First Impressions: The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Although we middle-aged (and older) folks often look back upon them through rose-tinted glasses, the 1970s were—as Zonker famously dubbed them in Doonesbury—“a kidney stone of a decade.” Think Kent State, “I am not a crook,” oil shortages, inflation, bell bottoms, disco and the Carter recession, among other incidents and transgressions. It often seemed as if we were stuck inside a giant pinball machine, bouncing from one disaster to the next. About the only good things to come from those 10 years: music, movies and Saturday Night Live.

1979, in particular, saw the pinball of life ricochet toward a calamity of epic proportions when the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Valley suffered a partial meltdown on March 28th. (The Wikipedia entry goes into detail about the accident.) Though disaster was averted, The China Syndrome—released just 12 days earlier—suddenly seemed plausible and the anti-nuclear movement was energized in a way it hadn’t been prior. Musicians United for Safe Energy, for example, was formed not long thereafter.

That’s an admittedly crude summary, but it’s important to know the background for how the five-night MUSE concerts at New York’s famed Madison Square Garden, along with a free gig at Battery Park, came about. They were designed to amplify the same message espoused by Students Against Nuclear Energy (aka SANE), which I joined about the same time. Among the performers who played across the six shows: Jackson Browne, CSN, Ry Cooder, the Doobie Brothers, Dan Fogelberg, Chaka Khan, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Poco, Bonnie Raitt, Gil Scott-Heron, Carly Simon, Peter Tosh and James Taylor—and, of course, Bruce Springsteen and the not-yet-legendary E Street Band. In 1980, the No Nukes documentary and three-LP compilation provided highlights from the five Madison Square Garden shows.

The upside of benefit concerts, as that doc and comp ably demonstrated, is that one can see quite a few headliner acts on the same bill. The downside: said headliners truncate their shows, which sometimes leaves their fans feeling shortchanged; and said fans usually have to sit (or stand) through sets they could live without. (At least, that’s happened to me.) On September 21st, Sweet Honey on the Rock, Ry Cooder, Jesse Colin Young, Chaka Khan and Jackson Browne shared the bill with Springsteen; and, the next night, Tom Petty, Peter Tosh, Gil Scott-Heron and Bonnie Raitt took to the stage before he set foot on it. 

But, as Ernest Leogrande of the New York Daily News noted at the time, “[t]he musical rally could have been for the no-bananas cause and, with Springsteen featured, it still would have created a monumental ticket scramble.”

Anyway, what’s important to know about The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts is that it’s not the full sets from both nights but, instead, the best performances from both nights meshed into a seamless 90-minute concert. (Likewise, the concert film—which I plan to watch tonight—does the same.) That means, as one can see from the track list at the bottom of this piece, six of the 13 songs from the September 21st and seven of the 11 songs from September 22nd.

One new song was played both shows: “The River.” Diane, who was in the house that first night, still talks about the profound impact it had on her. And how could it not? It puts into words something most everyone, at some point, has felt: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?/or is it something worse?” (Although “Sherry Darling” had yet to be released, it was unveiled during the 1978 Darkness tour.) Also on tap both nights were covers of “Stay” (with Jackson Browne and Rosemary Butler joining him on the first and Browne, Butler and Tom Petty joining him on the second) and “Quarter to Three,” while the Detroit Medley and Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” were also played on the first.

The best-of-breed approach may not satisfy completists who’d rather have had both shows in their collections, but for everyone else…wow. This is Bruce and band at their best. They barrel through the Darkness material with precision…

…and inject new life into the Born to Run songs, with Clarence Clemons especially shining on “Jungleland.” Bruce also celebrates his 30th birthday during “Sherry Darling” (though, in fact, his birthday is September 23rd). In a funny aside, he mentions that, now that he’s 30, he can’t trust himself anymore. The humor continues later in the show, when he warns those with heart and brain issues about the intensity of what’s to follow—and unveils an “insurance policy” that he and he band have for sale.

For longtime fans, the release is more than worth the investment; for first-timers, it’s an excellent introduction to the power of “the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, hard-rocking, booty-shaking, love-making, earth-quaking, Viagra-taking, justifying, death-defying, legendary E Street Band” long before they were taking Viagra or became legends.

The track list: 

5 thoughts

  1. Very much enjoying your blog & reviews. Being part of the same generation and raised close to each other, I feel a special affinity to your subject matter & perspective. I was raised in Abington and have found myself inching ever closer to Allentown-Bethlehem with each move. So I have now grown as loyal to the Lehigh Valley as I am to the Delaware Valley. Which compels me to mention, as a matter of trivial minutiae, that the reference to Three-Mile Island in this piece is inaccurate. The island is actually south of Harrisburg, in the middle of the Susquehanna River, making it part of the Susquehanna Valley, not the Lehigh Valley. Not that this matters one iota to your point, of course. But, you know, us Philly-type folk defend our turfs! LOL. Hey, keep up the great work. Love reading it.


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