California Jammin’

(Here’s another from my archives, edited a bit.)

If you had picked up a newspaper on the morning of Monday, April 8, 1974, you would have read about the latest developments in the ever-growing web of scandals around President Richard Nixon that would lead to his resignation in August. Government officials were urging energy conservation measures in the face of the first oil shock. The minimum wage was about to be raised to $2.30 an hour. On the sports page, Hank Aaron’s chase of the all-time home run record was the big story. (He would hit #715 that night.) But if you opened the paper to an inside page, you would probably have seen an article about a major rock festival that had taken place in California the preceding Saturday: California Jam.

California Jam had attracted approximately 200,000 fans to the Ontario Motor Speedway. Tickets had cost $10 in advance and were $15 at the gate for a lineup featuring the Eagles, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Black Oak Arkansas, Rare Earth, Seals & Crofts, and Earth Wind & Fire. Authorities marveled at the small number of arrests—between 15 and 25 on drug or weapons possession, public intoxication, and public nudity. A bigger problem was the monumental traffic jam along Interstate 10 before the show, and the confusion afterward, when thousands of concertgoers found that the cars they had illegally parked along the interstate had been towed.

The show was promoted by ABC Entertainment and recorded for broadcast on its late-night In Concert series. Four weekly episodes aired beginning in May 1974, and were simulcast on ABC’s FM radio network. (They were repeated on four straight nights during Thanksgiving week.) There was plenty of TV-friendly stuff included in the event: skydivers, fireworks, skywriters, hot air balloons, and a blimp that hovered over the race track throughout the event. The shows featured concertgoer interviews by DJ Don Imus and promoter Don Branker. There are dozens of clips from the shows at YouTube here.

California Jam was successful enough that it had a sequel: California Jam II was held in March 1978. Its stars included Aerosmith, Foreigner, Ted Nugent (whose request to make his entrance by climbing down a rope from a helicopter was denied), Santana, Heart, and others. Like the original, it was taped for broadcast on ABC-TV and radio.

The California Jam shows of 1974 and 1978 represented a new paradigm for rock festivals. The improvisational days of Woodstock and Watkins Glen were over; the modern era of the hyper-organized festival had begun.

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