Review: ‘Desolation Center,’ starring Stuart Swezey, Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, Einstürzende Neubauten, Redd Kross, Perry Farrell and Mark Pauline

June 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Einstürzende Neubauten in “Desolation Center” (Photo courtesy of Passion River Films)

“Desolation Center”

Directed by Stuart Swezey

Culture Representation: Taking place in various locations in Southern California, the music documentary “Desolation Center” interviews a racially diverse group of people (white, African American, Latino and Asian) talking about the notable 1980s rock concerts promoted by the independent team Desolation Center, with commentaries from artists, fans and behind-the-scenes industry people. 

Culture Clash: Desolation Center concerts, which rejected anything that was corporate, often operated outside the law by not filing permits and by being held in unconventional places.

Culture Audience: “Desolation Center” will appeal primarily to people interested in the non-mainstream Los Angeles rock scene in the 1980s and stories about music festivals.

Perry Farrell and Aaron Sherer (both facing camera) in “Desolation Center” (Photo by Mariska Leyssius)

Imagine a well-attended music festival that takes place in the California desert. Event permits weren’t filed, people were transported by school bus to the festival, and most attendees were so excited about going that they didn’t think about bringing sunscreen, water or food. And there wouldn’t be any vendors at the festival to sell anything. This festival obviously isn’t Coachella.

The documentary film “Desolation Center” is a nostalgic and fascinating look at five of the biggest concerts staged by a Los Angeles-based independent promotion team called Desolation Center. In its relatively short existence (1983 to 1986), Desolation Center influenced several festivals that ended up becoming corporate behemoths, including Burning Man, Lollapalooza and Coachella. The five Desolation Center concerts that get the spotlight in the documentary are Mohave Exodus, Mohave Auzug, Joy at Sea, Gila Monster Jamboree and Solstice.

“Desolation Center” director Stuart Swezey, who also appears on camera for his commentary, is the best person to helm this documentary, since he founded Desolation Center and had hands-on involvement in every show presented by the team. His deep history with Desolation Center serves this film well, since it’s packed with a lot of great archival photos and video footage, as well as an extremely well-rounded set of interviews from artists, fans and behind-the-scenes industry people who usually have first-hand accounts of Desolation Center shows.

Artists interviewed include the members of Sonic Youth (except for Kim Gordon), Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Redd Kross and Einstürzende Neubauten. Also giving an artist perspective are Perry Farrell (co-founder of Lollapalooza Festival and the band Jane’s Addiction); Aaron Sherer (who was in Psi Com, Farrell’s pre-Jane’s Addicition band); Kurt Schellenbach of Nip Drivers; Suzi Gardner of L7; Michael Gra of Swans; Dan Bolles of the Germs; Chuck Dukowski of Black Flag; Steve Housden of Lawndale; Ian Rakow of Valley Punk; F.M. Einheit; artist Anthony Ausgang; noise musician Boyd Rice; performance artist Ron Athey; poet John Tottenham; and performance artists Mark Pauline and Matt Heckert of Survival Research Laboratories.

Unlike many music documentaries that shun or limit perspectives of non-famous fans, “Desolation Center” gives almost as much screen time to fans as it does the artists. Among the fans who share their fond memories of Desolation Center shows are poet Maw Shein Win; musician Sean DeLear; community organizer Linda Kite; costumer designer Nancy Steiner; Sandy Glaze; Lisa Derrick; Janet Housden; Easter Seals COO Bev Mendes; artist Kristine Kryttre; Bertell Ferguson; Skip King; ML Compton; Mike Guerena; Fourway Cross bandmates Courtney Davies, Steve Gerdes and Tom Dolan; and married couple Joy and Ken Abbott, who’ve been together since the ’80s.

Also giving their insight are Goldenvoice founder Gary Tovar; Burning Man co-founder John Law; indie music operative Carmel Conlin; SST producer Spot; photographer/musician Mariska Leyssius; sound engineer Ed Cirino of Gold Sound; Re/Search Publications editor/publisher V. Vale, music publisher Adam Wolf; and journalists Chris Morris, Simon Reynolds, Joseph Bien-Khan.

“Desolation Center” begins with a contextual backdrop of what was going on in the Los Angeles music scene during the 1980s that laid the groundwork to form Desolation Center. If there’s any villain of this story, it’s Daryl Gates, who was chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) from 1978 to 1992. DeLear calls Gates “rotten” and “creepy” in the documentary.

