What’s overlooked now is how this moment also kicked off one of the most fruitful and notable short bursts of homegrown musical output ever. Minnesota’s music community didn’t just step up to the high bar set by Prince’s Purple Rain — it exceeded the expectations of a nation. In August of 1983, the same time Prince and his band The Revolution started working on Purple Rain, another band from the Twin Cities, The Replacements, were cramming into Old Blackberry Way studios to record their third studio album, Let It Be. They intended to evolve from the ragtag punk sound of their first two albums, and the six months the band would take in the studio would help them find, according to Robert Christgau, a “belated access to melody.”
Packaged in what would go on to become one of the most famous album covers in rock and roll history, and sharing a title with the last album by the most popular band ever, Let It Be wouldn’t sell anywhere close to Prince numbers, but it would help redefine rock music from the bottom up — and it was released less than four months after Purple Rain. If you listen to The Replacements’ entire discography in order, Let It Be works as a bridge between the band full of punk piss and vinegar and the group who became their generation’s great American rock band. After Let It Be, they were still the guys who would trash your house party and drink all your Grain Belt beer; but they’d also break your heart, write anthems like “Bastards of Young,” and go through the rest of their careers without achieving the massive success they deserved, almost blissfully unaware they were never going to truly make it.
But Let It Be is everything perfect about the band all boiled down into one album that clocks in at just over 30 minutes. It’s still got the rawness of the early albums, but you can tell the band is a little more comfortable inside a proper studio. Paul Westerberg really starts to come into his own as a songwriter with the album’s opener, “I Will Dare,” which serves not only a standout in the band’s entire discography, but also as one of the best songs of the decade. You can detect a bit more more urgency and earnestness behind the band’s effort, but like they’d do throughout their careers, they still seem like they hardly give a shit. The album is still great to listen to, but it’s probably what doomed them in the end. And yet, more than anything else they ever did — and just about anything their contemporaries (R.E.M., Pixies, or any of the other bands that would be labeled “college rock” or “alternative”) produced afterwards — the album’s sound and the band’s attitude defined where rock music was at, and where it was going.
Like Purple Rain, it also had a sound very much its own. Prince was all decked out in purple jackets, ruffled shirts, long black hair, and eyeliner, but he wasn’t part of the New Romantic movement that was so huge in England. Prince was Prince; he wasn’t Duran Duran or Boy George. Similarly, The Replacements had been influenced by the punk rock of the late 1970s when they first started playing, but owed just as much to the hard rock bands of the day that you were more likely to hear on the radio: Ted Nugent, Kiss, and Blue Öyster Cult. The band’s sensibilities had been shifting, and they’d started looking beyond punk rock and hardcore — and it showed on Let It Be.
By 1984, then, you couldn’t really peg Prince and The Replacements as easily as you thought upon first sight or sound. As for fellow Twin Cities band Hüsker Dü, however, all blistering speed and maximum volume, it was hard to call them anything other than a punk rock power trio. You’d listen to them and never imagine they had aspirations beyond being a great hardcore band. Their early recordings show a ferocity and focus that are almost the exact opposite to The Replacements’ get-drunk-and-see-what-happens mentality, something that contributed to the friendly rivalry between the two bands from the Twin Cities. The Replacements just wanted to drink a lot and play great rock ‘n’ roll (when they were sober enough to be great, the rest of the time they’d settle for just playing rock ‘n’ roll), and get big – whatever that meant. But figuring out the Hüsker Dü endgame was a little bit more difficult.
By 1984 Hüsker Dü were very much embedded in the American hardcore scene, and signed to Greg Ginn of Black Flag’s SST Records, a label that would spend much of the decade redefining punk and hardcore through releases by Ginn’s band, Sonic Youth, Bad Brains, Minutemen, Dinosaur Jr., and various others. The band were uncompromisingly loud and fast, hardly acceptable for any sort of radio play beyond college stations. But unlike most hardcore bands of the time who wanted to scream about Ronald Reagan, friendship, betrayal, being kept down by somebody or something, and/or any of the other five or six topics most hardcore bands frequently screamed about in their songs, Hüsker Dü had a knack for writing songs, and a melodic edge noticeable only if you could keep up with their fast sound.
It may not have been obvious back then, but Bob Mould, Grant Hart, and Greg Norton wanted to be more than just another punk rock band. They abused amphetamines and played live show after live show in a way that was reminiscent of the early days of The Beatles in Germany. They covered the Byrds and Donovan. They weren’t anything like the street-tough New York hardcore bands, nor were they as heady as bands from Washington, DC, and they weren’t politically minded like many of the California bands they played with. And unlike The Replacements, they didn’t take their time recording the album they’d release in 1984: in the October of 1983, it took them a mere 85 hours to record and produce the 23 tracks on what would be their second full-length album, and first release on SST, Zen Arcade. The album — a concept album, something pretty much totally unheard of in the hardcore or punk scene in those days – set a new standard in the American underground, and signaled a sea change from the days when hardcore bands could rely on sheer anger and emotion to supplement rudimentary technical skills and poor songwriting.
In a 2004 oral history looking at the year when Let It Be and Zen Arcade came out, Magnet tried to distance the mega-selling success of Prince from the cult-classic status reserved for the two punk bands from the Twin Cities. But I disagree with the sentiment that The Replacements and Hüsker Dü “would’ve existed anywhere, anytime.” Trying to separate the success of Prince and The Revolution from the impact the music of The Replacements and Hüsker Dü would go on to have smacks of punk rock elitism, and is almost like somebody saying that Nirvana shouldn’t count as part of the now-legendary Seattle scene simply because they got too big. Nobody would try to mount that argument, because it doesn’t make sense. Prince — who to this day still lives and works in the Twin Cities — and his lasting impact on his hometown’s music scene are just as vital as the influence attributed to a couple of punk bands he has probably never even listened to.
