Before Lollapalooza, Coachella, and Bonnaroo, there was The US Festival. A coming together of music and technology that had success written all over it. What then has pushed this cultural phenomenon, this creative class to the background, even as those who attended would repeat to the cameras “This is the Woodstock for our generation!”
In reality, there was no repeating that atmosphere. However, the collective, positive idealism of the US Festival sprung from someone who had a bit of that radical, rebellious streak: Steve Wozniak.
As the brainiac co-founder of Apple Computers, ‘Woz’ gave off the vibes of an enthusiastic kid at the circus in so far as he could own about 10 of them. So what did a 31-year-old do with all that money? He created his own rock ‘n’ roll circus.
Recuperating from a light aircraft crash he piloted, Woz took a hiatus from Apple and went to school to get his degree in engineering at UC Berkeley in 1981. There he was introduced to new-age entrepreneur Dr. Peter Ellis. He hit it off with Woz, and came up with the name ‘The US Festival’ (in reaction to the ‘me’ decade) and threw in ideas like incorporating a technology fair and featuring a satellite link-up with musicians in Moscow. Woz wrote a sizable check to fund a new corporation, Unuson – ‘Unite Nations Using Singing Over Network’ – to create and produce the US Festival, with Ellis as the executive director.
The first order of business was securing a site. Visualizing the enormity of a festival had the organizers scout several outdoor locations in California. After Unuson enlisted legendary (and legendarily cranky) rock promoter Bill Graham, his booking agents headed off to the chosen location: Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernadino County. It quickly became apparent that the sight was, to put it mildly, unappealing.
However, Woz was willing to fork over $10 million on a massive re-grading and landscaping of the area to have it presentable for the concertgoers, estimated to be 300,000 total. Unuson was even granted permission from the State of California to construct a temporary off-ramp from Interstate 15 to handle the traffic.
All the pre-planning and booking and site construction had everyone focused, but on edge. Graham was the most well-known and feared rock promoter in America. His reputation as a hard-nosed, no-nonsense leader could rub people the wrong way. But to musicians, his brutal honesty and guidance would ensure a smooth-running operation. Unfortunately, that led to a culture clash between him and Wozniak, as hordes of Woz’ Apple buddies caused chaos onstage and off.
But on Labor Day weekend in 1982, the US Festival came off as a well-conceived outing. As the crowds flowed in, either for a day or weekend (with areas set aside for camping), water bottles were distributed, and water stations had been constructed throughout the grounds to keep the masses hydrated in the 100+ degree heat.
All the acts were flown in via helicopter and were jolted by the sea of people below. Spread over the three days, each band was given long sets. The Ramones played to their biggest audience ever – 100,000 – while The B-52’s with their frenetic unhinged stage presence were unequivocally the stars of Day 1. Even The Police – in the middle of their Ghost In The Machine World Tour – powered thru their set, and drummer Stewart Copeland noted later that this performance was “one of our best ever.”
The technology tents were brimming with the latest in computer gaming, even though most everyone was sneaking in for the free air-conditioning. And that landmark hook-up to Moscow? The only reason it happened was the infrastructure and equipment were left behind by NBC when the United States boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics. Technically, it was a half-hearted effort on the US side, with Graham being particularly disingenuous of the entire proceedings.
While Day 2 with acts including Eddie Money, The Cars, The Kinks, and headliner Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers kept the atmosphere on high, the third day was the most unusual. Opening with ‘Breakfast With The Dead,’ and concluding with a raging Fleetwood Mac, Woz declared it a success, despite an estimated $5-10 million loss.
Despite those numbers, Woz still went ahead planning the 1983 version, to be held on Memorial Day weekend, with an additional Day 4 for country music on June 4.
Graham was again retained for the talent booking but pulled out before the start of the festival with concerns over security. His prime competitor Barry Fey took over, never imagining the headaches that would ensue over the next 72 hours.
Day 1 headliners The Clash had agreed to a $500,000 payday. But after getting wind of Van Halen and Bowie’s fee increases (more on that), they threatened to walk. Joe Strummer demanded money go back to California charitable organizations, which threw the team and Woz into a PR predicament. That night’s show was a messy maelstrom as Strummer flew into a rage and the organizers flashed the actual check on the DiamondVision to clap back at his nasty behavior. Strummer and Mick Jones were barely on speaking terms and not surprisingly, this was Jones’s last show with The Clash. it should have been the portent of things to come.
The headliner on Day 2 was Van Halen and David Bowie on Day 3. But not without a hitch. Wozniak wanted Bowie. Trouble was, Bowie was in Europe, touring behind ‘Let’s Dance.’ Bowie and his entire crew had to fly to California after a May 29 concert in France, play the May 30 US set, then return to London for a concert on June 2. For the inconvenience, it was going to cost Woz $1.5 million.
Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth was back from the Amazon jungle and the band had been in the studio working on what would become 1984. With the spotlight on maximum exposure, anticipation for their set was at a fever pitch. However, the boys – seeing Bowie’s amount increase – demanded an additional $500,000 to the $1 million they were getting as a headliner.
Woz winced but caved, and in typical fashion, Roth went all “bad boy” before they hit the stage. Backstage he drank, caroused, and then proceeded to have a meltdown onstage. The pitfalls of over-excess were on display and the bacchanalia that was Van Halen culminated in the worst gig ever for Roth & Co.
Estimated loss: $10-15 million. Woz appeared to pull the plug at the time. Yet…
He was approached in 2009 with the idea to revive the US Festival. But after money was poured into a plan with a site determined, his partners backed out. However, the whiz kid of personal computing with a taste for rock ‘n’ roll’s positive impact seemed philosophical in the end.
“It’s OK – a memory is good,” he concludes. “You don’t have to redo the US Festival.”
Photo: The US Festival in 1982 (Swanny via Wikimedia Commons)
PS — While we’re on the topic of Rock History, you might enjoy our YouTube series of daily one-minute nuggets of memorable moments…
I was at US Festival 1 and had a great time. Eddie Money was especially memorable on day 2. As the crowd was roasting and Eddie was singing “give me some water”, he turned to Graham and said “Bill, give them some water!” And water cannons opened up spraying h the crowd. It was a truly great moment.
I thought the star if the first day was Dave Edmunds. He just rocked the whole place.
Having spent the night in a dry riverbed, the rounded pebbles were more comfortable to sleep in, I remember staggering to the stage on Sunday AM. Bill came out and said “Welcome to breakfast in bed with the Grateful Dead” and I became a deadhead for life. I was dancing with a hippy chick and we were burning incense. What a grate time. Everyone else that day was fun. When Fleetwood Mac closed the concert, Lindsey Buckingham really showed off his unique guitar skills.
It was a great event and it took me a week to recover. Thanks for stirring up the memories. Nice article.