still warm from the heat of the day; “City of Night” puts its narrator once again out onto the streets, in search of something he doesn’t know and about to be caught in a crossfire he doesn’t understand.

The Story

Springsteen entered the recording studio in June 1977 on fire, almost literally–among the first songs recorded was “Fire,” which would become a hit track in 1979 for the Pointer Sisters.

In this alternate universe, it would never find its way to Robert Gordon–instead, filled with enthusiasm and eager to deliver to his fans, Springsteen would take the unprecedented step of releasing a double-A side single in late July 1977, featuring “Fire” and another early contender from these summer 1977 sessions, “Don’t Look Back.”

“Don’t Look Back”/”Fire”
Released July 17, 1977

Even as “Fire” climbed the charts, Springsteen and the E Street crew toiled away in the studio, working their way through a massive stack of songs Springsteen had written while on forced exile from recording, including a number of songs premiered on the “Chicken Scratch Tour” of ‘76 and ‘77.

In late September 1977, manager Jon Landau gathered Bruce and Steve Van Zandt in the studio to review and evaluate the material recorded to date. CBS still expected a release for the 1977 holiday season, and of course anticipated a seamless continuation of the sound and themes that had proved so successful on Born to Run.

The trio knew they had two strong candidates for a theoretical album already in hand and quickly began building a twelve-song LP around the two songs released in July. While many songs were considered and discarded over several days, an album took shape around themes that continued naturally from Born to Run, along with a healthy dose of the liberation, frustration, and anger Springsteen felt after his courtroom battle against former manager Mike Appel. Sonically the record brought forward a few Spectoresque tracks, which CBS were happy to hear; there were also clear homages to many of Springsteen’s other rock heroes, from Buddy Holly to Elvis Presley. Songs such as “I Wanna Be With You” and “Gotta Get That Feeling” stood out as clear radio hits.

By mid-October, a track sequence and title were finalized and masters delivered to CBS. Rather than relax for a quiet close to 1977, Springsteen instead decided to continue recording well into the new year. From these sessions would emerge the sparser sounds and bleaker themes he would put forth on June 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Don’t Look Back
Released November 9, 1977

Side A:
Don’t Look Back
The most obvious choice for the opening track and lead single, “Don’t Look Back” is a searing rocker that continues the escapist romanticism of his earlier work, but with the grandiosity replaced by anger and defiance. It’s “Born To Run” crossed with “Badlands.” He and his girl got out while they were young only to find that “the deck’s stacked.” One could also view it as a thinly-veiled reference to the lawsuit and career limbo Springsteen had just endured, wiping the slate clean. Originally released on 1998’s Tracks.

Outside Looking In
Springsteen’s rock classicism serves him well on this track, unreleased until The Promise. A Buddy Holly rhythm track with Clarence doing a King Curtis impression on the sax break. Usually we associate that “Peggy Sue” beat with sexual urgency, but here it’s used to convey frustration, as much at himself for being duped by her looks as at her for not putting out. So Bruce does the only decent thing, and dumps her with a lyric and vocal worthy of Aftermath-era Stones.

Gotta Get That Feeling
While the sound here recalls the most Spectorfied moments on Born To Run, the lyrics tap into this album’s themes of fulfillment denied and desire unchecked. Taken one way, it’s a song of romantic longing; from another angle, it achieves it’s own level of desperation. Officially released on The Promise, though a fixture on Darkness-era bootleg releases for years.

Preacher’s Daughter
Believe it or not, there are still a handful of songs from the 77/78 era that have leaked on bootlegs and not yet appeared on any official release. At the end of the day, this simmering potboiler set to a restrained Bo Diddley backbeat is the only track we could “rescue” from the vaults that would fit into the thematic and sonic picture on Don’t Look Back. This would seem a logical choice to join the live set as a lead-in to “She’s The One,” which it did at the legendary concert at Winterland on December 15, 1978.

Fire
The Boss pays homage to The King (he would later borrow a move straight out of the ‘68 Comeback Special), to whom he sent the demo. Unfortunately, Elvis Presley passed away shortly after Springsteen recorded it in the summer of 1977, robbing the world of what would have been his last great record. But even without Elvis’ endorsement, this became a big hit for The Pointer Sisters, and was a fairly regular part of his live show up through the Born In The U.S.A. tour.

