Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Avengers' current tour helps fans relive punk rock's early days

By George Lang
Static
In 1977, when The Avengers first blasted through "Teenage Rebel” at San Francisco's Mabuhay Gardens, Penelope Houston was the rebel of the title, a San Francisco Art Institute student with spiky blond hair and a surplus of rage. The group was one of the first punk bands in the Bay Area at a time when there was barely a template for punk — there was the first Ramones disc, but for the most part, The Avengers were making it up as they went along.

Three decades after "'77 Punk,” Houston and original guitarist Greg Ingraham have reconstituted the band with two members of The Plus Ones. The Avengers are playing all the original songs with the same fire they brought to their most famous performance: the Jan. 14, 1978, concert at San Francisco's Winterland in which they, along with The Nuns, opened for The Sex Pistols during that band's notorious final concert.

Now 48, Houston said she still has the same visceral reaction now when playing "Car Crash,” "I Believe in Me” and "The Good, the Bad and the Kowalskis.”

"It's such a great expression of rage, and I really was missing that in a way,” said Houston, who will perform with The Avengers on Thursday at the Conservatory, 8911 N Western. "I think I said 10 or 15 years ago what I missed most about The Avengers was the opportunity to scream. Now I have the opportunity to scream again, and it feels good to me.”

The Avengers barely lasted longer than The Sex Pistols and recorded only a few songs, mostly with Pistols guitarist Steve Jones producing. But the legacy they left is captured in two recent collections: 1999's "The Avengers Died for Your Sins” and 2004's "The American in Me.” Houston went on to explore more esoteric sounds and folk-inspired material during her solo career, and her most recent disc, "The Pale Green Girl,” was a perfect pastiche of late-'60s pop-rock.

"We're doing the original material, and for individual songs, I'm approaching them the same way,” Houston said. "They have the same meaning to me as they did then, except possibly ‘Teenage Rebel.' There's a little more irony now — I'm talking about my inner teenage rebel.”

The Avengers started their U.S. tour Wednesday at San Francisco's Bottom of the Hill. But Houston and Ingraham got together in the past few years to play shows as The Scavengers and discovered they were playing to a vast range of fans — from teens just discovering punk to their parents who helped invent it.

"I think it's really exciting to play to people who are in their teens and 20s, and people who missed it who are in their 30s, and the people who were actually there that are in their 40s and 50s,” she said. "It's a super-fun experience, and to see new generations getting into it and being lifted up by it is exciting.”

Up until that fateful show at Winterland, The Avengers were used to playing small audiences, often with The Nuns, which featured future Austin, Texas, music icon Alejandro Escovedo. But The Sex Pistols gig was an experience in punk getting big a little too fast — and barely finding traction on a slimy stage.

"It was strange, because we had only been around for six months, and we were used to looking out in the audience and seeing a whole bunch of friends and people we knew — a much smaller crowd,” Houston said. "I think that was almost 6,000 people. It was the biggest audience we played to and the biggest audience The Sex Pistols had played to at that point.

"I think they were there for the spectacle of it — they wanted to see a punk rock freak show,” she said. "By the time I got out onto the stage, it was covered in spit. The Nuns had already played, and they got spat at quite a bit. I think I slipped.”

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