Penelope Houston revisits the early days of punk
By Marisa Demarco
We're not yet at the point in history when I can stop asking this question: What's it like to be a woman in [insert musical genre/profession here]? Penelope Houston, frontwoman of the punk ’77 band The Avengers, says in the early days, there were plenty of women on the scene. "A lot of the bands around Los Angeles and San Francisco had female performers, female musicians and singers. I wasn't the only one around." Still, she says, she would like The Avengers to be compared to other punk rock bands without any reference to gender—period. Houston can't escape an awareness of her sex, but it's not without payoff. "Women starting bands and performing because of The Avengers is always really gratifying to me."
Punk ’77 is a term that houses bands from around the year punk first blew up. That was back when no one had much of an idea of what they were doing, before a template took over. But there were only a few years before punk became subject to its own laws. "There are some sounds and behaviors that got codified," Houston says. "You see that in 1980 when hardcore came along."
The first few years, there weren't any regulations, and the bands from that period were vastly unlike each other. Nuns, Crime, The Mutants, The Dils—all very diverse San Francisco bands, different looks, different sounds. "When hardcore came along, it just turned into a homogenous thing. The rules started being made and they're still being followed to this day."
But don't idealize the early days of punk too much. "We didn't have the radio. There were very few clubs for punk. We never actually played off the West Coast back in the day. It wasn't possible. We didn't take it for granted that we would be able to go anywhere or get played anywhere or have a record made." Punk bands had to create their own clubs and sleep on each others’ floors after playing those limited venues. Actually, not much has changed there. The Avengers will still be couch-surfing for at least half of their 2007 tour.
The Avengers’ music has endured for 30 years, though the band was only around for two. The original group formed in June 1977 and played until June 1979. The band's last show was with the Sex Pistols at Winterland, having headlined dates with X, The Go-Go's and the Dead Kennedys. In those two years, The Avengers released one three-song EP on Dangerhouse Records. After the band split up, White Noise Records put out another four-song record. A full-length self-titled LP, a collection of previous recordings, came out in 1983.
An assemblage of live and studio material, Died for Your Sins, was released in 1999. Another official release, American in Me, hit the streets in 2004 and a revitalized Avengers (Houston and original guitarist Greg Ingraham atop a new rhythm section) performed a couple shows to support it. "Then suddenly we were getting invited to Europe and London," she says. "It's snowballed. The interest in having us play live just continued." The Avengers are playing all the classic material on this tour, and Houston says she hasn't felt comfortable writing any new Avengers songs. "Singing these songs is cathartic. It feels good to me now. We're in a political situation where being righteous is the right thing to do," says Houston, who raked politics and religion over the coals in her youth.
After the band's breakup in 1979, Houston performed as a folk artist, because the idea of singing in a really quiet situation was frightening and exciting, she says. "Back then, I sometimes felt like I was just screaming and screaming and screaming and people were hearing only every fifth word or something." Before The Avengers ended its run, Houston remembers telling people they were a folk band. "What I meant by that was folk as music belonging to the people, music made by everyday people. That was one of the defining things about punk—it brought rock music back to the users. It brought it down to this level where everyone could participate."
See The Avengers with queer-core legends Pansy Division, plus Koffin Kats and The Gracchi on Monday, Oct. 15, at the Launchpad. The show is all-ages. Tickets are $10 and can be bought (with a service charge) at Natural Sound and www.launchpadrocks.com.
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