“The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts” Is a Must-Watch for Every Springsteen Fan

The newly released concert film features the Boss at the height of his power

November 16, 2021 7:11 am
Bruce Springsteen performs during his 1979 "No Nukes" concert.
Bruce Springsteen performs during his 1979 "No Nukes" concert.
Joel Bernstein

When an artist who has been at it for roughly 50 years — releasing close to two dozen live albums as well as plenty of other odds-and-ends compilations along the way — announces yet another concert film and accompanying live record, it’s easy to be skeptical. After all, they can’t all be winners, and at a certain point we’ve gotta be scraping the bottom of the barrel, right? Surely anything that sat on a shelf for 42 years before finally seeing the light of day did so for a reason?

Those are all reasonable concerns if the artist in question is just about anyone else, but fortunately in this particular instance we happen to be talking about Bruce Springsteen. The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts film (available for digital download today and on various physical formats — including DVD and Bluray — on Nov. 19) isn’t just an extremely good performance; it’s essential viewing for anyone who considers themselves a fan.

Recorded over the course of two nights — Sept. 22 and 23, 1979 — at Madison Square Garden for the “No Nukes” concerts organized by Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt and John Hall to benefit Musicians United for Safe Energy, The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts condenses the Boss’s two sets into one lean, 13-song collection. That means there’s absolutely no filler, just the very best from two gigs that have long been celebrated as some of the best performances of Springsteen (and, of course, the E Street Band)’s storied career. Just as the title reminds us, these shows are the stuff of legend; grainy, bootleg video has cropped up online over the years, and several tracks are featured in the 1980 No Nukes movie, but this is the first time we’ve gotten to see footage of the complete 90-minute set. Finally it’s here, edited from the original 16mm film by longtime Springsteen collaborator Thom Zimny with remixed audio by Bob Clearmountain.

Back in 1979, Springsteen was smack dab in the middle of one of the best runs of his career — fresh off of 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and in the process of writing and recording 1980’s The River. Given what a creative peak he’d reached at the time, it should come as no surprise that he was absolutely firing on all cylinders at the No Nukes shows. Due to the timing of the shows, there is, naturally, a good amount of Darkness and River tracks in the setlist (we open with “Prove It All Night,” “Badlands” and “The Promised Land” off of the former before segueing into “The River” and “Sherry Darling” from the latter). But there’s something for everyone here, whether you prefer moody, contemplative Springsteen staring down a looming midlife crisis (remember when people had those in their thirties?) or soaring, triumphant Springsteen tearing through some of his most beloved hits. It’s tough to think of a more unbeatable combination of songs performed in quick succession than “Thunder Road” into “Jungleland” followed by “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and “Born to Run.”

There’s even plenty for fans of Springsteen’s early bar-band, Stone Pony era thanks to an encore full of excellent covers of classics he grew up listening to. He brings out Browne, Tom Petty and Rosemary Butler for an inspired version of Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs’ 1960 doo-wop hit “Stay,” before tearing through his “Detroit Medley” (a staple of Springsteen tours since 1975 which includes snippets of “Devil With the Blue Dress,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and “Jenny Take a Ride”), Gary U.S. Bonds’ “Quarter to Three” and Buddy Holly’s “Rave On.”

Those encores — particularly the nine-minute rendition of “Quarter to Three” — are where he and the other members of the E Street Band really kick it into a higher gear, but there’s an electricity present throughout the entire film that anyone who’s ever seen Springsteen perform live before is surely already familiar with. He dances atop a piano, dons cool-guy sunglasses before some choreographed booty-shaking with Clarence Clemons and treats us to a few powerslides across the stage. The Sept. 23 show happened to be on his 30th birthday, and when someone hands him a birthday cake to celebrate the occasion, he throws it back into the crowd, to their great delight. “Send me the laundry bill,” he says, grinning impishly and licking his fingers. (“We were showing off for the folks at home,” Springsteen said at a recent screening of the film. “We were young, we were kids, so what the film is packed with is youthful energy at a level that was surprising even for me when I saw it.”)

And yet, the No Nukes set serves as a striking reminder of Springsteen’s versatility. Immediately after the cake-tossing, he sings “The River” live for the very first time, shifting gears effortlessly from goofy stage antics to an arresting performance of a track that deals with economic anxiety, abandoned dreams and a couple forced to grow up too quickly. A lesser showman might have trouble transitioning from peacocking and smirking about being “over the fucking hill” to delivering an absolute gut-punch like “is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” but Springsteen does it seamlessly.

The truth is, he can still miraculously vacillate between making us cry, making us dance and somehow — even at age 72 — wowing us with that youthful energy. But The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts features Springsteen at the undeniable height of his power, tearing it up onstage and busting out the kind of schtick that would come off as cheesy if attempted by just about anyone else. (Is there a moment where he dramatically rips open his shirt before dancing his way offstage? Yes. Is it one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen? Also yes.) At one point he goes full James Brown, yelling, “That’s all I can stand! I can’t stand no more!” before falling backwards onto the ground and feigning unconsciousness while Clemons and a towel-wielding Steven Van Zandt “revive” him. Fully committed to the bit, he goes totally limp, waving his limbs around like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz while they prop him back up in front of the mic. “I can’t go on like this, I’m 30 years old!” he announces with a grin. “My heart’s starting to go on me. I can’t! I can’t!”

Of course, he can and he did — for another four decades and counting. And yet even in such a lengthy career full of accolades and achievements, The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts stands as a high-water mark. It’s insane that it took this long to get a proper release, but now that it’s finally here, it can assume its rightful place in the Springsteen canon.

The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts is available now via digital download and via digital rental on Nov. 23. You can purchase it as a 2-LP, 2-CD/Bluray, or 2-CD/DVD physical set on Nov. 19. Pre-order it here.

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