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The Current Rewind

Nov. 28-29, 1979: The days that told the future

The Current Rewind
The Current RewindKaitlyn Bryan | MPR
  Play Now [29:30]

Nov. 28-29, 1979: The days that told the future

Disco was the ticket at Uncle Sam's in the late '70s. But the club's destiny changed course in Nov. 1979, when the Ramones and Pat Benatar rocked the Mainroom on back-to-back nights. In this episode, hosted by Zoo Animal's Holly Hansen, we learn how First Ave became a rock 'n' roll sanctuary.

This is the second episode of The Current Rewind's First Avenue season. If you missed the first one, catch up here.

Transcript of The Current Rewind season 2, episode 2: "Nov. 28-29, 1979"

[Pat Benatar, "Heartbreaker"]

Mark Wheat VO: [over Benatar] It's 1979, and Pat Benatar is on stage at Uncle Sam's, jumping up and down with a microphone in her hand. The crowd has been waiting for this one, the single from her new album, and as the guitar builds, so does the energy on the floor.

["Heartbreaker" fades up for a few lines, fades down while Icetep's "Hive Sound" fades up]

Mark Wheat VO: Like most emerging rock stars, Pat is wearing all black — and behind her, a guitar crunches through the chorus. From the dance floor to the balcony, people are cheering and nodding to the beat.

For us, this is a glimpse of the past — but people at that '79 Benatar show were seeing the future. As Pat performed at the Uncle Sam's disco in downtown Minneapolis, the club's corporate management had their eye on an exit. Thanks to her and others, the venue's next chapter would turn out a lot less Saturday Night Fever and a lot more rock and roll.

I'm Mark Wheat. This is The Current Rewind, the show putting music's unsung stories on the map. For our second season, we're exploring the history of First Avenue, the downtown Minneapolis venue that has become one of the Twin Cities' — and the country's — greatest clubs.

In our first episode, we covered the beginning of First Ave's life as a music venue...which hit a few bumps right away. When the Depot filed for bankruptcy in the summer of '71, it stayed closed for a year — before an out-of-town company turned it into a disco. That scheme stayed alive until 1979, when two rock shows — the Ramones and Pat Benatar, playing back-to-back nights — set the table for First Avenue's future.

For this second episode, we're excited to introduce Holly Hansen, the musician behind Zoo Animal. Holly will help us tell the story of First Ave's second incarnation — as a suburban disco in the middle of downtown Minneapolis — and the people who, in 1979, turned it into a, quote, "New Wave Experience."

[rewind noise]

Holly Hansen VO: The two most vivid memories I have of First Avenue both involve intimacy, but in very different ways.

I was standing at the side of the stage during a Kevin Drew show, and a stagehand made eye contact with me and waved me over. Next thing I knew, I was slow-dancing with Kevin on stage, thinking, "Why me?" I seriously think there are many people in that room who would've loved to be on that stage holding his sweaty body, but here I was, simply being a good sport.

[Zoo Animal's "Black and Charred" fades up, plays under VO]

Holly Hansen VO: A few years later, I released the Zoo Animal album Departure, some of the most personal music I'd ever written, and the release show was at the 7th St Entry. I don't know how to explain what was going on that night, but it felt very different. It was so quiet and focused; it was like the audience took up part of the weight of the songs. I had never felt so connected with an audience before or since.

I feel myself at First Avenue because it's ready for any experience, always centered on music. It's a place where no matter who you are or what you like, the audience and performer can be one. In the late 1970s, First Ave wasn't known as a venue for intimate performances. And then punk happened.

Back in the summer of 1972, the Depot had been shut down for a year. Then, in July, it reopened under new management. Instead of a black exterior, the former Greyhound station was now painted red, white, and blue. The Depot's owners hadn't sold the company, but American Avents, a company based in Cincinnati, took over its operation, turning it into one of several Uncle Sam's franchises throughout the U.S.

Chris Riemenschneider: I think they had like eight or nine by the time that Uncle Sam's opened here.

Holly Hansen VO: Chris Riemenschneider is the author of First Avenue: Minnesota's Mainroom.

