The Last Days of Disco

Open playlists. Mixed audiences. Women's mud wrestling. Ample coke. What ever happened to the Minneapolis club scene?

For years "Planet Rock" provided a palette for DJ experimentation. The Perfect Beats moves gracefully from the pre-house of Straif's slip-and-slide soundscape "Set It Off" to ESG's double-time diva anthem "Moody" to Liquid Liquid's minimal post-punk trance pop. When Grandmaster Flash appropriated Liquid Liquid's rhythm track and lyric "something like a phenomenon" for its anti-anti-coke classic "White Lines (Don't Don't Do It)," the punk-meets-hip-hop summit was de rigeur for an era typified by crossover. And juxtapositions like that served as selling points, reproducing the catholic musical tastes of First Ave. clubgoers. (I currently work as a bar-back and occasional DJ at First Ave.)

"You have to remember that it was a totally different atmosphere downtown," says local DJ Rod Smith. "There was Goofy's Upper Deck, a punk-rock club above a working-class bar a couple blocks from First Ave. And there was Zoogie's--half punk-rock club, half gay bar--on Fifth Street, again within walking distance of the club. Downtown encouraged clubhopping and a natural fusion of all these forms of music for these varying audiences. It was not uncommon at the time to go to three different places and two parties in a five-block area," he remembers.

"This was also when the area that is now occupied by the Target Center was a neighborhood populated by artists, musicians, DJs, and writers. I can't help but think that First Ave. suffered after the decline of that neighborhood."

Looking for the perfect beat: Kevin Cole
Greg Helgeson
Looking for the perfect beat: Kevin Cole

Kevin Cole lived across the street from the club during the early '80s, and he had firsthand experience watching it shift from a decaying disco joint to a progressive dance club. "Uncle Sam's was much more of a mainstream, Saturday Night Fever type of suburban disco before it became First Avenue," Cole says. "We went through a transition from that into a club that was more underground. We wanted to be open to anybody: black, white, Puerto Rican, everybody just freakin', as Prince put it. We tried to create an environment that was open to progressive music, but didn't have any pretensions attached to it. We wanted a secure base, and hoped to draw a diverse mix of people."

DJs like Cole and Spangrud were sitting on the brink of a new era, and they knew it. "During the late '70s, everything got fat and excessive," says Brett Edgar, a DJ at Williams nightclub, an Uptown competitor to First Avenue during the period. "So, in the '80s, the minimalism of punk was extended to dance music. A lot of people were spinning music from a rock perspective--and then there were the old disco people, and people from the black end. There was a lot of cross-pollination."

At the dawn of the '80s, New York's snobbish Studio 54 was supplanted by clubs like the Funhouse, the Ritz, Peppermint Lounge, and Danceteria, where DJs mixed post-disco with post-punk and the doorpeople let in anyone willing to pay admission. In Minneapolis, nightclubs like Sutton's Place and Schiek's (which was then, as now, a strip club) gave way to First Avenue's everything-goes ethos and open-door policy.

Roy Freid (a.k.a. Roy Freedom) began spinning for rent money during disco's mid-'70s ascent. He went on to do a stint at the Longhorn with Twin/Tone co-founder Peter Jesperson, whose eclectic rock sets flowed seamlessly from the Clash to Donna Summer to Bob Dylan. In 1979, Freid was working at the upscale Rickshaw club when he was hired to help change the direction of Uncle Sam's. "People were dressed to the hilt at the Rickshaw," he says, "and when I went to Uncle Sam's, people were more middle-class or working-class."

"You could tell the disco guys didn't understand that times were changing," says Edgar. "The people who tried to dance that way just weren't cool. Bell-bottoms and satin shirts were not happening. Hip-hop culture was starting to happen, and punk culture was overthrowing disco. Hip hop, new wave, [and] punk were simple and straightforward. The clothes and style were, too.

"This town is pretty white-bread, always has been," Edgar continues. "But there wasn't as much racial segregation back then. If anything, it was more harmonious than it is now. It's become much more polarized. The DJs and crowds never thought of things in racial terms. Joy Division after George Clinton was what you wanted your party to be."

For the people on the floor and those involved with the club itself, "the party" often meant much more. "Coke was gigantic," says one former clubgoer. "First Avenue was like a microcosm of the '80s philosophy--excess." That could mean anything from a steady flow of drink tickets, to drug-fueled, disco decadence.

"It was fun, pure fun," Spangrud chuckles. "Sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll--that was it, right there. I don't know how much more graphically I want to put it.... Studio 54 was in New York, and First Avenue was here. Put it that way."

If Spangrud shares a pervasive sentiment among First Ave. staffers that the excesses of the past are best left in the past, few downplay the huge influence the era's DJs had on the emerging "Minneapolis Sound." Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis's mid-'80s productions of Janet Jackson share some of the same stylistic tics as records by Perfect Beats producers like Arthur Baker, John Robie, and Jellybean Benitez. Back in the day, they threw every imaginable percussion effect, bell-and-whistle sound, and sudden, single-note orchestral hit into the mix. Janet's "When I Think of You," to name one obvious example, is a streamlined version of that aesthetic.

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