And several people who comment in the film, including Swezey, describe the LAPD under Gates’ leadership as an oppressive force that targeted punk rock musicians and fans for harassment and arrests. Bolles says, “The LAPD freaked out about punk rock, like it was the second coming of the Black Panthers.”

Therefore, nightclubs and bars in Los Angeles that booked punk artists frequently had those shows shut down or heavily enforced by the LAPD. Meat Puppets lead singer/guitarist Curt Kirkwood adds, “It seems like they [the LAPD] were going through the newspaper and finding bands that sounded punk rock and making sure they didn’t happen.” Performance artist Athey comments on Los Angeles: “I grew up here. I wasn’t enlightened that you could live in a non-police state, so you figured out how to skirt around it.”

The good news is that in the early 1980s, the alternative/underground music scene was very diverse, in terms of race, gender, sexuality and economic backgrounds. Kite, who was the fiancée of Minutemen singer/guitarist D. Boone, comments on the Los Angeles punk/underground music scene during this era: “There was just as much people of color in it as there were white kids. Bands were multicultural, as well as the scene was multicultural.”

This diversity was in stark contrast to Los Angeles’ heavy metal scene and classic rock scene, which pretty much excluded musicians who weren’t straight white males. Another big difference between the punk scene and communities for other rock genres was that punk was all about rejecting conformity and corporate greed.

Swezey comments in the documentary: “In the early ’80s, I think the rest of the world saw L.A. as this brain-dead, sun baked, smoggy sprawl—which it kind of was. For those of us who grew up here, the early ’80s was actually a really vital and interesting time.”

Before Swezey founded Desolation Center, he was a 21-year-old college dropout doing phone sales for a municipal broker in 1982. Although he was a fan of punk music and went to a lot of shows, he wasn’t inspired to become a show promoter until he saw a Throbbing Gristle concert and later met its promoter Michael Sheppard. Swezey says of that fateful Throbbing Gristle show: “Their sonic assault changed the way I thought of music and performance forever.”

He took the plunge to form Desolation Center in 1983, as an independent collective to promote “alternative” rock and performance artists. At the time, Swezey was living in a very seedy and run-down part of downtown Los Angeles. He says he came up with the name Desolation Center “because that’s how I was feeling about my environment at the time.”

Desolation Center was born out of nonconformity, not just because of punk ideals but also out of financial necessity. The tiny start-up didn’t have the budget to book artists at established nightclubs and advertise those types of shows. Therefore, Swezey and Desolation Center had the great idea to do the opposite of what most concert promoters were doing.

Desolation Center booked shows in abandoned warehouses and other under-the-radar places. The shows also didn’t follow industry norms: Guests lists weren’t allowed, everyone had to pay to get inside, and the shows didn’t sell alcohol (which would get the attention of the police), but people of legal drinking age were allowed to bring their own alcohol. Desolation Center also didn’t advertise its shows and did not court publicity.

Having these shows in non-traditional venues also allowed Desolation Center to not have to deal with Ticketmaster or city permits to put on these shows. And finding about these shows, not through advertising or media publicity, but through word of mouth, gave Desolation Center a cool, underground reputation with fans. Nowadays, with insurance liabilities being more of a concern for artists and promoters, an outfit like Desolation Center wouldn’t have been able to stay in business for as long as it did.

It wasn’t long before Desolation Center wanted to do something bigger than just a small show in a warehouse, without having to go to a traditional large venue. After taking a road trip through the Sonora Desert in Mexico, Swezey was inspired to have the first Desolation Center festival in the desert. He approached Savage Republic band member Bruce Licher, who came up with the idea to have the show in the Mohave Desert, about three hours east outside of Los Angeles.

That show ended up being a mini-festival called Mohave Exodus, which took place on April 24, 1983, and featured performances by Savage Republic and Minutemen. Licher had access to a printing press, so he was essentially in charge of making the tickets and signage that were used for the show. Farrell says of Licher: “He was like the Benjamin Franklin of our scene.”

Getting to the concert site was unconventional. There was a secret place in downtown L.A. where ticketholders were told to meet. From there, rented school buses took them to the remote area in the desert. Many of the fans were completely unaware of how hot the desert heat would be and were decked out in full-on heavy punk gear.

Kryttre, an artist who attended the event, remembers how driving to the concert site was a challenge because some of truck stop managers would lock their restrooms when they saw all the “alternative”-looking young people coming out of the buses to use the restrooms. The way these fans looked back then wouldn’t be considered a big deal today, but it was a big deal back then.

