While grabbing a sandwich during a work break, Peter Jesperson stumbled upon a cover band that transformed how he thought about the Twin Cities music scene.
“I suppose I was a little bit of a snob working at the record store thinking there wasn’t anything local that was as good as what we were selling,” said the future Twin/Tone Records co-founder.
But as he waited for lunch at the CC Club, a band called Thumbs Up grabbed his attention with covers of The Zombies’ “Tell Her No” and the Cryan’ Shames’ “I Wanna Meet You.”
“When I saw Thumbs Up, that was really a game changer for me,” Jesperson said. “They were the catalyst, that’s when the light bulb went on over my head and I was kicking myself for not thinking there was good local music.”
Jesperson went on to co-found Twin/Tone Records in 1977, which signed over a hundred bands, including dozens of local acts like the Suburbs, Soul Asylum and Babes in Toyland.
Meanwhile, Thumbs Up was on the verge of its own turning point. After playing covers nearly every night at the CC Club to make a living, frontman Curt Almsted (Curtiss A) said, they switched their focus to performing their own music in 1976. That same year, future Replacements guitarist Bob “Slim” Dunlap joined the band.
The group soon recorded a five-song EP with Twin/Tone Records, with an invitation from Jesperson. In the studio, they changed their name to Spooks.
“I didn’t think Thumbs Up was a very good name for us, for an edgy band,” Almsted said.
Spooks’ sound blended the British pop that Almsted had mastered with American rhythm and blues, as Jesperson described it. At times, the EP is reminiscent of the emerging punk rock genre, with howling vocals and angry lyrics. Still, Almsted said, his group wasn’t going for punk. Groups like MC5, the Raspberries, Badfinger and The Hollies were all musical influences, though Almsted was aiming for something with even more attitude, he said.
“I believed in what I was saying. I wasn’t just writing a bunch of meaningless fluff. I was trying to let people know that there’s something spooky going on,” he said.
Aside from Slim and Curt, the band’s lineup varied between the EP and their live shows, which were often at Jay’s Longhorn Bar. The venue was one of the few places at the time that booked bands with original music, as most bars wanted cover bands, Jesperson said.
Jesperson said aside from the Replacements, which he managed, he saw Curt and Slim play more than any other band.
“There was a chemistry, you could tell … Curt could be very extreme and sometimes be on the verge of going off the deep end and Bob would kind of hold him down,” Jesperson said of their live shows. “They used to do an Everly Brothers song together called ‘Bird Dog’ and they sang it together trading verses and trading lines. I think of that and it just makes me smile every time. They fired off one another and they challenged each other.”
Spooks disbanded in 1980, but some members continued to collaborate on other projects, Almsted said.
“All the bands I was in were permutations of that band, with Slim and Frank Berry and a bunch of those guys. It was all sort of one big gang as far as I’m concerned, and it was kind of a rotating bunch of people,” Almsted said. “To me, Spooks was kind of the touchdown of, everything I’ve done since then, you can trace to it. That was the turning point for me.”
Almsted, who now plays in Jerks of Fate and performs an annual John Lennon tribute show at First Avenue, reflected on the development of rock bands and local venues in late ’70s and early ’80s: “There’s some people that keep track of this local history who think that there was something special about that era and those bands, and I would probably agree that it was a turning point and since then, it’s a never ending faucet.”
Jackie Renzetti studies journalism and political science at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities. She is an editor at the Minnesota Daily and co-hosts Radio K’s “Off the Record.”