Chris Riemenschneider: And in fact, the first year or two of the Uncle Sam's, they struggled a bit early on, apparently. But one of the things that really helped it was in maybe about '75 or '76, they changed the liquor law to — Minnesota went from 21 to 18 and up, drinking, and obviously, that was a big boost to the place.

Andy Sturdevant: By the late '70s, you've got the heyday of kind of the seedy downtown Hennepin strip.

Holly Hansen VO: Andy Sturdevant is the co-author of the book Closing Time, a history of Twin Cities bars.

Andy Sturdevant: Like, that's the place that you're talking about when you're going to school and the taunt that you hear is, "Aw, your mom works on Hennepin!" This is that era. And so, you've got that whole strip, and there's still a couple of bars just barely hanging on from that older era. But you've mostly got strip clubs; you've got porno shops; you've got clubs. That's where the gay bathhouses are.

Holly Hansen VO: And Uncle Sam's was one of the roughest bars near the Hennepin strip. The manager was a U of M dropout named Steve McClellan.

Steve McClellan: My name's Steven McClellan, and I worked in a nightclub downtown from 1973 to 2004. [4:00]

Holly Hansen VO: Steve met with The Current Rewind's producer, Cecilia Johnson, for two separate interviews. For the first, he brought LeeAnn Weimar, First Avenue's former director of marketing. For the second, he came with Richard Luka, who started as a doorperson and ended up designing First Ave's logo. Steve had a story about everyone.

[supercut of Steve McClellan exclaiming names: "Dave Ahl. Tom Spiegel! Cara Lewis. Gary Rue! Pat Lyons. Kevin Sadowski [ph]. Mark Downey!"]

Holly Hansen VO: And as you might hope, Steve McClellan is one of live music's biggest fans. One of his favorite quotes is from Frank Zappa: "Once you record it, you've sold out." He says he picked up this attitude as a college kid.

Steve McClellan: I'm a West Bank guy. I remember when people would go to the West Bank when I was going to the U. I lived on the West Bank from '68, '69 to '73. And you had five, six venues doing live music.

Holly Hansen VO: Steve was on the West Bank attending the University of Minnesota, but dropped out in the mid-'70s. Before that, though, he started working the bar at Uncle Sam's.

Steve McClellan: My feeling is in '75 they put me in management training. I had been bartending probably since late 1973. And after they sent me to the management-training thing, I was ready to go back to school. I was fed up with the corporate nature of it. And then I came back, and I was pulled out of training early because Pat Lyons, who was managing Minneapolis at the time, got promoted. They pulled me out of training and gave me First Avenue.

Holly Hansen VO: Even after Steve's promotion, he and his bosses didn't always get along.

Steve McClellan: You wanna get me on a rant when I put the first black doorman at the door when American Avents hated it, and all the people involved couldn't believe I had a black doorman? Ah, women in management — I put a woman named Marsha Lear in the Uncle Sam's management program, and I wish I could find her again, because I owe her an apology. American Avents was totally not gonna have a female manager back in the '70s and I realized I sent her — I went through their management program. It's a good old boy network. I hated it.

But looking back and seeing how their management meetings went and all that, it would be like you were being run by a — I never went to a fraternity, but back in college I always thought they were kind of a weird group — frat guys. Pretty elite group, they drink a lot of beer. And my image of that whole upper management at American Avents reminded me like they were all from Buffalo, New York. It was one big frat running the company.

Holly Hansen VO: The music at Uncle Sam's was largely DJs playing safe pop hits, as dictated by the national office.

Chris Riemenschneider: They had this deal where there would be DJs with a live drummer, and this was actually where Bobby Z, later of Prince and the Revolution, first played the club. He was like 18 or 19, on dance night, and, you know, just playing along to recorded music. They used to have another guy, Denny Craswell, who performed with a jungle theme. He had drums built like into, like, logs — it was like this jungle vibe. Pretty cheesy stuff, from what I can tell, but it was a big hit. They only had concerts once in a while — they would bring in some local and regional stuff. And then later on, after McClellan got a little more involved, in the late '70s they brought in stuff that was more Top 40 . . .

[Starland Vocal Band's "Afternoon Delight": "Skyrockets in flight/Afternoon delight"]

Chris Riemenschneider: . . . that stuff didn't do well.

