When the Toronto Heatwave Festival Tried to Be the ‘New Wave Woodstock’
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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 admission.
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.
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