F**K-YOU BRILLIANCE The Avengers

“I can
only scream at the top of my lungs for a certain amount of time”: in which we
give the legendary Penelope Houston her chance to scream at BLURT. 

 

BY JOHN B. MOORE

 

From 1977-79 the San Francisco band The Avengers were the
West Coasts answer to New York bands trying to claim the East Coast as the
capitol of the punk movement. Through frenetic there-minute bursts of fuck-you
brilliance on singles like “Teenage Rebel” and “We Are the One,” the band
cemented its reputation through live shows that drew kindred punks from across
the state. 

 

The Avengers were tapped by the Sex Pistols to open the
final show for the British punks and so impressed Pistols’ Steve Jones that he
produced a recording session for them. The band eventually broke up in 1979
with a three-song EP to their name and a bunch of unreleased tracks.

 

With the band ostensibly dead, Penelope Houston started a
solo career that veered away from punk toward a quieter singer/songwriter folk
sound. Meanwhile another EP and a full length self-titled release (often
referred to as The Pink Album)
surfaced from The Avengers. In the late ‘90s, sensing renewed interest in the
band, Houston
and guitarist Greg Ingraham decided to put the band back together for
occasional tours. Original bassist Jimmy Wilsey and drummer Danny Furious opted out, so they were replaced by Joel Reader and
eventually Luis Illades.

 

More songs and albums came out over the years, but the band
is just now releasing its most exhaustive collection of songs yet: a two CD set
of 31 tracks including the hard to find Pink
Album
and a slew of live songs and other rarities. (Avengers, released on the Water label, was recently reviewed by
BLURT.)

 

On the eve of a European tour to promote her latest solo
record On Market Street, Houston spoke about the
Avengers compilation, the band’s legacy, and rumors of a full reunion of all
original band members.

 

 

 

BLURT: People
have been asking for a set like this for years. I ended up buying a bootleg
cassette of The Pink Album off of eBay
years ago, because I couldn’t find it anywhere else. So I guess the first
question is why release this now?

Well, we had legal obstacles which were resolved and it just
took a really long time for that to happen.

 

So what
is on this release?

What we were trying to do was present every song that The
Avengers had written. So there are 31 songs on the new record, including different
versions; so it’s more than just The Pink
Album.

 

In
sifting through these songs and recordings, did you come across any surprises?

I’ve actually put out a couple of compilations of, I guess
you’d say rarities, so I’ve already sorted through every live recording and
trader tapes, over the years. One of the things that surprised me is that we
had a bunch of songs that I didn’t even remember. Obviously I had written the
lyrics, I’d sung them, we’d played them, but they were gone from my brain completely
(laughs)…. There was this one song called “Friends” that ended up as a B-side of
a single to “Teenage Rebel” and I remember hearing it and thinking “Oh wow,
this is a pretty cool song, I have no recollection of it whatsoever.” That was
kind of funny. Oh, and as an aside, a close friend of mine is also releasing
three of the singles on color vinyl (“We Are the One,” “Paint it Black” and
“Teenage Rebel”).  I’ve actually been
stuffing all of these records myself. [

So
anyone who buys one of those can say that it was hand-packed by you?

 (Laughs) Probably. I probably touched every one of these singles at
some point.

 

[Pictured below; the 45s were
key items on the most recent Record Store Day.
]

 

 

 

 

So is
this a chance for a whole new generation to discover the band?

When we play shows now – Greg and I have been out playing as
The Avengers for the last seven years or so – what I’ve noticed is that there
are a few people who have been around since the original shows. And then
there’s a slew of people who first heard of us in the ‘80s and ‘90s when The Pink Album was out and these were
people who never thought they would see us perform. And then there’s a whole
new bunch of people, and that’s people in their twenties who are just
discovering us. There’s a completely new audience who will be exposed to the
record and I think that’s pretty exciting.

 

When
the band was getting going in the late ‘70s, did you feel at the time that you
were doing something that was still going to be talked about nearly four
decades later or at the time was it something you didn’t even think about?