Holly Hansen VO: One feature at Uncle Sam's that brought repeat business was its Sunday-night teen dances. One of the regulars there was the future Time member and hit-making producer Jimmy Jam, as he told Pete Scholtes of City Pages in 2003.

Jimmy Jam: Yeah, it was a disco, and it was packed, man. I know they had at least a thousand people every Sunday. There was a crowd, that was sort of a roller skating crowd that I used to hang out with at the Roller Gardens, and I think the Roller Gardens was like a big Friday night thing. So you'd go to the Gardens on Friday night, and Saturday there was a whole lot of different options, and then Sunday was always Uncle Sam's. But it was a lot of the same people you'd see, just kinda from my circle. I went to Washburn High, and so all sort of that crowd from there.

But really, the crowd came to Uncle Sam's from everywhere. I mean, back when Hopkins was really a suburb and like seemed like it was on the other side of the world, kids from Hopkins and Minnetonka and Wayzata, and it was basically like a sort of a melting pot of races and ages, but mostly a lot of cute girls, and it was just a fun place to hang out.

Holly Hansen VO: The history of disco is complicated, and although it has roots in black and queer culture, Uncle Sam's' version was decidedly mainstream.

Chris Riemenschneider: At that point, it really wasn't city kids as much as a lot of the suburban kids were coming downtown to hit Uncle Sam's. It kind of was that kind of place, yeah, a little bit more of a shot bar kind of vibe, and that's when they had the Firecracker drinks, which apparently was just basically red food dye or red coloring and vodka. Nobody talks about those drinks fondly, but for some reason, they were ubiquitous there, and people still have the Firecracker glasses, which I guess goes with the patriotic Uncle Sam's idea.

Holly Hansen VO: Most of the bands that played Uncle Sam's did covers. But there was the occasional local band playing originals. The Suicide Commandos, one of the Twin Cities' first punk groups, formed in 1974. Later, the Commandos would become regulars at a new club called Jay's Longhorn, where Peter Jesperson worked as house DJ.

Peter Jesperson: It opened in June of '77, and I think the DJ booth - it was a Naugahyde disco unit that they rented until they built a booth for me in the corner. But at the time, yeah, we rented this Naugahyde disco thing with flashing lights that we never used, and it was on wheels so it wasn't very sturdy, and people would bump into it and records would skip and I'd be screaming at people.

Holly Hansen VO: The Longhorn was where you went if you lived in the Twin Cities and identified in some way as "punk." Bands that played there included Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, the Police, and the B-52's. The Longhorn was a world away from Uncle Sam's.

Steve McClellan: I kind of really felt an outsider to that whole Longhorn scene. I was not part of it.

Holly Hansen VO: But soon, Steve would hire someone who was.

Kevin Cole: I'm Kevin Cole. I am chief content officer at KEXP in Seattle.

Holly Hansen VO: Kevin was a Longhorn regular who worked at Hot Licks, a record shop downtown, where one of his coworkers was a young Jimmy Jam.

Kevin Cole: I was hired in '78. I worked at First Ave/Uncle Sam's from '78 to '91. I was brought in to help usher in a change, and I was a total misfit for the club at that time. It was a pretty mainstream suburban Saturday Night Fever-type disco, and that era was starting to die. And I think also in part because Steve Egsgard, the DJ who had kind of reigned supreme during that '70s disco heyday, was leaving, so they needed a DJ. I remember going to the back door and meeting Steve. At that time I — Joey Ramone was my idol, so I looked like one of the Ramones — long hair, ripped jeans, tennis shoes. And Steve and I had a great conversation, but I didn't know, really, how it went. And then like a week later he called and he's like, "Hey, can you start in like two days?" So I think they had a need. [Kevin laughs]

Holly Hansen VO: In fact, they did.

Steve McClellan: I could tell American Avents, at the time, was already planning on dumping Minneapolis, but didn't tell anybody. That's my gut feeling when I look at paperwork and stuff. So that brings us through the turmoil in the transition from Uncle Sam's to Sam's. We were kind of just dumped. Allan was jilted.

Holly Hansen VO: That's Allan Fingerhut, who still co-owned the club at that point. Steve's plan was to bring Jack Meyers, a lawyer who Steve knew from Catholic school, on board for damage control.

