I was first introduced to the Avengers when I picked up the “Pink Album” at Used Kids Records in Columbus circa 1990. I didn’t know it was commonly called The Pink Album. The LP is actually eponymously titled, but the striking jacket, red vinyl (then a rarity) and gushing love note on the back of the jacket by none other than Search and Destroy Magazine’s and RE/Search Publications V. Vale were enough to convince me to drop the $8.00 on a slightly beat up record without having yet been indoctrinated by the Avengers lore.
What I didn’t realize at the time was I had scored something of a collectable. Avengers records and recordings are pretty rare due to the band’s short career (1977-1979) and various legal issues. Folks in the know about The Avengers were ravenous for whatever they could get!
Over 20 years after I picked up my first Avengers record and over 30 since the band split, Water Records is answering that long past due dinner bell with a double CD reissue of The Pink Album and for those still hungry, singer Penelope Houston will shortly release a solo album titled “On Market Street.”
A new Avengers double CD is exciting in and of itself, but you wanna know what’s best of all? This kid, who counts himself among those ravenous Avengers fans looking for more, got to interview Penelope and ask some of the questions that we’ve been dying for answers to!
Rocker: Artists often tell me that they cringe the way they see they way they are introduced in articles and interviews. If it were up to you, how would you introduce yourself to our readers?
Penelope: No Introduction Necessary.
I’ve been writing a lot of press stuff recently and it is hard to describe oneself. I suppose I should mention The Avengers. And then run through the stuff I’ve down over the past twenty years. Then back to the stuff I did thirty years ago, because I’m doing both now.
Rocker: Well let’s start with the Avengers, then. You’re releasing a double CD in May…
Penelope: Basically what we wanted to do was give a double CD set that has all of the songs that have been recorded. The ones we think are worth putting out there. So we’re basically re-releasing the pink album, which is what I’m really excited about. The other stuff is basically other songs. The Avengers wrote a lot of other songs and most people don’t know them. They were on other releases. Singles, the Lookout! Release in 1999, and DBK works in 2004. There is some live material and other recorded material that has gone out of print since then.
There are 28 tracks and I think 23 different songs. We’re putting on the versions of “The American in Me” and “Uh Oh” that were on the White Noise EP, because those are a different mix and a different vocal recording. There people who are “We Wanna Hear the White Noise version” types and are upset that we’ve never re-released the White Noise versions.
Rocker: Do you think that the relative paucity of recorded material has helped fuel interest in The Avengers in way?
Penelope: Wow… Well… Y’know… I think if we had stayed together like X had and kept going, that we would’ve had a lot more records and a lot more songs. That would’ve been a good thing too. So, it’s a little hard to say.
Rocker: I know that the Avengers music was described as being in “Legal Limbo” for a long time. Has it come out of Limbo?
Penelope: Yeah, there was a big lawsuit and we settled and the issues have been resolved. The band is certainly happy to be putting out The Pink Album again.
Rocker: I know you’ve done a lot outside of the Avengers. What’s your relationship to the Avengers material now that you do a different style of music?
Penelope: It’s interesting because I’m still singing the Avengers stuff but I also just finished an album of my own that is coming out in a couple of weeks. I think I’ve learned a lot from going back and performing the Avengers material.
Its’ funny. I think about it sometimes and its like “wow, I’m still doing these songs that I wrote when I was nineteen,” but once the music starts and I’m completely inside of it, there’s no holding back. There’s no reservation. There are no questions. It just goes. It has its own power. I love that and respect that about The Avengers songs.
I’m happy to do them, but the stuff I write now… I don’t know… Maybe if I had a really loud rock band, which I don’t, it’d be more like the Avengers. But you know, I’m sitting around in my house with my autoharp making these songs. That’s not to say they couldn’t be adapted. They’re pretty straight ahead chord wise and lyric wise. I guess they aren’t as anthemic as the Avengers, but there’s definitely a darkness, and social critique.
Rocker: Is your new album, “On Market Street” autobiographical?
Penelope: Yeah. It’s a classic break-up record. It follows through a period at the end of my marriage and what happened after that. Crazy love affairs and pretty rough… or fun… or… Intense is the word I’m looking for… some intense things happened and they’re all spelled out in there.
Rocker: It took a while for this album together, didn’t it? You started in 2004?
Penelope: I wrote the first song in 2004. Since then my life has been super busy with the Avengers and I went back to university.
Rocker: You started at the San Francisco Art Institute, right? What specifically did you study?
Penelope: Painting and Print Making. I went there when the Avengers formed in 1977. When I went back I noticed I had taken a billion drawing classes and painting classes and print making classes and zero of all of the requirements stuff I need to get a degree. So the past couple of years have been a little like going backwards, studying things I thought I’d never have to study again like astronomy, biology, speech, and writing. Writing was actually good for me. Mathematics was a little bit of a challenge. When it’s all done I’ll have a BA in painting and print-making. It’s taking up more of my limited time. I don’t know how, but I’m getting busier and busier.
