Even those rock fans who have never set one foot within the city limits of Minneapolis might recognize the legendary rock club First Avenue from its appearance in the 1984 Prince vehicle Purple Rain. Now, writer Michelangelo Matos gives readers the history and significance of the venue, one of the longest-running of its type in America, in a Pitchfork article entitled: “Everybody Is A Star: How The Rock Club First Avenue Made Minneapolis The Center Of Music In The ’80s.” The story begins in the 1960s, when Minneapolis was “the record distribution capital of the U.S.” but had no real music scene of its own, outside of some cover bands. That began to change in the late 1970s, when a venue called Jay’s Longhorn became a nexus for new wave and punk in the city. Meanwhile, the site that would eventually become First Avenue had started a short run as a live venue called the Depot, but by the late 1970s, it was a disco called Sam’s, and the emphasis was on prerecorded music. Under the guidance of a man named Steve McClellan, the venue had some luck with booking live rock acts, and by New Year’s Eve of 1981, it was rechristened First Avenue.
In those early years, according to the article, Hüsker Dü were regulars at the club’s side room, The Entry, and occasionally appeared in the main room as well. First Avenue also played host to The Replacements as they were starting to reach a larger audience. But the real sea change happened when a young Minneapolis-born musician called Prince began appearing there in 1981. He was a part of what was then a thriving black music scene in the city, encompassing such acts as Morris Day And The Time, as well as the writing-producing team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. First Avenue became Prince’s home base, the place where he would try out new material in front of an audience and stage impromptu concerts, seemingly at whim. After appearing in Purple Rain, First Avenue was synonymous with Prince. According to McClellan’s former assistant Chrissie Dunlap, ““Prince was getting all the credit for what Steve felt he had built.”
As it happened, the Minnesota music scene peaked in the mid-1980s with Prince and Hüsker Dü, never to fully recover, and McClellan left First Avenue back in 2004. But, still to this day, the club endures, staying as true to its original mission as marketplace realities will allow. McClellan, for his part, seems at peace with the legacy of the venue. “I never really booked shows as moneymakers,” he says. “Sometimes we’d cross over to a new audience, just ’cause it was good music. I was serious about that.”