Searching for live performances of my favorite bands on youtube, I started to recognize the same rainbow background, the same giant video screen seemingly a mile above the performers' heads, the same desert, the same never-ending crowd. Turns out they were all from the US Festival in San Bernardino, California, Labor Day Weekend, 1982. Apple's Steve Wozniak created the US Festival, supposedly an attempt to merge technology and music, with tech booths featuring early drum machines, music-processing computers, and keyboards. They repeated the festival the next year in 1983, although Wozniak reportedly lost $12.5 million the first year, $20 million total in 1983 USD.
It's all that's great and terrible about 80's music in three days. The styles varied from punk to new-wave to electronic to metal to classic rockers, but they were all rock bands, and, if nothing else, they could at least compete with each other to see who was the best band at the Fest, and, ostensibly, the world, which always provides for some inspired performances, or, in David Lee Roth's case, getting so wasted he's unable to do anything music-related, but, after recieving a shot of whiskey from a little person in a tuxedo, insults the Clash, seemingly jealous of their credibility: "the only people who put iced tea in Jack Daniel's bottles are The Clash, baby!" Diamond Dave couldn't even remember the lyrics to his biggest songs but he did throw-in some trademark kick-jumps, which come at a hefty price, considering Van Halen received $1.5 million to headline US Festival.
The Clash, who honorably refused to play until Apple pledged to donate some of the proceeds to charity, seemed angry at the festival and Americans in general, and insulted both several times during their set. I mean, I get it, the world's disgusting, but you did agree to play the show, right? One festival-goer noted that most people took off during their show in the face of cold desert winds. The days were plagued by 115 degree heat. Although the festival was smartly equipped with water sprinklers, hoses, and showers, when the sun set, wet concert-goers fled the cold.
Punk-legends Gang of Four, Talking Heads, The Ramones, and The Pretenders also played the 1st day.
A Ramones fan recounts his experience:
"116 degree heat. No shade. Performers refusing to play. Chaos. Dust flying so high you could barely see the stage. Me in a prone position, too hot to raise my head. The Ramones came on and I stood up and cheered. Joey did the entire set without removing his leather jacket."
Another US festival goer's memories:
"I was 25 and single so I just took off work and flew out there. They picked me up and we walking up that long hill to the entrance. Like most people, we brought lawn chairs and coolers. But rather than toss all that stuff, two went back to the car and the rest of us went inside...and would see them when they came back in. It seemed plausible at the time. We soon were on our way to an altered state and wandered to the biggest led display I had ever seen. As the bands come and went, we realized the odds of us running into them in the crowd would be as likely as winning the lottery. But we looked all over all day and started getting worried. Several beer gardens later and ready to accept the fact we could not find our way back to the car and our hotel, out of the blue
here they come. We almost wept with joy since we were pretty ripped by
Keyboard heavy New-Wave bands were a natural fit for the tech-show Woodstock atmosphere, and some early trendsetters for the MTV age were on-hand.
One of my favorites, The B-52's, played, and for the first time I noticed the subtle vocal differences between Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson, even with the poor quality, as most of these videos were transferred from a home-recording of a cable broadcast. Some even feature a view-obstructing timer box for tracking or god knows what.
Some classic rockers like Fleetwood Mac, The Kinks, David Bowie, and Tom Petty performed, but the Festival wisely booked a bill that reflected current tastes, and really was a comprehensive gathering of the best in popular music at that time.
The Police's drummer, Stewart Copeland, has a great HD look at US Festival in his documentary, Everyone Stares.
For my money, Missing Person were the best in show, as they combined metal, punk, and dance sensibilities into a powerful and eccentric sound. Ok I might just be in love with Dale.