Elvis Costello - vocals, guitar; Steve Nieve - organ; Bruce Thomas - bass; Pete Thomas - drums
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.
The set places a heavy emphasis on material from Costello's first four albums, which were fueled by angry, vengeful songs about failed relationships and nonconformity. However, the newest material from the albums Get Happy, and the forthcoming Trust find Costello widening the scope of his music and revealing his influences more clearly than ever before.
The set begins with Costello accompanied only by Steve Nieve's piano as he delivers "Shot By His Own Gun," a surprisingly tender and moving ballad of simplicity and compassion. This unusual opening sets the audience up, making the fiery strike of The Attractions kicking into "Accidents Will Happen" and "The Beat" all the more powerful by contrast.
Two examples of Costello's musical growth and increasingly crafty wordplay follow with "Temptation" (featuring Nieve's organ work paying direct homage to Booker T & The MG's "Time Is Tight") and the ominous "Green Shirt," which is taken at a faster clip than the Armed Forces studio recording.
A number destined for the Trust album follows with the self-deprecating "You'll Never Be A Man," which segues directly into the manic verve of "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea." Drummer Pete Thomas propels the latter song with an incredibly insistent drumbeat, fueling one of Costello's greatest nonconformist anthems with power and punch.
Two additional new songs follow with the Get Happy track "Secondary Modern" and "Lover's Walk" which would surface on Trust the following year. Both songs convey Costello's increasing brilliance as a lyricist and The Attractions fully hitting their stride.
The remainder of the set is a tour-de-force, beginning with "Less Than Zero," the first line of which was immortalized on Costello's now legendary Saturday Night Live appearance, followed by the b-side of the "Pump It Up" single, "Big Tears." Heading in a moodier direction, up next are the Get Happy track "High Fidelity" and then "Alison," the first indication of Costello's undeniable talent.
One of the peak moments of this set comes next in the form of "Lipstick Vogue," which shifts from a dark brooding to a frenzied close. With standout contributions from Nieve, a preview of the Trust track "Clubland" is next, followed by the pop-influenced "Oliver's Army," featuring piano flourishes not unlike those found in ABBA's "Dancing Queen."
The next four numbers focus on classic early material, beginning with a savage take on the reggae-inflected "Watching The Detectives," followed by three high-energy workouts in a row, all sourced from This Year's Model: "You Belong To Me," "Radio, Radio" and "Pump It Up." All three songs are highly compelling, as Costello ruminates on the corruptive nature of being hip and the vapid culture that more often than not engulfs celebrity. All are marked by Costello's sharp wit and attention to melodic detail, with The Attractions contributing impressive musicianship and raw energy to these fiery performances.
The set concludes with a pair of well chosen covers, beginning with Nick Lowe's hard rocking "(What's So Funny) About Peace, Love And Understanding" and ending with an up-tempo arrangement of Sam & Dave's R & B classic "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down."
Throughout this remarkable recording, the elements that made Costello's early material so distinctive are obvious. All of these songs contain clever, carefully constructed lyrics and convey an attention to arrangement and melodic detail. These elements clearly set him apart from the punk scene with which he was initially identified. Above all else, Costello was a crafty songwriter of immense talent. His subject matter was often allied with the Punk ethic of nonconformity, but as this performance clearly proves, Costello had far more to offer.
-Written by Alan Bershaw