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“The US Festival ’83″: New wave and heavy metal bands battled for supremacy in the “Super Bowl of Rock Parties”
The US Festival 1983 Days 1-3 contains just a small handful of the highlights of just a few of the bands who performed on Memorial Day Weekend in 1983, one of the largest rock festivals to date, but is the only official release authorized by US Festival partners Steve Wozniak and Peter Ellis’s Unuson Corporation. You can watch it now on Night Flight Plus.
Years before the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival began in 1999, in Indio, California, another big outdoor festival was supposed to be the West Coast’s premiere music festival, but it turned out to be relatively short-lived and although memorable in its day, today it is largely forgotten, stuck somewhere between Woodstock, Altamont and the big rock festivals of the 70s, and the concerts that came immediately afterwards, notably Live Aid in 1985 and then the multi-stage festivals that were launched in the ’90s, like Lollapalooza and Woodstock ’94 and ’99.
US Festival ’83 was held at the Glen Helen Regional Park, in Devore, California, a huge natural amphitheater seated in 500 acres of rolling hills about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, near San Bernardino. It was the brainchild of, and completely funded by, one of the Co- founders of Apple, Steve Wozniak, who for the first concert had paid a $1 million fixed fee to the county, for the bulldozing and grading of the land, and the building of the temporary stage and all additional costs to the county.
Wozniak’s idea was that the three-day festival would become a kind of “Woodstock of the 80s” — yes, even then you’d occasionally see big festival concerts promoted that way, with Woodstock in ’69 setting the bar high for those that followed— but few remember that “Woz” (as he was known to his friends) had originally wanted to feature what he described at the time as “progressive country music.” He was told that he’d sell more tickets if his US Festival featured some of the more well-known new wave and rock acts of the time.
Woz not only wanted to feature some of the biggest bands of the day, however, but also planned to show off some of the latest scientific innovations in air-conditioned tents, housing a technology expo of what was then cutting-edge and state-of-the-art computers, software, video games and electronic music devices, from exhibitors like Apple and some of his competitors too, including Atari.
Wozniak, then just 32 years old and super rich, spent eighteen months on what he was calling a “A New Festival for a New Age,” and he also referred to it as “the Super Bowl of Rock Parties.” At the time he had taken a leave from his job at Apple after surviving a plane crash that had left him shaken and unable to form memories for half a year.
The first US Festival — which had taken place on Labor Day Weekend nine months earlier in 1982 — was originally meant to be something much more special than it had turned out. The name itself was supposed to signify that the 70s — called by some the “Me Decade” had ended, and we were well underway into an “US” decade in the 80s. Wozniak saw his festival as a “we-are-the-world” type of festival which would unite people and get them excited about the future.
He even planned to link via satellite to the Soviet Union during each fest, and indeed this would be the first outdoor concert to use jumbo video screens to provide spectators unobstructed views of the 300 x 67 foot stage as their eardrums were assaulted by 400,000 watts of power.
US Festival ’82 featured top bands from the entire spectrum of popular rock acts, including Fleetwood Mac, the Police, Tom Petty & the Heartbreaks, Gang of Four, the Ramones, the English Beat, Oingo Boingo, the B-52’s, Talking Heads, Santana, Pat Benatar, the Kinks, the Cars, Eddie Money, Dave Edmunds, Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffett and Jackson Browne. The cost was $37.50 for a 3-day ticket, and a one day pass would set you back $17.50.
Wozniak ended up losing an estimated $5-12 million dollars (reports vary), which meant that despite the fact that it was a memorable event, it also was a huge financial disaster and personal failure for Woz. Ticketmaster, however, did quite well for themselves in this, their first entrée into the Southern California ticket-selling marketplace.
Even so, Wozniak — in a press conference held at the end of the event for the press — said that he felt the timing for his festival was right, and he felt there was “a spirit, a push for unity starting to spread. We tried to capture it. I think we did it.” He concluded the press conference by saying, “We may just have to do this again.”
Many believed it was the 112-degree record heat and high ticket prices that kept some of the crowds away that weekend (it was also the last weekend before school was to begin and may have likely been when many college-age students were traveling on to their schools).
Woz, however, was undeterred by its failure, and set plans in motion to have a US Festival ’83 take place earlier in the year, this time segregating each day’s top acts into “theme” days, three full day-long concerts of New Wave, Heavy Metal and Rock acts.
Day 1 (Saturday, May 28th) was called ” New Wave Day,” with Divinyls; INXS; Wall of Voodoo; Oingo Boingo; The English Beat; A Flock of Seagulls; Stray Cats; Men at Work; and The Clash.
Day 2 (Sunday, May 29th) was dubbed “Heavy Metal Day,” with Quiet Riot; Mötley Crüe; Ozzy Osbourne; Judas Priest; Triumph (Wozniak’s pet favorite — the Canadian power trio played twice in two days and highlights from both are seen in US Festival 1983: Days 1-3); Scorpions; and Van Halen.
Day 3 (Monday, May 30th, the last day of the three-day weekend) was billed as “Rock Day,” with Los Lobos (on a side stage only); Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul; Berlin; Quarterflash; Missing Persons; U2; The Pretenders; Joe Walsh; Stevie Nicks; and David Bowie.
There was also fourth day under the banner of US Festival ’83, called “Country Day,” but it was held on the following weekend, and even though Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Alabama and Hank Williams Jr. were among the top country acts who appeared at the site for yet another full day of music, it is usually forgotten about or disregarded simply because it didn’t happen during the same Memorial Day weekend.
Tickets for US Festival ’83 had gone up a bit, and were now $20 per day. There were slow pre-fest ticket sales, but when Memorial Day rolled around, enormous crowds turned out for the concerts. They would consume a million soft drinks and 600,000 hot dogs, drink from 3,2000 water fountains and faucets, and use 1,800 portable toilets.
