David Byrne - lead vocals, guitar; Jerry Harrison - guitar, keyboards, vocals; Tina Weymouth - bass, keyboards, guitar, vocals; Chris Frantz - drums, vocals; Adrian Belew - lead guitar, vocals; Bernie Worrell - keyboards; Busta Cherry Jones - bass; Steve Scales - percussion; Dollette McDonald - vocals
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) performing earlier in the 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.
As the new decade dawned, another generation of serious talent was emerging, but these groups were still experiencing only modest commercial impact. Prior to 1980, most of them 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.
The Heatwave Festival captured the zeitgeist during this transitional moment in music history and presented inspired performances by all of these groups, several of which remain career highlights to the present day.
For many, the highlight of the entire festival was the debut performance by the newly expanded Talking Heads, who hit the stage at sundown armed with new material. At the time, Talking Heads hadn't performed live since the 1979 Fear Of Music tour ended and had spent 1980 with Brian Eno developing new material and recording Remain In Light. This album, with its rhythmic groove-based songs, would be a significant progression from the group's first three albums and a major breakthrough in terms of confidence and originality. The Heatwave Festival audience witnessed the public debut of a good portion of that album, including "Once In A Lifetime," "Houses In Motion," "Born Under Punches" and "Crosseyed And Painless," several weeks prior to the album's release. These new songs were quite a departure from the anxiety-ridden dark humor that fueled their first three albums, with David Byrne's quirky vocal delivery now approaching that of an ecstatic evangelist. Even the older material takes on an exciting new collective spirit in the hands of these musicians.
The set begins with the core quartet of Byrne, Harrison, Weymouth and Frantz hitting the stage along with guitar acrobat Adrian Belew. They kick things off with the song that initially gained the band attention outside of New York City, "Psycho Killer." Right from the start, this is an electrifying performance, but it's the tail end of the song, featuring Belew unleashing a barrage of guitar pyrotechnics, that is a sign of the energy level yet to come. With percussionist Steve Scales joining in next, the band tackle "Warning Sign," one of the first Talking Heads songs to emphasize the rhythm section of Weymouth and Frantz. This is followed by "Stay Hungry" and "Cities," the song that detailed Byrne's search for the perfect living environment, with Dollette McDonald joining in on vocals.
With P-Funk music director/keyboard wizard Bernie Worrell and bass player Busta Jones then joining the group on stage, the nine-piece lineup launch into the Fear Of Music composition "I Zimbra." With its vibrant but nonsensical lyrical chant (borrowed from Dadaist poet Hugo Ball), "I Zimbra" was a clear precursor to the experimentation and rhythmic focus pursued more aggressively on the Remain In Light material. As such, it serves as the perfect bridge between the old and new material.
Following an introduction of the band members, this new, more muscular Talking Heads lineup launch into the debut performance of "Once In A Lifetime." The excitement of this new material is immediately palpable, with this song's collision of melody, rhythm and Byrne's strange existential ponderings undeniably infectious. Soon to become one of the most unforgettable videos ever to air on MTV, Byrne ponders his own existence with the classic line, "And I say to myself, 'Self, how did I get here?'" before later exclaiming, "My God! What have I done!" This song conveys a giant leap for the band in terms of composing, arranging, and originality. Despite slowing the tempo down, much the same can be said for the deep funky grooves of "Houses In Motion," with Bernie Worrell's distinctive keyboard work propelling the arrangement.
Next, the guitars, keyboards, bass and drums, all of which are doubled in this band configuration, create one of the fiercest syncopated grooves ever, as the band delivers the politically slanted dance track, "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)." By combining multi-layered rhythms and complex vocal arrangements, this number is one of the best examples of Talking Heads' highly inventive synthesis of new wave, African trance, funk, rock and dance elements coming to full fruition. Here these seemingly disparate elements combine into an original sound that transcends racial boundaries. Guitarist Adrian Belew is particularly astonishing here and plays ferociously throughout the remainder of the set. The new Remain In Light material is capped off by the mad dance frenzy of "Crosseyed And Painless," one the most insanely propulsive fusions of funk and rock ever recorded. To hear all four of these debut performances in succession and in such remarkable quality is a thrilling listen.
To close the performance, the band dip back to the Fear Of Music album and its most popular track, "Life Before Wartime." Like "I Zimbra" from the same album, this too was a precursor to the Remain In Light material. Originally sparked from an impromptu soundcheck jam, this song, despite containing menacing lyrics than can be interpreted as being written from a terrorist's point of view ("Heard of a van, loaded with weapons, packed up and ready to go"), was destined to become one of the great party anthems of the era. With its relentless momentum, defiantly sarcastic chorus ("This ain't no party! This ain't no disco! This ain't no foolin' around!"), and soaring instrumental breaks, this is a perfect conclusion to the set. The Heatwave Festival audience, now 100,000 strong, demands an encore. When Talking Heads return to the stage, they deliver an extended workout on Al Green's gospel classic, "Take Me To The River," before turning the stage over to Elvis Costello & The Attractions .
This expanded lineup was initially intended only for this Heatwave Festival performance and another high-profile gig in Central Park the following week, but the results were so spectacular that they (along with additional singer Nona Hendrix) would end up touring the world well into the following year. In many ways, this Heatwave Festival performance can be seen as the blueprint for the rest of their career as a performing band. Indeed, Talking Heads would never return to the core quartet configuration for touring again. This expanded band format and set structure, which traced the progression and developement of the group's music, would eventually culminate in the Speaking In Toungues tour of 1983, the last days of which were immortalized in Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense movie. That year, Talking Heads had become the most compelling live band on the planet by perfecting the elements beginning to be explored here. This Heatwave Festival performance breaks a lot of new ground for the band and clearly points to the promise of what was yet to come.
-Written by Alan Bershaw
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