It Was Spectacular, It Was Doomed: A Look Back (In Photos) at The US Festival

Such a jaw-dropping combination of money, talent, ego, and hairspray will never be repeated

These days you can hit a big music festival in the United States any month of the year. But before Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and Coachella, there were two landmark fests right here in Southern California in 1982 and 1983: The US Festival (with US as a pronoun, not initials). Imagine a music fest where you don’t have to wade through hours of unknown bands—one in which every act is a headliner—because you’d be hard-pressed to name a big act from the 1980s that wasn’t there. Unfortunately, that’s likely the reason we never saw a third US Festival—it lost an insane amount of money.

In our July 2017 issue, we tell the story of that remarkable but doomed festival along with exclusive photos from legendary rock photographer Neal Preston. You can see more of Preston’s iconic photos in a new coffee table book coming out October 1st on Reel Art Press called Neal Preston: Exhilarated and Exhausted. We spoke to Preston about the fest—got his take on some of his photographs, and what it was like to be there.


The crowd picture

Photo by Neal Preston

There were a lot of people. As I like to say, in my life, and in my job, it doesn’t matter if there’s 500 people or 500,000 people, it’s all the same to me. I’m there to get the photo I’m there to get. But, obviously, you can’t not shoot a crowd like that! It was out there in Devore, California. It was hot. It was dusty.


David Lee Roth of Van Halen

Photo by Neal Preston

I’m on the stage. When you see the moment, you just have to grab it. That’s just a matter of instinct. It’s a fallacy to say that you get the best pictures from the pit. Look where all the photographers are, and go in the opposite direction, and you’ll be able to make a picture that no one else makes. You learn how to hide behind amps. Van Halen, I dug, and apparently their US Festival show gig is legendary for having been really bad! I didn’t know that then.


Bill Graham

Photo by Neal Preston

When Bill Graham’s involved, it’s always going to be organized. Bill was a very interesting guy. He was cool, generally. But I speak from experience when I say you do not want to be on the receiving end of a Bill Graham rant. They were loud; they were legendary. There is no worse feeling in the world than having Bill Graham screaming at you. It’s not a party.


Stevie Nicks

Photo by Neal Preston

I’ve shot many, many different photo sessions with her. To me, this one is kind of garden variety Stevie. She looks pretty. She was and still may be the most famous female rock star in the world. She did the first US Festival with Fleetwood Mac and she did the second one as a solo artist. I remember the Fleetwood Mac set being completely amazing. Lindsey was really on his game that night. He is the most underrated guitar player in the history of the music business. The guy is insane.


Rob Halford of Judas Priest

Photo by Neal Preston

They’re not really my cup of tea. I was never a Judas Priest fan, so I never understood all the hubbub about them. I still don’t.


Andy Summers of The Police

Photo by Neal Preston

I think they were getting into a van to go on stage. The shot looks like it was one of those happy accidents. It was certainly not a planned photograph. He does look startled—in the next frame he probably looked like he was going to punch me out or something.


Tom Petty

Photo by Neal Preston

Tom played a great set, and I remember it being a long set. I’ve got some great pictures of him crawling around the stage during “Breakdown.” That’s just not something you see him do. There’s one where he’s crawling right towards the camera. He was very, very animated that night, more animated than usual. This one is during the last song of the set.


U2

Photo by Neal Preston

That’s a very young U2. They stole the show the day they were on. They weren’t the world’s U2 at that point, and they blew everyone away. We didn’t know what we were getting with them. I don’t know if that was the first gig they’d played on the West Coast, but it had to be an early one. I’d never seen them, never even heard of them.


K.K. Downing of Judas Priest

Photo by Neal Preston

It’s a really strong image and sums up the entire heavy metal world. It also explains in one image why Bin Laden hated us.


Neal Preston

Photo by Neal Preston

That was many years and a lot of hair ago. I am out of my mind in that photo—the consummate depiction of sleep-deprivation. That was another one of my great ideas. I’ll just have a moped to ride around with. I didn’t think about the four camera bags I had to travel with! I don’t know if I ever did get that thing running properly.


The Lineups:

YEAR 1

Friday, Sept 3, 1982

Gang of Four

The Ramones

The English Beat

Oingo Boingo

The B52s

Talking Heads

The Police

 

Saturday, Sept 4, 1982

Dave Edmunds

Eddie Money

Santana

The Cars

The Kinks

Pat Benatar

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

 

Sunday, Sept 5, 1982

The Grateful Dead

Jerry Jeff Walker

Jimmy Buffett & the Coral Reefer Band

Jackson Browne

Fleetwood Mac

 

YEAR 2

Saturday, May 28, 1983

Divinyls

INXS

Wall of Voodoo

Oingo Boingo

The English Beat

A Flock of Seagulls

Stray Cats

Men at Work

The Clash

 

Sunday, May 29, 1983

Quiet Riot

Motley Crue

Ozzy Osbourne

Judas Priest

Triumph

Scorpions

Van Halen

 

Monday, May 30, 1983

Los Lobos

Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul

Berlin

Quarterflash

Missing Persons

U2

The Pretenders

Joe Walsh

Stevie Nicks

David Bowie

 

Saturday, June 4, 1983

Thrasher Brothers

Ricky Skaggs

Hank Williams, Jr.

Emmylou Harris & The Hot Band

Alabama

Waylon Jennings

Riders in the Sky

Willie Nelson

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