The Promise
Long considered Bruce’s greatest outtake, “The Promise” gets its first official full-band release on The Promise box set after a solo piano rendition appeared in 1999 on 18 Tracks. But we’re going with a take recorded in August 1977 that remains in the vaults. The main reason is because the song is lyrically a counterpoint to “Thunder Road,” which it namechecks, and the unreleased recording is in the key of F, the same key as “Thunder Road,” while the version of The Promise is in G. For the definitive take on the lyrics, read sportswriter Joe Posnanski’s beautiful blog post about it.

Side B:
Ain’t Good Enough For You
The perfect palate-cleanser to open side two and just another hint of the amazing soul revival record Springsteen could have released in the late seventies. Despite the party vibe, the lyric continues the exploration of the themes of frustration and an inability to win found throughout the album. From The Promise; also bootlegged as “What’s the Matter Little Darlin’?” We also assume that, in the version on this album, he wouldn’t have kept in the playful little dig at engineer Jimmy Iovine.

The Brokenhearted
A heretofore missing link in Bruce’s Roy Orbison fixation complete with Mexican horns and a quasi-bolero rhythm, “The Brokenhearted” is a paranoid plea to a girl, even though he knows his fate is sealed. There are musical and lyrical ideas here that would be dealt with more effectively a few years later on “Point Blank” and “Fade Away,” but what we’re seeing is Bruce becoming more interested in the lives of those who are forced to come to grips with the sins of their past.

I Wanna Be With You
The version from Tracks came from The River sessions, but it was one of the first songs recorded for Darkness, and has a similar arrangement. The line, “I don’t understand it/You’re not pretty at all” suggests that Bruce hadn’t learned how to seduce women in song since writing, “You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re alright.” A kick-ass rocker that Bon Jovi would have given all the hairspray in New Jersey to have written.

Wrong Side Of The Street
What finally emerged on Darkness as “Candy’s Room” underwent a number of variations throughout the songwriting process. Two clear ancestors are “Candy’s Boy” from The Promise, which takes many of the lyrics and sets them to an organ-laden boardwalk ballad; and the bootlegged track known as “The Fast Song,” from which “Candy’s Room” derived its ultimate melody, arrangement, and of course that pulse-pounding cymbal intro. “Wrong Side” belongs on the list too, if only for its lyrics exploring the tale of another pretty rich girl who finds herself seeking thrills with Springsteen’s usual cast of vagabonds, gypsies, and petty thieves.

Breakaway
If “Don’t Look Back” is the ideal title track for this collection of songs, then “Breakaway” is where its themes and concerns coalesce into a single musical gut-punch. Classic Springsteen characters return–Sonny, Bobby, Janey. They’re all out looking for something to satisfy the hunger in their souls. Do any of them find it? One of them certainly finds a conclusion, though it’s not the one he expected. Powerful.

City Of Night
A coda of sorts, “City of Night” sounds like it belongs over the closing credits of Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, and not just because of the “Taxicab, taxicab” recurring lyrics. It’s easy as you listen to imagine the rain-slicked streets, shining tires spinning endlessly over them, taking the narrator to a rendezvous with yet another thwarted attempt at fulfillment. After the song sequence we’ve just experienced, the singer is still out on the streets, searching. Born to Run gave us characters and a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end; Don’t Look Back brings us back around to its own start, a snake eating its own tail.

Almost Made the Cut:

“The Little Things (My Baby Does)”: Another Spector-esque pop-rock epic, dropped in favor of “The Brokenhearted” when we realized “Little Things” would be a jarring moment of romantic fulfillment amid songs chronicling anything but.

“It’s Alright” (“Crazy Rocker”): When Dave tossed “I Wanna Be With You” back in the mix, this gem got tossed out. Still locked away in the Springsteensonian Archives; the bootlegged version sounds like a loose early run-through with Bruce shouting out chord changes to the band.

“Spanish Eyes”: Great tune but a rule-breaker for our alternate universe; it shares its opening lines with Born in the U.S.A.’s “I’m On Fire.”

Next time, we wade into the quagmire of sixty-plus songs Springsteen recorded in 1979 and 1980 for a pre-River record.

Mock cover art courtesy of Popdose’s own Dw. Dunphy.

Read more from David Lifton at Wings For Wheels and more from Matt Springer at Pop Geek.