Well, I have to say that we didn’t realize that it would be
a legacy of the band, but we did think that we were breaking down some walls; that
we were trying to take apart or destroy and reassemble rock music as it had
come before us. And I think we were kind of aware of that to some extent, as some
sort of cultural phenomenon. We weren’t sitting around and talking about it, we
were just getting together and creating the music, but we did feel like what we
were doing was totally different from what had come before. You could walk
around San Francisco, Seattle or wherever and you were and you could
see the 11 or so people that you knew in that town. You could identify them by
their look. We didn’t talk about that fact that we were starting this new tribe
or movement or however you want to talk about it, but we felt that we were
making a change on the cultural landscape and I think that turned out to be
correct.

        But if someone
had said to me there will be people who will be searching for your music on eBay
30 years from now I don’t think I would have believed it. But that would have
been really helpful to know, because I’d have taken a box full of our music and
just put it away for awhile!

        In some ways
we recognized we were doing something that was substantial, but in other ways
we didn’t really perceive the longevity.

 

With
this new album coming out, are there plans for a one-off show?

Greg and I have been playing with Joel Reader (who was in
the Mr. T Experience) and Luis Illades for years now so we’ve formed a pretty
tight version of The Avengers and we’re not trying to reinvent anything. The
two of them live on the East Coast and Greg and I live in the Bay Area – not together
by the way, some people think that – so we don’t frequently do one-off shows,
but when something comes up, like a tour of Europe,
we’re all pretty interested, so we’ll get together and play. For this release
we’ll do about eight shows on the West Coast and then in July we’re going to
hit Europe for 20 or so shows. It will be nice
to be there during the summer because I’ve done Europe
so many times in February.

 

(contemporary
Avengers live 1/28/12; via band’s Facebook page)

 

 

 

You’re
about to head there for some solo shows, right?

Yeah, I’m about to head there Tuesday. And there’s also this
rumor that Danny Furious (original drummer) is going to come out for this punk
rock Mabuhay Gardens reunion thing that is said to be
happening later this year. [Editor’s
note: Mabuhay Gardens
was an influential San Francisco
punk club in the late 70’s. Along with The Avengers, it hosted bands like The
Ramones, Blondie, The Germs, Black Flag and Devo.]
There’s a bunch of
people involved in it, and I’m kind of watching it on the side.

 

So by
rumor, are you actively trying to get this going or…

The rumor is that Danny is going to come and we’re going to
play together as the original band. And Jimmy (original bassist James Wilsey)
hasn’t responded yet in any positive way about playing.

 

And
would you want that to happen?

Oh yeah, I think it would be great to play with everybody
again. Danny spent years and years away from the drums and he started playing
again in the last couple of years with all these members from other punk rock
bands. He was always such an amazing drummer, so I’m really excited for him…
There’s no date and it’s still just a rumor, but it’s a rumor that could lead
to something.  I know there are a lot of
people who would really like to see all four original members of The Avengers
playing together again, but I’m not sure if that is ever going to happen.

        It would be
nice, but it has been great playing with Joel and Luis who have been playing as
The Avengers a lot longer than the original band was ever around. People seem really
happy to hear the way we sound. That’s a cool thing. One of my goals with
having this version of the band is to play Japan. It hasn’t happened yet, but
maybe.

 

 

 

 

Your
solo work over the years sounds pretty far removed from your work with The
Avengers and there almost seems to be this natural movement now for punk
musicians to move into folk music. What do you think the draw is?

That’s a good question. I think it’s just the simplicity and
directness of it. When you’re in a punk band I’m sure there are people that
just have an acoustic guitar around the house that they write on. Or maybe not,
maybe you always have to be plugged in and turned to 11, but for me as a
songwriter in The Avengers everything had to be written the hard way and now I
write everything the proper way: sitting down and writing the lyrics and
thinking of the melody. It’s a lot easier for me.

        Maybe musicians
going to a situation where they are playing acoustic guitar and singing with
minimal backing is an extension of their songwriting experience. Some of my
favorite songwriters have come from punk, like John Doe and Exene of course.

 

It’s
also a lot easier now to hear the lyrics.

Exactly. The lyrics have always been very important to me. I
can only scream at the top of my lungs for a certain amount of time.  

 

 

The
Avengers perform next week, May 18 and 19, then on the 23rd, in San Francisco, Santa Cruz
and Portland.
Details on these and other dates at Houston’s official website.

 

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