The concert was so bare-bones and do-it-yourself that nothing was set up in the middle of the desert except for the band’s equipment and sound system. There was no stage separating the band from the audience. Most concertgoers had to sit on the hard desert ground, although some people thought of bringing lawn chairs. And forget about places to eat, drink and use toilets at the concert site. There weren’t any.

And they weren’t prepared for the forceful desert winds in the area. Sound engineer Cirino remembers that socks had to be put on microphones, and the buses had to be parked behind the bands to form a wall that would be a wind barrier. It was about as unglamorous and uncomfortable as you can imagine. But looking back on it, the concertgoers and band members interviewed in the documentary say they loved the experience.

Win comments, “I felt we were these young people creating this great, alternative world for ourselves out in the desert.” Guerena says, “There was no violence, no weirdness. It was like everybody was in this one cool group.” Joy Abbott adds, “I just remember thinking, ‘This is one of the coolest things I’ll ever do in my whole life.'”

After the Mohave Exodus show, Swezey quit his day job and went backpacking around Europe. While he was in West Berlin, he saw German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten perform for the first time and was completely awed by the experience. It was around this time that Swezey saw director Werner Herzog’s epic 1982 movie “Fitzcarraldo,” which also gave Swezey the idea for the next big Desolation Center festival.

In “Fitzcarraldo,” a European opera fan becomes obsessed with building an opera house in the Peruvian jungle. Swezey explains how Einstürzende Neubauten and “Fiztcarraldo” inspired him: Instead of bringing opera to the jungle, he wanted to bring industrial music to the desert.

And that led to the Desolation Center show Mohave Auzug, held in Mecca, California, on March 4, 1984. Einstürzende Neubauten headlined the show, which was more elaborate—and crazier and more dangerous—than Mohave Exodus. A pacifist percussion group Djemaa-El-Fna greeted concertgoers as they arrived.

But that peaceful atmosphere was quickly destroyed by Survival Research Laboratories, a rebellious group of performance artists (whose most famous member is Mark Pauline), who loved to literally blow things up. And the desert was their playground at the show, as they set off explosives in a cave, as well as other places outside, despite the objections of Djemaa-El-Fna and some concertgoers.

Luckily, no one was hurt at Mohave Auzug by these explosions. Pauline and the rest of the anarchists look back with no regrets and say the explosions were all in the name of fun and performance art. Lawndale band member Housden remembers that at this industrial-oriented concert, power tools were used as musical instruments and other playthings: “They were giving a hard time to our dad’s power tools … They ruined them.”

With two well-received desert concerts under his belt, Swezey decided that the next big Desolation Center concert would be at an opposite location: on the water. The Joy at Sea concert was held in the San Pedro Harbor in California, on June 15, 1984. The headliners were San Pedro hometown band Minutemen and Arizona-based band Meat Puppets. Meat Puppets bass player Cris Kirkwood says of the experience: “It was one  of the highlights of my musical career in a lot of ways—just magical as crap.”

Then, it was back to the California desert. Gila Monster Jamboree was Desolation Center’s biggest event yet, and is probably considered the most important one for Desolation Center. Taking place on January 5, 1985, the bill included Sonic Youth (in the New York City band’s West Coast debut), Meat Puppets, Redd Kross and Psi Com, which was Farrell’s band before he formed Jane’s Addiction.

In the documentary, Farrell admits that Psi Com got the gig because he was Swezey’s roommate at the time. “It was really cool, so I thank you for that,” Farrell says. Meat Puppets frontman Curt Kirkwood remembers that everybody at the concert seemed to be in a good mood because most people were flying high on LSD. Montgomery, one of the fans at the concert, says: “There were very few people who weren’t tripping.”

Unlike previous Desolation Center concerts in the desert, where the concertgoers could only get there by Desolation Center’s provided buses, Gila Monster Jamboree gave concertgoers the option to take their own transportation to the concert site, although bus transportation was still provided for those who wanted it. There were was still none of the commercial trappings (merchandise booths and food vendors), sanitary facilities, or safety precautions that are presumed for today’s music festivals. Because, just like other Desolation Center concerts, the promoters didn’t have a permit to hold the event.

Steve and Jeff McDonald, the brothers who co-founded Redd Kross, remember the nerve-racking experience of having a driver who got lost for hours, making the band very late for the concert. Redd Kross was the first “glam rock” band to perform at a Desolation Center festival. And ironically, the band was so late, the members of Redd Kross didn’t have time to change into their glammed-up stage clothes and instead performed in jeans and sweatpants, which was outside their comfort zone for their stage wardrobe.

