Bruce Springsteen’s “No Nukes” Gives Rare Glimpse of Early Career – Billboard
If there’s one thing Bruce Springsteen fans can fault their hero for, it’s his early aversion to cameras. For this reason, there is very little on-screen documentation of Springsteen performing on stage in the mid to late 1970s, when the power and majesty of the E Street Band combined with the exuberance of youth for truly epic concert experiences. Without a ticket and a good souvenir, they passed you.
This makes the release this week of a 90-minute film that shows them performing at the “No Nukes” benefit concerts in September 1979, significant to fans and music historians. It’s found money.
In front of a friendly crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Springsteen and his Jersey tough guys crackle with pent-up energy. They had left the road in 1979, recording River, and are delighted to be in front of an audience again. Their typical four-hour show was condensed into 90 minutes. Sharing a bill with artists like Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, and Bonnie Raitt, they were eager to show their peers what they could do.
No wonder, then, to see them burst on stage with a roaring version of “Prove it All Night”. This is exactly what they intended to do. When filmmaker Thom Zimny first looked at the footage, it was soundless and he could always tell something special was happening. “You see them explode on the screen,” he said. “The sheer strength of E Street at this point was amazing to see.”
Springsteen explains that superstition led him to keep cameras out of the way at the time, something about a musician not wanting to look too closely at his bag of tricks. “I don’t want to see what I’m doing because it could change what I’m doing,” he said recently, “and what I do is working for me and for the public.”
It’s different now; all of Springsteen’s shows are filmed. In 1979, the “No Nukes” concert escaped film phobia as a crew was on hand to make a documentary on the benefits of alternatives to nuclear energy. In fact, there weren’t a lot of incentives to film shows in the pre-MTV, pre-YouTube era, said Chris Phillips, editor and publisher of alleys, Springsteen’s news website, with no real outlet on TV or movies, “you were just playing rock ‘n’ roll,” he said.
As a result, images of more than snippets of Springsteen on stage are then relatively rare, he said. A show in Phoenix appears on YouTube, recorded by his record company for an advertisement to promote Springsteen in parts of the country where he was not yet well known. Portions of a Houston show, taken for internal arena use, survive. The same goes for a recording of Springsteen’s first show in London, at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1975.
A few Springsteen performances appeared on the documentary and album “No Nukes”. Most of the time, the footage remained locked in a safe until Zimny had access to it. He made it into the movie which is now being released in part as a pandemic project. “It’s something I did because I missed the band so much,” Zimny said.
Unlike most surviving Springsteen footage from this era, Zimny was working with quality film, shot by a crew that could provide multiple angles. Still, there are imperfections: there are missing images from Steve Van Zandt’s solo on “Jungleland”, perhaps because they were reloading the cameras.
Zimny stuck to the list of shows, held on consecutive nights (including Springsteen’s 30th anniversary) and featuring various callbacks – the “Detroit medley” of one night covers, a performance of “Rave On” of Buddy Holly another. The shows included previews of “Sherry Darling” from “The River” and the title of the upcoming album, as well as a duet with Browne on “Stay”.
Rabid fans have always been aware that these images must exist somewhere, Phillips said. Its emergence is a treat for alleys editor-in-chief: He didn’t see Springsteen live until the “Born in the USA” tour five years later. “After waiting 40 years for this, it doesn’t disappoint,” he said. “It’s an amazing thing, with tempos that hit the charts.”
It’s obvious when they play “Born to Run”. Decades after the song began to exist, its concert appearance is now a karaoke-type ritual – the lights come on, everyone is singing. It was still a relatively new song in 1979, and the band attacked it on “No Nukes” with double ferocity.
The film also illustrates how vital Clarence Clemons was to the show: see how he and Springsteen make eye contact during “Rosalita,” initiating extensive choreography. Springsteen leans on him, literally and figuratively. With Clemons and organist Danny Federici now dead, the band is no longer the same.
The movie “No Nukes” is for sale as a DVD or Blu-Ray disc, in separate packages with audio CDs of the music. Audio won’t be available on streaming services until next year. Zimny described how Springsteen, now 72, was elated when he was first shown footage from the concert, and quickly sang along with his 30-year-old self on screen.
“We were young, we were kids,” Springsteen said at a public screening last week in New Jersey. “What the film is packed with is youthful energy on a level that surprised me even when I saw it. It’s a great document from the group at a very, very specific time.