Steve Wozniak’s “US Festival”: The Biggest Music Fest You Never Heard Of

News Coverage of The Final Us Festival in 1983

1983: US Festival, Take 2

The second and final US Festival in 1983 would go far less smoothly and lose even more money. The event was moved from Labor Day weekend to Memorial Day weekend, which resulted in less heat (the temps hovered between the upper 80s and low 90s). Though the lineup was just as (if not more) jaw-droppingly star-studded, the slightly cooler weather was one of the few things that made the second year of US better than the first.

Just weeks before the 1983 festival, a reportedly frustrated Graham parted ways with US and was replaced with one of his main competitors in the promoter world, Colorado-based Barry Fey, who’d done tours for acts like The Who and The Rolling Stones in the 1970s. He’d also booked the three-day Denver Pop Festival at Mile High Stadium in 1969, which was a precursor to Woodstock and featured Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Frank Zappa and Iron Butterfly.

The thematic days of the 1983 US Festival were more pronounced than in the first year, with each day explicitly named by genre. Saturday May 28 was New Wave Day; May 29 was Heavy Metal Day; and May 30 was Rock Day.

Riding the New Wave

New Wave Day featured many of the “Alternative” bands that were breaking through to the mainstream thanks to exposure on MTV. The lineup included INXS, Wall of Voodoo, Oingo Boingo, The English Beat, A Flock of Seagulls, Stray Cats and Men at Work.

The English Beat played the US Festival in 1982 and 1983

The opening day of the ’83 fest was headlined by The Clash, who were splitting at the seams in the wake of their breakthrough Combat Rock album. Seemingly split over retaining some of their rebellious punk spirit and accepting their newfound rock stardom, the band called press conferences to rail against the festival, the “expensive” ticket prices (they were reportedly told tickets were $17, not $25) and Day 2 headliners Van Halen. There were constant clashes with organizers and the crew and the band’s set was lackluster, as frontman Joe Strummer tried in vain to cajole a bigger reaction from the audience. Fey later said The Clash were upset about their payment and that he had their paycheck — for $500,000 — projected on the big screen during their set in response. The band’s US appearance ended up being the final show for co-frontman Mick Jones and essentially marked the end for The Clash and, one could argue, the first-wave of British Punk.

Van Halen Pulls in $1.5 Million, Trashes The Clash

Source: Flickr, Taylor Player

The most attended day of US was Day 2 — Heavy Metal Day — which drew a reported 375,000 fans and included another set of bands that had greatly benefited from the rise of MTV: Quiet Riot; a young Mötley Crüe; Ozzy Osbourne; Judas Priest; Canada’s Triumph (not really metal, but OK); and Germany’s Scorpions. The cocky-as-ever Van Halen headlined, proudly boasting of their $1 million payday. The band reportedly insisted on being the highest paid act at US, so their payout was actually jacked up to more than $1.5 million when it was announced that the Day 3 headliner (more on that later) would be receiving that much.

Rare Video of Van Halen at US Festival 1983

During their set, Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth didn’t miss the opportunity to take a swipe at the previous day’s headliner, at one point taking a swig of whiskey and declaring, “I want to take this time to say this is real whiskey here. The only people who put iced tea in Jack Daniel’s bottles is The Clash, baby.”

Newcomer U2 Wins Over US Crowd

Rock Day at the 1983 US Festival included several acts thank could’ve fit on the New Wave Day lineup, including Berlin and Missing Persons. Another band, U2, was originally scheduled to play New Wave Day but convinced Fey to move them to Rock Day. Still two years away from their star-making turn at the Live Aid concerts, the band already knew how to make a lasting impression at festivals. They were in fierce, hungry form at US, having tightened their set on the early touring rounds for their War album, which was released four months before the festival. Frontman Bono capped off the band’s initial set by climbing the stage scaffolding during “The Electric Co.,” singing and waving a white flag 50 feet above the stage. Fey would later help produce the Under a Blood Red Sky live album/concert video culled from U2’s appearance at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre just a few days after the US Festival, another career milestone that showcased their incredible live show.

Other acts on US’s 1983 Rock Day (which drew an estimated quarter of a million people) included Little Steven Van Zandt and his band The Disciples of Soul, Quarterflash, The Pretenders, Joe Walsh and a solo Stevie Nicks. The day’s headliner was a last-minute addition at the request of Wozniak. After the entire lineup had been booked, Wozniak reportedly approached Fey about adding David Bowie.

Bonkers for Bowie

“Steve came to me and said, ‘God, Barry, I really love David Bowie.’ I say, ‘Steve, there’s no room. Let’s put this to bed,’” Fey recalled in an interview with the Orange County Register in 2012. “And he says, ‘Well, I really do love David, could you try? It is my money and my festival.’”

Bowie was touring his monumental hit album Let’s Dance in Europe and wasn’t set to return to the U.S. until July. 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. So… it was going to cost them. Between the $1.5 million Bowie was paid and the $500,000 extra they had to give to Van Halen, Bowie’s appearance ended up costing the US Festival $2 million.

Oddly, there was a fourth day of US in 1983, but it took place the following weekend, on June 4. Country Day boasted a great lineup — Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Alabama, Hank Williams Jr., Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs and Riders in the Sky — but at the time the crowd was estimated at only around 30-40,000.

Waving the White Flag

Even before that last day of the festival’s 1983 event, Wozniak was waving his own white flag. Ticket sales were far below expectations. Wozniak said shortly after the festival that he wouldn’t do another US and that he felt he’d either broken even or lost $10 million with the 1983 concerts. As it turned out, he lost $10 million. The 1983 event was also marred by many more arrests, drugs and violence, including a beating death in the parking lot (authorities blamed much of the violence on the “nasty” crowd Heavy Metal Day attracted).

Wozniak announced he was returning to Apple and the US Festival was history.

Written by Mike Breen

Mike Breen is a veteran writer and editor with nearly 30 years of experience. He was the longtime music editor and managing editor of Cincinnati altweekly CityBeat and his writing has also appeared in music publications like Spin, Creem and the U.K.’s NME. If you need a ringer for music trivia night, you should definitely call him.