Desolation Center’s permit-avoiding ways eventually caught up to the team, which was fined $400 for the Gila Monster Jamboree show. Swezey says that $400 was a lot of money to them at the time. So, in true D.I.Y. fashion, Desolation Center held a Trespass Benefit show to raise funds to pay off the fine. Minutemen and Nip Drivers performed at the fundraising concert, which was held at the Anti Club on Augusts 4, 1985.

Desolation Center’s last big hurrah was the Solstice concert on December 21, 1985. Sonic Youth and Swans topped the bill for the show, which had the unusual distinction of being partially funded by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). Swezey says that a friend who received NEA grant money approached him to do the show.

But tragedy struck on December 22, 1985, when Minutemen lead singer D. Boone was killed in a car accident that injured his fiancée Kite and permanently disabled Kite’s sister. It was an end of an era. Swezey says in the documentary that Boone’s death and the stricter laws being enforced for concert promotion led to the decision to say goodbye to Desolation Center and move on to other things. Swezey then founded Amok Books, an alternative publishing company.

“Desolation Center” isn’t just for people who remember what it was like to be a fan of alternative music in the early ’80s. It’s the type of documentary that people of many generations can enjoy if they like the bands in the film and if they want to get a meaningful historical time capsule of a specific subculture of the Los Angeles music scene in the early-to-mid-1980s.

It might also make people wistful for a bygone era when people went to concerts and festivals and lived in the moment, instead of worrying about how things were going to look on social media. Remarkably, no one was killed or maimed at a Desolation Center concert, which is in stark contrast to all the concerts that have happened since the ’80s that have experienced mass shootings, bombings and other weapons of war against innocent concertgoers.

Desolation Center wasn’t exactly about “peace and love” all the time, but one of its greatest legacies that’s been largely abandoned by most big concert promoters is that the shows embraced people from all sorts of backgrounds, by not excluding people through ticket prices that are too high for certain people’s budgets. Those days might be long gone for music festivals, but this documentary is a significant reminder of how it was possible back in the ’80s and how well it worked.

Passion River Films released “Desolation Center” on digital, VOD and DVD on June 23, 2020.

Review: ‘Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert,’ starring Paul Tollett, Raymond Roker, Dani Lindstrom, Stacey Vee, Perry Farrell, Ice Cube and Diplo

April 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Beyoncé in “Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert” (Photo courtesy of YouTube Originals)

“Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert” 

Directed by Chris Perkel

Culture Representation: This official documentary about the first 20 years of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival (an annual event in Indio, California) includes interviews with a racially diverse group of Coachella employees, artists and other associates.

Culture Clash: Coachella was a money-losing festival in its first few years and has grown into a major money-making event in pop culture, even though some critics believe Coachella has become too trendy and high-priced.

Culture Audience: “Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert” will primarily appeal to music fans and people who want to learn more about Goldenvoice, the concert-promotion company behind Coachella.

The hologram of Tupac Shakur in “Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert” (Photo courtesy of YouTube Originals)

If you’re looking for shocking behind-the-scenes stories in the documentary “Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert,” then you’ll probably be disappointed. But this feel-good movie, directed by Chris Perkel, is a traditionally made chronicle of one the world’s most famous music festivals. The reason for this family-friendly portrayal of Coachella’s history (besides the fact that it’s available for free viewing on YouTube) is because Goldenvoice, the Los Angeles concert-promotion company behind Coachella, is one of the production companies that made this movie. In other words, this is not really an investigative documentary as much as it is a feature-length promotional video for Coachella.

Although some people in the movie talk about the festival’s early problems, there is absolutely no criticism of Coachella. Pretty much everyone who’s interviewed in the film gives praise to Coachella is some way. The movie’s biggest strengths are the musical performances that are in the film, as well as some interesting tidbits of information that aren’t very surprising, since most of the information in the movie has already been revealed in previous media coverage of Coachella.

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, like most pop-culture phenomena, didn’t start out as something that people immediately thought would be a hit. The festival was launched in 1999, the same year that large-scale music festivals got a very bad name because of the disastrous Woodstock ’99 Festival, which ended with riots, arson, assaults and thefts. The first Coachella, which took place in October 1999, was announced the Monday after Woodstock ’99 (which took place in August in upstate New York) got a lot of backlash for ending in such a catastrophe. And the site for Coachella was an unorthodox risk—the Empire Polo Club in the desert city of Indio, California, which is about 128 miles east of Los Angeles.