But that isn’t what’s truly important here. The thing to focus on is that, 30 years ago, the Twin Cities changed American music. It’s been 30 years since the time when three classic albums were released in a little over three months in one place, something that was largely unprecedented and has remained unique in the decades since. Sure, Seattle and its surrounding area had Nirvana, Soundgarden, the Melvins, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and the Olympia scene, just an hour south a few years later, but only Ten and Nevermind came out in 1991 (Bikini Kill’s Revolution Girl Style Now!, a self-released cassette, also came out that year to limited release, as did albums by Melvins and Mudhoney), making a seismic impact you can still feel to this day.
Yet the major difference between Minneapolis/St. Paul in 1984 and the Pacific Northwest in 1991 is that every band from Seattle or any band that sounded like they came out of there was being courted by major labels. While some of the Seattle bands would go on to achieve Prince-like record sales, in their hearts, Nirvana wanted to be The Replacements and Hüsker Dü in 1984. They wanted to be the best band on some indie label, doing what they loved. There were no fashion designers walking models down the runway in outfits inspired by Paul Westerberg. Major labels weren’t looking to sign any band they could find that looked or sounded like Hüsker Dü. There was no unifying term to tie the three releases together, no common thread other other than the fact that two of the bands had been part of the punk scene and then transcended it, and all three were from the same place.
Location tied Prince, The Replacements and Hüsker Dü together — just like it tied together most of the seminal bands we put under the blanket term of “grunge,” like Detroit tied the Motown sound together, like Sun and Stax in Memphis, and like any other place that for a specific time helped change the course of music forever. Not all of the acts always sounded the same, but there was once something special about musicians that drank water from the same well that we just don’t get anymore. The Twin Cities in 1984 just happened — nobody planned it and nobody tried to package it. In retrospect, none of it — not the Replacements and Hüsker Dü helping to create what we today refer to as alternative rock, nor Prince, the most unlikely looking and acting person you can imagine, becoming widely recognized as one of the great all-time musical visionaries — really seemed possible even a year before. It seems unlikely that something similar could even ever happen again.
The Twin Cities’ lack of a unified sound or scene could also be viewed as the main reason for the area never becoming a major music hub the way Seattle did a few years later. Although the same region in the 1980s also produced acts like The Jayhawks, Babes in Toyland, and Soul Asylum — a band who started their career opening for Hüsker Dü and The Replacements, but would eventually go on to greater commercial heights than the both of them — there has never been any sort of specific type of sound that Minnesota’s biggest cities were particularly known for.
Prince’s development and success may be the most inexplicable occurrence of them all. It’s hard enough to imagine a purple-clad 5’2″ African-American musician living in a Middle American city like Minneapolis in the early 1980s — one that’s frozen over half of the year and hardly friendly to a wardrobe like his — rather than, say, somewhere like New York or Los Angeles. It’s even more difficult to imagine how he thrived in that environment, achieving the sort of unprecedented success few musicians will ever experience — and doing so, essentially, on his and his band’s own terms.
But watching the film Purple Rain, released a month after the soundtrack, you get a glimpse of Minneapolis and its music scene, albeit a fictionalized one. You get to zoom around the city with Prince on his purple Honda 400 automatic, and you see the natural beauty of the area, away from the concrete and big buildings, when Prince tells Apollonia she’ll have to purify herself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka. But maybe the most important thing you get to see is First Avenue, the club that, more than any record label or sound, was the nucleus of the Twin Cities’ music scene.
What you don’t see, however, is 7th St Entry, the club’s smaller space where the punks played, and where Hüsker Dü recorded their ferocious debut album Land Speed Record live in August 1981. First Avenue was the center of everything pop or punk, and almost exactly two years later, before making the club famous in Purple Rain, Prince had taken his hometown venue’s main stage with his new band, The Revolution. That night he debuted his new guitar player, Wendy Melvoin, along with a set that included a few older songs, as well as a couple that had never been played in public before. They included “I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m A Star,” and the title track of the forthcoming film and soundtrack – all recorded live by a mobile truck parked outside during the show.
Those recordings would end up as the ones used for the album — although, of course, they went through Prince performing the overdubs and re-recording all of the vocals. Having seen Purple Rain, it’s hard to imagine that sort of perfection created anywhere other than in Prince’s hometown. That’s why it’s almost nearly impossible to talk about Minneapolis music and not tie Prince into the conversation if you’re discussing the rest of the city’s scene.
Geography plays an even bigger part in what connects the three albums together; all three albums are about outsiders looking for a better place, higher ground, or a safe space all their own. The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Prince all wrote and performed songs with their hearts on their sleeves in a manner befitting the million angsty Midwestern teens and 20-somethings that came before and after them. Their characters long for escape: The Replacements have androgynous Dick and Jane, Hüsker Dü wrote their entire album about a young man who runs away in hopes of finding something better, and of course, Purple Rain has Nikki the nymphomaniac, straight out of every high school locker room bullshit session, along with a never-satisfied father, and Prince’s gleeful promise that “I Would Die 4 U.”
The artists themselves might never have wanted to leave their shared hometown in the middle of the country, but their ideas stretch beyond its boundaries and backgrounds. Hüsker Dü wanted to take hardcore and make it art; The Replacements wanted to use punk rock as a springboard to being the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world; and Prince wanted to redefine pop, shaping everything in his vision and coloring it all purple. They didn’t necessarily have a great deal in common. But all three changed music forever from the same few postal codes.