Steve McClellan: When American Avents pulled out and Allan was deciding to have both Byron and Mel Orenstein, the attorney, telling him, "Close the club, we can't lose any more money," there was two of the big hoops I had to hurdle. I do remember I took a half cut, [of] whatever American Avents was paying me at the time, because I wanted to add Jack to the management team. And then of course, American Avents pulled out by sucking all the money out and putting no improvements in. So when we had taken over the club, we were like $60,000 in debt with no backup revenue source. That's a huge amount of money.

Holly Hansen VO: Money was the big difference between Steve and Jack's management styles.

Steve McClellan: I always wanted to spend money. Jack always wanted to save money. And that was our whole working relationship. I had just taken over as manager, and I started getting bills from people for stuff that happened in '70 and '71. And I couldn't — this is at the time American Avents had pulled out. If there's any reason for that club being open financially, it would be Jack. He went through years of stressful deposits and non-deposits and the financial end.

LeeAnn Weimar: It went to, replacing light bulbs was an issue sometimes.

Steve McClellan: Oh yeah, because we had the big fluorescent tubes that were expensive and just putting them up was a pain in the butt.

Holly Hansen VO: The turning point for Uncle Sam's came on November 28, 1979. That night, Steve had booked the Ramones. It was the New York punk heroes' third show in the Twin Cities. Peter Jesperson, the Longhorn DJ and co-founder of Twin/Tone Records, who also worked the counter at the Lyndale Avenue record store Oar Folk-joke-opus, saw the first.

Peter Jesperson: Oh, you know, Kelly's Pub in '77. But of course, I was at every Ramones show I'm sure they ever did in Minneapolis. We did in-stores with them when they were in town at Oar Folk for each of the first three albums. By the third time the Ramones were there, I think that we had several where they got so crowded the police came, and that was one of them because people were spilling out all over the corner there at 26th and Lyndale. They got bigger each time, and some people came because they were a curiosity, and other people came because they were just such a great band. But they were super nice. They were so friendly - loved hanging around the store, [and] they all bought records.

Holly Hansen VO: The one time Jesperson skipped seeing the Ramones was in November of 1978, at the St. Paul Civic Center, when they opened for Foreigner. The longtime Minneapolis Tribune critic Michael Anthony remembers cringing at that show.

Michael Anthony: What it suggested to me was an elemental truth about pop music and the venue — how important the venue is because their brand of punk, those short quick tunes, works only in a club. It has to have a small thing and boom-boom-boom-boom. You can't do that in a big cavernous room. Whereas Foreigner wrote music that was meant to be played in an arena.

Holly Hansen VO: But the Ramones didn't just sound better in a club. Their whole vibe felt better in a smaller room. Punk rock was a tight-knit subculture, and McClellan responded instantly to its do-it-yourself ethos. He booked the Ramones and Pat Benatar on consecutive nights, through the booking agency Premiere in New York. He says this was a total coincidence.

Steve McClellan: Now understand that I got along with very few major agents at the time, but both of those shows came from a guy named George Cavado [ph] at Premiere Agency, which was, at the time, Premiere had Bruce Springsteen. That's how I got my U2 dates, was through Premiere. George was an exception to the rule. I hated the big agents. They were so pretentious — arrogant. George wasn't.

Holly Hansen VO: Steve didn't get along with several booking agents in town. He also struggled to work with the Minneapolis Police Department. This becomes a key part of the story once the Ramones show up at Uncle Sam's.

Steve McClellan: When I took over as management, the Minneapolis Police Department were the security there. At that time, you needed them. Otherwise, if you had trouble, you couldn't — they wouldn't come to you. But it was a Drink and Drown night, one of those pay $5 and get a dime drink [nights]. There was one night when the police kind of overreacted. Something they had instigated blew up and they had fights on the street — 7th Street. There was, like, 22 arrests. The police just started arresting people. And as it turns out, a lot of was, they were just arresting people without merit, and they ended up dropping it all. But the city officially decided we were a club that the Minneapolis Police could not work for, unless they were bonded, and we couldn't afford bonding. It was ridiculously too expensive. But I breathed a sigh of relief, 'cause I couldn't tell them what to do.

Holly Hansen VO: From then on, Uncle Sam's had to hire its own security staff. Enter Richard Luka, who worked the door from '75 to '93.

