ANTENNA CLUB ROCKS AGAIN
OLD FRIENDS, BANDS GATHER FOR MIDTOWN ‘FAMILY’ REUNION
FOR CAMERON HINSON, LIKE SO MANY other Memphis music fans and bands, this weekend will be a homecoming.
Midtown’s fondly remembered and long-lamented Antenna Club will once again come alive with familiar sounds, as more than two dozen bands from the club’s heyday perform as part of an Antenna Club Reunion.
The event, organized by Hinson and Benny Carter of Murphy’s (which will also be hosting a stage as part of the festival), will mark the storied history of the club on Madison near Avalon, which began booking bands 30 years ago.
“It’s going to be an interesting version of ‘old home week,’” says Ross Johnson, a member of the Panther Burns, perhaps the Antenna’s earliest and most infamous band.
Johnson, who’s been doing research and interviews for an oral history of the Antenna, points out that the club had existed under a number of names and guises before bands began performing there — and its reputation was always fearsome.
“It had been a strip club and a biker bar, and various incarnations,” says Johnson. “It was a real tough place.”
In the winter of 1979, owners Frank and Jackie Durand began booking bands at the venue, then named The Well. A handful of Midtown outfits provided the entertainment, including Randy Band and Johnson’s Panther Burns, the latter led by performance artist Tav Falco and former Box Tops/Big Star leader Alex Chilton.
As Johnson notes, the bands and clientele in those days were wild, and reminders of the club’s even wilder past were ever present. “There was already a stage there because of the strippers, and there was a mirrored glass back, also because of the strippers,” recalls Johnson, laughing. “For the first couple of years when I sat down to play drums, I would look back and see my bloated sweating face and go, ‘Oh yeah, strippers.’”
The Durands ran the venue until early 1981, when promoters Jimmy Barker and Phillip Stratton took over and renamed it the Antenna Club. Although they continued booking locals, Barker and Stratton also began bringing in out-of-town acts. “They were paying big money, and maybe overpaid on guarantees. And so they were (out of the club) after a few months,” says Johnson. “That’s when Steve McGehee came in. And that’s when it really changed; it got more serious.”
The Frayser-bred McGehee — who’d cut his teeth as a waiter at TGIFridays — and later, his brother Mark, would run the club for the next 14 years, establishing the Antenna as the “CBGBs of the South” — a reference to the famous New York punk venue.
Fortuitously for the McGehees, their stewardship of the club coincided with the rise
of American indie rock and a growing touring circuit that brought bands like R.E.M., the Replacements, Black Flag, the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets into the Antenna regularly.
While the music on stage was often magical, the makeup of the audience was equally notable. “It was a cultural mish-mash, with people from Frayser and East Memphis trust funders, gays, straights — everybody seemed to get along,” says Johnson. “It was a very unlikely mix.”
Throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s, the club also became a focal point for up-and-coming local talent, providing a home base for notable Memphis groups like The Grifters, Compulsive Gamblers, Impala and the Oblivians.
As time wore on, the Antenna faced competition in the form of other clubs like the Loose End and weathered the fading fortunes of live entertainment in Midtown. Ultimately, though, after a decade and a half of music, the Antenna closed in the summer of 1995.
For most of the Antenna’s former denizens, the club remained a fond but distant memory. The building itself has reopened and changed names numerous times — it’s currently called Nocturnal — and the Antenna Club’s old sign eventually took its place at neighboring Murphy’s, which carried on the Antenna’s loose spirit of live music. Earlier this year, Murphy’s owner Benny Carter even began booking occasional rock shows at Nocturnal.
It was also early this year that Cameron Hinson unwittingly helped spawn the Antenna reunion. Hinson was a Navy brat who ended up in Memphis as a teenager in the mid-’80s, and became an Antenna regular. She left Memphis almost 15 years ago, and lost touch with many of her old friends. In January, she decided to hop on the social networking site Facebook to see if she could get in touch with a few forgotten pals.
“And immediately I was in contact again with hundreds of friends from the Antenna days,” says Hinson. “One day, I just thought ‘What about a reunion of these people?’”
Originally conceived as a modest reunion of friends to be held at Murphy’s, Hinson contacted a couple Antenna bands like Pezz about performing. “And then more people asked me to play, then more people saw who was playing, they got excited. I thought if this reaction is going on, why not take the next logical step and make it Antenna reunion.”
Hinson sought the blessing of Steve McGehee, who owns copyright to the Antenna name and logo, and a full-fledged reunion festival was on.
The concert event, set for tonight and Saturday, will be a day-night affair taking place at the former Antenna site and across the street at Murphy’s. The lineup will be headlined by a reunion of the Compulsive Gamblers, as well as appearances by Impala, Pezz, Hedgecreep and more than 20 other acts.
Hinson’s work on the reunion has a personal bonus: She reconnected with a high school sweetheart and the couple are now engaged to be married.
“The Antenna was a really special place for all of us,” says Hinson. “So this is long overdue.”
For one nostalgic weekend, the old Antenna Club in Midtown will live anew in a reunion concert of favorite bands from the club’s heyday and the patrons/friends who populated the wild and crazy venue. The site now houses Nocturnal.
Compulsive Gamblers are among bands booked for a weekend reunion of the Antenna Club — now Nocturnal — and also at Murphy’s.