In May 1983, Mötley Crüe had just signed to Elektra Records, but they were in danger of getting dropped before they even released an album on the label. Who saved them? Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak, who had an enormous wad of money burning a hole in his pocket.
Wozniak, the engineer who founded Apple with Steve Jobs, had taken a leave of absence from the company in the early 80s, not particularly interested in making the transition to upper management. What he did instead was sponsor a sprawling rock concert called the US Festival, which had two blowout years in 1982 and 1983 before it sank under the weight of millions of dollars of deficits.
The ’82 lineup was heavy on the MTV favorites of the time (the Cars, the Police, Tom Petty, Talking Heads), but the following year was split by genres, with separate days devoted to New Wave, rock and heavy metal. Mötley Crüe, who were big names on the Sunset Strip if nowhere else, managed to get a slot on Sunday, May 29 (“Heavy Metal Day”), alongside Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest and Scorpions. (Van Halen reportedly got a million dollars to play that day, and spent most of it on an elaborate party.)
The festival was in San Bernadino, California (about 60 miles east of Hollywood) – MTV VJ Mark Goodman described the venue as “hot and dusty and nasty.” Lead singer Vince Neil remembered arriving in a helicopter (his first time in one), feeling amazing because of the Jack Daniel’s, pills and “a blonde head bobbing up and down in my lap.” Then reality sank in: his band was relatively unknown, and their set list was heavy on unfamiliar tunes from Shout at the Devil, which they had just started recording (it would be released that September).
Even if the thousands of metalheads in attendance were waiting for Van Halen, the Crüe won them over in a 45-minute set that showcased what the band was like at the exact moment they broke out from the Strip. The highlight was the future single “Looks That Kill,” which also served as a self-description for a band very aware of their image. Bassist/songwriter Nikki Sixx, who turns 56 this week, was just 26 then; despite being over six feet tall in his bare feet, he added several inches with enormous platform boots. Guitarist Mick Mars, who in later years would be a virtual statue onstage because of arthritis and spinal issues, was mobile and aggressive onstage. Vince Neil was a yowling vision of Hollywood hairspray and Kabuki makeup. And drummer Tommy Lee was the engine who ensured the band actually rocked. (You can see the complete set here.)
How did Neil celebrate their triumphant gig? By getting it on with the date of their A&R man at Elektra, Tom Zutaut. Sixx was furious, knowing that Zutaut had the potential to kneecap their career – but when Zutaut found out years later (while being interviewed for the band’s book The Dirt), he shrugged it off, saying, “If someone was important to me, I wouldn’t take them to a rock show like that. I definitely wouldn’t leave anyone in a trailer with any member of Mötley Crüe.” Less than a year after the US Festival, Shout at the Devil was certified platinum. Steve Jobs may have been responsible for the iPhone and Pixar, but Steve Wozniak can count Mötley Crüe’s career as one of his legacies.