Richard Luka: At the time, I was a competitive bodybuilder and on the track team of the U of M. I was 260 pounds, and they had a Wednesday night Drink and Drown night, where you pay $5 at the cover, and drinks were a dime. So I came in and I walked in and I looked around and somebody said, "Hey, you — would you like to work here?" And I said, "Do I get free drinks?" I said, "Okay, all right." [Steve laughs]

Steve McClellan: We were just hoping we could keep it open another day.

Richard Luka: Okay. Alright. Yeah, just don't beat anybody up; just don't drink too much. That's all it was.

Steve McClellan: When people came in for security, A, they always assumed we wanted a bouncer. I took the term "bouncer" out of the job descriptions after American Avents left. They wanted big bouncer guys to be on staff. And remember, we inherited a police force that were bouncers. That was their job: kick butt. And they took seriousness in it, back in the Mayor Stenvig days. They were the best bouncers you could have, because they were armed and they had a whole police force they could call. But the way they handled security stuff was not what you wanted.

MUSIC: "Blitzkrieg Bop - Live at Rainbow Theatre, London, 12/31/77; 2019 Remaster"

Holly Hansen VO: Working security at the Ramones and Pat Benatar shows changed Richard Luka's life.

Richard Luka: About that specific night, it was seeing disco one night and then all of a sudden, "Who are these people in the black leather jackets and the green hair? Who the hell are these people?" And this band comes out and I'm thinking, this is just gonna be like any concert. They're gonna do a couple of songs and then they're gonna slow it down. It was like [Richard laughs] they're not slowing this thing down! This crowd is crushing us, and they're yelling and screaming, and people are climbing over us, and we're looking for people trying to spit on them. And at the end of it I said, "This is so awesome." [Richard and Steve laugh]

And my ex-wife was there, and she was totally into disco. She looked around and said, "These people are disgusting. Disco's never gonna die." And she said, "I'm expecting you home immediately," and she left and I went, "F*** you. I'm gonna help the band load out." And I helped the Ramones and their road crew load up, and I stayed there until like three in the morning. They gave me a Ramones t-shirt, and I wore it to work the next day, and then I had to show up the next night for Pat Benatar.

Holly Hansen VO: The Benatar tickets cost $1.92. That in itself was unusual — Uncle Sam's usually didn't have a cover charge.

LeeAnn Weimar: Yeah, but Pat Benatar was a sex symbol then. She was a rock chick, and every guy I knew wanted to see that show.

Steve McClellan: I still say it was a really good show.

LeeAnn Weimar: I'm sure it was.

Steve McClellan: Live show-wise, and I didn't understand the Ramones because they had no radio play. Why did they sell out?

LeeAnn Weimar: She's still out there doing it. Well, because the Ramones were the Ramones.

Steve McClellan: I didn't know that.

Holly Hansen VO: Kevin Cole DJ'd both shows.

Kevin Cole: At that point in time, it was still the old-school Uncle Sam's DJ set-up, which was on the stage. So during the Uncle Sam's heyday, the DJ would be on the stage; there'd be dancers on the stage; a lot of times, there'd be a drummer on the stage drumming along to whatever the DJ was spinning. I'd be spinning before they went on, and when it came time for the band to play, [I] would make the announcement and literally duck. And I would just sit back there onstage as the band was playing.
And both were really incredible high-energy shows. I remember after the Pat Benatar show, getting them to sign this standup from the store. And it was pretty funny. They wrote something like "Keep rockin' into the '80s, man."

[Prince's "Head"]

Holly Hansen VO: The same week as First Avenue's first Ramones show, a young Minneapolis R&B singer performed his first headlining concert away from home. On November 26, 1979, Prince performed at the Roxy in Hollywood. Before they went onstage, Prince told his group, "I'm going to personify sex in every possible way." That tour, he debuted the song "Head," a risqué, as-yet unrecorded track influenced by the New Wave.

[Prince's "Head" fades up, plays for a few seconds before fading out under Holly's voiceover]

Holly Hansen VO: Uncle Sam's was ready to embrace a new wave, too. Back home, the Ramones and Pat Benatar shows did so well that Steve McClellan won a prize.

