Editor’s note: This is an edited excerpt from Star Tribune critic Chris Riemenschneider’s new book, “First Avenue: Minnesota’s Mainroom.” In 1979, the landmark club was at a crossroads. It had been part of a nationwide disco chain called Uncle Sam’s since 1972. The bar’s manager, Steve McClellan, had to convince owner Allan Fingerhut which way to go.
There are four nights in First Avenue history that stand above all the rest in capturing the club’s story.
The inaugural shows when Joe Cocker’s 27-member “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” band crammed onto the new stage in April 1970 was its momentous starting point. That sweltering August night in 1983 when Prince debuted and recorded his anthem “Purple Rain” there became the venue’s defining moment. Then there was the day the doors reopened after a 2004 bankruptcy battle, a crucial rebound that sparked 13 years of prosperity (and counting).
One more pivotal turning point came Nov. 28, 1979, when four black-leathered punk rockers from Queens broke through the flashy red-white-and-blue Uncle Sam’s sheen and destroyed the disco era at the club. Or at least their fans played a destructive role.
Legend has it that certain audience members made a point of busting up sections of the rainbow-lit, “Saturday Night Fever”-style plexiglass dance floor the night the Ramones made their debut at the old Minneapolis bus depot. If true, a Hollywood scriptwriter couldn’t have come up with better symbolism.
Musicians from some of Minneapolis’ most celebrated rock bands were in the rancorous crowd that night, including members of the newly formed Hüsker Dü. Billy Batson, frontman of that night’s opening band, the Hypstrz, has a vivid memory of the Hüsker dudes standing in front of the stage yelling at him, “Hey, you fat [expletives]! Get off the stage!”
Steve McClellan gave the coveted warmup slot to the ’60s-flavored garage-rockers because the Hypstrz had been brave enough to play his so-called “cameo sets.”
One of many P.T. Barnum-esque schemes McClellan came up with to achieve Uncle Sam’s survival beyond the disco era, these 10-minute mini-performances forced live rock ’n’ roll on the unsuspecting dance crowds. Bands would set up their gear behind the screen hanging in front of the stage. Then, without warning, the screen would be lifted to reveal a real live rock band.
“A lot of people would literally run for the doors,” Batson remembered.
Bob Mould figures he and his bandmates had another reason to be nuisances: “We were probably jealous we didn’t get the gig,” said the Hüsker Dü co-leader, who didn’t know the Hypstrz at the time but would later hire their singer as a tour sound man. “I’m lucky I don’t have a dent in my forehead from Batson’s mic stand that night.”
Batson, a future First Ave sound man, calls that show “a threshold moment for the club.” Mould pointed to the concert as “probably the first time a lot of us went into that place.” Everyone agrees the Ramones were downright devastating, playing a little over an hour at a crushing volume with new drummer Marky Ramone in tow.
Longtime house DJ Kevin Cole also considers the Ramones gig the big-bang moment for the club’s post-disco existence. “It meant a lot,” recalled Cole, one of the hip record-store clerks helping McClellan steer the club into its new incarnation. “To have them in our venue was remarkable, and it sold out! We were onto something.
“Back then there was very much an us-vs.-them mentality among the people who were into underground music. You couldn’t hear this music on the radio, couldn’t buy it in most record stores. It became part of our identity. [First Ave] became a place where I and the whole staff felt like we were making the world a better place. So when the Ramones played, I really thought we were changing the world.”
If nothing else, the gig marked a changing of the guard. Someone else was now running the club that would soon become First Avenue.
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Even though accountant Byron Frank would invest a lot of his own money into the club after he became its principal owner years later, in 1979 he advised Allan Fingerhut to wash his hands of the place.
Fingerhut had earned a steady income from Uncle Sam’s for almost seven years simply by letting Cincinnati-based disco club chain American Events use the lease and liquor license. When American Events pulled out in early 1979, the Fingerhut catalog heir faced the prospect of investing time and money into a venue with musty purple carpeting and a similarly faded reputation.
Not to mention, the economy was in a slump, and that part of downtown Minneapolis looked particularly grim. Future Lollapalooza co-founder Stuart Ross remembers coming to Uncle Sam’s as a tour manager with Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express in 1978 — one of McClellan’s first efforts as a rock booker — and being told not to wander far from the club for dinner.
“They were like, ‘Well, it’s getting kind of dark, so you don’t want to walk in this direction, or in that direction.’ ”
Beyond the grim economics, Fingerhut admitted, “I was burnt out on the club business and had moved on to other interests.” He had already opened his first art gallery in Edina, and the art business would be his primary focus for the next three decades.
Allan was still fond of the old depot, though. In particular, he was fond of the guy who had become the club’s primary caretaker. “I really liked Stephen [McClellan] and trusted him,” Fingerhut said. “I thought he knew what he was doing, and he made a good pitch.”
That pitch came in the spring or early summer of 1979. McClellan went over to the club owner’s new house overlooking Lake of the Isles. He proposed they convert the dying disco club to a more progressive live music venue, and made a promise to Fingerhut.
