A Burst of Energy: The Twin Cities Rocked the Eighties

The CD cover for the Prince album "Dirty Mind."

“What’s the best thing ever to come out of Minnesota?” he asked.

“I don’t know… Bob Dylan?” I responded.

“No, it’s Interstate 35!” He laughed hard at his own joke.

I first heard that joke while I was waiting for marching band practice to start late one autumn afternoon on the campus of the University of Iowa. I'm sure that joke gets used by Minnesotans in reference to Iowans just as often and that other states use versions with different highway numbers, as well. A longtime trombone player, but a non-music major, I spent two years in the Hawkeye Marching Band. That was a result of encouragement from my older brother, who was a music major and spent all four of his college years stomping the turf for the entertainment of the loyal football fans. Ever loyal, despite what was happening on the gridiron. In the late seventies, Iowa was still in the throes of a streak of nineteen non-winning seasons (there were, however, three .500 seasons during the streak that proved no more than a tease of success). Not surprisingly, it wasn’t at all uncommon for game attendees to comment to band members that they really came just to see the marching band.

In those days, the band was a highly featured part of the Saturday game-day festivities. We started with a concert at the Field House – not to be confused with The Fieldhouse, a popular bar in downtown Iowa City for decades. From the Field House, we marched to Kinnick Stadium, where we’d immediately line up along the field for the pre-game show. We high-stepped our way through “On Iowa” and “The Iowa Fight Song” before stopping to play “The National Anthem.” At halftime, we performed elaborately choreographed routines to four or five songs. After many games, we took the field a final time for a post-game show of two or three additional songs, though these were not choreographed. It took a lot of work to prepare for each game, but hearing tens of thousands of fans cheering you on made it worth it.

People who know my fondness for music, sometimes ask if I were ever in a band. I tell them, “Only if you count the Hawkeye Marching Band.” “No, I meant a ‘real’ band, you know, a rock band. Were you ever in one of those?” is sometimes their response. Asked and answered, I would have thought, but I nevertheless reply with something like “No, I was never in a ‘real’ band.” Actually, there are any number of reasons for this, including 1) aside from groups like Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and a few funk bands, trombones weren’t part and parcel of rock music; 2) I didn’t have the money to buy a guitar and pay for lessons; 3) had I even had the inclination, my straight-laced father would have done his best to strongly discourage such a thought, or even downright forbid it (for him, guitars were best tolerated if delicately strummed as background to choruses of “Kumbaya” or “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” as part of the occasional youth service at church). My mother, on the other hand, was more broadminded and would often stay up late on Friday nights to watch The Midnight Special music show with my brother and me. I doubt, however, that she would have supported one of her boys’ pursuit of becoming a rock musician. So, the closest I ever came to rocking out as a musician was probably the time that the marching band did a medley of The Village People’s “YMCA” and “In the Navy.” Yeah, I obviously never came very close (though in all honesty, the crowd did go wild!) Yet, I’ve always had a real appreciation for popular musicians, it’s just that I wasn’t cut out to be one myself.

It must have taken a lot of courage for a young Bob Dylan to drop out of the University of Minnesota after one year in 1960 to seek his livelihood as a folk musician in New York City. Few have the ability and vision to take such a leap of faith. It wasn’t long, of course, before Dylan was revered as a songwriter, but he was also noted for his unusual vocal style, which went a long way towards breaking down the barrier between composers and singers. When Dylan came on the scene, singers were hired guns paid to present songs in the best possible light. The prevailing crooner crowd – Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Andy Williams, Tony Bennett, etc. – were never expected to write their own material. Record companies simply bought songs and provided them to their rosters of singers. Dylan wasn’t having any of that. Although covers of Dylan songs did become ubiquitous, he was writing for himself. It’s no wonder that he was hailed as “the voice of his generation,” what with its double meaning.

Prior to Dylan, Minnesota’s greatest gift to popular music was probably The Andrews Sisters. OK, if you’re under sixty, that name probably doesn’t mean much to you, but they were one of the biggest acts of the thirties and forties (I have no doubt that even younger readers are familiar with the song “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” which was one of their numerous hits). Like The Andrews Sisters, Dylan was forced to leave the North Star State in order to seek success. For decades, record companies seemed consumed with the desire to discover “the next Dylan,” but surprisingly, they didn’t appear that interested in mining Minnesota for other musical acts. With just a few exceptions, like the Trashmen, who gave us the 1963 hit “Surfin’ Bird,” Minnesota remained out of the musical mainstream.

Things began changing quickly around 1980 due, in part, to the increasing affordability of quality recording equipment, which jumpstarted the do-it-yourself movement. Although a teenaged Prince recorded his first two albums in California in 1978 and 1979, he garnered enough clout to self-record his third album, Dirty Mind, at his own studio in Minneapolis in 1980. Although not as popular as his eponymously-titled previous disc, which had yielded his first Top 40 hit in “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (#11 in January 1980), Dirty Mind featured the wild mix of popular genres (funk, new wave, rock, and R&B) and salacious lyrics that established Prince’s mature style. Soon, that style that would be branded The Minneapolis Sound. Prince’s popularity surged during the early eighties with the release of each new album, culminating in Purple Rain, the 1984 album and movie that made him a superstar. Prince has remained one of music’s premier performers ever since. Not only has Prince favored Minneapolis-area studios (including his own Paisley Park) for a large portion of his recorded output, he also produced several other musical acts in the Twin Cities, including Vanity, The Time/Morris Day, and Sheila E.

