Today the US Festival, the multi-day all-star concert event that first launched in September 1982 by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, is regarded as a minor cultural footnote of the ’80s—similar to that of actress Clara Peller’s memorable line of ‘Where’ the beef?’ in the Wendy’s commercials and the ill-fated ‘new’ Coke. The US Festival neither had the social and cultural cachet of other touchstone musical events as Monterey Pop, Woodstock, and Live Aid, nor the dark mythology of the disastrous Altamont—even though both editions of the US Festival in 1982 and 1983 boasted an impressive lineup of superstar acts such as David Bowie, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Santana, the Police, the Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac, the Cars, Van Halen, Willie Nelson, the B-52s, Talking Heads, Pat Benatar, the Ramones, U2, Pretenders, Jackson Browne, and Mötley Crüe. Perhaps some of the reasons why the US Festival hasn’t been mentioned in the same breath as those historic musical events is because both versions of US were significant money-losers (the first one reportedly lost $10 million), and that they didn’t make a significant impact on either the concert business or the culture.
Or did they? A documentary, The Us Festival: 1982 The US Generation, which was recently released on Blu-ray and DVD, tries to remedy that oversight and does so somewhat convincingly. Directed by Glenn Aveni, the film tells the story behind the first US Festival in 1982 that drew 425,000 and was kind of ahead of its time. In addition to the archival performance footage from the three-day event, the film features new interviews with those involved in the production, including Wozniak himself, as well as recollections by the participants of the first US: the Police’s Stewart Copeland, Fleetwood Mac’s Mick Fleetwood, the B-52s’ Kate Pierson,the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, the Ramones’ Marky Ramone, and Eddie Money.
A music fan himself, Wozniak came up with the idea of a festival that would not only marry music and technology but also bring people together—a remnant of 1960s hippie idealism in the Reagan-era 1980s, hence the festival’s name of US. It also didn’t hurt that Wozniak had the means to finance his dream, as he explains in the film: “I got way more money than I need for life… I could actually put out this money and put on a Woodstock-like show.”
Without previous experience in the music concert business, Wozniak assembled a team to form a company called UNUSON (Unite Us in Song) to produce the event. Having learned the lessons from the logistical chaos of Woodstock on what not to do, Wozniak and company picked the Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino, California and made it suitable for amphitheater-style viewing. Most importantly, UNUSON enlisted the help of the powerful music promoter Bill Graham to book the bands. Some of those big acts such as the Police and Fleetwood Mac netted huge paydays from the festival, probably making the most money in their careers up to that point.
Unlike most rock festivals that came before it, the US Festival in 1982 was unique and at times groundbreaking. On each of the three days, certain bands were grouped based on stylistic compatibility: the first day was devoted to New Wave/punk groups like the Ramones, Police, Oingo Boingo and Gang of Four; the second day consisted of arena rock acts like the Cars, the Kinks, and Santana; and the third day had a hippie/Southern California flair them with a lineup of the Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac, and yes Jimmy Buffett. The festival didn’t skimp on having a good sound system, and it also included a giant video screen that is now the standard at most arena shows. In addition to the music, the festival also had a technology fair that introduced people to personal computing, hinting at the symbiotic relationship between music and computers. It’s not to imply, however, that mounting the festival was all smooth sailing; as revealed in the doc, there was some behind-the-scenes drama, particularly the cultural clash between the very strict Graham and the happy-go-lucky Wozniak over such things as backstage passes for Wozniak’s guests.
The US Festival film also reveals some interesting tidbits that will appeal to music trivia buffs. For example, did you know that Oingo Boingo and the English Beat were the only two acts who performed at both installments of the US Festival? Or that the Grateful Dead began the event’s third day by playing in the morning? Perhaps the most fascinating anecdote is that a somewhat-relatively unknown artist named Joe Sharino, who had previously performed at Wozniak’s wedding, was invited by the tech pioneer himself to open the second day of the festival. While some of the archival performance clips from other acts are very abbreviated–perhaps due to licensing issues–the film does feature full-length impressive performances, such as Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”, the Cars’ “Bye Bye Love”, the Police’s “Can’t Stand Losing You”, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “Refugee”, the B-52s’ “Strobe Light”, and Santana’s “Black Magic Woman”.
Despite another edition of the festival in May 1983 that expanded to four days, the US Festival lost money and stopped altogether after that, fading into decades of obscurity (The first US Festival reportedly did not have a fatality, and there were few arrests; however, there were a larger number of arrests as well as two fatalities at the second edition of the fest). While it didn’t yield huge profits, the US Festival provided an early template for many of today’s successful long-running festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella. It proved that a music festival could be produced with organization in mind, attract big-name stars, make it accommodating enough for the average fan, and employ state-of-the-art technology. Nowadays, it’s pretty much a given that if you attend a major music festival, you’re likely to be bombarded by corporate sponsors about the latest gadgets or innovations, especially from Big Tech. In that sense, US was somewhat prescient.
Still, the most important takeaway from the film is how much the crowd who were there at the first US Festival really enjoyed the experience despite the sweltering heat. Those people saw it as their own version of Woodstock, albeit without the mud. And after watching this documentary, it’s quite understandable today why those fans from over three decades ago felt that way.