Site hosted by Build your free website today!


"San Francisco's best punk band - in their moments they were, you knew, better than any other band playing that night anywhere in the world." Greil Marcus.

Throughout 1977, a strange phenomenon called ‘Punk Rock’ swept America. The filth and the fury of the Sex Pistols insinuated its way into the brains of stadium-rock loving children. Suddenly, long-haired, flair-wearing teenagers were wearing their hair cropped to the skull and began slashing up their clothing, emblazoning T-shirts with political slogans. Every young punk wanted to join a band.  From quiet, middle-class suburbs emerged hi-energy D.I.Y bands who, what they lacked in accomplished musicianship, more than made up for in imagination and fierce rebellion.  Practising first in their parent’s garage, many of these groups played at their local clubs, which had to quickly adapt to accommodate the rapidly changing scene. They were influenced by the original rule-breaking visionaries of music: The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, MC5, New York Dolls and read books by Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs – The Beat Writers, an earlier generation of punks.

Because the change occurred so quickly, each area had it’s own diverse musical style, their own interpretation of the new vibrations that were being felt.  Cleveland was particularly experimental, producing Pere Ubu and the Iggy Pop influenced Dead Boys. New York had had a thriving underground punk scene for years, Patti Smith, Television and Richard Hell all emerged as early progenitors, followed by the highly influential Ramones and the No Wave scene.  Los Angeles, the unofficial birthplace of thrash and hardcore, gave us Black Flag, X, the politically charged Dils (who later moved to San Francisco), The Zeros, The Screamers and numerous other bands, not to mention the iconoclastic Dangerhouse Record label.

The San Francisco punk scene in 1977 however was very different to the intellectual New York or the 'cranked-up' LA scene.  Musically, the San Francisco punk groups were influenced by the political dialectics of the Clash but less stylised. Many of the groups felt extreme dissatisfaction with the world around them and channelled this into their music. The Nuns wrote songs with the main aim of being as offensive as possible: 'Child Molester', 'Decadent Jew', 'Tits' etc, while Negative Trend concentrated on their own internal frustrations, combining themes of depression and apathy in an early incarnation of Flipper. The Sleepers still sound like no one else, 'the sound of the unconscious.'(Jon Savage). Crime, seemingly the least accomplished of all the punk groups (but then they were also the first), played stripped to the bones rock'n'roll. They also released the first punk single to emerge from San Francisco 'Hot Wire My Heart Baby.' Between late 1977 and late 1978, it could be said that the San Francisco groups were just as productive as those from London or New York, if not more so.  In Greg Ingraham’s words, "They weren't trying to be like anyone else.  Everyone was doing what they felt like doing. No one sounded like anyone else."

From this burgeoning scene emerged the Avengers, perhaps the most renowned of all the San Francisco punk groups.  The Avengers, formed in 1977, comprised of 18 year old art student Penelope Houston (Vocals), Greg Ingraham (lead guitar), Jimmy Wilsey (Bass Guitar) and Danny O'Brien (drums), credited in LA punk magazine Slash, as Danny Furious, Greg (vomit) Scars, Jimmy Cleaver and Penelope.

Penelope had migrated from Seattle to attend the San Francisco Art Institute when she was 19 years old and it was here that she met Danny and Greg. Danny had already graduated from the Institute and invited childhood friend Greg from Orange County to join him and start a band together.  Danny and Greg lived in a large warehouse where they would rehearse and it was here that Penelope would often sing into a microphone plugged into Greg's amp.  She found the experience so enamouring that she told Danny and Greg that she would be their new singer!  Penelope also introduced them to bass guitarist Jonathan Postal who was to quit the band after a couple of months. Jimmy Wilsey was then drafted in and the foursome was once again complete.   It was decided early on that they were going to perform original songs and one of the first songs written by Penelope was 'I Believe In Me' - an early reflection of the punk attitude. I asked Penelope why she felt that the group were attracted to punk rock. “Because ‘arena/stadium’ rock sucked so bad! Rock belongs in the garage and had lost its soul…We knew we were breaking a lot of rules because every day people reacted to us with shock, horror and disgust.”  In November 1977, in an interview with Slash magazine they already realised the relevance of the scene they were helping to create “I think we’re political ‘cause we’re dealing with a cultural movement.” They suggested that because they were raised in the suburbs that “{the suburbs} was a perfect place for punks and rebels to come from.”

