What do Congressman Steve Cohen, psychedelic swamp-a-billy band the Hellcats, and the Sex Pistols all have in common?
They share a connection to the Antenna club, Memphis' first alternative venue, a music space and bar that catered to all things weird and wild in the Bluff City. Rep. Cohen was the club's attorney, the Hellcats were one of the bands who played there. And the Sex Pistols, many Antenna patrons agree, fired the shot that helped kick off the enterprise.
The Antenna opened in 1981 and closed in 1995; in its place now are an event rental space and the new Crab 'N Go restaurant. But the storied Madison Avenue venue will get its due this Saturday, October 5th, with the unveiling of a historic marker, followed by musical performances by Antenna-era bands at nearby venues. The day before the unveiling, C. Scott McCoy's (aka Flyer film editor Chris McCoy) award-winning Antenna documentary will screen at Black Lodge, with an after-party at the Lamplighter.
With the closure of Stax Records in 1976 and the death of Elvis Presley in '77, the Memphis music scene entered a state of suspended animation. Bands still played, but the forward momentum was stalled. Then, in 1978, the Sex Pistols played Memphis, providing the jolt the city needed. That spark of inspiration ignited a thousand (or at least a dozen) punk bands, according to former Antenna owner Steve McGehee.
"When the Sex Pistols played here in Memphis, it really launched a lot of the music I was doing. It was like, 'Oh, well, I can do this,'" McGehee recalls. "It's the same thing with me with the club. I went to Atlanta and New York. I was wanting to open a club, and I would go in, and they were just dives. I was like, 'I could do this.'"
That punk rock ethos informed much of what became the Antenna. Inspired by the Sex Pistols and led by Tav Falco's Panther Burns (featuring Alex Chilton), the Randy Band, the Scruffs, and the Klitz when the club was called the Well, the venue was an oasis of reckless originality.
"It was the home base for the DIY movement," says Doug Easley of the venue, founder of Easley McCain Recording, the studio that eventually drew bands such as Sonic Youth, Pavement, and Wilco to Memphis. That was well after acts like Panther Burns, Pezz, and the Grifters had already cut tracks there. Easley was a fixture at the Antenna, sometimes playing with bands there, sometimes recording those bands in his home studio.
One of the bands who cut its teeth on Antenna's stage was Distemper, featuring a young Mike McCarthy, a fixture of the Memphis arts and music scene. It was McCarthy that McGehee turned to when he decided it was time to secure the Antenna's place in history.
"Mike McCarthy is quite a force of nature," McGehee says. "He's preserving a lot of music history." McCarthy, who sculpted the new Johnny Cash statue in Cooper-Young, helped set the historical marker machine in motion. "We were approved by unanimous vote," McGehee says. "I was kind of surprised by that because of always being the punk rocker and being vilified back in the day."
"A lot of people were afraid of the Antenna. They were totally freaked out by it. They were afraid they'd get spit on or something," Easley adds.
All this is covered in depth in the Antenna documentary, along with clips of dozens of bands and gloriously camp black-and-white footage of a bespectacled Tav Falco, holding a large tome and hypnotically reciting clever asides about the club's early years.
Antenna hosted local and national bands of vastly different sounds — punk, hardcore, country, and new wave — and pioneered all-ages shows in the city. It was, essentially, a box with a PA system and a bar. But for 15 years, that box gave Memphians a place to play, to experiment with sound and stage presence. And that is something worth remembering.
Screening of the Antenna documentary Friday, October 4th, 7 p.m., at Black Lodge. Alex Greene & the Weeds play the Lamplighter October 4th after the screening. The marker unveiling is Saturday, October 5th, 4:30 p.m., at 1588 Madison. Antenna bands will perform at Murphy's, B-Side, and the Lamplighter Lounge after the ceremony.