THE BOOTLEG FILES: “CALIFORNIA JAM”

On April 6, 1974, some 200,000 music fanatics gathered at the Ontario Motor Speedway to witness California Jam, an all-day/all-star rock concert designed as a West Coast answer to Woodstock. But unlike Woodstock and the other major rock events of that era, California Jam was not the subject of a motion picture documentary. However, video cameras were on hand to capture the event for presentation on ABC.

The made-for-television “California Jam” was a curious offering. Rather than show “California Jam” as a single broadcast event, ABC spread it out across four nights. Even with this elongated scheduling stretch, audiences did not get to see the entire 12-hour event. Instead, “California Jam” was a truncated version of the actual concert, with all of the acts limited to just one song (except for Seals & Crofts, oddly enough, who were given the opportunity for two songs).

Whatever kinetic energy which the live event possessed was barely found in the ABC production, but this cannot be blamed entirely on the network. The Eagles (who received the loudest audience response upon taking the stage) turned in a deadly dull rendition of “Take it Easy” while Black Oak Arkansas created the single worst cover of “Jim Dandy” ever screeched into a microphone. Seals & Crofts, as mentioned before, had two appearances in the show and were thus twice as boring as the rest of the line-up.

But when “California Jam” clicked, the fun was infectious. Deep Purple’s fiery twilight performance was capped with Ritchie Blackmore setting his guitar and amplifier ablaze, raising balls of flame into the night sky. Keith Emerson stole the Emerson, Lake and Palmer show by riding a piano into the air; instrument and musician began spinning from the suspended wires high above the ground and Emerson did not miss a note during this wild gyration. Earth, Wind and Fire (the only non-white performers on the bill) created their trademark joyful soul music, and they were so caught up in the moment they literally danced off the stage.

If “California Jam” had a star, however, it would be Black Sabbath. The production followed the group’s arrival by helicopter to the speedway, its journey to the stage by limousine, and even snagged a back stage interview with Ozzy Osbourne. If you only know Osbourne as the trembling, mumbling old mess from that MTV series, “California Jam” is the rare opportunity to see a young, cute (yes, cute!) Osbourne speaking in complete and coherent sentences.

Throughout “California Jam,” roving commentators prowled the speedway to give a sense of the story behind the scenes and in the audience. One reporter (she is not identified in the credits and I did not recognize her) collared a 13 year old attendee and pointedly asked him: “Does your mom know you’re here?” (His mom did, by the way.) Acerbic radio DJ Don Imus was also on hand to interview the local police chief and the head of concert security. Imus, who was never one to suffer fools lightly, curiously played the interviews with total respect for badge-and-handcuff authority — perhaps he was afraid the burly law and order guys would haul him away if he reeled off his distinct brand of rude questions.

“California Jam” was broadcast in May and June of 1974. It was not rebroadcast, and after the show won an Emmy Award for Best Sound it was never mentioned on the air again. In fact, “California Jam” would’ve vanished completely from memory had it not been for the indefatigable work of a single fan who’s been on a mission to save the event from total obscurity.

Scott Lifshine was a teenager in Coney Island when ABC played “California Jam.” The show was simultaneously broadcast on radio and Lifshine captured the simulcast on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. As far as anyone can determine, Lifshine possesses the only soundtrack of the California Jam concert (no official album was ever recorded). For the past several years, Lifshine has worked to unearth as much of “California Jam” as he can. To date, this has included rare videos (no mean feat, considering 1974 was long before the home video market took off) and the 200 page ABC scriptbook. Lifshine, who currently works as a filmmaker and music promoter, also maintains a web site (www.californiajam.com) to keep the story alive.

But where is the ABC production? According to Lifshine: “The story is that ABC-TV destroyed the original two-inch masters, along with shows like ABC’s ‘Wide World of Sports,’ when Disney took over the firm.”

Lifshine also acknowledges that even if the video masters should surface, problems with clearing the “California Jam” music rights would be intense. Lifshine learned this first hand when he attempted to donate a CD of his reel-to-reel copy of the radio simulcast and the video he possessed to the Ontario Museum of History and Art. The museum was initially pleased with the donation, but the institution later returned the material to Lifshine when it was determined that ABC still controlled the rights to “California Jam.” Lifshine noted the irony of the situation: “I have the soundtrack materials but ABC-TV has the rights with no materials,” he says.

As of this writing, “California Jam” remains an elusive entity. A bootleg of the ABC presentation is floating around, albeit with a somewhat iffy visual quality (the soundtrack is, mercifully, still strong). Bits and pieces of the event can also be located. A DVD of Deep Purple’s entire seven-song set from the concert is in release and can be found on eBay. Bootlegs of the full Black Sabbath performance allegedly exists, too.

Sadly, it seems that it will be a very long time before “California Jam” ever re-emerges in an extant version. Lifshine is continuing to look for the title, but he acknowledges the frustration of his quest. “When I called ABC News Videosource, the befuddled clerk called me back after doing an exhaustive search,” he says. “The clerk told me they had never even heard of ‘California Jam’! Strange days, indeed.”

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on November 19, 2004 in Features by
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