Special thanks to ThisDayinMusic.com.
Giant music festivals have a way of being remembered for a lot of things besides music. Woodstock was about the hippies, Altamont was about the Hell’s Angels and the US Festival became known for losing a ton of money for Apple Computer founder Steve Wozniak.
In 1982, Wozniak had paid to bulldoze a site and then construct an open-air music venue near Devore in southern California. His idea was to hold a three-day festival that would feature top music acts on the big stage, but also the latest in computers and technology in an air-conditioned tent. The first US Festival took place on Labor Day weekend of 1982, but it wasn’t a big success. Despite landing top acts like Fleetwood Mac, The Police and Tom Petty, 110-degree heat and other factors kept many people away and the enterprise lost Wozniak an estimated $12 million.
Undeterred, Wozniak planned to have a second US Festival the following Memorial Day, which began on this day in 1983. This time, it was a four-day fest (with the last day taking place the following Saturday) and each day revolved around a loose theme. So, Saturday was “New Wave Day” with The Clash, Men at Work and the Stray Cats; Sunday was “Heavy Metal Day” with Van Halen, Quiet Riot and Ozzy Osbourne; Monday was “Rock Day” with David Bowie, The Pretenders and U2 and the following Saturday was “Country Day” with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr.
Unfortunately, for Wozniak, the second installment didn’t improve much on the first. For one thing, the weather was even hotter (115-degree highs) and the bands demanded more money up front. Van Halen agreed to play the festival for $1 million… until they found out David Bowie was getting the same amount. Because there was a clause in their contract that specified they were to be paid more than any act at any festival they played, Van Halen earned $1.5 million for their US Festival appearance.
On the other hand, the members of The Clash were upset by what their perceived as the crass commerciality of the event. They demanded that Wozniak and some of the other big-ticket bands donate a portion of fees to charity groups.
It’s not clear if this position or something else caused a backstage argument between The Clash’s and Van Halen’s respective frontmen, Joe Strummer and David Lee Roth. Some have said the altercation arose from a quote Eddie Van Halen had given to Rolling Stone magazine about The Clash’s music (“that’s like what I played in my garage when I was a kid, man”). Regardless, the next day, Roth went on to insult the band’s drinking habits during Van Halen’s performance.
In contrast to perceptions, the Van Halen-headlining day (or “Heavy Metal Day”) was a pretty big success, if taken on its own merits. The day, which also featured Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, Quiet Riot, Mötley Crüe and more, set the record for single-day concert attendance (375,000). Crüe singer Vince Neil would later claim, “It was the day new wave died and rock ’n’ roll took over.”
But Wozniak probably wouldn’t share Neil’s happy assessment of the event. Reportedly, it lost him another $12 million and put an end to any future US Festivals – although the site is now home to San Manuel Amphitheater. Many Clash fans will recall the event as featuring the last-ever appearance of guitarist Mick Jones as a member of the band.
Of course, Wozniak can take solace in this Homer Simpson quote (said while scoffing at the prospect of Springfield’s Hullabalooza): “There can only be one truly great festival of a lifetime, and it’s the US Festival!”