According to Goldenvoice president/Coachella co-founder Paul Tollett (the person with the most screen time in the movie), Coachella had two things going for it that most other large-scale music festivals did not: The promise of a laid-back California vibe and California’s sunny weather, which made the chances very slim that Coachella would be plagued by the kind of rain that often wreaks havoc on festivals that are east of California.

Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) founder Pasquale Rotella, who says his business models for EDC and his other festivals were heavily influenced by Coachella, had this to say: “Some people who see Coachella now think, ‘Oh, that’s a no-brainer.’ Coachella is beautiful now [but] it was difficult. It took the concert promoter Goldenvoice several years to make it happen. And if it wasn’t for Goldenvoice’s roots, I don’t think Coachella would be what it is today.

“Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert” is divided into five chapters, with two chapters focused on specific music genres: “Chapter One: Origins,” “Chapter Two: The Early Years”; “Chapter Three: The Rise of Robots” (focusing on electronic dance music); “Chapter Four: The New Beats” (focusing on hip-hop); and “Chapter Five: The Next Generation.”

“Chapter One: Origins” has the history of the early years of Goldenvoice, which Gary Tovar launched in 1981 as an independent concert-promotion company whose specialty was booking punk and alternative rock bands at small venues in the Los Angeles area. Tovar says in the documentary: “When I started doing concerts, the punk rock that I did was too wild for some people.” Slamdancing and violence were very common at these shows, so many venues were reluctant to have shows that Goldenvoice was promoting.

By the mid-1980s, Goldenvoice’s influence grew to booking larger venues and helped launch the careers of acts such as Jane’s Addiction, Fishbone and Red Hot Chili Peppers. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, many of those acts had outgrown Goldenvoice, which was still mainly booking nightclubs and small theaters. But the relationships that Goldenvoice had with these artists were the foundation of what would become Coachella.

Tollett got his start booking ska shows in Pomona, California, in the mid-1980s. When he first met Goldenvoice’s Tovar, he thought Tovar would be an unfriendly rival, but “We hit it off instantly,” Tollett remembers. Later, “He gave me a box of flyers to pass out, and that was the first day that I worked at Goldenvoice.”

Dani Lindstrom, a longtime Goldenvoice employee, remembers that back in the late 1980s, the Goldenvoice office, which was located at the time above The Palladium, was “basically about five people booking shows.” Tollett adds that in the early 1990s, it looked like Goldenvoice was doing well, but the reality was that company was struggling financially.

And then, Goldenvoice experienced a major blow when Tovar was busted for what he describes in the documentary as his “side business”—smuggling and selling marijuana. In 1991, he was arrested and later sentenced to seven years in prison. The scandal effectively ended Tovar’s career as a concert promoter, but he refused to let Goldenvoice go bankrupt while he was in prison. Tovar sold the company to Goldenvoice employees Tollett and Rick Van Santen, who became presidents of the company.

The documentary names two events that also planted the seeds of Coachella. First, during Pearl Jam’s feud with Ticketmaster in 1993, the band was looking to do a gig in Southern California at a venue that wasn’t associated with Ticketmaster. Goldenvoice stepped in and booked Pearl Jam at the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio. The concert was a sold-out success (25,000 people attended), and it put the concert industry on notice that a show of this size could be done without Ticketmaster.

The other important event that helped give birth to Coachella was Goldenvoice’s involvement in the Organic Festival for rave music. After bands like Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine became too big to book for Goldenvoice in the 1990s, Tollett says that the company began to focus more on booking rave acts. The concept of Coachella was for it to be a combination of a big rock festival and a rave party.

Moby, one of the performers at the first Coachella, says that he was one of the people who thought that bringing a “European-style festival to the U.S.” was an interesting idea, but at the time, he wasn’t sure if it was going to work in the California desert. Meanwhile, sound engineer Dave Rat of Rat Sound admits that he was one of many people who thought even the name Coachella was a bad idea at the time.

The documentary portrays Coachella as a groundbreaking large-scale U.S. music and arts festival for alternative rock and other artists whose careers were helped by college radio, but the movie doesn’t properly acknowledge that Lollapalooza had the same concept and did it years before Coachella existed. Lollapolooza was a touring festival that began in 1991 and continued to 1997, and was resurrected in 2003. Lollapalooza was then revived in 2005 as a non-touring festival, with the U.S. edition taking place in Chicago. It’s obvious from the timeline of when Lollapalooza was on hiatus that Coachella was created to fill the void left by Lollapaolooza.

