The California Jam Festival

THERE WEREN’T even traffic jams.

Last time, hundreds of people had abandoned their cars on the freeway and marched off in disgust. This time, the police had things well under control. ‘Efficient’ was the most-touted word to describe the event and everything leading up to it, the methodical operation that guided a seemingly endless stream of people plus sleeping bags, blankets and tuppaware, travelling by car, van, bike or just thumbing it, on to the Ontario Motor Speedway, 60 miles from LA to the location of the second California Jam (Jam I, attracting a mere 200,000 punters, was back in ’74).

Not so much a rock concert, more an event. Thousands of heavy metal devotees camped out on the Speedway’s grounds the night before, slipped over the fence past the security guards, swapped quaaludes and ripped off their neighbour’s orange juice. Official figure 250,000, more likely 300,000 fans (aged 13-20) had paid their 12 dollars plus for tickets to the one-day event, and around 50,000 freeloaders got the music and space free by staying outside the grounds. One big party.

To many the actual show must have been something of an anti-climax (plenty of fans were asleep by mid afternoon). Most everyone involved called it a ‘success’ (financially very much so – a spokesman claimed they’d got the initial investment back by the time they’d sold around 150,000 tickets). Others called it the first computerised rock concert, so efficient as to be almost devoid of spontaneity. Some of the acts called it ‘just another gig’. Ted Nugent almost missed it. No-one seemed to think it would change their lives. The Mayor of Ontario eulogised: “These kids need this. There’s little else for them to do. 95 per cent are great kids and you wouldn’t mind having them home to dinner”. However, the local paper managed to rake up the facts that ‘at 10pm (end of show) 23 concertgoers had been arrested on charges of drug use, petty theft, drunkenness, possession of hashish, assault on a police officer, rape (two of them), robbery (several), attempted murder and felony hit-and-run’.

Two deaths were reported, one of them very morbidly over the loudspeakers. It was later discovered that the only genuine death took place outside the Ontario Speedway grounds (a relative of some poor kid present) and the mortality rate was nil. Quite a few people were blotto enough to be shipped off to hospital though (latest fad here, especially among heavy metal sickos, is a drug called PCP – Angel Dust. More hip than cocaine, it produces a totally gonzoid and violent reaction in the user. So that’s why people were jumping up and down on each other’s heads in the back row).

First casualty was treated 2pm Friday, first case of hysterics was a teenage girl who had a breakdown when stuck at the end of a never-ending queue for the portable toilets and was carried off screaming. Biggest near-miss was a naked man who recklessly hurdled a barbed-wire fence. Otherwise – apart from a few crushed bodies, burst bladders and dope-and-beer dinners – all agree that the fourth largest rock concert in history, California’s largest ever and with the biggest paid audience at any American rock event, went off as sweet as apple pie.

Bob Welch was apparently reluctant to be first man on, but he was really quite impressive. Sounded just like the album. Now, some may say that French Kiss is wet and sloppy, but Bob showed he could be tight as well as light. The renditions of his two hit singles, ‘Ebony Eyes’ and ‘Sentimental Lady’, were particularly polished and his short set, ending as it did with Mick Fleetwood (his manager) and Stevie Nicks joining him on stage, was well received.

Not too much louder, but slightly more uptempo was the next act, Dave Mason. Drawing heavily on his last album for song material, Mason sounded the best I’ve ever heard him. ‘Gimme Some Loving’, the old Spencer Davis classic, ripe and robust with the best drum solo of the day, was song of the show. Mason reckoned he was playing to around 1,000 people; the rest of the proverbial shifting sea of humanity, he assumed, was out of the range of sight and sound. But the sound system – the biggest ever designed, read next year’s Guinness Book of Records if you don’t believe it, with an output of around 167,000 watts of pure power – was quite adequate.

