Canada's legendary 1980 Heatwave Festival was the brainchild of concert promoter
John Brower, who was based in Toronto. Brower established his reputation a
decade prior, as the man behind the 1969 Rock and Roll Revival concert at
Varsity Stadium (AKA "Live Peace In Toronto," which featured John Lennon's debut
live performance outside The Beatles) and the three-day Woodstock-esque
Strawberry Fields Festival held at Ontario's Mosport Park the following summer.
For Canadians, as well as thousands of Americans and Europeans who traveled to
this event, Brower's Heatwave Festival would become one of Canada's most
memorable musical events.
Held at Mosport Park, a 500-acre auto racing facility located approximately 100
kilometers east of Toronto, the aptly named Heatwave Festival took place on a
hot August Saturday and presented the cream of the crop of post-punk new wave
bands, just as many were breaking big internationally. Promoted as the "New Wave
Woodstock" or as the poster for the event proclaimed, "The 1980s Big Beat Rock
And Roll Party," nearly 100, 000 fans would converge that day to witness some of
the greatest American, British and Canadian bands to emerge in recent years all
on the same stage.
The first major outdoor new wave musical event to be held anywhere, nearly
85,000 fans would purchase the $20 tickets to hear the likes of Rockpile with
Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, The B-52s, The Pretenders, Talking Heads, Elvis
Costello and The Clash, along with Canada's own Teenage Head and The Kings and
with lesser known groups like Holly and the Italians and The Rumour (Graham
Parker's former group) also performing that day.
Like the original Woodstock Festival, Heatwave presented an incredible roster
for that moment in time, but was likewise fraught with logistical and legal
problems and would end in financial failure. When headliners, The Clash, pulled
out at the last minute, rumors began spreading about the integrity of the
festival. During this pre-Internet era, mass communication was difficult at best
and wild speculation was running rampant about who else might cancel or who
might replace The Clash. Lines were also being drawn, with the inevitable cries
of "sellout" being aimed at some of the bands on the bill. On the plus side,
unlike Woodstock, Mother Nature was quite cooperative and the festival took
place under sunny blue skies on a hot summer Saturday, with thousands camping
out the night before and already settled in by sunrise on the day of the
concert. Other than the heat, for the audience it was a relatively comfortable
experience for most of the day, until Brower himself became responsible for one
of the logistical issues. During a backstage radio interview with his friend,
Dan Aykroyd (in character as Elwood Blues), Aykroyd humorously encouraged Brower
to put all the radio listeners on the guest list. Going with the flow, Brower
laughingly agreed that it was a bright idea and within 90 minutes, another
15,000 ticketless fans turned up, swelling the crowd to estimates of 100,000 by
sundown, just as Talking Heads were taking the stage.
During the late 1970s, many of these bands had developed and diversified
considerably. Another generation of serious talent was emerging, but they were
still experiencing only modest commercial impact. Prior to 1980, most of these
groups were heard only on college radio stations and had little experience
performing beyond the college and club circuit. Few had ever performed before a
crowd of this magnitude and several had never even played outdoors! Much had
changed in the past several months; The Pretenders were now scoring Top 10
singles and Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, The B-52s and Teenage Head also had
albums and singles charting. Within the next year, MTV would also begin
championing videos by many of these groups while significantly altering the
music industry landscape.
These Heatwave Festival master recordings capture the zeitgeist during this
transitional moment in music history and present inspired performances by all of
these groups, several of which remain career highlights to the present day.
Following the sunset debut of Talking Heads' expanded lineup, Elvis Costello and
The Attractions next took the stage. Costello's only North American appearance
that year, his set not only encapsulates the early phase of his career but also
captures an artist moving beyond the expectations of his established audience.
-Written by Alan Bershaw
Promoted at the time as a
"New Wave Woodstock," the Heatwave Festival, which was held at Mosport Park in
Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada, on Aug. 23, 1980, is one of rock 'n' roll's
forgotten gatherings. The lineup was impressive to say the least. Elvis
Costello & the Attractions, the B-52's, Talking Heads,
Rockpile, the Rumour (without Graham Parker, who had just left the
band) and the Pretenders were all on hand, along with local Canadian rockers
Teenage Head and the Kings. Scheduled headliners the Clash pulled out
at the last minute.
Heatwave was promoted by
an American company, First Festival Promotions. Asked at the time by a Canadian
television station why they were putting on this concert in the Toronto area as
opposed to somewhere in the U.S., promoter John Brower said, "I don't think this
show would sell anyplace else but here. I think this is the strongest New Wave
market on this continent."
Brower had gotten his
start in the festival business 10 years earlier, when he put on the '1969 Rock
and Roll Revival' concert which featured, among others, the solo debut of John
Lennon with the Plastic Ono Band.
The site of the concert
was a 500-acre auto raceway, and attendance reports range from between 60,000
and 100,000 people. Nevertheless, Heatwave's promoters reportedly lost close to
a million dollars. The timing for such a festival must have seemed perfect, what
with the growing impact of the New Wave movement, and fans were genuinely
excited about the bill. When asked if she was nervous about performing in front
of such a large crowd, the B-52s' Kate Pierson joked about attempts to link the
fest to Woodstock, saying, "No, 'cause I thought maybe everyone was on acid ...
you know, 'cause it's a festival."
Once the Clash pulled
out, rumors spread they'd done so because of the festival's lack of integrity.
Whether the Heatwave Festival would have taken on a larger significance if the
Clash had appeared, or if it had been filmed, a la Woodstock, is anyone's guess.
That legendary 1969 festival didn't really cement its legacy until after the
release of the concert film in 1970.
As a local radio station
covered the show backstage, actor Dan Aykroyd, in character as Elwood Blues,
joked to promoter Brower to put everyone listening on the radio on the guest
list. Brower played along, but within 90 minutes, 15,000 fans with no tickets
turned up looking to get in. Brower obliged, and the lucky listeners scored free
Heatwave never lived up
to its potential and has been largely forgotten over the years. It did, however,
mark a moment when a new breed of exciting young bands threatened to take over
the rock 'n' roll landscape. That never quite happened, but most of the
festival's marquee acts are still kicking today, and most have established
themselves as artists of great importance.
And perhaps we haven't
heard the last of Heatwave. The tapes were rolling as the bands hit the stage,
but so far, only the Rockpile set has been officially released.