Bruce Springsteen – “The Promise” from 18 Tracks – Sony 69476.
This song has an unfortunate history. It was made new for 18 Tracks, but the song itself is much older. I have heard bootleg concert recordings from the Darkness tour in which the song was performed as on 18 Tracks, with solo piano and vocal. There is also a rare tape with the full E Street Band doing the song live. Best of all, however, is the version smuggled out of those Darkness sessions that I have included here. It is a superb statement of what Bruce Springsteen’s music is really about, and what is sad is that this song took so long to receive its commercial release, but not in the version you hear above. The story is simple enough: “Johnny works in a factory; Billy works downtown; Terry works in a Rock and Roll band, looking for that million dollar sound…” The song is sung in first person. We never find out what the speaker does. He had a Challenger which he built by himself, but had to sell. He has slept in the back seat of a borrowed car. Throughout the song there is imagery from many other Springsteen songs – even ones not yet written at the time of “The Promise”. I hear echoes of “Thunder Road” (especially since those words appear repeatedly in the chorus), “Racing in the Street”, “Drive All Night”, “Stolen Car”, etc. My guess is that these similarities kept “The Promise” off Darkness on the Edge of Town and maybe even The River. Certainly it was written and recorded before The River, but so was “Sherry Darling”, and that got on. It’s just a mystery to me, but I am grateful it was finally given its due, and eventually re-recorded, and released on Tracks as a solo-piano version. It’s not perhaps as passionate as the 1970s recordings are, but the older Springsteen voice suits this song well. Plus, the main piano melody has finally come out, and is much less ambiguous than in the early versions of the song. The visual impact of the line about the “tires rushing by in the rain” is powerful to me. But the most profound message in “The Promise” is this: “All my life I’ve fought the fight – the fight that no man can ever win. And every day it just gets harder to live the dream I’m believing in.”
Bruce Springsteen – “Drive All Night” from The River – Columbia 36854.
This ranks as one of the least favorite songs of many dedicated Springsteen fans. I think the consensus is that it is too long and dramatic. And I will freely admit that, on the surface, eight and a half minutes does seem excessive for a song with only three chords over and over again. It’s a testament to the power of the I, IV, V progression. But what this song has is emotion. Right from the start it is there. “When I lost you, honey, sometimes I think I lost my guts, too.” That says it all. It’s not really about driving all night. It’s about being so in love with someone that it hurts, and knowing that you would do anything for them. This song, and, moreover, this performance, is the musical epitome of that feeling. Listen to the ways he sings “You’ve got my love…heart and soul….” That guy means it! And anyone who has felt that way – I mean really felt it – will understand.
The Cookies – “I Never Dreamed” – Sequel 649.
This 1964 Goffin/Titelman gem is a relatively new discovery for me, but it has instantly leaped to the top of my list of favorite pop songs. This song has everything: great singing from lead vocalist Margaret Ross and the rest of the Cookies, catchy tune, and lyrics everyone can identify with. “He tells me I’m pretty, and then I feel pretty. He says I make him happy, and that makes me happy”. That’s true to life. But it’s the soaring melody that I can’t get out of my head, and really don’t want to. Listen to the sample, but be warned: You’ll never forget it.
Petula Clark – “Downtown” from Downtown.
This song is like magic. The melody is tuneful, the mood is sweet, and the words are evocative. It has all the elements that make lyrics great. If you’re sad, she is telling you how to not be sad. “You can always go downtown”. She tells you that you’re going to be all right, and things will be great, and you can believe they will be. I mean, the list of things to do downtown is so extensive, how could you not want to go there? I love the arrangement. The strings and horns are so exciting. Check out the great horn solo. You have probably heard this song a million times. But, seriously, next time it comes on the radio, listen closely. Everything comes together to create an amazing pop masterpiece.
The Beatles – “Here, There and Everywhere” from Revolver – Capitol 46441.
A delightfully well crafted song. This one has been on my list of favorites longer than the others. From the time that I first began learning guitar I was attracted to it. The lyrics are perhaps not at the level of the best Beatles material, but the music is so pretty, and the performance so straight-forward, that it stands out among so many songs in the giant Beatles catalog. John Lennon himself considered it one of his favorites. And it came at just the right time because any later and it probably would not have fit in. The arrangement is so modest that I still can’t quite understand it. I mean, there’re the usual drums, bass and guitars, but they are somehow amazingly delicate. Listen to what I mean. I shudder to think what Paul McCartney might have made of this song in later years. Regardless, it is an exceptional little love song, and the chord changes are clever.
The Beach Boys – “Girls on the Beach” from All Summer Long – Capitol 31516.
This may be heresy, but I’ll confess here that there is a good deal of The Beach Boys I do not care for. I don’t see Pet Sounds as an unqualified masterpiece. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is nice, but “Sloop John B” is crap by almost any objective standard, and it’s hard for me to understand why they would have recorded it. Many people might cite “God Only Knows” or “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” as the best Brian Wilson song. Those are excellent. For me, however, far and away the most brilliant is “Girls on the Beach”, a Brian Wilson/Mike Love wonder. Not only does the music perfectly suit the subject, but what music! You may be aware that many Beach Boys songs are deceptively simple. “Girls on the Beach” is astonishingly complex. Witness this passage in the last verse. The chords during the words “As the sun dips out of sight” are Eb, Cm7, Fm7, Bb7. Then, a jump, to E, C#7, F#m7, Am6 for “Couples on the beach at night”. Finally, another jump, to Fmaj7 to Dm7 in the chorus! It’s stunning. Listen to the sample to hear what I am talking about.