June 22, 2022

Preserving the Past with the Memphis Punk Archives

Editor’s note: Alex Peterson is a student in Professor Rebecca Finlayson’s introductory journalism course at Rhodes College. Students taking the course spent time this spring researching and writing about Memphis. They learn the basic principles and techniques of journalistic writing while learning about their local community. Memphis will share examples of some of the students’ work over the coming days and weeks.

Memphis once had one of the darkest, most energetic and passionate punk scenes in the South, but very few artifacts have survived over the years. This chapter of the city’s musical history is almost forgotten, but the Memphis Punk Archives seeks to revive the scene by transforming old forms of media into a digital space. The fan-run archive is run by Drew Ryan and Daniel Drinkard, who were both born and raised in Memphis. Ryan is a Chicago-based graphic designer and art director, while Drinkard owns a record store in Birmingham. The two collect old punk material from Memphis – music, photographs, posters and other ephemera – and digitize it for their site. At no cost, fans can listen to (and download) over 70 full-length albums, cassettes and demos on their band camp site and get a visceral take on the Memphis punk scene.

Punk isn’t one of Memphis’ most mainstream musical exports, but it still follows the city’s core ethos: do it yourself, support others, and love your hometown. The music was full of fury, frantic drumming, searing guitar riffs and singers streaming for their lives. The shows were intense and the venues filled with moshing teenagers, often located in isolated neighborhoods of Memphis, on the lower levels of parking lots or in downtown alleys.

This is the main motive behind Memphis Punk Archive: to digitize the music of the past for the people of the present.

Barristers was one such place, tucked away in an alley off Jefferson Avenue. The place had poor air conditioning and the occupants probably couldn’t go 30 minutes without getting drenched in sweat. But judging by old photos and memorabilia, they enjoyed their time there, with everyone from local artists to touring metalheads frequenting the spot.

It’s a shame that for years there was very little about the historic site on the internet. That is, until Memphis Punk Archive uploads a set never seen by local band His Hero Is Gone on their YouTube channel. Something nearly 30 years ago now sees new life in a new format.

Many stories about Memphis’ local art and artists have been forgotten in the modern era. In an age where everything is digital and accessible through websites, people forget to check out the tangibles, outside of Spotify’s recommendations. This is the main motive behind Memphis Punk Archive: to digitize the music of the past for the people of the present.

Drinkard and Ryan are continually building this electronic archive. In true DIY style, all proceeds go back to the town through donations to either WYXR 91.7 FM or the South Central Peace and Justice Center. They tout their collection of old Memphian classics like early emo band Pezz and crust punk band His Hero Is Gone. “Daniel and I played in a lot of punk bands growing up,” says Ryan, half of the archive. “We have a lot of old Memphis punk CDs, tapes, records and ephemera in our collection these days.” Looking for Car Crash, Comatoast, Man With Gun Lives Here, Pezz, Copout, Bury the Living, and more? Everything is here.

The two started the project after reminiscing about their past history in the Memphis punk scene. While reminiscing, they realized that people might enjoy revisiting music from their youth, as well as those unfamiliar with the short-lived scene. “We quickly realized that a lot of people would enjoy seeing and hearing this stuff again,” Ryan says. Thus, the goal was established – to preserve Memphis’ grimy, angsty underground.

Many of these groups existed at the start of the internet age, but they have been lost to time, their efforts crumbling to the bottom of a crate of cassette tapes in basements and abandoned storage units. “People like to think of Spotify as an archive of all the music in the world, but that’s far from the case,” Ryan says. “There’s so, so much music that’s not online anywhere, especially indie music.” Memphis Punk Archive provides a platform for somewhat forgotten acts to get a second wind of life in the era digital.

The lifespan of old Memphian punk bands reflects the attention they received – which wasn’t much. They would often just put out a few demo tapes, play a few shows, and then go out of business months or years later. That was exactly how things were back then – entirely in the moment, not really concerned with lasting forever.

Memphis Punk Archive features a cavalcade of Memphian punk art. It comes in many forms: a website full of music, an Instagram page with old show flyers, a YouTube channel with old footage, anything they can use to digitize old Memphian punk. They collect and compile everything from 20-year-old fliers to gritty hardcore show footage. Without these records, many would never have heard of Memphis’ vibrant local scene.

The city is known for its music in all its forms, so why is punk so rarely mentioned? “I don’t think it’s a lack of ambition,” Ryan says. “Memphis is such a musical city, and punk music feels more like anti-music, or at least it was before the internet became a household thing.”

Even with that, people love what the Memphis punk scene has created. Ryan reflects on how appreciation for Memphis punk has grown over the years. “There are a lot of European and Japanese crust punk kids who really like His Hero Is Gone and Tragedy,” he says. Memphis doesn’t necessarily celebrate its own music, outside of Sun, Stax, Sam Phillips – as usual. He notes that Memphis is often considered the birthplace of rock and roll and the home of the blues, but there’s a lot more to be found here besides Elvis, Big Star and Stax Records.

As for the future of the archives, the two plan to compile all of Memphis’ forgotten punk classics and put them on wax. Their Bandcamp site has countless demos to check out, allowing them to fall in love with the past. And if anyone isn’t too familiar with the scene, Ryan says now is a great time to start.