Jane’s Addiction lead singer Perry Farrell, who co-founded Lollapalooza and performed as a solo artist at the first Coachella, is interviewed in the documentary. As influential as Lollapalooza was in the 1990s, even Farrell acknowledges that Coachella has a much higher profile in the consciousness of the media and pop culture: “You’re going to be judged, man, when you hit the Coachella stage, and it’s going to be talked about for the rest of the year.”

“Chapter Two: The Early Years” is one of the more fascinating parts of the documentary because it covers the years that didn’t get the level of media attention that Coachella does now. The headliners at the first Coachella Festival (which was only a two-day event back then) included Beck, Morrissey (footage of his performance is in the documentary), Rage Against the Machine, the Chemical Brothers, Tool, Farrell and Ben Harper.

Tollett says that Coachella was such a financial disaster in its first year (he estimates the festival lost between $850,000 to $1 million) that he had his bank card taken away and “I got kicked out of a bank.” He adds that Coachella was able to continue because of Goldenvoice’s good relationships with people in the music industry. “The only reason why we were able to keep going was because we had a good reputation,” he says, adding that people such as Lollapalooza co-founders Don Muller and Marc Geiger lent money to Goldenvoice.

The financial losses of the first Coachella caused the festival to go on hiatus in 2000. But then, the financial fortunes of Goldenvoice changed in 2001, when the company was bought by AEG Live (now called AEG Presents) for about $7 million. Goldenvoice then became part of the AEG subsidiary Concerts West, with Tollett and Van Santen retaining their presidential roles at Goldenvoice. AEG had recently constructed the Staples Center arena and wanted to have a major festival as part of its portfolio, so the company gave the go-ahead for Goldenvoice to revive Coachella. And the rest is history.

The documentary then goes over some of the biggest highlights in those early Coachella years. In 2001, there was the reunion of Jane’s Addiction, which Tollett says largely happened because Van Santen convinced the band to get back together. But the festival had a serious garbage-disposal problem that year because, as Tollett says, they didn’t have enough trash cans on the site.

However, the reunion of Jane’s Addiction at Coachella set a precedent for Coachella being a leading festival for bands to stage reunions. Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA says in the documentary that seeing Rage Against the Machine’s 2007 reunion performance at Coachella was when he knew that Wu-Tang Clan would eventually do a reunion show at Coachella, which happened in 2013. Other artists who have done reunion performances at Coachella include N.W.A., Pixies, Guns N’Roses and OutKast.

Coachella in 2002 was “the first year we didn’t make a mistake,” Tollett says. That year, Björk became the first female artist to headline at Coachella. Goldenvoice employee Stacey Vee remembers that the early 2000s were a great time for alternative rock bands, and that only helped Coachella. The documentary includes footage of 2003 headliners the White Stripes.

The year 2004 was the first time that Coachella made a profit, according to Tollett. Radiohead, Pixies and Kraftwerk were among the headliners. In 2005, there was another big alt-rock reunion: Bauhaus, which included lead singer Peter Murphy entering the stage hanging upside down like a bat for the song “Bela Legosi’s Dead.” The movie has footage of this performance. The documentary includes interviews with Bauhaus members Murphy (in an audio interview), Daniel Ash and David J, who remembers that Bauhaus wanted to release live bats during the band’s performance but couldn’t because it was illegal.

It was in the mid-2000s that Coachella became a very hot ticket. Coachella culinary director Nic Adler remembers in the first few years of Coachella, Goldenvoice was literally giving away tickets to him and his co-workers to attend. By the sixth or seventh year of Coachella, he says, those free tickets stopped. “There was that switch in the festival where you literally saw it was something you had to do, something you had to be at,” Adler comments.

Coachella in 2006 was most memorable for Madonna’s performance, which was booked on such relatively short notice that she couldn’t perform on the already-booked main stage. Instead, she performed in the tent for electronic dance music (EDM) artists. The documentary includes footage of Madonna performing “Hung Up” in the tent. Madonna was the first superstar to perform at Coachella, according to Goldenvoice’s Raymond Roker, the former editor-in-chief/publisher of URB magazine.

