EntertainmentCelebritiesThe Biggest Most Unknown Concert: The US Festival

The Biggest Most Unknown Concert: The US Festival

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In the mid-1970s, the Apple I and Apple II computers were best sellers. All companies wanted to have these computers in their offices. The designer of these two primitive computers was a 27-year-old named Steve Wozniak, an engineer from a Polish family. The Apple II was the best-selling computer in the world between the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Wozniak used part of his million-dollar fortune to launch a project that had to do with his other passion: computer rock.

We not only owe this famous engineer the founding of Apple, but also the organization of one of the most important festivals in the history of music: the US Festival, which had two editions, in 1982 and 1983.

The biggest festival since Woodstock

Since in August 1969 the old farmer Max Yasgur left his farm for the hippies to organize the Woodstock Festival, the United States had not experienced another macro-concert of these dimensions. Almost half a million people enjoyed the music of Hendrix, Cocker, Jefferson Airplane and company that summer. Such an agglomeration of people willing to have a good time was not seen again until Steve Wozniak thought of an event that would combine the latest in technology and the best of the current music scene.

The chosen site was a small green space between the mountains near San Bernardino, California. It was a place away from the noise of Los Angeles, and it had two small lakes next to the stage. The grassy esplanade stretched out into the hills. Perfect to spend three days enjoying music and sleeping in tents.

The truth is that Steve Wozniak spared no expense. In the 500 hectares that the festival occupied, there was a field hospital, a campsite, a heliport, bathrooms, public telephones, fast food and drink establishments, free outdoor showers… In addition, the invited artists received significant amounts of money. It has transpired, for example, that David Bowie charged a million dollars for performing, and that the Van Halen group, upon learning of this information, asked for 1.5 million. They got paid and became the highest paid group in history for a single performance.

The posters of both editions made the festival one of the best in history. If superstars like The Police, Fleetwood Mac, Ramones, Santana, Eddie Money or Tom Petty attended in 1982, in the second edition of 1983 the lineup included names like The Clash, Scorpions, Men at Work, David Bowie, Judas Priest , U2, Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne or The Pretenders. An impressive effort by the organizers to bring so many successful groups, although it must be remembered that among the promoters was the famous Bill Graham, a mythical businessman from the world of music.

On September 3, 1982 the party began. 425,000 people poured into San Bernardino from all corners of the country and filled the esplanade that Steve Wozniak had prepared for them. For three days this location among the mountains was to be the beating heart of California. The US Festival began.

The first day the Ramones played their guitars with songs like ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ or ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’. From punk rock he moved on to the post-punk of the new wave with the Talking Heads. Those in charge of closing the day were The Police, a group also from the post-punk new wave formed just five years earlier, in 1977, and which had already released its greatest hits in albums such as  Outlandos d’Amour  (1978),  Reggatta de Blanc (1979) and Zenyatta Mondatta (1980). Sting and his group played twenty songs, ending with ‘So Lonely’.

On September 4, the sounds changed, and the keyboards and synthesizers gave way to the purest rock. The stage saw how Eddie Money, Santana and The Kinks made the public enjoy themselves. The headliner of this second day was Tom Petty, accompanied by his inseparable Heartbreakers, a cult band for lovers of heartland rock.

The last day after 48 frantic hours of music there was still a lot to listen to. The Grateful Dead, famous since the distant 1965, were only the first course to finish with one of the most successful groups of the moment: Fleetwood Mac. The great group of the legendary drummer Mick Fleetwood had the honor of closing the US Festival 1982, and they did it with a great concert in which they played practically all their great songs: ‘Dreams’, ‘Don’t Stop’, ‘Rihannon’, ‘Gypsy’, ‘Songbird’, ‘Landslide’, ‘Go Your Own Way’, ‘The Chain’, ‘Tusk’… Fleetwood Mac had become world famous with his 1977 album Rumors  , one of the best-selling albums in history, and his list of hits was endless.

Thus ended the first edition of the US Festival (by the way, pronounced as the pronoun “us” ( nosotros ) not as the initials “US” ( United States )), which had been a cultural phenomenon for the generation of young people at the end of the the seventies and early eighties. Later he would say of the US Festival that it was “the biggest cultural event of the decade.”

However, not everything had been positive. If this festival is indeed one of the most important ever held, why are there hardly any memories of it? Everyone knows Woodstock 1969 or Live Aid 1985, but the US Festival seems to have been forgotten. Why?

The truth is that if it is remembered for something, it is for having been one of the biggest economic failures in the history of music. In the 1982 edition Steve Wozniak lost 12 million dollars. And although the promoters had said on many occasions that money was not a problem, it was really hard to accept that such a deployment of means and budget and such a complete and quality line-up had not managed to bring benefits.

In addition to the final economic balance, it is also true that those first days of September 1982 were especially hot. The average during the three days was 40ºC, and around two thousand people had to be attended by the health services (many of them for drug use). Throughout the festival there were more than 100 arrests, 35 overdoses and even one murder. Another person was hit and killed.