The first live appearance of the Avengers (bar their very first performance at Danny’s warehouse party where they played covers by Lou Reed and Patti Smith) when they showcased six original compositions was for the Nuns party at the Mabuhay Gardens on the 11th June 1977. They had written seven new songs in just 10 days before the gig.

The Mabuhay Gardens, a restaurant on Broadway, was San Francisco’s equivalent to CBGBs or Maxs Kansas City. Dirk Dirksen opened the restaurant as a cultural experiment, giving an open stage to stand up comedians, performance artists, poets and of course, musicians. Dirksen explains “my agenda was to create and maintain a venue that would be a starting point for people’s careers.” Dirksen noted the fledgling punk scene early on and began booking acts such as Mary Monday, Crime and The Dils. Monday and Tuesday nights were unofficial ‘punk’ nights and Dirksen offered many of the up and coming groups late night slots. He spotted the Avengers and according to the band said to them “I think you guys are headline status.” The Avengers in return were fully aware of this support, without the Mabuhay Gardens, these groups would never have had a stage to perform on. “There {were} only a couple of places to play…when someone played, you were all there. There was a lot of camaraderie.” recalls Penelope.

That first night the Avengers performed Penelope describes in one word “Chaos!”  Greg forgot the songs and Penelope thought she'd got the set list wrong so, in true anarchic style they bluffed their way through. “… that was a pretty good show. It was complete mayhem" recalled Penelope "People said to me afterwards 'that was the best show ever, and it's the first time you ever played.' "  Amongst the songs performed were 'Car Crash', 'I Believe In Me' and 'Teenage Rebel'.  They were to perform more than 25 times that year and more than three quarters of these appearances were at the Mabuhay Gardens.

Their popularity grew quickly, and tempered by well-written songs and solid performances they were soon headlining all their appearances.  On stage they were a striking looking group, as Penelope puts it, they had the “cuteness factor.” The male members would dress in ripped and pinned clothing with shorn hair, fronted by androgynous-looking Penelope, her short hair shaved, dyed pink, blue or white. At first she wore dresses held together with safety pins but later on, as an article in Search & Destroy reveals, she decided to wear less revealing clothes because of unwanted attention from audience although “clothes are one of the more entertaining things in my life…its one of my mediums.” According to Penelope they designed their image after hearing about the punk rock epidemic sweeping England "…so we started sticking safety pins and taping photos to our shirts and stuff…we had never seen a picture of it…We were trying to
approximate that look."

Kamara Zie (from Search & Destroy reprints)

What set the Avengers ahead of many of their peers was their accomplished musicianship.  They defied the punk standard by playing songs more than two (and often more than three) minutes long. They played more than three chords. An interview with the group in local punk chronicle Search & Destroy reveals that they were more than aware of this.  Wilsey explained "There are spaces in our songs that are left completely open for us to improvise - but improvisation seems to be one of the things outside the boundaries of what a punk band should sound like."  'Little Pink Noise' is an example of such improvisation: "All four of us are playing electric guitars turned up to ten, just banging on them."  Such experimentation probably ensured that the Avengers were able to develop as a group and not stagnate.

Generally, Penelope would write the lyrics whilst she and Greg would compose the music. Joey Swails (roadie for the Nuns) believed that Greg was the group - musically at least: "Greg is a great guitar player” Swails explained. “As for the Avengers having any musicality, he made that group…Greg wrote all of the music - he's a very underrated guy." Penelope disagrees “Greg wrote most of the chords but not all. Jimmy and Danny would contribute chords and I wrote all my melodies.”  Jimmy Wilsey gave the group their sense of fun and more importantly he was a good bass player "hard and fast, very straight-ahead."
Penelope puts their popularity down to “{We had} elements of punk and melodic rock‘n’roll…fairly intelligent lyrics, tight performances and good songwriting…We rocked!”  Even at the time they knew they were head and shoulders above most of the other groups “well, except for the Nuns, Crime and Avengers, the rest {of the bands} are shitty – y’know, old Aerosmith types…oldware…long shag haircuts.”

