The multiple televisions found inside Antenna — or "the Antenna Club," as the venue was commonly if imprecisely called — justified the famed punk-rock site's name and its New Wave TV-set logo.
But the name also rightly suggested that Antenna was attuned to something unique and vibrant in the ether.
Call it uneasy listening: the new sound of teenage rebellion, ennui, activism and sarcasm, a raucous strain of rock and roll that attracted sympathetic listeners and incipient music-makers from all over the region to a dark rectangular room at 1588 Madison that was part performance art space, part playpen and part ground zero for potential disaster, as demonstrated by an infamous 1991 concert by shock-rocker G.G. Allin, who made local headlines when he stripped naked and flung feces at the audience.
After three years of shooting interviews and collecting archival footage and vintage memorabilia, the eagerly awaited "Antenna," a feature documentary about the nightclub and the people it attracted, debuts at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Playhouse on the Square as the Friday "gala" screening of the Indie Memphis Film Festival, which began Thursday and continues through Sunday at various Midtown venues.
Born, phoenix-like, from the ashes of an aborted Antenna book project, the movie was written by musician/writer Ross Johnson, who played with such bands as Tav Falco's Panther Burns; longtime music writer John Floyd, who chronicled the local scene when he worked for the Memphis Flyer; and Memphis filmmaker C. Scott McCoy, the movie's director. The film is a creation of the new Antenna Projects LLC and McCoy's Oddly Buoyant Productions, in association with Live From Memphis. Floyd and former Antenna owner Steve McGehee are the executive producers. In addition, Floyd is compiling a soundtrack for the film that will be released via the local Wrecked 'Em Wreckords label.
"Who would have thought that after it's been closed these 17 years, there'd still be interest in it?" asked McGehee, 59, a self-described "Frayser redneck" and former T.G.I. Friday's head waiter who experienced a "life-changing calling" when he saw the Talking Heads in concert in Atlanta during the band's Remain in Light tour. (McGehee's brother, Mark, managed the club for its final four years.) "Its kind of weird and kind of flattering in the same respect."
McCoy, 41, said the documentary was edited — primarily by his wife, filmmaker Laura Jean Hocking — to its current 98 minutes from more than 100 hours of often-distressed archival footage and new interviews with more than 88 veterans of the club's 1981-1995 life span. Seventy-two interviewees made it into the final cut, including area scenesters, local musicians (Davis McCain of Barking Dog, Greg Hisky of Neon Wheels, Richard Martin of Corn for Texture) and touring musicians who would become famous (Mike Watt of the Minutemen, Robyn Hitchcock, Mike Mills of R.E.M.). In one vintage clip, Greg Ginn of California band Black Flag says he enjoys playing Memphis because "people party there very extensively."
Such storied bands as the Replacements, Mission of Burma and Bad Brains played the Antenna, but the film's focus is on the locals, including such influential ensembles as Panther Burns, the Randy Band, The Crime, The Modifiers, Big Ass Truck, The Grifters and the Oblivians, to name a very few.
Said Floyd: "The Antenna's pretty much open-stage policy gave a lot of weirdos a place to play, gave them an outlet that didn't really exist here at the time. And weirdos have always been wildly important in Memphis music."
That notion is affirmed by the mimeographed handouts, stapled fanzines and other scavenged examples of "punk" flotsam that are reproduced throughout the film. A flyer for the Psychic Plowboys, for example, promotes the band as "hedonistic sociopathic slackmasters of the apocalypse."
The documentary traces the origins of the club, which evolved from The Well, a roughhouse bar managed by Frank and Jackie Duran (strangely, nobody ever refers to them as "Duran Duran"). As the Antenna, it became arguably the most important spot for music in Memphis in the era between the departure of the major music industry and the rise of rap, digital media and the Internet.
The film's production was protracted and sometimes tense, but "to me the Antenna documentary is one of the dream projects for Memphis filmmakers," McCoy said. "People have talked about making it for a long time."
The key was telling a story that would resonate even for those outside of Memphis and those who never experienced the club. "This is about what happened when punk and alternative and New Wave spread from the coasts to the rest of the country," McCoy said. "It's a musical history, and it's also a social history about these creative people who got together in this space."
Memphis made powerful, distinctive music that holds up today in part because the city "was relatively untouched by larger cultural and musical trends," Johnson said. "We did not just ape the trends that began in London, New York and L.A. We created our own styles and approaches, and they were hardly commercial. Listening back to those records and tapes, I am surprised at how raw and how unique almost every band who played here sounded."
Indie Memphis Film Festival ‘gala’ premiere 6:30 p.m. Friday, Playhouse on the Square, 66 S. Cooper. Advance tickets sold out; limited $10 tickets available at the door.
Ross Johnson and Monsieur Jeffrey Evans perform from 5-6:30 p.m. in Playhouse Festival Café. “After-after-party” concert with the Modifiers (featuring founding member and guitarist Bob Holmes) and Angerhead at 10 p.m., Minglewoood Hall, 1555 Madison. Cover: $5.Visit indiememphis.com.