Penelope Houston fronted the San Francisco punk band Avengers, whose “Pink Album”, consisting of recordings made in 1977-8 but not released until 1983, is often hailed as one of the best punk rock albums of all time. Avengers opened for the Sex Pistols at their final show. Houston re-emerged years later as a folk singer-songwriter, still retaining much of her punk attitude. Houston just released a new solo album called On Market Street, and a new Avengers compilation is coming out soon.
This interview was conducted by email, with answers received on 4/1/12. (Photo: Ethan Hill)
Penelope Houston: I put it off and put it off and finally cleared a space in my crazy/busy schedule in the summer break from school (going to SF State for a BS in Painting/Printmaking) and booked the time at Fantasy with my favorite musicians.
JM: I particularly like the title track. Could you give your reflections on that song?
PH: The idea was taken from a poem I wrote a few years ago called “X-mas Lists” about Central Market Street and the meeting of consumer-dazed shoppers and a homeless penitent on a rainy December day. I work at the Main Library in the Civic Center and see a lot of heartbreakingly needy people.
JM: “On Market Street” has a mellotron backing. Where does one find a mellotron these days?
PH: At the amazing Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. My co-producer Jeffrey Wood added the Mellotron track.
JM: What is the songwriting process typically like for you, or is there a typical?
PH: Usually I come up with lyrics, then melody, then chord progressions.
JM: How has this process evolved for you?
PH: With the Avengers songs were written the “hard” way: band members came to rehearsal with a chord progression and some riffs and I would muck about trying to make up a melody with lyrics springing from my head… eventually. (once wrote the final lyrics on the bus on the way to the studio!)
JM: Do you have any thoughts on having a bigger following in Germany than in the U.S.?
PH: Better-educated populace? haha
PH: Philip Lithman was a funny and sweet man. He had a huge knowledge of different kinds of music including sea shanties — and an appreciation for more complex lyrics. This went well with my career-long inclination for simple folk-ish melodies and complex darker lyrics.
JM: The new Avengers compilation is coming out soon, which sounds great and gives a more complete picture of the band than has ever been available. Could you give a quick overview of what people can look forward to?
PH: The LP is the original 14 tracks on the Pink Album, the CD set has those 14 on one disc and then an additional 17 bonus tracks on disc two including a cool earlier version of “White Nigger,” and the White Noise EP versions of “The American in Me” and “Uh-Oh.” There are a total of 27 different songs, some live but most from studio or rehearsal recordings.
JM: How would you describe The Avengers’ place in the history of punk, in San Francisco, in California, or in general?
PH: We were in the first wave of SF/Cali bands in 1977 and it’s said we’ve influenced many that followed from punk rockers to Riot Grrls like Kathleen Hanna to Pearl Jam. The interest in the band seems to grow even 30+ years after our break-up.
PH: We had only been together for 6 months at that point and perhaps had more to prove than the Pistols. When listening to the audio or watching the video of our set, I can hear the tremble in my voice give way to righteous confidence over the 35 minutes we played.
JM: A famous question from that night: Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?
PH: Many people claim that evening as a turning point in their lives, so I guess it’s relative.
JM: I’m happy to see that The Avengers are doing a short West Coast tour in May, including playing in Los Angeles on May 26th. What can we look forward to at these shows?
PH: Greg Ingraham and I (along with Joel Reader and Luis Illades: the rhythm section we’ve toured with for over 7 years) will play most of the Pink album and other favorites like “Teenage Rebel” and “Crazy Homicide”.
JM: You have worked with some notable punk musicians over the years: Steve Jones produced an Avengers EP, you worked with Howard Devoto, you wrote songs with Billy Joe Armstrong. What have these experiences been like?
PH: Most of those interactions were enjoyable but pretty brief and didn’t really impact my career too much. (I do like the song I wrote with Billy though… maybe should resurrect that for the live set)
JM: You must be quite busy with the new solo album, the Avengers compilation, and supporting tours. Anything else on the horizon?
PH: Yikes… I have to finish school and graduate at the end of this year!
JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring songwriter/musician?
PH: Keep your publishing and your masters as much as possible!
JM: Where are you responding from?
PH: Oakland CA