This time, the weather was more cooperative — in the high 80s for most of the day — and to make sure that the crowds stayed cool this time, water cannons were placed at the foot of the stage, blasting streams of refreshing water onto concert-goers, except that all this did was turn the area in front of the stage into a large mud puddle.
One of the bands you won’t see on US Festival 1983: Days 1-3 is Van Halen, who were paid a record-setting fee of $1.5 million dollars in order to appear. In fact, the 1984 Guinness Book of World Records had to create a new category — the highest amount paid to an act for a single performance — in order to feature them in the new edition.
Van Halen were to originally be paid $1 million, but then found out that David Bowie — who was headlining the “Rock” day, and playing in the U.S. for the first time in several years — was being paid the same amount that they were.
Apparently, their contract had a favored-nation clause which stipulated that they were to be paid more than any other act at the festival and so they demanded $500,000 more or they weren’t going to go on, and Wozniak agreed to pay them what they wanted.
Van Halen had already been three months into a massive tour when the 1983 US Festival came up, and weren’t in the best condition when their tour bus arrived at the concert site.
The band also made the audience wait three hours before they came out, and David Lee Roth was so wasted he couldn’t remember the words to the band’s songs. According to Wozniak himself, in his memoir Woz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon, Roth was “practically falling down onstage. He was so drunk, slurring and forgetting lyrics and everything.”
MTV were at the US Festival ’83 in full force, and the interview with Mark Goodman — who is one of the original MTV veejays whose interview appearance in the US Festival 1983: Days 1-3 unfortunately occasionally overlaps some of the music — he confirms that Roth was indeed “drunk and coked up, laughing at every joke he made.”
There were other issues, apparently, as a backstage flare-up happened between Joe Strummer of the Clash and some of the members of Van Halen, either David Lee Roth or possibly Eddie Van Halen, who had smarted off to Rolling Stone magazine about the Clash’s musical prowess at the time, saying “that’s like what I played in my garage when I was a kid, man.”
Apparently he didn’t think too much of the band and there were some things said onstage by Roth about the Clash and their drinking habits which escalated it further.
The Clash — probably at their own commercial peak with the success of their Combat Rock album, and hits like “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” — were apparently not having a very good time in Devore, and they were vocally upset about finding themselves playing such a huge event where the focus seemed to be not on the future, and technology and innovation, as they’d been told, but on what they perceived as an crassly commerical event that was simply all about profits and big payouts.
When Strummer heard that Van Halen was being paid more than $1million to perform that weekend, he demanded that Wozniak and some of the other big-ticket bands donate a portion of fees to charity groups, which just alienated them to a lot of the other bands who performed.
As it turned out, the Clash — who were paid a half-million dollars to headline “New Wave Day” — had taken the stage that night believing they weren’t being paid what they deserved, and when he started talking about it with the audience, complaining about some of the band’s being paid too much money, that’s when the promoters put a copy of the check they’d given the Clash — showing that they’d been paid $500,000 — up on the video screen during their set.
The Clash weren’t happy with the crowd in attendance either, and Strummer in particular seemed to be looking for a fight with some of them, who they didn’t think were paying them as much attention as they expected. After they left the stage, the crowd yelled for more, but they refused to come back and that’s when a stage announcer — using a phony British accent — told the crowd, “You can shout as loud as you want, but the Clash have left the building.”
The US Festival ’83 would also be the last ever appearance of the band’s guitarist Mick Jones (as well as the last time Stan Ridgway played with Wall of Voodoo).
U2 were originally booked to be on the first night with the Clash, who they admired greatly, but then Bono asked to have them switched over from “New Wave Day” to “Rock Day,” not wanting to be associated with being a new wave act.
Bowie — another of Wozniak’s personal favorites — would headline on Monday night riding high on the blockbuster sales of his new album Let’s Dance. In order to play the festival, he would have to take a break in the middle of his European tour dates and Wozniak was going to foot half the bill, and pay whatever that cost in order to make it happen, which meant in the end he ended up paying just as much to have Bowie play as he did for Van Halen.
If there was indeed a battle brewing between New Wave, Rock, and Heavy Metal, the clear winner would have to have been the latter, as “Heavy Metal Day” actually set a new single-day concert attendance record: more than 375,000 tickets sold of the total 670,000 for the four full days were to fans of the metal bands. Motley Crüe singer Vince Neil would later claim, “It was the day new wave died and rock ’n’ roll took over.”
In the end, Wozniak — partly due to the fact that he was paying exorbitant booking fees in order to land some the big name artists at the time — ended up losing an estimated $20 million over the course of the two years he held the US Festivals. The budget for the 1983 festival alone cost upwards of $18 million.
Most concertgoers in attendance would remember the US Festival for the good time they had, although even though all of the surviving footage seems to show everyone having a good time trying to keep cool in the blazing sun, like any big festival there were also quite a few problems.
Two people were killed, including a 23-year old man who was beaten to death with a tire iron in an apparent drug deal gone bad (two people, one a 17-year old girl, were booked for murder) and a 24 year old man apparently died from an overdose after binge drinking and using drugs throughout the day.
A total of 44 people were seriously injured, and 87 people were arrested, charged with drug use, drunkenness, car stealing or theft. San Bernardino Sheriff Floyd Tidwell told the Orange County Register newspaper at the time that the scene was “an absolute zoo … everything you can eat, smoke, snort or poke in your arm is out there.”
The US Festival set the stage for the construction of the Glen Helen Pavilion, which has undergone a series of name changes over the years – the Hyundai Pavilion, the Blockbuster Pavilion and it is today called the San Manuel Amphitheater.