On its 35th anniversary, we look back at the biggest concert of Van Halen’s extravagant career!
On this day in 1983, Van Halen headlined the US Festival, a music festival held from 5/28/83 through 5/30/83 at Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino, CA. Van Halen performed on “Heavy Metal Day” (5/29/83) as headliners for the record-setting fee of $1.5 million. The 1984 Guinness Book of World Records created a new category based upon the price of this performance.
“This is the biggest backyard party in Van Halen’s history!” —DLR
In every possible sense of the word, Van Halen understand extravagance. They embrace, respect, and deliver it at every available opportunity. As the summer of 1983 approached, band members had nearly recovered from the monstrous Diver Down tour—their most extensive to date. Riding high on a wave of success that had taken them half-way across the world, they were barely keeping pace with their increasing enormity. They wanted a few months of relaxation to rejuvenate their creativity. The rest would do them good, allowing the fame and fortune to sink in to the framework of a normal life. Inevitably, Edward holed himself up in his studio (his favorite place on the planet) and began experimenting. 1984 recording sessions were underway within months and they began working (finally) at a comfortable pace. The entire band seemed happy with the hiatus. Then came the US Festival…
Billed as “The Musical Event of the 80s,” the ’83 US Festival was like a gift from the heavens. For four days, music lovers would flock to Southern California’s Glen Helen Regional Park, enjoying everything from Oingo Boingo to Ricky Skaggs. The event was organized by Apple Computers wizard Stephen Wozniak, who put put together the previous year’s show. As a follow-up, he was determined to make the ’83 event the biggest show in history. Utilizing the latest in technology, he hoped to draw over a million people to the 500-acre site. Two large video screens would afford spectators unobstructed views of the 300 x 67 foot stage as their eardrums were assaulted by 400,000 watts of power. On paper, an impressive array of artists and bands were scheduled to participate. In reality, one band would steal every newspaper slipping, headline, and soundbite. It almost seems like Wozniak planned it that way.
Wozniak made history by offering Van Halen $1.5 million to headline “Heavy Metal Day.” The Guinness Book of World Records even created a category for VH’s big paycheck: “The artist or band receiving the most money for a single performance.” When news of this unbelievable figure began to circulate, the ball really got rolling. The mere enormity of it was enough to draw unparalleled media attention. David Lee Roth would capitalize on this later.
Meanwhile, the band scrambled to organize their stage gear and polish performing chops. They had recently completed a tour of South America and their equipment was still aboard a boat to California. Rehearsal space had to be arranged, the crew had to consolidate, Dave had to return from the Amazon jungle—the list went on and on. The band eventually spent $500,000 on their two-hour performance. This huge sum also paid for an entire line of Van Halen tour merchandise devoted to the US Festival, including a “Van Halen Memorial Day” jersey, a classic poster, and a fold-out US Festival program. Much of the merchandise was designed by David Lee Roth and his friend Pete Angelus. It was expensive, but, in terms of publicity, worth it.
When May 29, 1983 finally rolled around, fans from all over the world were poised for the largest concert event in history. These people were ready to rumble. Over the course of the day, more than twice as many arrests were made as any other day of the festival. Van Halen attracted a party crowd, themselves setting a stellar example as to how it should be done properly. Backstage was Van Halenized in every way possible. A giant tent was constructed to hold the pounds of food and gallons of drink arranged for the band and crew.
MTV was there in full force, represented by VJ Mark Goodman. During Goodman’s infamous backstage chat with David Lee Roth, who was wearing a shirt made of some sort of fish netting, it was hilariously obvious that Dave was well beyond the label on his first bottle of Jack Daniel’s. The interview took place sometime during the afternoon.
MTV’s Mark Goodman Tries to Interview Dave Roth
Dave: Originally, what we were going to do was turn all of the equipment around backwards and show our behinds to the audience. That way everybody would be backstage!
Goodman: Eddie has been doing some producing on his own. Is there any talk of him co-producing a Van Halen album?
Dave: I don’t know what he’s been producing, man. You’d probably have to ask Val that. (laughs)
Goodman: How’s the show going to be?
Dave: The show is a cakewalk. I’m serious—I can do that shit in my sleep.
Dave: I’ll tell ya, backyard parties used to do us in, just like this one’s doing to me! (holds his beer up to camera)
Eddie Van Halen and Slim Jim Phantom of the Stray Cats hang out together at the US Festival.
The boys hit the ground running when they erupted into the first song of the evening-—a wild version of “Romeo Delight.” Somewhere during the second verse, Dave announced, just as he did at every show, that he ‘forgot the fucking words!” It’s likely the fans didn’t remember them, anyway. The show was, as usual, a mix of Dave’s drunken, high-stepping Vaudeville act and the band’s brutal rhythmic attack. High points included “Somebody Get Me a Doctor, ” where Eddie unveiled “Girl Gone Band” during a mid-song break that also included Cream’s “I’m So Glad,” and a ripping version of “Everybody Wants Some,” where Dave’s right hand seems glued to his unusually large cod-piece. The intensity of the show could best be summed up by the thick clouds of steam rising of Alex’s sweaty back. For the encore, Davie strutted out in his famous “assless chaps,” reminding the world that he could have made a small fortune peddling Strip-O-Grams. It wasn’t a bad way to earn $17,000 a minute, which is how the band’s paycheck broke down.
The US Festival performance made Dave, particularly, an enormous star. For months to come, Roth was rock and roll’s partying poster boy. There wasn’t a music magazine around that didn’t feature extensive articles and photos of Dave—he became the only game in town. He had been shaking his ass in the same way for years, but never had big-time national exposure. He ate it up, as did the fans. Interestingly, Eddie saw the show as giant hassle. He remarked, “I’ll tell ya, the whole US thing was a nightmare.”
Logistics aside, the US Festival shot the band into 1984 with brute force. The timing was great. For the next fifteen months, they sizzled on the “Wave of Dave.” and the gargantuan 1984 album, with its hit singles and MTV videos in heavy rotation. It would be their finest hour, and one of Van Halen’s most intense periods. Few bands receive that kind of media attention.
It’s a special treat to be able to watch their performance at the US Festival today, knowing they were changing things forever with one show, one spark—taking their popularity to the next level. Over thirty years later, it’s still a thrill to behold. They kicked some serious ass!
“I really enjoyed it. It was our own backyard just like Anaheim all over again. I think we went down really well. It was good to play in front of that many people.” —DLR
“It was like the shortest tour in the world. The preparation for that gig was like doing a whole tour. We had to rent a sound stage and set up a rehearse again because we hadn’t played in front of people for so long. Then there was the problem with the video. There were all kinds of problems with cameramen not getting good shots of the band members when we were doing solos. I tell you, the whole US thing was a nightmare. It kept haunting us. And we kept popping up, saying, “Goddamn, is this US thing ever going to be over?” —EVH
We originally published this article for issue #5 of The Inside, the all-Van Halen magazine which we published from 1995-2000.
Watch Van Halen’s entire performance at the 1983 US Festival below: