You don’t hear much about the 1982-83 US Festivals anymore.
Maybe that’s because unlike Woodstock and Altamont, the Steve Wozniak-sponsored US Fest featured that era’s greatest pop-rock acts rather than up-and-coming stars and wasn’t marred by mud baths (Woodstock) and mayhem (Altamont). By comparison, US Fest was meticulously-planned, well-organized, and smoothly operated. Injuries and arrests were scarce, given the number of people who attended the three-day San Bernardino bash over Labor Day weekend ’82.
No news was good news.
But Wozniak’s mega-concert / tech-fair is worthy of remembrance—not just because it laid the groundwork for the ‘90s and ‘00s shows like Bumbershoot, Bonnaroo, and Coachella, but because the artists who played those sweltering summer shows already ranked amongst music’s biggest and best. Most went on to greater glory, with some persevering even today, becoming Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees and global icons.
Moreover, the US Festivals were no mere hippy-hangouts and hillside hullaballoos. They were specifically designed to bring people together through music. And its initials stood not for “United States,” but rather for us—as in “we, the people,”—everyone everywhere around the world.
Available August 10 from MVD Entertainment via Icon Television Media / Plum Music, The Us Generation: The Making of the 1982 US Festival tells the story of how the premiere American concert of the ‘80s went from drawing board to high-decibel desert oasis, how the musical performances went down, and how the event (and its 1983 follow-up) impacted popular culture.
Assembling cool concert footage, behind-the-scenes snapshots, and candid interviews (from then and now) with show organizers and top-tier artists (and special guests), director Glen Aveni presents a clearer, more comprehensive retrospective of the weekend-long precursor to Live Aid and Lollapalooza than the haphazard TV specials and documentaries of the past.
Already recognized (and unfathomably rich) for his work with Apple Computers, 32-year old visionary Steve “Woz” Wozniak brainstormed the US Fest during a 1981 sabbatical from Silicon Valley (following a plane crash). The science wiz knew he was more dreamer than a doer, so he reached out to a cadre of experts in various fields to help bring his wacky house-party idea to life.
“We knew he wasn’t kidding after he gave us a starter check for $2 million,” remembers legal advisor John Collins.
Dr. Peter Ellis was named Head of Wozniak’s UNUSON (Unite-Us-In-Song) foundation, and CPA Carlos Harvey was put in charge of funneling dollars to all the proper assets and resources. A show of this magnitude had no precedent, so the team had to work from scratch to settle on a location for the festival—then scramble to book acts with the star-power to draw a million-strong audience. Sprawling, 500-acre Glen Helen Regional Park was designated ground zero, but the rugged terrain required heavy-duty landscaping…and seemingly every move made by workers required a permit from a politician or approval by law enforcement. A fleet of bulldozers was brought in to shape the hilly topography into a natural bowl between two major interstates. The federal government even allowed for the construction of a temporary off-ramp to ease traffic congestion to and from the site.
US Fest logistics called for innovation: Alleyways of sprinklers were installed to hydrate concertgoers, and fire hoses were used to mist standing-room revelers in the 100-degree heat. Wozniak insisted on doubling the number of port-o-pots called needed—and enlisted other sanitation engineers when the primary vendor stalled for more cash.
Legendary concert promoter Bill Graham (of Fillmore West / East fame) was tapped to solicit the top talents of the day. No expense was spared—but some butting of heads occurred between Graham’s hardworking crew and Wozniak’s “gold pass”-accredited guests, who unwittingly got in the way.
“Rock stars need their space!” says an exhausted-looking Graham.
And how about those musicians?
Police drummer Stewart Copeland (who shot some backstage footage on his Super-8 camera) reports that most of the bands on the roster were already in mid-tour, which meant they were in already in ripping form. But The Police, Talking Heads, and B-52s were playing to their biggest audience ever, so the pressure was on to not blow it in front of hundreds of thousands of sun-weary onlookers (and their own musical peers). Fleetwood Mac’s Mick Fleetwood recalls marveling at the “sea of people” upon his arrival by helicopter.
Fortunately, most of the bands turned in good—if not great—sets.
B-52s keyboardist Kate Pierson shares her onstage experience. Eddie Money reminisces about delaying Sting with an impromptu stop at a hot dog stand. Ramones members Joey and Johnny marvel at the fans’ diversity and dedication. Carlos Santana compares the spirituality of the US Fest with that of Woodstock before and after playing a sizzling “Black Magic Woman.” Oingo Boingo synth man (and future film composer) Danny Elfman is taken aback by the scope and scale of it all.
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers rock into the night with “Refugee,” The Cars bedazzle with “Bye Bye Love,” and The Police kick ass on “Can’t Stand Losing You.” Jimmy Buffett serves up a “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” while Fleetwood Mac unleashes “The Chain.” Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart discusses his band’s early Sunday-morning appearance, dubbed “Breakfast with the Dead.”
Meanwhile, Wozniak’s team of technicians tries to establish a live video feed with rock fans in Moscow, Russia. A doubting Graham poo-poos the attempt, but the nerds do eventually connect with their Cold War contemporaries in a first-of-its-kind transatlantic handshake between nations.
Local musician Joe Sharino (who played Woz’s wedding) explains how his pal’s US invite went from a pair of comp tickets to an actual appearance on the massive, 325-foot long main stage. Confusion ensues when Sharino and his bandmates try to convince Graham that yes, they’re Saturday’s opening act—but the guys acquit themselves nicely despite the odds.
Like the concert itself, Aveni’s rockumentary is well-paced, action-packed, and (at several points) intriguing. Sure, nostalgia is a key ingredient here—but the interviews with acts, organizers, and enthusiastic US attendees provide a truly fascinating social study.
Here’s hoping Aveni whittles a companion flick about the 1983 fest, whose four-day lineup included even bigger names—like Van Halen, Judas Priest, U2, INXS, Scorpions, David Bowie, Stevie Nicks, Ozzy Osborne, Stray Cats, Men at Work, Flock of Seagulls, Pretenders, and a host of other New Wave, rock, and metal marauders.