Santana‘s set opened with ‘She’s Not There’, followed by ‘Black Magic Woman’ and ‘Dance Sister Dance’, Carlos squeezing painfully beautiful sounds from his guitar. Sensational music, inspired; back to that old group feel that’s been missing for so long – possibly due to Carlos’ spiritual awakening and search for a purer life than the Afro-Latin beat of rock music – and was beginning to show itself on the live ‘Moonflower’. A magic performance, marred for me only by a tedious succession of guitar and percussion solos that sounded like the sort of noise you complain to your upstairs neighbour about, concluding with a powerfully charged version of ‘Nobody To Depend On’.

Much ogling in evidence as the Wilson sisters and Heart come on for their 45 minutes-worth. I’ve never been a fan of this group, so suffice to say that while I was in the beer tent, the sound of happily applauding rock fans could be clearly heard.

There was a crush around the stage as around a thousand heavy metal clones squeezed up against the chain link fence salivating and chanting for their hero. Headliner Ted Nugent almost didn’t make it. Living up to his wildman legend, and as we revealed in ‘Jaws’ last week, The Gonz had been big-game hunting in darkest Africa. At the last moment he had chartered a plane from Kenya to London, hopped on board Concorde to New York in the morning, and arrived in LA two hours before he had been due to go on.

Looking half-crazed and half-starved, a product of all that aeroplane food, Nugent leapt on stage a parody of himself and lunged into ‘Cat Scratch Fever’. It was sweet inspiration to the crowd’s psychopathic element, who pogoed (necessity of having less than an inch between your feet and the next person) to the brain-mashing music, taking in every word of his repetitive machine-gun raps.

The girls love him to talk dirty. ‘Wang Dang Sweet Poontang’ was dedicated to ‘all that sweet Californian pussy’, the very same words he used the last time he played LA. One could wish that he’d find another fetish just to make a change – saying the same thing 200 times a year does get to be a bit predictable. In fact, that’s just how Nugent sounded. A half-crazed, arrogant product of raw meat and junk food, less acrobatic than usual, under the false impression that he was playing to thousands of deaf people. No pussyfooting. None of your I-want-to-hold-your-hand-and-get-to-know-you subtleties. Daring the girls to keep their Levis dry, putting into words and actions the nasty urges that parents deny exist…

Nugent plays about the best powerhouse rock around, but that’s not to say he isn’t getting stale. Heavy metal music per se is getting stale. It would be better if he gave his band (competent musicians all) some of the stage exposure instead of singing, playing, soloing and soloing and soloing under the spotlight (of the 19 pictures on his Double Live Gonzo album, all 19 are of Teddy) all of the time. However, that’s about as likely as asking God to play a mere saint. And Ted Nugent is worshipped.

Foreigner, with their brand of softer, more melodic rock, had a hard time following. But they were tight, professional, quite enjoyable, though they veered dangerously close to Top Of The Pops-land on occasions. By now the crowd had divided into two factions – those still on their feet after Nugent and making a lot of noise, and those heading for the exit and home. Those that stayed gave Foreigner quite a reception (a good send-off for the world tour that began here tonight).

Second bill-toppers Aerosmith, together with a keyboards player, turned in a powerful performance beaten only, as far as the crowd was concerned, by Nugent’s. The first act to perform in pitch darkness, the effect with the lights was spectacular. A punchy, supercharged set, perfectly timed and paced, was greeted by those still physically able to get out a horizontal position by a standing ovation.

Which left Mahogany Rush and Rubicon to close the evening – because they were two relatively unknown acts, it was hoped that enough people would leave after Aerosmith to avoid giving the traffic police headaches. By necessity an anti-climax and with severe projection problems, Mahogany Rush, with Frank Marino almost a caricature of Ted Nugent with ironed long hair and slightly crazed expression, turned in a competent but uninspired set.

Rubicon, a strange hybrid of Blood, Sweat And Tears with Foreigner and Chicago (a San Franciscan horn-based group with three competent vocalists and four other musicians) were none too consistent (screeching guitar riffs seemed out of place) though they were better live than on record – a perfectly adequate band to play out the departing thousands.

The party was over at midnight, two hours late, and the promoters and t-shirt sellers who made a stack of money were talking lovingly of Cal Jam III.

© Sylvie SimmonsSounds, 8 April 1978

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