Picture this: You’re behind the steering wheel of a rusted out van. Beneath you, the tires roll and bump over the uneven desert ground. The cool evening wind whips through your open windows, and bits of sand and grit slip into your hair. Above you, a full moon spills onto the desert vista. Far away, in the distance, you see it: a few spotlights creating a light-drenched oasis. Even from here, you can feel the pulsing bass and the roar of a guitar.
You’ve nearly arrived at a generator party.
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, these generator parties were critical to the Palm Desert scene. Without them, we may not have legendary acts like Yawning Man or Kyuss. Without them, we may not have Desert Rock—or Stoner Rock.
The History of Generator Parties
This video from YouTube user bloodySunday77 is a rare glimpse at what it was like to actually attend a generator party.
To understand generator parties, we should first discuss the Palm Desert music scene.
Palm Desert is nestled in the Coachella Valley (yes, the one with the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival), about two hours east of Los Angeles and two hours northeast of San Diego and Mexico.
Two hours away meant Palm Desert was just far enough to make heading to a major city an inconvenience.
For the young kids searching for identity and just discovering Punk music, the desert was the next best thing. The desert was freedom. Cops were likely to break up house parties where bands would sometimes play, so the open air and isolation of the desert promised uninterrupted playtime. If the cops did arrive, attendees would avoid handcuffs by scattering in every direction.
But without a wall outlet to plug into, the musicians had to find alternative means to power their equipment. Soon, bands were hulling instruments, amps, and generators over the sandy plains.
Although freedom was inherent in these desert performances, a sort of democracy pushed the artistic talent forward. “There’s no clubs here, so you can only play for free,” former Kyuss guitarist (and Queens of the Stone Age frontman) Josh Homme is often quoted as saying. “If people don’t like you, they’ll tell you. You can’t suck.”
Creating History in the Desert
While the desert and generator parties pushed bands to hone their skills, it also helped shape the sound. Bands like Kyuss proclaimed to be rooted in Punk, but the desert helped to strip that away.
The rumbling guitar tones in “Thumb” (the opener for Blues for Red Sun) waiver like the hot, swirling air radiating from the desert road. In an unforgiving ecosystem where food and water are often scarce, one can’t thrive unless they develop a hard exterior. Kyuss developed a sound that embodied that rugged durability perfectly.
While the desert (and likely alcohol and an assortment of hard drugs) pushed Kyuss to be heavy, it guided Stoner Rock pioneers Yawning Man in creating something entirely mystical and psychedelic. Kyuss was rough around the edges, but Yawning Man’s sound invites you in, welcoming you into ethereal journeys lasting five, six, or seven minutes.
Regardless of who was performing, the generator parties drew crowds. Drugs and alcohol were common, but so was dancing and barbecues. Sometimes there were a dozen people standing about, and sometimes there were hundreds pressed against the performers.
Like many movements, the generator parties eventually slowed. By the mid-90s, most of the kids and young adults who had joined the crowds moved on. The generator parties were over.
But they weren’t forgotten. Today, Palm Desert is frequently listed among the top Rock ‘n’ Roll cities in America. Much of that is thanks to the generator-hauling pioneers of the ‘80s and ‘90s.