Today in the United States, the marketplace is littered with music festivals. Where you once had to travel to Europe to experience large fests with multiple major acts, over the past two decades such events have become a multi-million dollar industry. Biggies like Coachella, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo now compete for big-time artists with the multiple new fests across the country that pop up annually.
Though often overlooked, the early ’80s US Festival in Southern California could be seen as laying a blueprint that many of today’s music festivals continue to follow, from its smart organization and fan-friendliness to its (ultimately detrimental) practice of overpaying acts to ensure the best lineup.
Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak Launches Festival for the “Us Generation”
“I just wanted to throw one big party in the middle of nowhere – Steve Wozniak”
It was also representative of the dawn of the tech boom. By 1982, Steve Wozniak, the cofounder of Apple and creator of the early Apple personal computers, was a freshly-minted millionaire who had his eye on changing the cultural conversation and marking a generational shift with something beyond just his game-changing computer genius.
3 Days, 400,000 People, 115 Degrees
Wozniak was an ideological music lover with a knack for technology who was suddenly flush with cash. His US Festival, billed as both a major music event and technology expo, debuted in 1982 at the Glen Helen Park in San Bernardino, California, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles. In his early 30s, Woz concocted the concept of the festival after stepping away from Apple after being involved in a plane crash in 1981.
The baby boomers that ruled the ’70s earned the nickname the “Me Generation.” The optimistic Wozniak declared his generation the “Us Generation,” thus dubbing his huge music/tech event the US Festival.
Wozniak spared no expense. Organizers determined that the site at Glen Helen Park was perfect, a natural amphitheater. Almost. The site was a construction zone for several weeks as workers reshaped 57-acre land, bulldozing and removing large swaths of earth and planting grass to create a cozy “bowl” suitable for the acoustics and organization of a concert, as well as providing great sightlines for all.
“The Super Bowl of Rock Concerts”
Calling it “the Super Bowl of rock concerts,” Wozniak enlisted legendary concert promoter Bill Graham to book the lineup and run the stage. And Graham helped assemble a who’s who of the era’s biggest acts.
For a $37.50 three-day ticket, fans were treated to a fairly eclectic array of rock acts in year one. The inaugural US Festival took place Sept. 3-5, 1981, amid scorching temperatures that reached 110 degrees.
There was an effort to separate days thematically. In the first year, the US Festival opened with a more “new wave” slate of artists, with hints of punk and post punk: Gang of Four; The Ramones; The English Beat; Oingo Boingo; The B-52’s; and Talking Heads. The Police, who were in the midst of their massive Ghost in the Machine tour, headlined.
The Wedding Singer’s Big Break
Day 2 of the festival (on Saturday, Sept. 4) featured a lineup reflective of FM radio at the time. But the day opened with the oddest booking in the US Festival’s short history. Wozniak invited Joe Sharino and his band, who usually played small nightclub and wedding gigs, to get the Saturday crowd warmed up, to the surprise of Graham and festival security, who at first wouldn’t let Sharino through the gates.
In a sign of his naïveté when it came to concert organizing, Wozniak had met Sharino when he performed at his own wedding. Sharino didn’t exactly turn his big break into a wider breakthrough — The Joe Sharino Band is still available for your wedding reception to this day.
The rest of Saturday’s lineup was quite a bit less obscure and the crowd size was reportedly double that of Day 1, which drew an estimated 100,000 people. The second day was headlined by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who were coming off their successful third album, Hard Promises, which featured the hit “The Waiting,” and were just a month away from the release of their hit “You Got Lucky” (followed by their third album, Long After Dark).
The Saturday lineup was rounded out by Pat Benatar, The Kinks, The Cars, Eddie Money, Dave Edmunds and Santana, one of two Woodstock festival veterans to play the first year of US.
To Russia With Love (and Darkness)
Saturday was also marked by a very “of the era” stunt in which a satellite hookup with Russia was attempted. It was one of the higher-profile moments that showcased the “technology” aspect of the festival, which was otherwise largely limited to several air-conditioned tents and ultimately was overshadowed by the music component. The plan was to connect via video the fans at the US Festival with residents in the Soviet Union, a “we’re all the same!” show of unity in the middle of the Cold War. Ironically (given the tech bent of the fest), the entire affair was a bit of a failure. Graham axed the first attempt on Day 1, as it was to cut into The Police’s stage time, then when he introduced the video on the large video screens flanking the stage (another one of the US Festival’s pioneering concert features) on Day 2 it was too dark to see the American fans. Most of the US attendees were unimpressed with the video from Moscow, which included Russian folk dancers and a bunch of young people hanging out at what looked like a discothèque.
Campers at the 1982 festival were awoken on Day 3 by the other Woodstock vets on the bill, The Grateful Dead, who did an extended morning “breakfast” set. The final day of US 1982 showcased the rootsier rock sound that emerged in the mainstream in the late ’70s/early ’80s, with Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffett, Jackson Browne and headliners Fleetwood Mac, who’d recently released their album Mirage (featuring MTV hits like “Gypsy” and “Hold Me”).
Happy Customers, Big Losses and a Vow to Return
In the end, the 1982 US Festival was considered by Wozniak to be a success. There were very few arrests and injuries, the performances went off without a hitch and fans left happy (if perhaps a bit dehydrated).
The only major downside for organizers — it was far from profitable. The festival reportedly lost around $5 million that first year (some suggest it was closer to $10 million), thanks in part to the large sums paid to the performers. Still, Wozniak was pleased with the outcome.
“They said it was too expensive, too unwieldy. We proved them wrong,” Wozniak said at a press conference after the festival. “We may have to do this again.”