Setlist History: Van Halen Headlines US '83 Festival

Before there was Coachella and Bonnaroo or even Lollapalooza there was the US Festival, funded by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak who was just as much of a character as the bands he would overpay to perform in the sweltering heat of San Bernardino over Memorial Day Weekend in 1983.

After already losing millions in 1982 with his first US Festival (headlined by The Police, Talking Heads, The Ramones, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, and the Grateful Dead), Woz decided to double down in '83.

But this time, if he was going to fail, it wouldn't be because he cut corners.

Woz was rich but it was still the early days of Apple. In 1983 only a few million Americans owned personal computers, many of which were used solely as glorified typewriters. And the market was divided up roughly by the nerdy Tandy computers sold at Radio Shack, IBM's powerful home PCs, and the sleek Apple IIs that would pave the way for the first Macs.

Most of Woz' fortune was from when the company went public in 1980, not because they were selling a ton of product for your home, wrist, and phone case. But part of the US Festival was to get people thinking about the computer technology that would surely soon follow.

And what a better way to get 300,00 people's attention than to entertain them with the best bands across several genres.

Saturday, May 28, dubbed New Wave Day, was headlined by The Clash, who were fighting, confused, torn, but also getting more attention than ever because their current album, Combat Rock, was getting tons of MTV airplay as well as love on the radio thanks to their hits "Should I Stay or Should I Go" and "Rock the Casbah."

The British quartet had one foot in punk idealism and the other in some of the largest stages in the world because they were way more than just a great punk band. In just a few years of putting out records, they had become one of the most important and fascinating bands in the world. And it was killing them.

One way for Woz to lose less money was to raise the ticket prices. Instead of $20 for the three days of music, he upped it to a whopping $37.50. That might not seem like much, but in 1983 that was the equivalent to $115. So, yes, still a bargain.

When The Clash, who would be paid a half million to perform, heard of the ticket prices they demanded that the Festival donate $100k to charity before they took the stage. Two hours after they were scheduled to headline that night, they finally got on, but were not happy about it.

As singer Joe Strummer railed against capitalism and bowing to technology, someone in production displayed their $500k check on one of the super new giant Diamond Vision screens behind them and later the band would brawl the crew who allowed them to be embarrassed in such a way.

It would be guitarist Mick Jones' last gig with the band. And worse, the entire time leading up to it all, Van Halen's David Lee Roth, the epitome of all the things The Clash hated about rock music and pop culture, was exuding the rock cliches and making fun of The Clash every chance he could.

One of the new features of the US Festival is it allowed bands and the press to have interactive Press Conferences where journalists could have access to all of these groups it rarely got to chat with.

But throughout the week The Clash kept calling new press conferences to air their grievances, so Roth called a few himself. He was not going to be upstaged at this enormous gig just an hour east of where Van Halen began in Pasadena.

Roth was wild, entertaining, boorish, flashy, often funny, and usually inebriated on something or another. It was rock n' roll, and finally it was being documented as it happened.

One of the most talked-about details was how much Van Halen was making for their two-hour performance: a cool million dollars. Not only that, but the band had a shrewd lawyer on board who wrote in the contract that if Woz gave any other performer a bigger salary, he would have to increase Van Halen's fee to match it.

At some point Woz really wanted David Bowie to close the Sunday night Rock Day. But there were two problems. Bowie was raking in $700k a night and he was currently on tour in Europe.

Woz did not feel like any of that was a problem but to logistically get Bowie's equipment and crew from the Old Country to Southern California, he had to fly everyone back and forth in 747s and basically pay The Thin White Duke $1.5 million.

Which meant he also had to give Van Halen an extra $500k as per that pesky clause. Woz signed off on it and it was done.

Bowie also had a shrewd lawyer who said David owns all the rights to all the audio and video of his performance there, which is why you can see full blown footage of pretty much every other band, including Van Halen, but pretty much nothing from the handsome Brit who was flying high off his Let's Dance album which had just been released that April.

Van Halen were trying to write what would be 1984, their best selling album of the Roth era, which also happened to be their final straw with each other... for quite a while.

They had spent the first two months in South America getting the inspiration for what would become one of their greatest tunes, "Panama," while filling arenas on the last leg of the nearly 100-date Hide Your Sheep Tour.

The US Festival would be the band spiking the football at the end of that tour which had been in support of Diver Down, one of their weaker albums. But at that point, VH's setlists were chock-full of guitar wizardry, David Lee Roth ringmaster schmaltz, a flaming gong, and impossible harmonies.

Everything that would make The Clash ball up and call it quits.

At The US Festival, Van Halen had separate guitar, bass, and drum solos and the 300,000 who had already heard full sets starting with Motley Crue, Joe Walsh, The Scorpions, Ozzy, and Judas Priest ate it up.

Yes Joe Walsh put together a solo outfit that night for the bill. When asked at one of the press conferences why the rest of the Eagles didn't join him he gave the best line of any of the media meetups.

"I say this humbly," Walsh began, sitting between Roth on one side and The Clash's manager on the other. "Money should not be a major part of a decision into regrouping and getting back together. We didn't feel like that should be a top motivation. And secondly it wasn't enough money," to which everyone laughed no one more than Roth who hugged Walsh while cracking up.

Van Halen were rusty coming out of the gates. Roth was unhinged, tipsy, a little-too chatty, and possibly a little intimidated by finally making it onto what was the world's largest rock stage.

But as they got though "Runnin' With The Devil' and "Jamie's Cryin'," the massive talent that was Van Halen in 1982 showed its face that night in San Bernardino County and blew everyone away.

So this is love? Damn straight.

Michael Anthony is the only remaining member of the original Van Halen that has tour dates scheduled for this summer. He, Sammy Hagar, Joe Satriani and Jason Bonham will be playing together from the middle of July through the end of August around North America.

Tickets available on Sammy's website.

Eddie's son, Wolfgang, who replaced Michael Anthony on VH's last tours, is the leader of MammothWVH. They will be opening for Metallica in Europe and then for the Foo Fighters here in the States. Grab those tix through his website.

Is that someone with a Sammy Hagar tshirt holding a VH sign in 1983? How did they know?

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Last updated: 22 Jun 2024, 00:59 Etc/UTC