Thirty years ago, one of America's top concert venues helped rocket Prince to superstardom.
The relationship between Prince, Purple Rain and First Avenue can't be underestimated. This is because, on occasion, locations are as integral to the creation of art as the artist. The Queensbridge Houses are partially responsible for the excellence of Nas’ Illmatic. New York City is always a central character in Woody Allen and Spike Lee films ranging from Annie Hall to 25th Hour, just like the San Fernando Valley is at the heart of Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant early work like Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Prince has earned every ounce of credit for the genius of Purple Rain, bringing his quirks to both the album and the film. Reflecting on the former's 30th anniversary, it's clear that the legendary Minneapolis concert venue played a role equally important to the bloused star himself.
The current incarnation of First Avenue opened on New Year's Eve 1981, just a few months after Prince released his fourth album, Controversy. Steve McClellan, the club's general manager for over 30 years, aimed to develop a symbiotic relationship between the club and local talent when he got involved with it in 1980. One of those relationships was with Prince. "Prince played here 10 times, I think every one of them was memorable," McClellan said during a profile that MTV’s 120 Minutes did for First Avenue’s 20th anniversary in 1990. No performance was more memorable or important to the link between Prince, the album, film, and venue than one that took place during the summer of 1983.
"Purple Rain"—the summation of the album and film—is legendary years later. That legend began humbly at First Avenue.
On Aug. 3, 1983 (yes, 8/3/83 for every fate and destiny-obsessed nerd keeping score), he performed at a benefit concert for the Minnesota Dance Theater, a surprise show which marked the first public unveiling of his band, the Revolution. Though he had performed with many of the members for some time, this special outing was guitarist Wendy Melvoin’s first with the band, as well as the first time the band that co-starred with Prince in Purple Rain and backed him on the film's soundtrack ever played together. Kismet aligned that night, triggering the creation of one of the greatest albums of all-time, and one the most powerful pop culture moments of the last 30 years.
Already "incredibly popular," as the Orlando Weekly pointed out, due to 1982's 1999, Prince did something different: played a collection of songs no one had ever heard before. The 70-minute show began (as Purple Rain does) with "Let’s Go Crazy," which drew flat reactions—for the first and last time ever—from a crowd unaware that they were getting a preview of history. As esteemed music writer Jon Bream wrote in a Minneapolis Star Tribune piece for the film’s 25th anniversary in 2009, fans grew "increasingly disinterested" throughout the course of the evening. But Prince, ever the eccentric genius, knew exactly what he was doing.
Prince & the Revolution performed three other songs—"I Would Die 4 U," "Baby I’m a Star," and "Purple Rain"—which were recorded for the album by a mobile unit parked outside of First Avenue. In addition to being the album's final three songs, they're also the last songs that Purple Rain's protagonist, the Kid, performs with his band during the film's denouement—a personal triumph for the Kid; a moment of unity for the band. Though a third of the album was recorded at First Avenue, one song in particular stands out from it, the film, and that fateful concert over three decades later.
"Purple Rain" has nearly reached "Free Bird" status in that it’s instantly recognizable, covered often, and a karaoke favorite. On that night in August 1983, the crowd at First Avenue was dead silent as they watched a sweaty Prince perform one of his signature songs for the first time. Their casual disinterest gave way to curiosity, and as the newly formed band tore through this soon-to-be classic, everyone in First Avenue was spellbound. This was the genesis of that guitar solo, a borderline religious experience which sounds like unicorns galloping against the magnificent backdrop of dawn. It was the first time anyone heard the song’s immaculate conclusion, an eruption of cymbals and keys akin to stars falling from the sky, or confetti descending from above after the Super Bowl’s final whistle. With verses speaking to the Kid's father, love interest, and band, "Purple Rain" is the product of the project's buildup—its defining moment. "Purple Rain"—the summation of the album and film—is legendary years later. That legend began humbly at First Avenue.
In addition to being the final three songs on the album, they're also the last songs that Purple Rain's protagonist, the Kid, performs with his band during the film's denouement—a personal triumph for the Kid, and a moment of unity for the band.
The triangular bond between Prince, First Avenue and Purple Rain continued during the fall of 1983 as production on the film began. Key scenes, like the film’s opening and closing performances, were filmed at the nightclub. First Avenue is where the Kid finally won Billy, the club's manager, over. In addition to earning the respect of rivals Morris and Jerome of the Time, he also ultimately stole the heart of his muse, Apollonia. More important, with the success of the album and film, Prince won the world over. He was already a star, but he wasn’t Prince yet. Purple Rain, the movie and its soundtrack, propelled him to superstardom, while transforming First Avenue into an iconic location.
Despite the attention that the summer of Purple Rain brought to First Avenue, opinions are split on how this exposure impacted the music scene in Minneapolis. Surprisingly, McClellan said the film did very little to improve it. "The movie had absolutely no relevant bearing on anything," he told NPR in 2011, while still crediting Prince for transcending racial lines present in the city’s clubs during that era. "A lot of mediocre bands were created very quickly because the major labels signed anybody funk." Bream disagrees. "People knew you could make it out of here and make it big," he explained to NPR. Bream added that Prince not only "proved you could stay [in Minneapolis] to make it," but that artists could "make it huge." The triumph of Purple Rain helped the Minneapolis sound carried by artists like Morris Day & the Time, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Sheila E., Alexander O’Neal, and the Family prosper during the ‘80s. First Avenue was responsible for pushing this wave.
Considering Purple Rain’s grand accomplishments, "purple reign" is a fitting title for Prince’s dominance during that period. The album went diamond, selling upwards of 20 million copies worldwide, and spent 24 straight weeks atop the Billboard charts. It also earned Prince two Grammys and an Oscar in 1985. The film, though widely accepted as terrible, raked in over $80 million on a $7 million budget. Beyond that, it’s unquestionably important, serving as a vehicle for the music. It did what Runaway did for Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, only on a much larger, less self-indulgent scale. First Avenue, the silent most valuable player, helped make both possible. "First Avenue’s really famous," Apollonia said during the infamous Lake Minnetonka scene. Thirty years later, its fame has only grown as a result of Purple Rain, as it's been anointed one of the elite live music venues in the U.S. Though it hosted big name acts prior to Purple Rain, it's become a marquee destination in its wake.
Aesthetically, the hundreds of stars which adorn First Avenue's exterior are its defining characteristic. Prince has one, of course, but First Avenue is a star in its own right, shining bright from downtown Minneapolis. As the place where Purple Rain was born, it deserves mention in the same sentence as Prince when discussing the creation of the phenomenon.