The Accidental Punk

Avengers frontwoman Penelope Houston tried to escape punk, but history pulled her back in

Back when alternative music was alternative, San Francisco's Avengers were legendary.

Of course, in the late '70s, even a legendary punk band had little hope of gaining commercial attention.

"I try to explain to people in their 20s that there weren't very many bands and almost no clubs," says the Avengers' former lead singer, Penelope Houston, sitting in an Oakland cafe, her long hair streaked with blue, purple, and green. "There were only 1 1/2 clubs. And there was no radio and there were just a couple small record labels in Los Angeles, no big labels.

"At the time it felt like the only thing the world offered were huge arena-rock acts and Top 40," she recalls. "There just wasn't any other level."

In 1977 a 19-year-old Houston moved to San Francisco from Seattle to attend the Art Institute, where she hooked up with novice guitarist and co-writer Greg Ingraham and drummer Danny Furious. (Bassist Jimmy Wilsey would join shortly after.) Houston sang into a microphone for the first time -- and several hours later announced she was the new singer for the Avengers.

This turned out to be a better idea than anybody had expected. Within a month, the Avengers were playing alongside X, the Dead Kennedys, the Dils, and the Go-Go's; eventually they opened for the Sex Pistols' last show, the infamous spitfest that was Winterland. But local notoriety wasn't a long-term prospect, and no one in the band expected to become career musicians. In 1979 the Avengers broke up, victims of the punk-rock glass ceiling: no industry interest, no massive college radio airplay (that came later), and no way to expand their following across the country.

But the Avengers had been a special case of musical inspiration. Ingraham's melodic, anthemic riffs and Houston's angry-young-woman delivery were highly complementary. Not much was made at the time of a woman fronting a punk band, although she was one of the first to do so. And she did it with aplomb: In her bleached-blond crew cut, Houston belted out the soon-to-be punk classics "We Are the One," "Open Your Eyes," "The American in Me," and "Corpus Christie," sometimes halting the show when suburban jocks invaded the club to brawl with the punks.

The Avengers released an EP and a handful of singles, but a full-length album wasn't available until 1983, when the now long-gone CD Presents label put out a posthumous collection. Unfortunately, Houston had no involvement in that album's release and currently has no control over the master tapes, so this legendary cult record is out of print and nearly impossible to find.

Which is where Died for Your Sins comes in. Released on Lookout Records this month, the 21-song collection is mostly scavenged from live recordings from the band's late-'70s heyday. "I ran across people looking for [the original Avengers album] on the Internet," Houston says. "I had such a bad experience with that album, with legalities and such. I wanted to take the Avengers so it could be something I could think about without hating, to be my band again, instead of having it be this thing that made me feel ripped off and helpless."

Houston and long-time local punk producer and musician Kevin Army weeded through the band's old rehearsal tapes, a rediscovered 24-track recording, and various bootleg cassettes gathered by Internet traders. "I ended up with about 18 live shows that I had to slog through. Believe me, it was like homework," she says.

Because some songs had never been recorded properly, Houston decided to rerecord them with a newly formed Avengers spinoff, the Scavengers. These three songs -- "I Want In," "Crazy Homicide," and "The End of the World" -- prove that she can still slip into punk-rock mode when most people in her age bracket are installing their first electric garage-door openers. The Scavengers include Ingraham on guitar again, Joel Reader (Mr. T Experience) on bass, and Danny Panic (Screeching Weasel/Groovie Ghoulies) on drums.

Died for Your Sins is a cathartic din of noise rock, which documents a very angry-sounding 19-year-old. "I don't think I had any personal anger issues going on," Houston says now. "My dad was a radical Marxist-Socialist professor of economics. My mom is a musician and artist. I always saw that there could be something on the opposite side of society, like anti-society or something. Our family always felt like we were a little bit on the outside anyway, and that was just fine. I think that it was sort of natural to me to be a social critic."

After the Avengers' breakup, Houston briefly spent time in Los Angeles, developing a distaste for the hardcore scene into which punk was evolving. She went to London, where live shows by the Violent Femmes and Tom Waits inspired her to play acoustic.

Houston composed songs on the piano and the autoharp and released a folk album, 1988's Bird Boys, on local punk label Subterranean. But until her 1996 album Cut You, most of Houston's subsequent albums were only available in Germany. (While punk rockers scratched their heads in puzzlement, German fans considered her the queen of San Francisco neo-folk.)

Houston's forthcoming solo album, Tongue, chronicles the same failed relationships and emotional angst as her previous work. However, its crisp, rock-oriented production and rhythms could baffle her following, which has enjoyed lilting ballads and mandolin leads for the past decade.

Houston describes the CD as "more tough and more rock, and more experimental and more distortion." Not to mention more radio-friendly -- it features a slew of old-school rock musicians with California punk and new-wave roots: the Go-Go's Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin, American Music Club's Tim Mooney, and Green on Red's Chuck Prophet.

The Avengers' legacy has attracted newer talent too. Big fan and Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong produced a pair of songs for Houston; one, "The Angel and the Jerk," recently aired on Friends.

A band once known to scream a chorus of "Fuck you" on occasion, the Avengers still attract people searching for punk nostalgia. "We were really young," Houston says. "We had all this energy and we were innocents in a way. It was before cynicism became a big part of pop culture.

"Maybe that's what people miss -- being able to see bands that are sincere and have tons of energy."

The re-formed Avengers (billed as the Scavengers), play Wednesday, Feb. 24, at 9 p.m. at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell (at Polk), with the Hi-Fives and Pansy Division. Tickets are $10; call 885-0754. They also play Friday, Feb. 26, at 8 p.m. at 924 Gilman, Berkeley, with American Steel, Eyeliners, and Cuts. Tickets are $5 ($7 without Gilman membership); call (510) 525-9926.

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