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Memphis’ Infamous Antenna Club Finally Gets Its Due

“At the Antenna club, babies were conceived, fist-fights were settled, and legends were created and destroyed in an instant.”– Tav Falco

In the years spanning between 1981 and 1995, a ramshackle club located at 1588 Madison Ave. became the unlikely epicenter of Memphis’ counterculture, providing a space for the local punk, new wave, hardcore, and garage rock scenes to grow and flourish. This weekend, the Antenna club will receive a well-earned acknowledgment with the unveiling of an official historical marker at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 5, followed by a series of live performances. While this may seem like an unexpected symbol of appreciation from a city that often viewed the club with an air of disdain during its heyday, the gesture also speaks to the intense reverence that many still feel for the club that launched dozens of bands, hundreds of friendships, and a new era of Memphis music.

For those who are unfamiliar with the mythos of Antenna, there is probably no better place to start than with the documentary film ANTENNA, an in-depth examination of the club and its patrons that will be airing at Black Lodge Video the night before the historical marker’s unveiling. Chris McCoy, the film’s director and a musician who frequented the club as both a performer and fan, has spent the better part of the past decade methodically gathering information about Antenna and the vital figures who helped to transform it from an unassuming dive into a legitimate cultural institution.

“I’ve said for a long time that three movies needed to be made about Memphis: the sanitation worker’s strike, the Big Star story, and the Antenna club,” McCoy says, although he admits to being reluctant to begin the project due to a perceived lack of archival material. “I’d hung out there on and off from 1989 ‘til ’95, and I never saw anyone with a camera. I just figured there wasn’t any footage.” However, after the word got out that someone was finally trying to document the Antenna’s story, McCoy was soon in possession of dozens of VHS tapes containing roughly 100 hours of video. This footage, interspersed with various interviews from former staff, musicians, and fans, paints a fascinating portrait of a venue at the forefront of an emerging cultural movement.

When Antenna first opened its doors in the early ‘80s, Memphis found itself in a precarious situation, particularly as a once-proud music city. Elvis Presley was dead, Stax Records had shuttered its doors, and some of the city’s finest musical talents were leaving the city in droves for so-called greener pastures. Nevertheless, out of this malaise arose a bedraggled phoenix that would breathe new life into Memphis and transform Midtown into the city’s new musical epicenter.

“The really important thing about Antenna was that it kick-started this Midtown music culture. The culture of ‘you can play original music in Memphis.’ The culture of ‘even if you aren’t a big draw, you still have a place to play.’ Every scene needs a safe place for people to play and for the artists to gather and begin a dialogue together. That all started at Antenna,” McCoy explains.

That legacy lives on today through Midtown institutions such as Goner Records, the Hi Tone, Black Lodge Video, Shangri-La Records, and Bar DKDC, all of which, to varying degrees, embody the DIY ethos and sense of community that Antenna club launched.

The Antenna club began as the brainchild of James Barker and Phillip Stratton, who painted the interior black and sprinkled it with mounted TV monitors playing music videos, a novelty at the time. In those early years, the Antenna provided a stage for a myriad of local acts such as the Crime, Panther Burns, Calculated X, and the Modifiers. These bands were instrumental in exposing the crowds—and each other—to the various nascent forms of music that were still largely relegated to the nation’s coasts. When the club came under the tutelage of Steve McGehee, it began booking more acts from out-of-towners, including early performances from future legends like R.E.M., Black Flag, and Bad Brains, solidifying its reputation as one of the country’s most important early punk venues.

Distemper by Chris McCoy

As ANTENNA makes clear, the venue was not only unique within Memphis but also stood out amongst the nation’s other punk clubs as well. “While it was definitely cliquish at certain times, especially during the hardcore years, Antenna was largely a pretty open affair that welcomed basically anyone,” McCoy says. This sense of openness meant that women played a large role in the burgeoning scene, something that is still sadly novel in many punk and hardcore venues today. “I don’t think it would pass muster today, but for 1981 it was quite radical,” McCoy says. “A lot of that was Melody Danielson, who taught the punks how to dress, but also the Klitz, which was composed of all women and was probably Memphis’ first punk band. Women were always pretty well-represented in the crowd.” The Hellcats, a female “swampabilly” band that will be performing as part of the weekend’s festivities, formed at  Antenna and went on to play the venue numerous times. “A lot of girls saw us as inspiration to be in bands,” the Hellcats’ Misty White states in the film.

Melody Danielson by Chris McCoy

By the early ‘90s, new bands and genres began to emerge at the club as acts like the Grifters and the Oblivians ushered in Memphis’ garage and indie rock scenes, both of which would go on to inspire majors acts like the White Stripes and the Black Keys years later. Soon after, however, financial issues and shifting cultural appetites ultimately led to the demise of Antenna, leaving a void in the culture that can still be felt to this day. “I think that whole era was underappreciated,” claims former owner Steve McGehee in ANTENNA. “This club and this scene and these people didn’t get any of the respect that they deserved.” Twenty-four years later, it seems that the people of Memphis are finally ready to give Antenna its proper reverence, however long overdue.

Antenna Celebration

Antenna Documentary Screening

Friday, October 4, 7-10 PM at Black Lodge Video

Historical Marker Unveiling 

Saturday, October 5, 4:30 PM at 1588 Madison Ave.

Various Performances

Saturday, October 5, 6 PM-Midnight 

B Sides, 1555 Madison Ave. 

6:00 p.m. – Dream Journal feat. Robby Grant
6:30 p.m. – Jim Duckworth
7:00 p.m. – Modifiers
7:30 p.m. – Calculated X / Barking Dog
8:00 p.m. – Small Room
8:30 p.m. – The Markdowns play the Rockroaches
9:00 p.m. – Pezz 9:30 p.m. – Sobering Consequences
10:00 p.m. – Grifters
10:30 p.m. – Alex Greene & the Weeds
11:00 p.m. – Lorette
11:30 p.m. – Hellcats
12:00 a.m. – Odd Jobs 

Murphy’s, 1589 Madison Ave. 

6:00 p.m. – Linda Heck
6:30 p.m. – Grown Up Wrongs
7:00 p.m. – Mark Harrison
7:30 p.m. – Bum Note Bob
8:00 p.m. – Rick Camp, Carlton Rash and Friends
8:30 p.m. – The Klitz
9:00 p.m. – Randy Band
9:30 p.m. – Whatever Dude
10:00 p.m. – Recoil
10:30 p.m. – Jimi Inc.
11:00 p.m. – Devil Train
11:30 p.m. – Olivera 

Lamplighter Lounge, 1702 Madison Ave. 

6:30 p.m. – Cuz
7:00 p.m. – Kip Uhlhorn
7:30 p.m. – Javi Arcega
8:00 p.m. – Richard James w/Java
8:30 p.m. – Ross Johnson and Jeff Evans
9:30 p.m. – Los Psychosis
10:00 p.m. – Impala
11:00 p.m. – Harris Scheuner
12:00 a.m. – Jack Oblivian & the Sheiks 

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