Steve McClellan: This is where I got an award one year, because I did Pat Benatar and the Ramones the same week and they both sold out, and I was the highest-grossing of all fifteen clubs for that one week. Now, that is not really amazing when you consider admission prices and stuff, and when you do two $1,500 shows.

Holly Hansen VO: The two shows also set the stage for Kevin Cole, along with DJs Roy Freedom and Paul Spangrud, to revamp First Avenue's dance nights.

Kevin Cole: It was a real transitional period, and I think another thing that's significant about those two back-to-back shows is what happened right after those shows. So the Ramones were on November 28, Pat Benatar on the 29th, and then in the Mainroom, Roy and I presented, on Friday and Saturday, "A New Wave Experience," which is how it was billed at the time. And that was, in part, part of this big statement of like, "Hey, we're changing. Here's two national bands that we're really excited about." And, "Here's what we're doing on the dance nights." And Friday and Saturday nights were the bread and butter of Uncle Sam's and Sam's and First Avenue. We were going from the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever to playing the Clash and the Talking Heads and Blondie and Iggy Pop and Gang of Four and Devo and B-52's, and so it made for a really interesting challenge. And that was some of the most vital music being made. But part of what made ultimately, I think, First Avenue really successful was this philosophy that Steve really, really supported, and it was this idea that we were gonna play an eclectic mix of dance music. [Kevin takes a deep breath] It was a challenge. I mean, early on we'd clear the floor. [Kevin laughs]

Holly Hansen VO: In order to pay the bills, Steve made it his mission to fill Uncle Sam's calendar, with DJs and live bands.

Steve McClellan: You have this amount of money you gotta cover if you're open seven days a week. "Geez, $300, I can make that happen. If we do a college night with mud wrestling, we'll get $300, right?" And I knew if I was only open five days a week, well, take $2,100 and divide it by five instead of seven. Every day I was closed, to me, cost us money.

Holly Hansen VO: In addition to big-name headliners, Uncle Sam's booked openers from around the Twin Cities, forming ties that would only get stronger.

[Curtiss A's "Land of the Free"]

Kevin Cole: The Pat Benatar show, Curtiss A opened. So we were developing those relationships with those bands already and working toward ultimately where we got to, which is a space where live bands could play.

Daniel Corrigan: So, Micah, who used to work here, once said that First Avenue is a pirate ship that doesn't go anywhere.

Holly Hansen VO: That's Daniel Corrigan, First Avenue's official photographer, quoting Micah Ailie. When Cecilia mentioned this to Steve and LeeAnn Weimar, they had a ready response.

Steve McClellan: Not only was it a pirate ship, but it had a captain that didn't know where he was heading, or which shore we were heading for, or . . .

LeeAnn Weimar: Or where the Bermuda Triangle was.

Steve McClellan: Yeah! And we were constantly lost. [Steve laughs] Bermuda Triangle!

LeeAnn Weimar: But god, we had a good time.

[Icetep's "Hive Sound" fades up]

Mark Wheat VO: In 1980, the crew dropped the "Uncle" and just went by "Sam's," a name that would last a couple of years. Next episode, you'll meet the newly christened "First Avenue" in a heyday of historic shows — few more significant than Bad Brains, Sweet Taste of Afrika, and Husker Du.

Did you see the Ramones or Pat Benatar at First Avenue? If so, or if you'd like to share another memory, send it to us via email or voice memo at

If you enjoyed this story, please mention it in a review of The Current Rewind on Apple Podcasts, or share it with the music lovers in your life.

Also, we're happy to provide transcripts of each episode of this show. If you'd like to check them out, head over to

This episode of The Current Rewind was hosted by Holly Hansen and me, Mark Wheat. It was produced by Cecilia Johnson and scripted by our head writer, Michaelangelo Matos. Marisa Morseth is our research assistant, and Jay Gabler is our editor. Our theme music is the song "Hive Sound" by Icetep. This episode was mixed by Corey Schreppel. Thanks to Brett Baldwin, Rick Carlson, Shelby Sachs, David Safar, and Peter Scholtes for additional support. [Producer's note: We also owe Jeanne Andersen and her website Twin Cities Music Highlights a debt of gratitude for her original research and archiving.]

The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. It is a production of Minnesota Public Radio's The Current.