Prince has charted several number one singles on the Billboard Top 40 chart, but he wasn’t the first Minnesota act to accomplish the feat – even Dylan came up short with just a pair of number two hits (“Like a Rolling Stone,” “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”) on his resume. That distinction actually goes to Lipps, Inc., whose name looks like it should be said “lips incorporated,” but is properly pronounced “lip sync,” as in the television practice that requires performers to mime to previously recorded tracks. Lipps, Inc. was created in 1979 by Minneapolis producer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Steven Greenberg. Their first album, Mouth to Mouth, debuted in November 1979. The first single, “Rock It,” stalled in the Hot 100 at #64, but their second single, “Funkytown,” became a smash! “Funkytown,” one of the last huge disco hits, spent four weeks in the top spot during the early summer of 1980 before going The CD cover for "The Best of The Jets."on to top the charts in twenty-eight countries. Unfortunately for Lipps, Inc., none of their subsequent three albums generated so much as a Hot 100 hit (though they did place several more tunes in the top ten of the U.S. dance charts). After a trend of diminishing returns, they called it quits in 1985.

The same year that Lipps, Inc. folded, The Jets, another Minneapolis group specializing in a mix of pop, R&B, and dance music (especially freestyle), came on the scene. The band consisted of the eight oldest siblings of the Wolfgramm family (seventeen kids in all), whose parents had come to the United States from the Kingdom of Tonga, in the southern Pacific. The Jets released four albums between 1985 and 1989 that produced fifteen singles, five of which landed in the top ten. Two of those, “Crush on You” and “You Got It All” climbed all the way to number three. Since originally disbanding in 1990, The Jets has reformed in various incarnations at different times, but has shifted from popular to gospel music.

The synthpop-electro-freestyle band Information Society was formed at St. Paul’s Macalester College in 1982 and started hitting the dance music chart in 1986. Seven of their singles placed in the upper reaches of the dance chart between 1986 and 1991. Two of those also broke into the top ten of the Top 40 chart in 1988, including their signature song, the number three hit "What's on Your Mind (Pure Energy)" – notable for its use of dialogue samples from the original Star Trek TV series. An on-again, off-again proposition, Information Society released its latest album as recently as 2014.

Not all of the Twins Cities artists who made a splash in the eighties can be classified as purveyors of The Minneapolis Sound or some close variant. Before the advent of alternative rock, there were a bunch of guys on the lower rungs of rock music hoping to be signed by major labels – they were called, uh… rock musicians. Eventually, someone proclaimed that they weren’t actually rock musicians, they were alternative artists. And that changed everything. OK, I’m half-joking, but from the beginnings of what would become alternative music in the late-seventies until the late-eighties, when the label would emerge as a recognized genre, the lower-rung rock guys had several labels applied to them: post-punk, indie, college, underground, and modern, as well as alternative. Among the hotbeds of this new sound were Athens, Georgia, Seattle, and the Twin Cities: Minneapolis/St. Paul.

The Replacements, from Minneapolis, and Hüsker Dü, from St. Paul, both formed in 1979 and were key proto-alternative bands. The former group’s albums Let It Be and Tim, and the latter’s Zen Arcade and New Day Rising rank among the top discs of the eighties. Although both flirted with big-time success, neither achieved the level of sales that would keep them together long enough to enjoy the alternative boon that came with Nirvana’s breakout in 1991. Nevertheless, the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg and Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould (also with Sugar for two albums in the nineties) went on to lengthy solo careers. A third Twin Cities’ The CD cover for The Replacements' album "Let It Be."indie band, Soul Asylum, which formed in Minneapolis in 1983, had similar cult success during the eighties. In the early nineties, however, Soul Asylum rode the grunge wave to stardom with their album Grave Dancer’s Union (1992) and, to a lesser extent, its follow-up, Let Your Dim Light Shine (1995). Their peak-level of popularity was short-lived, but with singer-guitarist-songwriter Dave Pirner at the helm, Soul Asylum continues to record and perform.

While most of the key figures in the eighties blossoming of the Twin Cities music scene are still active, it’s safe to say that their best years are long behind them. Whatever special magic that suddenly occurred to make that scene so vibrant for a decade or a more just as quickly dissipated. Since the eighties, no Twin Cities music act – with the possible exception of R&B band Mint Condition – has flowered on the national stage to the same degree. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been notable activity there, as alternative rockers Semisonic and Motion City Soundtrack, as well as rap acts Doomtree and Brother Ali attest, but for the Twin Cities, the eighties were just an exceptional period.

Click on the links above to take you to the catalog entry for any of those items. Or, find CDs that speak to your own particular area of musical interest at any of the six branches of the Des Moines Public Library!