Penelope Houston, along with guitarist Greg Ingraham, of the Avengers perform in October 2019. 
Courtesy Deb Frazin

Penelope Houston, along with guitarist Greg Ingraham, of the Avengers perform in October 2019. Courtesy Deb Frazin

Avengers vs. Blondie: Why the wrong punk band made it big

Sometime in 1983, my good friend Will heard of a record party on the other side of town. It was for the Avengers, one of his favorite punk bands.

Now, Will was more punk rock than I was, but it sounded like a fine way to spend the day. So we made our way to Potrero Hill, by Muni and on foot.

By the time we got to the party, after getting lost in Potrero Hill for hours, it was pretty much over.

The only member of the band still there was their drummer, who went by the fantastic nom de punk Danny Furious. Luckily, there was still some beer left in the keg. And Danny didn’t mind that we were obviously high school kids. So Will, who was also a drummer, engaged him in a conversation about drumming.

I didn’t learn much about drumming, but was happy to be drinking a few cold beers rather than wandering around lost in Potrero Hill.

Before heading back across The City, we both bought the band’s record, a pinkish album with the The Avengers’ singer, the punk chanteuse Penelope Houston, on the cover.

The more I listen to that album, and think back to that party, the clearer it becomes: The wrong punk band with a charismatic blonde female singer made it big.

The Pink Album, as it is still known, turned out to be one of the very best punk albums I ever heard. My radical adolescent self loved Houston’s sometimes sullen, yet surprisingly compelling voice, the hard hitting musicianship, and the angry political, oddly hopeful, sometimes tongue-in-cheek and distinctly youthful lyrics like, “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what your country’s been doing to you.” Or “We will build a better tomorrow. The youth of today will be the tool.” It still resonates with my middle-aged radical self now.

About 35 years after that party in the summer of 2019, on the other side of the country, my wife and I took the subway out to Queens to see Elvis Costello. The opening band that night was Blondie, which had once been part of the New York punk scene before pivoting to a more mainstream sound with hits like “The Tide is High” and “Heart of Glass.”

The next night it happened that the Avengers, with only Houston and guitarist Greg Ingraham remaining from the original band, were playing at a small club in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. We got there early and ran into Houston, who I had gotten to know a little bit while researching one of my books, at the merch table. She was in cool older sister mode, asking me about my writing and politely greeting my wife. A few minutes later, Houston took the stage and transformed into the same loud and angry punk rocker from the 1970s. There was an undertone of joy in her singing she seemed to simultaneously recognize and ignore the absurdity of a middle-aged women singing angry teen punk rants.

A few weeks back, over pupusas in the Mission, Houston explained how she felt about that. “I definitely was a little wilder than I am now. I don’t feel that when I’m onstage singing Avengers songs that I’m a different person right at this moment. I still have to believe all those things that I’m singing about… That’s cathartic. It feels really good.”

I always liked Blondie. But there was something very special and different about the Avengers. Their energy was better, songwriting more sharp and vibe more powerful. When I asked Houston why the two bands had such different levels of success, she pointed to the lack of a record industry in The City in the late 1970s, observing that “people did then, and they still do, and they always have thought of San Francisco music as being the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the ‘60s.” Well into the 1980s, punk bands like the Avengers struggled to escape the long and overbearing shadow of the Summer of Love.

Blondie succeeded because they abandoned their punk ethos and sound and became more new wave, the sanitized version of ‘70s punk rock. The Avengers never did that and continue to play those same tunes I heard on the Pink Album after getting home from that party.

This weekend the Avengers will be playing their first post-pandemic concerts, at the Ivy Room on Saturday night and on Sunday at Stern Grove, along with the Los Angeles punk band X. When I asked Houston about these upcoming shows she said, “It’ll be interesting to see if that teenager still lives inside me. It’s been such a year.”

I’m pretty confident that teenager is still there.

Lincoln Mitchell grew up in San Francisco and has written numerous books and articles about history and baseball in The City. He teaches in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. For more of Lincoln’s work, visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.

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