On This Day (April 6)…California Jammin’

It wasn’t quite Woodstock, but it was up there.

Debra Dorst-Porada about California Jam. Retrieved from here.

Rare Earth, Earth, Wind & Fire, Eagles, Seals and Crofts, Black Oak Arkansas, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer performed on this day in 1974 at the Ontario Motor Speedway in Ontario, California. The event was known as the California Jam.

Poster for the show. Retrieved from here.

California Jam was the first major rock festival held in California since the infamous Altamont Free Concert. This army of talent was brought together by, of all things, a TV network. ABC TV brought in producer Don E. Branker, who partnered with Lenny Stogel and Sandy Feldman to create a major rock festival. By their recollections, they tricked skittish local authorities who still remembered Altamont:

We went out to Ontario, and we told them that we wanted to put on a music show. The truth of the matter is that we didn’t say the word ‘festival’, since that was a dirty word after Altamont and Woodstock. And we told them that we wanted to put on acts like the Jackson 5 and the Osmonds, and that it would only be that kinda show. …We then went back three weeks later and told them, ‘Well, we couldn’t get those acts, but we have got Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Emerson Lake & Palmer’.

Don E. Branker about the method which the promoters undertook to get the festival approved. Retrieved from here.

According to Greg Lake, ELP was added at the last minute to boost ticket sales. Apparently, 250,000 tickets were sold, but Glenn Hughes of Deep Purple figured there were at least 350,000 people there. Lake himself figured there were more like half a million attendees.

On the day of the show, the promoters did their best to keep the acts moving quickly to keep the crowds satisfied. Rare Earth, the opening act, apparently came onstage a full fifteen minutes early! Throughout the rest of the day, the acts were ferried in and out with about ten minutes between performances, thanks to parts of the stage being mounted on railway tracks for ease of transition.

The best laid plans come apart at the seams, however, and this was no exception.

English acts are very competitive.

Don E Branker referencing the final acts. Retrieved from here.

Deep Purple Burn The House Down

Different stories have emerged over the years about the final bands and the way which their lineup was determined. Ritchie Blackmore alleges that there was a written agreement for Deep Purple to go on at dusk, something I have been able to find no factual proof for. Greg Lake, meanwhile, theorized that there was no set order for the bands until the day of, and that management just determined the order at the last minute. Other sources suggest that it was the two hard rock bands which were in some sort of rivalry; with Black Sabbath having performed an excellent concert, their following act may have been afraid of being upstaged.

Either way, the trouble began when, with the skies still light and one band left to go, Deep Purple took the stage. They already had to be forced onstage by promoters after attempting to delay when they finally began performing.

Deep Purple / Burn / 1974 California Jam - YouTube
Ian Paice and Glenn Hughes onstage with Deep Purple. Thumbnail image for this video.

Deep Purple was at the time still adjusting to their newest lineup. This lineup composed of founding members Ritchie Blackmore, Jon Lord and Ian Paice joined by new singer David Coverdale and new bassist Glenn Hughes. The duo was the third singer-bassist that the band had seen, despite 1974 only being the sixth year of Deep Purple’s overall existence! The band performed five songs written by the current lineup, as well as “The Mule”, “Space Trucking'”, and “Smoke on the Water” from the Mark II lineup.

Unfortunately, the quality of music was not the only high water mark of the night. Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore was already known for being an incredibly destructive individual onstage and offstage, pulling all manner of pranks and causing all manner of damage over the years. However, even he was never able to outdo what he did at the end of his setlist. Besides destroying a guitar, Blackmore also rammed it into one of the lenses of the cameras onstage. To top all of this off, one of his amps exploded; it’s unclear whether that was part of his appetite for destruction or simply an accident! Either way, it sent stage hands running. Blackmore himself was apparently burned in the conflagration.

The best part of this video is the fact that Ian Paice doesn’t even miss a beat despite an explosion six feet away from his face.

The band made a run for it after this improvised pyrotechnics show, escaping in a helicopter–but they weren’t able to escape the fees which came with the destruction they wreaked!

ELP Continue the Show (That Never Ends)

ELP thus had the unenviable task of playing after the explosion, with a set of cameras diminished by one to an audience both in person and on TV that had just seen one hell of a show. They took the stage late after a day of smooth running, and by most accounts proceeded to provide one of the best shows they ever did. Given the sheer amount of incredible shows the band provided over the years, this is really saying something.

Come and see the show indeed.

The band were at the time on their legendary Brain Salad Surgery Tour, the apex of the group’s showmanship; the group pulled out all stops for this performance, including using their full touring sound system on a delay half a mile away. Onstage, Keith Emerson’s spinning piano and Carl Palmer’s rotating drum kit made their appearances as well.

It appears that the group played their full setlist from the tour–which included the entire Brain Salad Surgery, as well as other prog epics “Tarkus” and an abridged “Pictures at an Exhibition”. Also included was “Hoedown” and “Take A Pebble”, the latter also including a ballad spot for Greg Lake and another improv solo spot for Keith Emerson. Carl Palmer got his solo in during the first impression of Karn Evil 9.

“Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends!” Greg Lake onstage at California Jam. Retrieved from this video.

Overall, the concert was a smash hit, selling the most tickets to date, producing a great deal of musical material, and going off with relatively few hitches. With the exception of a broken camera and a burned guitarist, in fact, there were very few injuries and very little destruction. If you’re interested in learning more about the festival, there is a Facebook group about it which can be found here.

There was even a followup concert, California Jam II, in March of 1978. By that point, however, two of the three final acts were either on hiatus or heading there. Deep Purple had called it quits in 1976 after a decline in quality of their shows. Mere days prior to the festival, ELP had also performed their final concert of the 70s, though they still had one album left in them before formally disbanding for the time being.

Postscript: Deep Purple and ELP

This was not the first nor the last time that Deep Purple and members of ELP had some form of crossover. In 1970, Deep Purple and the Nice found themselves on the same bill. At the end of Purple’s set, Keith Emerson joined the quintet for a jam onstage. Members of Deep Purple reportedly returned the favor! Meanwhile, in 1988, drummer Ian Paice worked with Emerson on the latter’s Christmas album.

Retrieved from here.

Finally, the bands would coheadline again in 1998, where they were joined by Dream Theater. The band’s makeup had changed again by this point; it now featured Ian Gillan and Roger Glover back in their roles as singer and bassist. Purple’s guitarist had also changed, to the far less destructive guitarist Steve Morse. The eight musicians headlined not just a single festival, but a tour which lasted throughout the month of August. This would turn out to be ELP’s final tour as a trio. By all accounts, the bands got along much better this time around, with no pyrotechnics, conflagrations, or attempts at upstaging!

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  • Edit on 2020-08-02: Grammar fixes. Optimized for new site.

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