'Complicated Fun' Is a Thorough Study of the Glory Days of the Twin Cities Punk and Indie Scenes
The tales of a record store, a set of like-minded club owners, and a record label all tie together into a beautiful narrative of the burgeoning Minneapolis music scene.
Dig, if you will, a picture. It’s October 1984 in Minneapolis, and the preceding four months have seen the release of Prince’s box office smash film Purple Rain, the soundtrack to the film (which has since sold over 13 million copies), and the epic double album Zen Arcade from Hüsker Dü. The fourth album from the Replacements, the cheekily-titled Let It Be, is released on hometown label Twin/Tone Records.
Prince, of course, had preceded Purple Rain with a multi-platinum album in 1999, but Purple Rain was beyond massive. The Replacements had built up a steady following with several records and a ramshackle live show that veered between brilliant and tragic (“one foot in the door / the other one in the gutter”, as they would say) but broke big in 1984 and moved to a major label for 1985’s Tim. Hüsker Dü, shortchanged by local label Twin/Tone because label co-founder Peter Jesperson didn’t think his more straight-laced partner Charley Hallman would "get" their more aggressive hardcore sound (“I just didn’t think it was the right thing for Twin/Tone at the time,” says Jesperson on page 273), was forced to self-release music and then turned to California punk label SST Records, releasing an astonishing eight sides of amazing vinyl from July 1984 to September 1985, a double album and two full length single albums.
But here’s the astonishing thing: Complicated Fun: The Birth of Minneapolis Punk and Indie Rock, 1974-1984, Cyn Collins’ excellent and meticulously researched story of the Twin Cities scene pretty much ends in 1984, before Prince’s most massive success and the major label boom that sent the Replacements to Sire, Hüsker Dü to Warner Brothers, and Soul Asylum to A&M Records. The amazing back story that allowed many of these artists to flourish is relayed here in a detailed and thorough fashion by many of the important folks who were there. What's recounted in these pages are the individual tales of a record store, a set of like-minded club owners, and a local record label that helped build a scene literally from the ground up. The strands that draw these things together tie themselves together like a series of interconnected yet independent vignettes that lead to a beautiful narrative of a burgeoning music scene in a pre-Internet world.
The book is presented as an oral history, which is to aim at a very high bar. The Platonic form of the music scene oral history, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s tale of 1970’s New York punk rock, Please Kill Me, is canon. Los Angeles punk was covered in Mark Spitz’s We Got the Neutron Bomb, San Francisco’s in Boulware and Tudor’s Gimme Something Better, and Seattle’s grunge uprising in Mark Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town. New York’s boom in the 2000’s (The Strokes, LCD Soundsytem, DFA Records) was covered recently in Lizzy Goodman’s entertaining Meet Me In the Bathroom. Indeed, books on the major artists from the Twin Cities have multiplied in the past few years: several books have been issued about The Replacements, including Bob Mehr’s excellent Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, along with Andrew Earles’ Hüsker Dü: The Story of the Noise Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock, and the seminal Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad, which features chapters on both groups.
The scope of Collins’ book, as indicated by the subtitle, is a particular period of musical fecundity in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, beginning in 1974 and running through that golden year, 1984. The New York Dolls’ performance at the Minnesota State Fair in September 1974 was a spark, as were shows by Lou Reed and the Ramones, and by 1977, several bands had taken the challenge of punk rock to heart, including The Suicide Commandos, who supported Iggy Pop, Devo, and The Dictators, and whose debut album, Make a Record, became one of the Midwest’s first salvos in the punk rock sweepstakes. Along with the Commandos, other bands from the early years made an impact: garage rock upstarts The Hypstrz, the musical chameleon Curt Almstead (aka Curtiss A), and power-pop-leaning Flamingos, soon to become (because of a copyright claim) The Flamin’ Oh’s. They were followed by an eclectic group of bands who tread new musical paths: the Television-influenced NNB, new wave upstarts The Suburbs (whose 1984 single “Love Is the Law” was a regional hit), the guitar-free art-rock combo The Wallets, punk rock firebrands Hüsker Dü, and the Replacements, whose mixture of punk attitude and classic rock melodicism won over the tastemakers in the scene.
