Calling Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s pair of shows at Madison Square Garden legendary is no understatement. And the long-awaited formal release of those shows, as The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Shows via both audio and video, affirms the stone-cold fact of that moniker.
A great many factors lined up to make those Sept. 21-22 shows such seismic events in Springsteen’s career. The group’s live reputation had taken a next step during its 1978 tour promoting Darkness on the Edge of Town, but in an age before smartphone cameras and social media it was indeed a kind of legend, spread by word of mouth, from fan to fan. The band’s absence during most of 1979, while in the studio making The River, only stoked an appetite to see it, and the large scale of No Nukes – a five-night all-star benefit staged by Musicians United for Safe Energy (M.U.S.E.), right in the heart of Springsteen’s New York/New Jersey terra firma – was the perfect setting for a coming-out triumph.
They also fell just in front of Springsteen’s 30th birthday on Sept. 23, giving him plenty of comic fodder for the shows, as well as a birthday cake from one fan near the front that Springsteen promptly tossed back into the crowd.
Importantly, Springsteen’s appearance in the No Nukes film and the accompanying album gave fans worldwide a first official taste of what he and the band could do onstage – as well as just how big a deal it was for them to be there. “Too bad his name isn’t Melvin,” Bonnie Raitt famously cracked in response to the “Bruuuuuuuuce!” chants that filled the Garden those nights. And when co-organizer Jackson Browne counseled Tom Petty, who was also on the bill, that he wasn’t being booed, Petty wryly answered, “What’s the difference?” But there was no denying those nights belonged to the E Street Band.
Whether they’re the best shows in Springsteen’s history is up for debate, but the No Nukes performances were certainly Springsteen and the band at their best – young, lean, hungry, pent-up but tight from the studio and taking no prisoners, even if the man himself happily identified as “a prisoner of rock ‘n’ roll.” The troupe played 90 minutes each night instead of its usual three hours or so, but it channeled the same epic energy into the sets, combining sweat equity with master showmanship, good humor and dizzying stage dynamics. Springsteen’s “collapse” during Gary U.S. Bonds’ “Quarter to Three,” faux as it was, embodies the joyously draining experience of watching, or evening listening to, the shows.
The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts composites Springsteen’s two nights (both have been released in their entirety as part of his official bootleg series), without concern for continuity of appearance or even particularly smooth editing in the film. But that just adds to the shambolic, unscripted joy of the event as the group tears through the 13 beautifully mixed and mastered songs, premiering The River‘s title track and “Sherry Darling,” and closing the main sets with a blazing hat trick of “Jungleland,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and “Born to Run.” The encores feature the second night’s romp through Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs’ “Stay,” with Browne, Petty and Rosemary Butler, followed by a titanic “Detroit Medley” that makes the edited No Nukes album version seem like finger food in comparison.
Springsteen cautions at one point during the latter that those with weak hearts or stomachs should “please leave the hall for the next five minutes.” Courteous, perhaps, but, really, who would really take their eyes, or ears, off this essential document of prime and primal rock ‘n’ roll spectacle?
Bruce Springsteen Albums Ranked
Because he spent so many of his formative years painstakingly crafting his albums, we don’t often think of Bruce Springsteen as a prolific artist.