However, Madonna at Coachella didn’t happen without some criticism, as some of Coachella’s early fans thought that the festival wasn’t supposed to be for major pop acts. But at this point, so many Hollywood celebrities were flocking to Coachella, that it was inevitable that the festival would start having artists with more mainstream appeal. The documentary has some backstage footage from the 2007 Coachella that briefly shows actor Danny DeVito posing for a picture with singer Amy Winehouse—that pretty much says it all. Hollywood actress Rosanna Arquette, who did backstage interviews for Coachella for several years, says in the documentary: “It was the most favorite job I’ve ever had in my life.”

“Chapter Three: The Rise of Robots” covers the importance of Coachella to EDM acts. While many festivals in the 2000s were afraid to have a rave-style atmosphere, Coachella embraced it and helped boost the careers of many EDM acts. Coachella also helped usher in the era of DJs and other EDM artists staging big productions for their shows, with elaborate lighting and stunning visuals.

Two EDM performances at Coachella are singled out as major milestones: Daft Punk in 2006 (when the group performed a very “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”-inspired outer-space-themed set) and Tiësto in 2010, when he became the first EDM artist to perform on Coachella’s main stage. Steve Aoki raves about Daft Punk’s 2006 Coachella performance: “It changed people’s lives, including mine, forever.” Jason Bentley adds, “Nothing was the same after that performance.”

This chapter also mentions that Coachella influenced how EDM acts began to have more high-tech productions. Paul van Dyk says, “I’m not scared of technology. It’s something I use as a tool.” Tiësto says that the rise of EDM also coincided with the rise of social media: “Social media made a big difference. As soon as Facebook and Instagram blew up, EDM blew up. For years [EDM music] was held down by the people who controlled the [mainstream] media.”

But EDM at Coachella isn’t just about elaborate light shows or movie-quality images on big screens. Also included in this chapter are commentaries from actor Idris Elba (who moonlights as a DJ) and Nina Kraviz, who praise the low-tech vibe of Coachella’s Yuma Stage, which doesn’t have any big screens. Meanwhile, Diplo says that even though headlining sets happen at night, “Sunset is the best time to play Coachella.”

“Chapter Four: The New Beats” covers the evolution of rap and hip-hop at Coachella. Goldenvoice’s Roker notes that in Coachella’s early years, the rap acts booked at the festival tended to be those that were played on college radio and had a largely white fan base. (Jurassic 5 is named as one example.) Roker says, “It took a while for the culture to merge.”

Coachella went from booking mostly independent rap acts to acts that had major crossover success on the pop charts. Kanye West (who showed up 20 minutes late for his first Coachella performance in 2006) is cited as one of the first major crossover rap acts to perform at Coachella. Jay-Z had the biggest breakthrough as the first rap act to headline at Coachella, which he did in 2010.

According to Tollett, Jay-Z was selected for the headlining spot after Goldenvoice promoters saw him perform as a replacement for headliner the Beastie Boys at the 2009 All Points West Festival, which was also a Goldenvoice show. When Jay-Z opened the show with the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” (a rap song with a rock beat), the people at Goldenvoice knew that he could do a show that could appeal to Coachella’s audience, which consisted of mostly rock fans at the time.

As the 2010s became the decade that rap and hip-hop began to have more of a presence at Coachella, so too did social media. It was in this decade that Instagram became the main social-media platform for Coachella attendees to document their experiences and fashion choices. In 2011, YouTube began livestreaming Coachella for the first time.

By 2012, Coachella had become so popular (with the event usually selling out the first day it went on sale) that Goldenvoice did something that was truly groundbreaking at the time: Coachella was extended for a second weekend, with the same acts performing in the same time slots for each weekend. Tollett says that there were many naysayers to this idea at the time, but it turned out to be a major success and catapulted Coachella to become the world’s top-grossing festival, in terms of ticket sales. Although attendance numbers and ticket sales were not mentioned in the documentary, in 2017 (the last year that Coachella publicly reported this information), Coachella was attended by 250,000 people and grossed $114.6 million.

The year 2012 was also a milestone year for Coachella because it featured what Tollett calls “The single most popular thing that ever happened at Coachella.” During Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s performance at Coachella’s first weekend, a surprise hologram of the late Tupac Shakur appeared on stage and performed. The hologram made news worldwide and became a massive sensation on the Internet.

Dylan Brown, who created the hologram, explains in the documentary how precise the movements had to be, even down to raising an eyebrow on the hologram. “We just wanted to do it right. We wanted to be respectful to the [Shakur] family and to the fans.”

