For two generations of Memphians, the name Antenna was synonymous with cutting edge music. The tiny club on Madison Avenue in Midtown was ground zero for a musical revolution, playing host not only to punk, hardcore, and alternative bands such as REM, Black Flag, and The Minutemen, but also to a diverse—and criminally overlooked—group of Memphis musicians who built a parallel musical universe on its stage.
In 1977, Memphis had hit bottom. With the death of Elvis and the collapse of Stax Records, the music that made the city famous was fading into memory. Local artists who played original music—even Alex Chilton’s now-legendary band Big Star—found themselves locked out of Memphis clubs in favor of cover bands and disco DJs. But a small group of misfits, inspired by the new sounds coming from New York and England, carved out a niche for themselves. Bassist Randy Chertow convinced the owners of a decaying dive bar called The Well to lend him a stage, and soon The Randy Band were attracting legions of kids with their Velvet Underground-inspired sound. They were joined by Memphis’ first true punk band, an all-female group The Klitz, and Chilton and Tav Falco’s groundbreaking shockabilly band Panther Burns.
As the 80s dawned, two punk fans named Jimmy Barker and Steve McGehee bought The Well and transformed it into Antenna, which became the epicenter of a creative explosion that reverberates to this day. The club pursued its mission of bringing new music to Memphis by playing music videos years before MTV had even launched, and by bringing the bands on the cutting edge of the punk and New Wave explosion to town. But it was the no-rules musical venue it provided for local artists that was the club’s most lasting legacy.
Three generations of Memphis musicians learned their craft and created startling new sounds on the Antenna stage. From the synth pop of Calculated X to the revolutionary country punk of The Modifiers; from the influential droneabilly of the Hellcats to the politically charged satire of Neighborhood Texture Jam; from the lo-fi alternative of The Grifters to the instrumental surf of Impala; from the funky psychedelia of Big Ass Truck to and the straight-ahead garage punk of The Oblivians, it all evolved on the same stage.
As the decade progressed, Antenna also opened its doors for all-ages, hardcore skate punks with names like Metro Waste, Sobering Consequences, Pezz, Slit Wrist and Raid, whose youthful idealism sparked a lifetime of activism for some while leading others down a darker path. But Antenna was more than a musical venue. It was a meeting place for the freaks, the misfits, the artistic, and the dispossessed cast-offs from the reactionary South of the Reagan 80s. It was a pressure cooker for art and ideas that played a large part in cementing the creative identity of contemporary Midtown Memphis.
Ironically, as the 1990s brought the underground music the Antenna had championed to the forefront, the club itself declined, a victim of copycat clubs, techno, and a police crackdown brought on by a disastrous performance by New York shock rocker GG Allin. Even though alternative rock ruled the day, none of the Antenna bands ever saw lasting mainstream commercial success. But 17 years after it closed, the Antenna lives on in the thriving Memphis underground music scene it inspired.