Rocker: Did you paint the portrait for the “On Market Street” CD cover?
Penelope: I did. I realized that I loved the photo but I wanted to take it one step away from just a regular photograph on a cover. I’m pretty happy with it.
Rocker: That’s cool. How big a part of your career is the graphic arts?
Penelope: It feels like it’s all just starting up. And now I’ve got these two records coming out this year and I’ve got European tours and all this stuff. How do I find the time?
Weirdly all this other stuff is happening at the same time. I actually took this semester off so I could tour and concentrate on music. It’s a little too much juggling to have two bands, an art career and my regular job.
I think if you’re independently wealthy and have nothing else to do but create, then you could do both of those things… but I just don’t have time! It’s a little tough to pursue all of that at once.
Rocker: What are your opinions on modern visual art?
Penelope: Pffft. Visual art… Jesus Christ… contemporary art…. I’m not a fan. I’m really pretty old fashioned. I’m not into conceptual art.. I keep seeing the same thing. I don’t if you’ve seen that TV show Portlandia… They have that skit “Put a Bird On It?” Well, that’s what I see from artists… and classmates… It’s like “OK put an owl on it…. Put a deer on it… Put Antlers on it….” I guess a bird with antlers on it would be the ultimate thing. I dunno… I just keep seeing the same things all over again. And it finds its way into album art.
I know its hard having an original idea anymore, but try having a genuine idea or feeling. Try having an authentic idea.
Rocker: I’ve read some other original punk artists comment that they don’t think there will ever be another youth movement because the kids today are so catered to. Do you think that might be true?
Penelope: Well, I think that when you are the focus of Madison Avenue and everything that happens to you or is sold to you is blasted non-stop, I think that makes it difficult for people to be independent thinkers. So I would kinda be surprised to see a youth movement free itself from that. There’s a lot of pressure on the youth of today because they really are sold to all of the time.
Rocker: How is that different from when you were young?
Penelope: I felt that me and my friends were not spoken to at all. Punk at that time was a reaction to dinosaur rock or cock rock. Boston or BTO or Yes. Huge arena rock was sorta “the thing”. There was nothing personal about it. Bands would roll into town with fourteen semis full of equipment and stage and all this stuff and put on some huge show. I didn’t feel that I was being spoken to in any way.
We felt like we were creating our own scene. Our own culture. And it lived in a vacuum. It really wasn’t connected to anything else. We were inspired by reggae, and a couple of other things, but in the long run, it felt like that. Y’know you would walk around San Francisco and recognize people into what you were because we didn’t look like anybody else. The isolation that we had was good for us to kinda gestate our weird little culture.
Now every look that happens is immediately picked up on the Internet or whatever and can be replicated in a matter of hours. YouTube videos are up there right after the band stops playing. That kinda crazy instantaneous famous for 15 minutes in 15 seconds is kinda daunting. I would be surprised if here was someone who was able to overcome that and do something that was truly original.
It’s hard to turn your back and be creative. Its much easier to go on the internet and sit around and watch TV for free all day. Its like there’s way too much out there and its way too available for people to have their own empty space to create something for themselves in.
Rocker: So do you think the joy of creation is gone from society?
Penelope: I think its beaten down by the amount of content. There’s way too much content and a lot of it is just garbage. There’s always been garbage in popular culture but now there’s this immense tidal wave of good stuff and bad stuff and crap and just sifting through it is like a job. I don’t know how a teenager today could do it. I don’t how a teenager could decide.
Rocker: Sometimes I feel that technology has made art a little too easy. For instance, looking back at your Dangerhouse EP, it was a Black and White Pic sleeve and you could tell that because that’s what you had to work with, you had to come up with the very striking mod appearance. Pink album cover too. Very striking, but very simple.
Penelope: Yeah, and the reason that it was pink was because they didn’t want to pay for four colors. They just wanted to use magenta and black. Only two colors, half the price.
I mean, yeah… We were making stuff for ourselves. In a way, its good for people who want to record… It provides a way to do their own recording. There are people who don’t even have a band, they just record all of the parts over and over again until they have the whole song. I think that technology has brought our ability up, but it hasn’t brought anyone’s talent or ideas up. It has brought the ability to record every single garage band.
Back then… There’s one thing that I will say that sounds old and crotchety… Nobody could afford to record an album. So back then, everybody was making singles. You picked your two best songs out of maybe 10 or whatever you’d play in a regular set. Every band would put out their best two songs. So you really got a filter for the crap.
Now somebody can write a song, record it, and put it on the Internet in like an hour or something. It could just be a piece of shit and there’s like a billion pieces of shit floating out there. It’s gonna make you drown in this tidal wave of shit.
Back then you put in the time to pick your two best songs and getting into a studio and getting somebody to put out your single and this all took months an months and months. Because there was this filter – call it “less technology” or “less money” – you look back at that time and you say “There was this band and that band and everything was great.” And now there are like 5,000 bands in San Francisco and I can listen to a full album’s worth of all of them on bandcamp or whatever right now! But who has the time and who has the inclination to do that, y’know?