Roker adds that after this groundbreaking hologram performance, “The genie was never going back in the bottle. It established the show as part of popular culture.” Ice Cube, who was a peer of Shakur’s in the vital 1990s West Coast rap scene, comments on the Coachella hologram: “I was happy for [Dr. Dre] and happy for Tupac being able to be on stage.”

“Chapter Five: The Next Generation” covers how Coachella has evolved to stay relevant to the mostly young people who flock to the event. Gone are the days when alt-rock artists were the majority of the headliners. Coachella is now more diverse than ever before, with pop, hip-hop, Latino and Asian artists becoming more prevalent at Coachella, compared to the festival’s early years. Some of the artists highlighted via performance clips in this chapter include Ariana Grande, Travis Scott, Rosalía and Blackpink.

Roker comments on Coachella changing to fit trends in music: “That’s been the hardest pill to swallow for some of the older fans.” He notes that many of Coachella’s youngest stars share some common characteristics: “They’re coming with fashion, wealth, bravado and carefree aggression.”

As for the definitive Coachella performance in the late 2010s, people interviewed in the documentary mention Beyoncé’s show-stopping 2018 Coachella extravaganza, which was made into the 2019 Netflix documentary “Homecoming:  A Film by Beyoncé.” (She was also the first black woman to headline at Coachella.) Beyoncé’s performance was such a media sensation that fans affectionately renamed Coachella 2018 as “Beychella.”

Roker says of Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella performance: “She was a woman on a mission. She came there with a script. The performance was a State of the Union for her, and she was going to deliver it.”

And the high profile of a Coachella performance means that artists often feel the need to surpass each other with elaborate productions. The documentary mentions Kanye West’s 2019 Sunday Service performance at Coachella (with hundreds of choir singers and dancers) as one of those over-the-top productions. Goldenvoice literally built a mountain on the field at his request, since a stage was too small for what West had in mind. Goldenvoice producer Jason Brown says that hundreds of trucks were needed to bring in all the dirt and grass to construct the mountain.

Coachella’s increasing diversity and its ability to evolve with the times (instead of sticking to the same musical formula from the festival’s early years) is ultimately one of the reasons why it will continue to thrive, according to artists interviewed in the documentary. Beck, one of the performers at the first Coachella, says about the festival: “If I’m in town, I usually go as a fan. It’s everything that’s happening in music at the moment.” Shepard Fairey adds that the musical variety of Coachella is its biggest draw: “It’s not one cohesive genre. It’s just more cohesive in the idea that ‘good is good.'”

And although headliners get the majority of the media attention at Coachella, most of the music fans at the festival are also there to discover new music or see lesser-known artists they wouldn’t normally see at a regular concert. Diplo, who’s performed at Coachella several times, comments on Coachella expanding beyond the festival’s original template of rock, EDM and some hip-hop: “It’s always been a festival for discovery anyway, so we’re reaching sort of a global cusp. Every year is a metamorphosis.”

“Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert” does a great job of covering the festival’s variety of music, and the concert footage is well-edited with very good sound mixing. (Try to watch this movie on the biggest screen possible.) But what’s missing from the documentary is any coverage of the “arts” at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. There have been many amazing art installations at Coachella over the years, so it would have made the documentary truly comprehensive if a little bit of time had been devoted to including a behind-the-scenes look at the festival’s art.

And curiously, the documentary doesn’t mention that Coachella co-founder Van Santen died in 2003, until a brief obituary dedication that’s flashed at the very end (“Rick Van Santen, 1961-2003”). In the documentary, the Goldenvoice people don’t talk about how Van Santen’s death (he passed away from flu complications) affected them and Coachella. Maybe it was too much of a downer for this documentary, which clearly wants to present only a positive and upbeat side to Coachella.

Since this is a Goldenvoice-produced documentary, it comes as no surprise that there’s also no mention about Coachella’s controversies, such as complaints of overcrowding and sexual harassment of attendees. Despite Coachella’s ongoing problems that this documentary doesn’t really want to address, the festival has undoubtedly become a major part of pop culture.

As pop star Billie Eilish says in the beginning of the documentary: “Everybody knows what Coachella is. If you don’t care about music, you know [about Coachella].”  Goldenvoice’s Roker has this conclusion about Coachella’s evolution: “The fact that it represents a fuller picture of culture, that’s the bottom line.”

YouTube Originals premiered “Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert” on April 10, 2020.

 

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