Despite her large cult following and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career (she was inducted in 2007), this was Patti Smith's only hit, making it an anomaly in her discography, which was aimed at a far more narrow audience.
For many not familiar with Smith's career or the history of punk, this is the only recognizable song of hers. The producers of the 2013 movie CBGB played to this audience when they portrayed Smith singing this song at the famous club in 1975 - two years before she recorded it and a year before it was written. In the film, Smith is played by Mickey Sumner, who is Sting's daughter.
Bruce Springsteen started writing this song in 1976, but he didn't work on it in a studio until a year later, after settling a legal dispute with his manager, Mike Appel. He started recording it for his 1978 Darkness On The Edge Of Town album, but he wanted all the song to follow a theme: how people react when they don't have "freedom from dread." "Because The Night" didn't fit this narrative, so he didn't slate it for the album.
The song lay dormant until Springsteen's producer, Jimmy Iovine, convinced him to give a copy to Patti Smith, who eventually got around to filing in the verses and recording the song. Iovine was also producing Smith's Easter album and convinced her to record it for the set.
Smith wrote the verses in one night in 1977 while waiting for her boyfriend, Fred "Sonic" Smith, to call. Fred, a founding member of the MC5, lived in Michigan and performed with his band Sonic's Rendezvous; Patti was in New York. They relied phone calls to stay in touch, but they were both poor and long distance calls were very expensive, so they limited their talks to about once a week, always at night when the rates were cheaper. One night, Patti was expecting his call at 7:30, but it didn't come. That's when she played Springsteen's cassette demo for the first time, listening to it over and over while she wrote lyrics about her yearning love. She got rather specific:
Love is a ring, a telephone
By the time Fred called around midnight, the song was done. This was very unusual for her, as she typically took a lot longer to compose lyrics.
Springsteen didn't release a studio version of this song until 2010 for his album The Promise
, but he often played it at his live shows with different lyrics. The first time his version
was released came in 1986 on the boxed set Live 1975-1985
As The Boss was struggling to finish this song, he agreed to Jimmy Iovine's request that Patti Smith could complete it. Springsteen explained why to Mojo
magazine August 2010: "It was a love song and I really wasn't writing them at the time. I wrote these very hidden love songs like For You
, or Sandy, maybe even Thunder Road
, but they were always coming from a different angle. My love songs were never straight out, they weren't direct. That song needed directness and at the time I was uncomfortable with it. I was hunkered down in my samurai position. Darkness
… was about stripping away everything - relationships, everything - and getting down to the core of who you were. So that song is the great missing song from Darkness On The Edge
. I could not have finished it as good as she did. She was in the midst of her love affair with Fred 'Sonic' Smith and she had it all right there on her sleeve. She put it down in a way that was just quite wonderful."
Smith's producer on the Easter album was Jimmy Iovine, who would go on to great things as a producer and entrepreneur, but was still getting started in the business at the time. "Because The Night" was his first hit as a producer, and he credits Bruce Springsteen for granting him the opportunity. Iovine had worked on Bruce's 1975 Born To Run album, and Springsteen gave him the song to deliver to Smith. This "really launched by career," Iovine said.
Smith was hesitant to use a song written by someone else, and even after writing the verses she wasn't sure she would record it. Jimmy Iovine and her band members helped convince her to give it a go. "In the end, we were a good match for that particular song," she told Billboard
. "I could have never written a song like that. I'd never write a chorus like that."
10,000 Maniacs covered this song in 1993, outcharting Smith at #11 US. When Smith's husband (and the song's muse), Fred, died of a heart attack on November 11, 1994 at age 45, royalties from that cover helped keep her solvent financially - she had two young children, son Jackson and daughter Jesse, and little money.
The song became a lasting tribute to Fred; Smith later took to performing it with Jackson and Jesse, who became musicians.
Springsteen and Smith performed the song together at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on April 23, 2018. Smith said: "This song always makes me think of three men: Fred 'Sonic' Smith who inspired it, Jimmy Iovine who produced it, and Bruce Springsteen who wrote it." Springsteen insisted they sing her lyrics, not the ones he typically sang.
This wasn't the first time they shared a stage: Springsteen joined Smith onstage several times from 1976-1977, while legal battles kept Bruce from recording.
Smith bought her dad a new 1978 Cordoba with the money she made from this song.