A History of L.A.’s Most Legendary Bygone Music Festivals

Remember Newport Pop or Wattstax? How about US Festival or Desolation Center?
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In Los Angeles, summer music festival season is nearly as long as baseball season (and that’s long as hell). From mid-April through mid-October—aka Coachella through Desert Daze—music fans descend on L.A. and its environs to catch a bunch of their favorite acts in one place over the course of one or just a couple days.

Multi-day music extravaganzas are part of our DNA. Now that festival season is in full swing, let’s take a moment to reflect upon the music fests of yesteryear that helped shape the landscape of today.


T.A.M.I. Show

Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, 1964

Perhaps the first widely publicized rock & roll event in American history, the T.A.M.I. Show (or “Teenage Awards Music International”) was a two-night jamboree filmed for an accompanying concert film by director Steve Binder. Hoping to capitalize on the emerging youth culture of the ’60s, T.A.M.I. Show branded itself “once-in-a-lifetime experience,” boasting a jaw-dropping lineup of acts nearing the peak of their cultural significance.

Amid piercing, pubescent screams, audience members were treated to a cavalcade of historic performances by illustrious pop acts like the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Lesley Gore, Smokey Robinson, and a closing set by the Rolling Stones. Surf rock heartthrobs Jan and Dean emceed the showcase, whose rhythm section was made up by the esteemed collective of session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew.

T.A.M.I. Show spawned a similar, equally impressive sequel, the Big T.N.T. Show, in 1965 at the Moulin Rouge nightclub in Hollywood. That show was produced by Phil Spector and featured Ray Charles, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Joan Baez, the Ronettes, Donovan, the Byrds, Ike & Tina Turner, and others.


The Newport Pop Festival

Orange County Fairgrounds, 1968

Devonshire Downs, 1969

The monumental imprint of 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival inspired a wave of imitation “pop events,” hoping to encapsulate the spirit of the newfound rock festival. The Los Angeles Pop Festival, held at the L.A. Sports Arena in December 1968, included performances by the Chambers Brothers, Canned Heat, the Box Tops, and the Turtles.

Earlier that year, Orange Country’s Newport Pop Festival broke admission records as the first concert with over 100,000 paid attendees. The inaugural event was booked with a meager $50,000 talent budget and hosted the likes of Tiny Tim, Sonny & Cher, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Steppenwolf.

newport 69
Trash left behind in the wake of Newport ’69

Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The festival doubled in attendance the following year, when it relocated to Devonshire Downs in Northridge and was renamed Newport ‘69. The event’s successor was the better known of the two, notably for an iconic set by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and police clashes with its riotous attendees. Also on the bill were Joe Cocker, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Love, Jethro Tull, Eric Burdon, and Marvin Gaye.


Wattstax

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, 1972

L.A.’s black community come together on August 20th, 1972, to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Watts Rebellion. Memphis label Stax Records organized the benefit concert, a daylong celebration of black culture at the Coliseum intended to unify the devastated neighborhood in South L.A.

Rev. Jessie Jackson notably introduced the event as “a day of black awareness” in his commanding opening speech, “I Am Somebody.” With tickets priced at just $1, more than two dozen Stax recording artists performed at the charity event, including Albert King, the Staple Singers, the Bar-Kays, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Luther Ingram, and Kim Thomas.

Its highlight, of course, was a rousing headlining set by Isaac Hayes, on his 30th birthday. To date, Wattstax remains a significant moment in Los Angeles race relations and black cultural identity. Its namesake documentary Wattstax, directed by Mel Stuart and starring Richard Pryor, splices together moments from the event with scenes of daily life in Watts.


California Jam

Ontario Motor Speedway, 1974

Not to be confused with CalJam—the annual Foo Fighters-curated music festival of reincarnated fame—the original California Jam was co-headlined by hard rock heavy-hitters Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, along with appearances by Black Sabbath, the Eagles (feat. Jackson Browne on keys), Rare Earth, and Earth, Wind & Fire.

Many were uncertain if there would be another large-scale music festival after the grisly Altamont Free Concert proved to be a fatal disaster, but ABC Entertainment founded the showcase with the intention of promoting a live simulcast over its television and radio networks. Over 250,000 tickets were sold for the one-day festival, far more than were sold for Woodstock, making California Jam the highest paid-attendance and highest grossing concert of the era. The event also boasted the loudest amplification system of its kind at 54,000 watts.

An equally successful follow-up to California Jam was held in 1978 and included performances by Aerosmith, Foreigner, Ted Nugent, and Heart.


US Festival

Glen Helen Pavilion, 1982-1983

San Bernardino’s Glen Helen Pavilion is a familiar location for Southern California festivals and large-scale concerts—Ozzfest, Smokeout, Nocturnal Wonderland, and Rock the Bells, to name a few—but the outdoor amphitheater wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for Steve Wozniak and the Us Festival.

On leave and suffering from amnesia after surviving a plane crash, the Apple co-founder hoped to create the “Super Bowl of rock parties” with his unifying mega-event, which would combine unparalleled musical talent with the latest technological achievements at an on-site expo. Woz himself paid for the bulldozing and construction of the open-air venue at Glen Helen Regional Park, its state-of-the-art stage being the first in history to utilize jumbo screens for unobstructed views.

Teaming up with notorious rock promoter Bill Graham, the debut three-day concert over Labor Day weekend in 1982 saw performances by the Police, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Talking Heads, Jimmy Buffett, and the Ramones. High ticket prices and 112-degree heat made US Festival an utter failure, but it returned again months later for a bash over Memorial Day weekend in 1983.

