In 1983, 20-year-old promoter Stuart Swezey was sick of his gigs getting shut down by Los Angeles cops. On a road trip across Mexico he had an epiphany: move them out to the desert. Under the name Desolation Center, he booked local post-punk bands Minutemen and Savage Republic, hired some school buses and drove people out to the uninhabited windswept landscape where the bands played on a dried up riverbed with socks over their microphones to keep sand out. The following year, the German industrial outfit Einstürzende Neubauten played in a more sheltered location in a canyon; there was also an explosive performance from Survival Research Laboratories who decided to make bombs and blow up the discarded fridges that had been fly-tipped there.
By 1985 Swezey had achieved all he set out to with these unique shows – attendees had described the intensity of the Neubauten performance as akin to a religious experience – but he decided to throw one last party with experimental guitar outfit Sonic Youth, the psych-punk band Meat Puppets, local glam-punkers Redd Kross and Psi Com (fronted by a pre-Jane’s Addiction Perry Farrell).
That date of 5 January was selected because it was the first full moon of the new year. About 300 people turned up in downtown LA, where they were given directions to the secret desert location or could hop on a school bus and be driven there.
“It was a desolate and really confusing location to get to,” remembers Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, “driving down all these barely existent dirt roads.” Support band Redd Kross got so lost that by the time they arrived they had to perform last.
“It was completely makeshift,” Ranaldo remembers of the set-up. “We were nestled in between some sort of rocky mountain walls and they just demarcated an area where the bands played. We stood right on the sand, kicking up dust storms as we played. There was no backstage. I don’t even remember there being toilets.” There was also no food, no bar, no merch stall, and people had to sign a liability disclaimer so that they wouldn’t sue the promoter if they got hurt. “It had an element of danger that normal events never have,” says Ranaldo.
Anticipation was high for the New York band who had never played a show on the west coast before. “We really didn’t know what it was going to turn into,” Ranaldo recalls. “We had no expectations of what was going to go down.”
It was dusk as Sonic Youth started, and Ranaldo felt a palpable intensity from the audience. “The crowd was completely absorbed by what we were doing,” he says. People gathered around the band in a circle, with everyone on the same level in the sand. “The exchange was really intimate. Plus, nobody had seen us play before and what we were doing at that time was pretty unique. A lot of people were kind of stunned by it, with us using screwdrivers to play and the strange tunings on our guitars.”
As the band hurtled through their set, with frenzied guitars buzzing, screeching and ricocheting off the mountainous backdrop, the audience became even more transfixed. It turns out someone had brought 500 hits of LSD – enough for everyone in attendance. “Aside from the four of us in Sonic Youth, everyone else was tripping,” says Ranaldo. “Everybody I’ve ever met who was at that concert was dosed.”
The combination was a potent one as the furious assault of tracks such as Death Valley 69 surged into the now pitch-black and icy-cool desert night. The band knew something special had happened. “There really was no show like that that we ever did again,” says Ranaldo. After Sonic Youth finished and the Meat Puppets came on, they asked for the lighting to be switched off and performed by moonlight as hundreds of revellers pulsed along to the music in hallucinogenic synchronicity.
There’s a long-lasting legacy to that night. A year later, in 1986, Burning Man started, with co-founder John Law citing the shows as an influence, and Perry Farrell was inspired enough to later found Lollapalooza. In 2018, Swezey made a documentary about it all, Desolation Center.
But, even though these events turned out to be a blueprint for other American festivals, Ranaldo says they connected on a deeper, more significant level. “This was much more of an art event,” he says. “It was completely guerrilla style. These days festivals are all so sanitised but this was an anything-goes situation. The legacy of that night is a bit like when people claim to have seen the Velvet Underground. It has that kind of legendary quality to it.”