Home > Album cover art > Great covers: Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978)

Great covers: Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978)

For many years 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, in my view Bruce Springsteen’s greatest album, was rather underrated. The trouble might have been that it produced no hit single, and nothing as exuberant as Born To Run on the preceding album of the same name or Hungry Hearts on 1980’s The River. The album’s title suggests an existential sense of alienation, a loss of hope and a ferocious anger, which is reflected in the songs, in their sound and in their words. The hope of Thunder Road on Born To Run gives way to the despondent resignation of Racing In The Streets on Darkness. The guitar-driven elation of Born To Run here becomes the guitar-driven anger of Candy’s Room or Adam Raised A Cain.

In the publicity blurb for the recent release of the de luxe CD/DVD set of Darkness, Springsteen describes the album has his “samurai” record. I think of it as his Scorsese album. Mean Streets, the name of Martin Scorsese’s 1973 film, might have been a great alternative title for Springsteen’s only Carter-era LP. The cover complements the feel of the album perfectly. A tired-looking Bruce stands in what looks like a rather dreary apartment. His dishevelled hair calls to mind Al Pacino in Serpico, his penetrating stare Robert de Niro’s. One almost expects John Cazale to lurk behind the closed blinds, ready to embark on some ill-fated adventure or other (alas, that wonderful actor died on 12 March 1978, exactly a week before the completion of the recordings for Darkness , which begun in October 1977).

Rarely does an album cover condense in one simple photo the whole direction of an album. Photographer Frank Stefanko’s iconic photo of Springsteen did just that – without having heard the songs or knowing what they were about.

Stefanko, who also shot the cover of 1980’s The River, met Springsteen through Patti Smith, who had a big hit in 1978 with Because The Night, one of the many songs Springsteen had recorded for Darkness and then rejected. It was the beginning of a friendship that has survived the intervening three decades. In an interview with the Internet magazine Pitchfork, Stefanko recalls doing a test shoot at his home in Haddonfield, New Jersey.  More shoots followed, but it was that initial session that generated the cover art for Darkness.

Stefanko told Pitchfork that “the original shoot was just done with my perception of how I thought he wanted to look or how I wanted him to look […] From what I understand, when he looked at the photograph he said, ‘That’s the person that I’m writing about. That’s the person that is the Darkness on the Edge of Town character and that’s what I want on my cover.”

Springsteen recalled the shoot in an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian: “He [Stefanko] was a guy who’d worked in a meat-packing plant in south Jersey. He got the 13-year-old kid from next door to hold a light. He borrowed a camera. I don’t know if he even had a camera! But when I saw the picture I said, ‘That’s the guy in the songs.’ I wanted the part of me that’s still that guy to be on the cover. Frank stripped away all your celebrity and left you with your essence. That’s what that record was about.”

In fact, Stefanko, who in 1978 was 32, had owned a camera since he was seven years old, and had been taking photos on a serious basis since the 1960s.

The Darkness photos may seem casual, snapshots taken on the fly. They were, in fact, the product of a long shoot. On the picture used for the cover, Springsteen wears a white t-shirt. On other photos taken during the same session, he wears a black shirt, and then a hideous purple paisley shirt with the leather jacket he wears on the front cover.

“We were trying to recreate these middle America, working class families; guys that were looking for redemption. It could have been done in the 70s or 50s or even the 40s. The idea was that these people transcended time or space,” Stefanko told Pitchfork. “But we were trying to get something to look like an old Kodacolor snapshot. There were a lot of black and white photographs taken in those sessions too which were very striking in their own right. But the idea of this color photograph that could have been a snapshot in somebody’s drawer worked for the album.”

From all that we learn that Stefanko had pretty awful taste in wallpaper in 1978. The new owners of the house took the right decision to paper over it, but neglected to sell scraps of it, thereby missing one of the great opportunities for profiteering from a photographer’s ugly wallpaper.

Read the full interview here.

Last November the great Cover Me blog produced a fantastic collection comprising covers of all songs of Darkness. Visit it here, and marvel at the collection from which I’ve borrowed the 2005 version of the title track by indie band The Winter Blanket, which is very reminiscent of Iron & Wine. Mary Lou Ford’s version is from a very good bootleg recording made at a gig in Moorestown, New Jersey on 8 February 2003. Mary McKee’s version of Candy’s Room is also a live recording, from her 14 May 2003 gig in Stockholm, Sweden. Because The Night, the song Springsteen rejected and gave to Patti Smith, is here in the version from the 1975-85 live collection.


Mary Lou Ford – Racing In The Streets.mp3
The Winter Blanket – Darkness On The Edge Of Town.mp3
Maria McKee – Candy’s Room.mp3
Bruce Springsteen – Because The Night.mp3

Previous great covers

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  1. Jeff Gee
    March 1st, 2011 at 03:12 | #1

    I wonder if Bruce is wearing any shoes? I always thought the ‘Darkness’ cover looked suspicously similar to the cover of “The Graduate” OST…

    http://www.soundonsight.org/the-graduate-soundtrack/

  2. March 1st, 2011 at 07:54 | #2

    Great post! Absolutely spot on about the Scorsese feel. “Darkness” is an album that grows more and more on me, and I would not be surprised if someday I consider it my favorite Springsteen album. (“Tunnel of Love” probably sits there now.) It’s late, so I’ll put off listening to the mp3s until tomorrow, but I will note that I somehow came across a killer version of “Backstreets” by Maria McKee that I think is from a 2006 performance in Stockholm. Thanks!

  3. March 1st, 2011 at 22:16 | #3

    That’s a beautifully written post Dude.

  4. robe
    March 6th, 2011 at 18:23 | #4

    just picked up Springsteen’s ‘The Promise’ box set companion book, amazing original photos and stories frm the Darkness tour. Limited Edition http://www.thelightinDarkness.com

  5. March 8th, 2011 at 05:31 | #5

    I think he looks like a somewhat creepy dork. You walk innocently past, he challenges you to a fight, then when you square up to him he breaks down in tears and falls to his knees, begging you to be his friend instead. I trust that’s not the subject matter to any of the songs on the LP, though.

  6. halfhearteddude
    March 8th, 2011 at 07:26 | #6

    If this was Facebook, I’d click the LIKE button. (Facebook, Indie-Pop, is one of those newfangled “social networking” sites you might have heard the pope talk about.)

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