This time around, show dates were separated by genre, with the Clash, Van Halen, David Bowie, and Willie Nelson headlining. The biggest draw of the festival was its “Heavy Metal Day,” which set a world record with 375,000 tickets sold. Its headliner Van Halen too set a world record with “highest amount paid to an act for a single performance” at $1.5 million. Wozniak allegedly lost $20 million of his own money for what promoter Barry Fey referred to as “the most expensive backstage pass in history.”


Desolation Center

Mojave Desert and San Pedro Harbor, 1983-1985

desolation center

Gary Leonard/Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

When punk rock hit it big in the early ’80s, DIY promoter Stuart Swezey sought to take the homegrown movement out of L.A.’s nightclubs and away from the oppressive police force who aimed to dismantle it. The result was Desolation Center, a series of guerrilla, nomadic happenings that occurred at off-the-grid locations in the Mojave Desert. Hundreds of punks traveled by rented school buses to covert generator parties for an evening of revelry and total anarchy. Otherworldly bookings saw fabled performances by German industrialists Einstürzende Neubauten, calamitous machine artists Survival Research Labs, Paisley punks Redd Kross, and the West Coast debut of noise-rock pioneers Sonic Youth.

Its 1984 incarnation titled “Joy at Sea” involved a nighttime cruise of the San Pedro Harbor with seminal punk bands Minutemen and the Meat Puppets. The liberated, escapist ethos of Desolation Center has proven highly influential to mainstream modern festivals, such as Coachella, Burning Man, and Lollapalooza (founder Perry Farrell’s post-punk band Psi Com performed one year). The festival is the subject of a forthcoming eponymous documentary, release date TBA.


All Tomorrow’s Parties (curated by Sonic Youth)

UCLA, 2002

Queen Mary, 2003-2004

Named after a Velvet Underground song, All Tomorrow’s Parties was a UK-based music festival that celebrated diverse, underground genres in an intimate setting. Each manifestation of the event was curated by a cultural authority of the organization’s choosing, and for its U.S. debut, programming was conducted by experimental rock band Sonic Youth.

Originally rescheduled due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the third ATP festival was held at multiple venues throughout the campus of UCLA. The massive lineup brought together an eclectic mix of musicians, including ambient techno mainstay Aphex Twin, avant-pop pioneers Stereolab, legacy acts Big Star and the recently reunited Television, noise artists Boredoms and Merzbow, rising alt-rockers Wilco, feminist trio Sleater-Kinney, and Pearl Jam leader, Eddie Vedder. All Tomorrow’s Parties returned to Los Angeles for two additional years at Long Beach’s Queen Mary, curated by Matt Groening in 2003 and Modest Mouse in 2004.


KROQ’s Inland/LA Invasion

Glen Helen Pavilion, 2001-2006

Home Depot Center (now Dignity Health Sports Park), 2007

The fall counterpart to KROQ’s wintertime “Almost Acoustic Christmas” and spring’s “Weenie Roast” bash, the Inland Invasion was a showcase mixtape of the beloved radio station’s alt-rock programming. The lesser-known of the ROQ’s yearly concerts, the Invasion played host to some remarkable lineups, consisting of mega-acts like The Cure, Oasis, Guns N’ Roses, Alice in Chains, Foo Fighters, Duran Duran, Morrissey (who cancelled), and Velvet Revolver.

What’s most impressive is the show’s punk leanings, something that once helped shape KROQ’s popularity in Los Angeles, but barely exists on its airwaves today. Fans were treated to sets by the reunited Sex Pistols, Circle Jerks, X, Devo, Siouxsie Sioux, the Damned, Buzzcocks, TSOL, and Social Distortion. Smaller side stage acts, just barely emerging at the time, included Kings of Leon, Death Cab for Cutie, and the Walkmen. After moving to Carson and changing its name to LA Invasion, the event lasted one final year— probably because Kid Rock performed.


Detour Festival

Streets of downtown L.A., 2006-2008

Coachella organizers Goldenvoice and alternative weekly newspaper LA Weekly teamed up for Detour Festival, a celebration of mid-aughts indie rock and electro, which took place on the streets of downtown LA surrounding City Hall, prior to the opening of Grand Park. Beck, Queens of the Stone Age, and Basement Jaxx headlined its first incarnation, primarily to mixed reviews, but the fest impressive nonetheless, especially for an inaugural event. The festival returned for two more years before going on “hiatus,” featuring appearances by Bloc Party, Justice, Gogol Bordello, and the Mars Volta. Over recent years, event organizers have attempted to capitalize on live music set against L.A.’s iconic skyline—FYF Fest, Camp Flog Gnaw, Made in America, Air + Style, and Adult Swim Festival among them—but with high costs and varying limitations on zoning and other regulations, it hasn’t always proven feasible.


FYF Fest

Echo Park Venues, LA State Historic Park, Exposition Park, 2004-2017

When it was announced that last year’s female-dominated, salvaged edition of FYF Fest would be canceled due to low ticket sales, music fans declared an end of an era for the homegrown music festival. FYF, or “Fuck Yeah Fest” as it was originally known, began as a humble celebration of up-and-coming and local talent, rooted in Echo Park venues like the Echo, Echoplex, and Jensen Rec Center.

The expansion of its tasteful, well-curated lineup prompted a relocation to State Historic Park in Chinatown and a partnership with Goldenvoice allowed organizers to take on more competitive bookings. Its final, most triumphant years took place at Exposition Park surrounding the Coliseum, with legendary sets by the Strokes, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Grace Jones, Missy Elliott, Björk, Kendrick Lamar, and Nine Inch Nails. Misconduct allegations against the fest’s booker precipitated the event’s demise. Currently, it’s unknown if FYF will return.


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