The stories of the lesser known and lesser documented groups are the goldmines here, but Collins doesn’t just focus on the artists: she makes the environment that allowed these groups to flourish the central focus of almost a third of the book. The bars and clubs that hosted punk and new wave bands, included The Blitz (in the basement of a strip club), Jay’s Longhorn, a converted steak house that became the CBGB’s of the Minneapolis scene, Duffy’s, Goofy’s Upper Deck, and Uncle Sam’s aka Sam’s, which would eventually become First Avenue, later immortalized at the musical home of the Kid in Purple Rain. After hours parties and practices held at the Suburbs’ practice space, The Podany, and in the Modesto apartment building, also feature heavily in the development of this scene. Add to the mix the now-legendary M-80 Festival, held at the University of Minnesota Field House in September of 1979, and featuring local and global acts like the Records, the Fleshtones, the Contortions, Brains, the Suburbs, Tuxedomoon, and DEVO (performing as DOVE, The Band of Love), and the Twin Cites stopped being musical flyover country and became one of the country’s great hubs for new wave, punk, and indie rock.
Every burgeoning scene also needs a repository of ideas and knowledge, and for the Twin Cities in the late '70s to mid-'80s, that place was Oak Folkjokeopus (Oar Folk), the record store owned by Vern Sanden and managed by Peter Jesperson and Terry Katzman, both who moved on to run record labels (Twin/Tone and Reflex, respectively) and into production. Oar Folk was not the first ‘indie’ record store in the Twin Cities, and the scene carried on after the 1985 fire that shut down Oar Folk’s first iteration, but, as Jesperson puts it, “it was a clubhouse for music fanatics. It was a place where people came to listen to music and talk about their favorite stuff. The exchange of information that happens at record stores is essential to building the great community we had here”(67). As the hub of the punk and indie scene in town, Oar Folk hosted in-store sessions with David Johansen, The Talking Heads, and the Ramones, among others, and became the logical starting point for those obsessed with the latest punk and new wave sounds from the Cities and from the rest of the world.
Jesperson moved from just having a ‘cool clubhouse’ to putting new music into the world, hooking up with local sportswriter and Beach Boys fanatic Charley Hallman and studio owner/engineer Paul Stark to form Twin/Tone Records. Kicking off with EP records from The Suburbs, Fingerprints, and Curt Almstead’s band Spooks in 1978, the label released records from the Suicide Commandos, the Suburbs, The Replacements, Soul Asylum, Trip Shakespeare, Babes in Toyland, The Jayhawks, and many more. Having a local label helped to legitimize the scene, even if some of the local bands (Hüsker Dü, as a notable example) were left to seek out other options for their records. Combining the fertile new wave/punk scene, a plethora of clubs and venues, hip record stores, a legendary festival, and a mostly forward-looking record label, and the Twin Cities became the center of a musical universe, for a few years, anyway.
The book ends with the necessary, if well-known, stories of the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, although fans of those bands have probably already memorized Mehr’s and Earles’ books, along with, Jim Walsh’s All Over but the Shouting, and Walsh and Dennis Pernu’s The Replacements: Waxed Up Hair and Painted Shoes-A Photographic History. When this version of the story ends, at what might have been the Midwest’s music pinnacle, many of the bands that kick-started the scene had broken up, moved away, or simply resigned themselves to their stories being untold. But those stories were saved, in part, thanks to Cyn Collins. For some (myself included), the sheer genius of the Minneapolis/Saint Paul music scene of 1977-1987 ranks up there with any of the best music scenes of all time:'90s Seattle, '70s New York, '80s Southern California, whatever you want to bring to the table. This book is a loving testament to the incredible musicians, club owners, and fans that made this scene happen.