Penelope Houston of the Avengers on the Band’s San Antonio Gig and Preserving Punk History

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DEB FRAZIN
  • Deb Frazin
This weekend, San Antonio will witness the confluence of two essential bands from California’s early punk scene, Flipper and the Avengers, which headline a bill Friday, November 8, at the Paper Tiger.

While both formed in San Francisco during the late ’70s, they couldn’t have been any more different in approach. Flipper droned along at glacial pace, becoming a snark-fueled template for both grunge and sludge metal. The Avengers, featuring singer Penelope Houston, helped lay the groundwork for political punk while giving the nascent musical form one of its first dynamic frontwomen.

The pair end up in SA together as Flipper tours to celebrate its 40th anniversary with Scratch Acid and Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow filling in for original singers and lyricists Will Shatter and Bruce Lose — the first having died of an overdose and the latter retired from live performances. The Avengers landed on the gig as the group picked up dates on the way home from a tour with similarly influential punk outfit Stiff Little Fingers. We Are the Asteroid and Noogy will round out the bill.

The Current spoke by phone with Houston about the tour and her efforts to archive San Francisco’s punk history.



After the original Avengers broke up in 1979, you had a lengthy solo career where you pursued a much quieter form of musical expression. Why resurrect the Avengers?
That was about ’99 when we got back together. People kept asking us for records, and our record was out of print. There was a legal battle around it. Lookout Records in the Bay Area asked if we wanted to release something, so we put together some live tracks and some recordings that weren’t involved in this legal battle, and that became the record called Died for Your Sins. When that came out, they wanted us to do a record release party. We did it, and it was so much fun that we decided to keep going.

So, 40 years after the Avengers made its original mark, why do people need this music again? What’s its relevance in 2019?
It’s kind of amazing that it’s still specifically relevant. [Laughs.] I mean, the songs are questioning our political leadership, they’re questioning the way we deal with the environment and pollution, they’re questioning the relationships between men and women. A lot of the songs are still super relevant. And then there are some songs like “Teenage Rebel” that are just about being an angry teenager. Those are relevant to angry teenagers — and to those of us who are still teenagers in our heads. [Laughs.]

With age, a lot of the angst that fuels a band like the Avengers falls away. Do you still consider yourself an angry person who needs that kind of outlet?
I don’t think I’m angrier than any other aware person right now. It’s great to have that outlet, but generally when I write new material, it’s a different kind of genre, a different kind of feel, both the music and lyrics. But when I’m singing Avengers, the music kind of brings out that kind of aggression — both for the people listening and the people performing it.

You’re playing with Flipper, another iconic San Francisco band. I’m wondering if your paths crossed much in the past or whether this is more of a chance, serendipitous meeting.
They didn’t form until after we’d broken up… I think. Well, at least I don’t think we ever played with them back in the day. But we’ve played with them since then, and we know those guys. In fact, we played with them at Rebellion Fest in the UK a few months ago. I’ve seen the David Yow version. It’s very exciting. We’re happy to be on this bill. It was very serendipitous, though, because our whole U.S. tour with Stiff Little Fingers ends in Florida, and then we have to drive our gear and van and selves all the way back across the country. So, I asked the band if we wanted to add some shows, and we got two more — San Antonio and Tucson — with extremely long drives between.

You’re a librarian in your day job, and I was excited to read you’re putting together the San Francisco Public Library’s punk archive. How’s that going?
It’s good. I’ve been working on it for a number of years and getting different people to donate. It’s basically Bay Area-based punk. I’m trying to focus it from the mid ’70s to mid ’80s, but occasionally, something will come in — say a big collection of stuff from a bar that was around in the early ’90s — and I’m not going to say to no to that. But, yeah, we’ve got a number of great donations, and people can come in and look at it any day the library’s open to see some amazing flyers and photos and set lists and tour diaries of SF bands.

As a librarian, why’s it important to document those things?
There are just so many people who get old and their stuff is in the basement, and it gets flooded and it all gets ruined. [Laughs.] Or they die, and their family has no idea of the value of that ephemeral material. So, it’s important to get the word out to people and let them know they shouldn’t just let it get tossed out in the trash. There are a lot of institutions that are collecting right now. That stuff is history, and it’s important to document our cultural history.

With regard to both the Avengers shows and the archive, who’s showing up? Is it people who were part of that scene back then or younger folks who are curious what it was all about?
It’s kind of a mix. Especially with the Stiff Little Fingers crowd, this tour. We’re getting a lot of people coming up and saying, “I live in Texas. I never thought I’d get to see the Avengers play.” Or they weren’t quite old enough, so even if they’d been in California, they couldn’t have seen us. Maybe they’re 10 years too young or something. There are a lot of people who got into punk later and always wondered what it was about, and they get to see it now, which is cool. The people who are coming to see the San Francisco Punk Archive are mostly researchers, people who are writing books on punk or San Francisco in the ’70s.

As someone who was there on the ground floor as San Francisco’s punk scene was created, what’s the most misunderstood aspect of what it was all about?
I’d say that early punk — when I was involved in it, which was around ’77 to ’79 — was really about breaking free of rules and stereotypes. The punks I knew were men and women, they were gay and straight, they were black and white and Chicano and Asian. A lot of people were involved in the scene. In the ’80s, it seemed like it got codified into hardcore, which was mostly white men playing super-fast. I think a lot of people, people on the outside, think punk is just a bunch of bros banging their heads together and drinking beer. The original scene was very much more of a cultural blossoming. I think that’s the most misunderstood aspect of punk — that it came from something that wasn’t all mosh pits. [Laughs.] You know, places I don’t want to be. [Laughs.]

Flipper with David Yow, The Avengers, We Are the Asteroid, Noogy
$18, 8 p.m. Friday, November 8, Paper Tiger, 2410 N. St. Mary’s St., papertigersatx.com.
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