It’s a little hard to believe it’s been 30 years since the 1983 US Festival, and even harder to imagine that I was actually there, among the 300,000 or so fans in attendance at the three-day, Memorial Day weekend blowout in that scorching, God-forsaken Southern California desert dustbowl.
The US Festival doesn’t get as much historical recognition these days as its more famous predecessors Woodstock and Monterey Pop, but in some respects it was just as significant. Unlike the present day, where festivals like Bonnaroo, Coachella and Sasquatch have all become permanent fixtures on the summer concert circuit, rock festivals were not only uncommon in 1983, but also considered by the hipsters of the day to be fossilized leftovers of the sixties hippie era.
The conditions were also far from perfect. Aside from the music, what I remember most is that it was really hot, really dusty, and that the bathroom facilities were pretty disgusting.
But the talent lineup for those three days was pretty amazing – a virtual who’s who of 1983 Rock, New Wave and Heavy Metal. Most of the bands were MTV staples of the day – back when the network was still playing music – and not surprisingly, few are still performing today. But at the time, “New Wave” bands like Missing Persons, Berlin, Men At Work and the Stray Cats were all a fairly big deal, and the rising stars performing included INXS and a young U2.
The three main headliners – The Clash, David Bowie and Van Halen – also each made history in their own way, with their closing sets. Bowie previewed his then new Serious Moonlight show. Van Halen’s David Lee Roth invited the entire crowd back to his hotel, and traded public insults with The Clash.
The Clash themselves famously broke up onstage.
’83 US Festival: Days 1-3 is the first officially sanctioned record of the “Woodstock of the eighties” to be released on DVD and Blu-ray (though bootlegs of most of the performances have circulated for years). The video source for this DVD appears to be from the same film that first aired on Showtime, and has since popped up occasionally on cable channels like VH1 Classic. Although the video quality is decent, it doesn’t represent a significant improvement over the original film, and has a distinctly VHS look to it. The sound quality is slightly better, although the crowd noise occasionally drowns out the music (particularly during the Scorpions and Judas Priest sets).
Van Halen and Bowie are both missing in action here, along with several other artists who were there like Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue, The Pretenders and Little Steven (presumably due to copyright issues). The Clash are represented only with their blistering version of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?,” while their historic onstage breakup later that night is curiously absent.
Fortunately, U2 did make the DVD cut – including Bono’s death-defying climb up the stage scaffolding to hoist the white flag during “Electric Co.” The only thing more fascinating than watching Bono perform this insane stunt (and of course, that stunning mullet), is the sense of history, witnessing one of rock’s all-time greatest bands during a key moment in their early career. Other highlights include Michael Hutchence from INXS demonstrating his best Mick Jagger moves during “The One Thing,” and Stevie Nicks casting her trademark, witchy woman spell during “Stand Back.”
When The Stray Cats turn a dusty festival bowl of 300,000 fans into an atmosphere more resembling a rockabilly dance party in a sweaty nightclub, the parallel lines between them and The Black Keys are tough to miss. Likewise, it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine at least some of Lady Gaga’s more visual ideas coming from original Missing Persons’ frontwoman Dale Bozzio, and her strategically placed fishbowls.
’83 US Festival: Days 1-3 isn’t a perfect document, but it’s nice to see this overlooked, but nonetheless historically significant event finally get some overdue props with an official release. It is worth owning for U2 and the final performance of The Clash alone, but also as a nice capsule of its time for folks like me who were there.