“We won’t ask you for any money, and we’ll continue to pay you out,” McClellan recalls saying. “We’ll take a half-cut in pay, and we’ll make it work.”
The “we” was McClellan and Jack Meyers. The former DeLaSalle schoolmates became roommates after the abrupt termination of Meyers’ service in the Air Force, when he failed to pass the stringent physical required to become a fighter pilot. “He was a broken man,” McClellan said.
Meyers started bartending at Uncle Sam’s to get by, but a bigger opportunity opened. As he remembers it: “One of the things American Events provided was the backroom accounting, all the numbers stuff. When they pulled out, Steve looked at me and said, ‘Aren’t you an accountant?’ I said, ‘No, I’m a math major.’ He said, ‘Close enough!’ ”
They operated in a sizable financial hole from the very beginning. “American Events knew they were going to close, so the last six weeks they didn’t pay any of the bills,” Meyers recalled. McClellan thinks the debt was around $60,000. True to his word, he and Meyers worked for peanuts to avoid a financial burden on the owner.
“I figure I was making less than the starting wage at the club,” McClellan said, “when you consider I was working at least 80 hours a week.”
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Despite proclamations of the death of disco at Uncle Sam’s, the end was more of a trickle than a crash.
The club’s look and formula remained relatively unchanged through the end of 1979 as the new operators simply tried to stay afloat. It wasn’t until the next year that “Uncle” was dropped from the name. Dance nights were still the main draw, although they were becoming less about Top 40 hits.
“There was a period where I played a half-hour of disco, and then I would go into a rock set and would completely lose the floor,” Kevin Cole remembered. “It was interesting to work that crowd, and work it to the point where nobody left.
“That 1979-80 era might be Sister Sledge and the Sugar Hill Gang into the Clash, Devo, Gary Numan or, for that matter, Lipps Inc. and eventually Prince. We were trying to get to the point where people just liked music and had a level of trust in the DJ.”
Many live acts — mostly locals — were brought in during the first few months for Wednesday night concerts. Among them: hair-metal pioneers Dare Force; popular hippie folk-rockers Sussman Lawrence (led by future Grammy nominee Peter Himmelman); mid-’70s stoner-rock holdovers Cain; and a surprising number of acts still performing in Twin Cities clubs, including the ever-reliable Curtiss A.
“There was a pretty big explosion of new bands at that time, but a lot of them were playing over at the Longhorn,” remembered Curt Almsted, one of the few acts who played both Sam’s and the Longhorn, headquarters of the punk scene. “Nobody liked [Longhorn owner] Hartley Frank, so it was a relief to have somewhere else to play.”
It was through Curtiss A that Sam’s hired the first of many women who would play a pivotal role in making First Avenue cool. And man, was she cool herself.
Chrissie Dunlap had three young children at home by 1979, but she still made it out often to see and support gigs by her husband, Bob “Slim” Dunlap, then Curtiss A’s guitarist and later a replacement in the Replacements. An avid music lover, Chrissie met Bob in 1971 at a show by his early band Mrs. Frubbs. By 1979, Bob had put in a few years playing in several of Curtiss A’s bands, namely Thumbs Up.
Bob Dunlap was often the one to go and collect the band’s money after gigs. It was during those “settle” sessions that Chrissie first stepped into the office where she would spend the next nine years.
“Bob is a yapper, and Steve [McClellan] is a yapper, so the getting-paid thing would usually take until 2 or 3 a.m.,” she said with a laugh.
“I would look at Steve’s desk and be amazed at the amount of crap on it, and I asked, ‘How do you get anything done?’ I told him, ‘What if I just came in one afternoon and made some organized piles for you and prioritize it?’ I offered as a friend, not as a job. I just came in one day and made piles and left. I guess I was effective, because he did hire me.”
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Her arrival near the end of 1979 was perfectly timed, since the club was starting to book more live music. Just having someone in the office during the daytime — the only time Dunlap could work — proved to be an asset.
“Those guys were working until 4 in the morning and then partying or whatever,” she recounted. “Steve did not show up at the office until about 4 in the afternoon. Well, the phone starts ringing at 9 a.m. with agents and radio stations. I just started dealing with all of them.”
As the ’70s came to an end, there remained a disconnect between the transformative disco club and the underground/punk/new wave/whatever music freaks who would become its mainstay in the coming decade. Fortunately, McClellan and his team had something else in the works that would bridge the gap and make Sam’s relevant, especially to the local music scene.
Billy Batson believes the night of the Ramones show was also the night when McClellan pulled him aside and asked him to go look at a dark, musty room that had served as the coat check space.
“I remember him telling me it used to be the short-order restaurant for the bus depot,” Batson recounted. “He said, ‘What do you think? We’re thinking of putting a club in here.’ ”
Within four months, that coat room would become another legendary venue, the 7th Street Entry — just in time for the rise of Hüsker Dü, the Replacements and a whole new era of Minnesota music.