It's not possible to overstate the influence that Panther Burns has had on Memphis music since they roared into existence in 1979. The band set the template for the Memphis underground that has mutated and thrived ever since. Whether contemporary Memphis rockers know it or not, they all owe a debt to that original chaotic, noisy groove.
Leader Tav Falco got his start as a backup dancer in Jim Dickinson's Mud Boy and the Neutrons. "He embodied Memphis music like no other; he lived it, breathed it, and gave birth to a good part of it," says Falco, who went on to team up with Alex Chilton, then adrift in the wreckage of Big Star, and drummer Ross Johnson in a group that set out to upend Memphis music by raking the roots of rock and soul over the coals of the punk spirit.
"Panther Burns are the missing link between earlier musical forms and the current world," Falco says. "We would say, 'You composed it, and we decomposed it.'"
Their influences ran far afield. "I was going to the Paradise Club and listening to soul music. I was listening to country blues and avant-gardists like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Sun Ra's Solar Myth Arkestra, Eric Dolphy, people like that. When I started Panther Burns, it was coming back to a form that I had gotten away from," Falco says.
Recordings of the band's early performances and their 1981 album Behind the Magnolia Curtain are revelatory. Blues and early rock songs, and even tangos, are cut down to their core and slathered in reverb, feedback, and random synthesizer noises. Perhaps the nearest contemporary analog to their early sound would be Animal Collective's bizarre noise-folk, but Panther Burns has always defied description.
The band's intentionally sloppy style made them a polarizing presence. On their first local TV appearance, they were publicly berated by host Marge Thrasher as "the worst sound to ever come out on television." They became the darlings of the nascent Memphis punk scene, playing legendary shows at the Well, and were the opening-night headliner at its successor, the Antenna Club. After refusing to allow a Budweiser banner to hang behind them at the Beale Street Music Festival, Falco started Counterfest.
"This was the underground in Memphis, where not only musicians but visual artists, graphic artists, sculptors, performance artists came together and created our own festival in a different location every year," he says. "We were the anti-environment in Memphis."
But at the same time they were leading psychedelic bacchanals, they were introducing audiences to Memphis' overlooked musical heritage. They played alongside such performers as R.L. Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Furry Lewis.
"We brought Charlie Feathers onstage to play with us for the first time when the Memphis music establishment thought he was just a quack," he says. "I think Memphis is a lot more aware [now] than when Panther Burns started of its own cultural integrity and how that needs to be cultivated. It's not just another commodity that can be used up and tossed out like yesterday's papers. If Panther Burns did have an influence, it was in that area."
These days, Falco lives in Vienna, Austria, and serves as a sort of expat ambassador for Memphis music. "Memphis has opened a lot of doors for me all over the world. I've toured with the band in Australia and in Europe from Moscow to Barcelona, from Sicily to Oslo."
With an all-European lineup, Falco has continued to explore musically, with a new album, Conjurations: Seance for Deranged Lovers, just released in the United States. "This record is the masterpiece of the Panther Burns," Falco says. "It is composed of all original songs drawn from real-life incidents: ranging from a steamy tango, 'Secret Rendezvous,' to an electric noise-driven indictment of Wall Street entitled 'Administrator Blues.'"
This weekend, Falco will bring Panther Burns back to Memphis for the first time in many years with a show at the Hi-Tone Café featuring original drummer Ross Johnson. Admission is $15.