Memphis’ first punk rock club honored with historical marker

Former Antenna Club owner Steve McGehee, center, unveils a historical marker honoring in front of the music venue on Madison Ave., Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. The club was the the epicenter of Memphis punk and new wave scene in late 70s and early 80s.
Former Antenna Club owner Steve McGehee, center, unveils a historical marker honoring in front of the music venue on Madison Ave., Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. The club was the the epicenter of Memphis punk and new wave scene in late 70s and early 80s. Mark Weber

When musician and historian Mike McCarthy parked his car outside The Antenna Club, Memphis' first venue dedicated to fans of underground and hardcore rock, for the first time, he was a wayward rural teen, well out of his element.

"This guy with a mohawk, we see him turn the corner at Avalon, and he walked into the club," McCarthy said.

"And we think, 'Oh, wow! Look at that guy. That guy's going to beat the hell out of us tonight. I know it.' That guy ended up being our waiter, serving us drinks.

"We thought we were punk rock in Mississippi. When we got to The Antenna Club, it was another step on the way to understanding what the culture was like."

McCarthy, now 56, was instrumental in coordinating with the Shelby County Historical Commission to honor the club where he came of age. With the commission, the club's former owner Steve McGehee, musicians and fans, McCarthy helped unveil a marker outside the former club, which is now events space The Renaissance.

The opportunity to commemorate the history while major players were still alive and the structure still stands was a major sticking point for McCarthy.

"My affiliation with historic markers, as I've seen in the last 30 years, is that you put up a historic marker when it's too late — when there's nothing there but a parking lot," McCarthy said.

Shelby County Historian Jimmy Rout III announced in front of a crowd of onlookers at the marker dedication ceremony that the commission jumped at the opportunity to honor the former punk rock palace with a marker.

"This is culturally significant. It has a definite cultural, historical value in this county," Rout said. "We, of course, unanimously approved it."

McGehee opened The Antenna Club in 1981, three years after the Sex Pistols performed in the nearby Taliesyn Ballroom. The concert signaled, for many Memphis music fans, a change in tastes. And bands interested in playing the cutting-edge style of music were looking for places to play.

"After the Sex Pistols played, it spawned a new generation of music that was DIY," McGehee said.

"I would go to clubs in Atlanta and New York and see that it didn't have to be polished and clean with tablecloths and all that. The punk and new wave scene, whatever you wanted to call it, were in mostly little (holes in the wall), and I knew I could do that."

When popular underground music club The Well was going out of business, McGehee took the opportunity to start his own venue in the building, catering to a similar demographic.

"The idea was to have TVs all around the room and have Rock American video tapes," McGehee said.

"Those were very instrumental in shaping a lot of musicians around town, because they were able to see stuff going on around the world. Thus, the name The Antenna."

McGehee ran the establishment for a decade, before passing it on to his brother. In 1995, the doors would close.

"Ten years of dealing with all that and really not making any money, when you're single, you can squeak by. But when you're married, you start having burnout. That was the determining factor for me," McGehee said.

Other factors included new clubs drawing their crowd and their acts and, according to McGehee, a recurring battle with authority.

"I had constant problems with the cops. A lot," he said.

"We were very vilified back then by the government and the police. As you could imagine, in '81, kids with mohawks and colored hair wearing black leather and all that hanging out in front of the club, they were scared of us. They thought we were in there killing each other."

Despite what might have been a contentious relationship in the 1980s, police blocked through traffic on Madison in order to facilitate the dedication of The Antenna's historical marker, guiding vehicles around the mass of partygoers who attended the event.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-D), who provided legal counsel for the club during the years of its operation, spoke to its place in Memphis' rock and roll history.

"This was Sun Records of the 1980s," Cohen told the crowd. "This was a change in music that wasn't accepted by Memphis, but came here and gave Memphians and Midtowners a music that otherwise they wouldn't have had, that was going around the country."

McCarthy, who in June unveiled a statue of Johnny Cash outside the site of his first paid performance, told guests at the ceremony he will continue his charge to preserve Memphis' music history.

"The more history that we save, the more respect that we earn," he said, "especially since we created rock and roll."