US Festival 1983: even bigger

Steve Wozniak had two things left over: desire and money. After the experience of the US Festival 1982, the computer millionaire continued in his efforts to organize the largest festival on the West Coast. He wanted it to be something stable and annual, an ambitious and complicated company to carry out. In any case, the following year he again disbursed millions to raise the stage again and call the greatest artists of the moment.

“I just wanted to throw one big party in the middle of nowhere,” Wozniak said. And he got it. He returned to that esplanade hidden among the mountains of San Bernardino and got the phone number of the best groups: The Clash, Van Halen, Scorpions, David Bowie, U2… Good music was guaranteed.

With the push of the previous edition, the US Festival 1983 was attended by more than 650,000 people. Quite an event. This year’s lineup was even better, and it had been cleverly thought out so that each day was dedicated to a genre (New Wave Day, Heavy Metal Day, Rock Day, and Country Day). 

In the 1983 edition, the festival lasted three days in a row, from Saturday to Monday, taking advantage of the Memorial Day festivity, although there was a fourth day of music the following Saturday, although this day was somewhat relegated and forgotten, and did not appear later in the festival merchandise. This fourth day was for country music, and important artists of the genre attended, such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings (who would later join the Highwaymen supergroup) or Emmylou Harris.

The first highlight of the festival was the Australian group Men at Work, who in that same year, 1983, had won the Grammy for Best New Artist. The opening day closed in style with the sound of The Clash, a mythical British punk band (which would dissolve just three years later). In the following video we see a fragment of his performance at the US Festival, playing his famous ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’.

Heavy Metal Day was, in the words of Vince Neil, lead singer of Motley Crue, “the day that new wave died and rock and roll triumphed.” Several analysts also supported this thesis. Chad Childers wrote in Loudwire : «Metal’s roots may have come from the late ’60s and ’70s, but it can be argued that the genre’s real coming out party happened May 29, 1983 at the US Festival in San Bernardino, Calif. The music weekend offered a wide array of musical options, with each day catered to a specific sound, but it was the Heavy Metal Day on May 29, 1983, that showed just how popular that metal had become». That day the rockers showed that during the eighties there would be a tough battle between synth-pop and rock to conquer the top positions on the music charts.

The truth is that the US Festival 1983 became a milestone for the heavy metal genre. A lineup that brought together Van Halen, Scorpions, Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, Triumph, Motley Crue, and Quiet Riot would never be seen again at any hard rock festival. It was the first time that so much heavy was heard together.

Steve Wozniak with David Lee Roth, lead singer of the band Van Halen, whom Wozniak had paid $1.5 million to perform for two hours. They became the highest paid group in history for a single performance.

The third day was dedicated to rock, and artists such as The Pretenders, who were still not as famous as they would become during the eighties and nineties, Stevie Nicks, singer of Fleetwood Mac, who repeated some of the hits that already Joe Walsh, guitarist for the Eagles, or Los Lobos, who had not yet recorded their famous version of ‘La Bamba’, had sung at the US Festival 1982.

But the true protagonists of the Dia del Rock were undoubtedly the now legend David Bowie and the amateurs U2. The Irish band began their international stardom, having released their album War that same year, which contained the hits ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ and ‘New Year’s Day’, while Bowie had two decades of musical production. He had been a star during the seventies, and he arrived at the US Festival ready to start a new stage of pop. He sang hits from the past decade like ‘Life on Mars’, ‘Heroes’ or ‘Space Oddity’, but also number ones from the eighties, like ‘Ashes to Ashes’.

The festival ended with David Bowie on Monday May 30th. The rest of the week was not a holiday, and the attendees had an appointment the following Saturday to enjoy Country Day. We don’t know how many people attended this fourth date, so remote on the calendar, but what is a fact is the quality of the poster: Waylon Jennings, legendary singer of the sixties and seventies, Emmylou Harris, winner of an endless list of Awards Grammy, the group Alabama, very successful during the seventies… and finally the headliner: Willie Nelson, who had been composing songs since 1956.

Gathering more than 600,000 people in a place lost in the middle of the desert is not easy. In addition to providing them with drinks, baths, showers, food and health care, we must try to control aspects related to security. And it’s not easy. In the second edition of the US Festival two people were murdered. As a curiosity, you can retrieve the news of the events as given by the New York Times through this link and this other.

Wozniak once again suffered significant losses that again exceeded twelve million dollars, and although “money was not a problem” this second failure was definitive: he decided not to organize any more editions of the US Festival. Over the years, however, Steve Wozniak has come to say that the US Festival was “the best investment of his life.”

For many authors and analysts, this series of festivals was decisive and highly influential on the youth of the time, and there are those who already speak of the ‘US Generation’ to refer to those born in the sixties and who accompanied their youth with the music of the eighties new wave, punk rock and heavy metal.

Beyond the importance that this great and brief festival may or may not have, the truth is that one of the best posters that have ever been seen remains for history. Few musical events have managed to bring together so many successful artists. The best of each year attended the US Festival.

The history of this cursed festival must not be forgotten. Recovering your memories and imagining the sensations that aroused is one more way to enjoy it. Without a doubt, rock lovers owe a lot to Steve Wozniak, a true computer genius and a true music lover.

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