The Avengers were often interviewed offering their spirited and intelligent views on (punk) life.  Penelope appeared in the second issue of Search & Destroy discussing her scholarship at the San Francisco Art College where she had planned to paint Japanese Superheroes. According to the interview one of her first rock'n'roll heroes was Patti Smith.  Coincidentally, the Avengers current release (of live and unreleased tracks) is called 'Died for your Sins' - an oblique reference to the infamous 'Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine' line written by the great punk poetess.  It is worth reading many of these Search & Destroy interviews (collected together by ReSearch Publications in two volumes) as they capture perfectly the spirit of the punk movement, the energy and sheer bravery to be completely different before that feeling dissipated into violence and drugs.

If their interviews gave an insight into the punk aesthetic at that time then their songs reflected a certain political awareness and dissatisfaction with the world around them. The Avengers first single, 'We Are The One/I Believe In Me/Car Crash' Dangerhouse Records 1977), was a fantastic burst of pure punk energy.  'Car Crash', a homage to bad taste, is the story of a girl whose boyfriend is killed in a car crash:
“Dreamt you had a car crash, now you’re
dead on the road with your head smashed.”
'We Are the One' appears to be a battle cry for a disassociated youth to join ranks because
"We are the leaders of tomorrow" and "We will build a better tomorrow", an unusually
optimistic view for a punk group. Penelope explains “We Are The One was written with tongue planted firmly in cheek with lyrics such as ‘fate is our destiny’ but it was an anthemic song with a truly sing-a-long chorus…it just didn’t make a lot of sense. I don’t think that stopped it being a crowd favourite!”  Recorded at Kitchen Sink Studios in Los Angeles, it was the group’s first time in the studio. They took just ten hours to record the three songs.  Present at the recording were K.K. Barrett (of the Screamers), David Brown who started Dangerhouse Records along with Rand McNally and Black Randy. “They were all singing on the chorus of “We Are The One… It was pretty funny” recalled Penelope. The single, the third release on the Dangerhouse label had an initial print run of 500 copies. These copies sold out quickly and a second and third pressing swiftly followed. It was to be the record label’s most popular release.

The Avengers continued to play regularly after the release of the Car Crash EP, performing at the Masque and The Whiskey A Go-Go in L.A.  When they weren't headlining they supported Talking Heads, The Dils and English punk band Penetration. They also supported local causes, in particular they performed ‘The American In Me’ at The Benefit for Striking Coal Miners, which was filmed by Mindaugis Bagdon for Search & Destroy. Featuring other local bands the Sleepers, The Dils, The Mutants and UXA, the film is a wonderful demonstration of the wide diversity of the San Francisco punk scene but is sadly one of the only surviving films from this era.

That year their immortality in the punk annals was guaranteed when, along with fellow local band The Nuns, they supported The Sex Pistols at the Winterland Ballroom on Saturday 14th January. It was the biggest audience they had ever played to, a sold-out 8000 people. This was the to be The Sex Pistols last performance as a band, they literally imploded before the audience in a spectacle that today is almost impossible to watch.  Jimmy Wilsey recalled: "It was a frightening thing…it was like a snake-pit." Penelope agrees “By the time the Nuns had finished, the stage was covered with spit! We went out to a huge crowd of 90% poseurs all trying to act their “punk-rock” worst. It was ugly.” Gobbing was at its peak, unopened cans of beer were thrown at the stage and there were even reports of a girl being raped in the audience during the Nun's performance. At this stage Penelope in particular recognised that violence had insinuated itself into their punk scene.  The vast majority of the sold-out audience were not even punk fans.  Penelope recalls, "{the audience were} people who came to see the punk circus. So they wanted to spit, they wanted to give the finger, they wanted to let go of their aggressions…That was kind of disturbing."  Not only was it the death of the Sex Pistols, but the death of punk itself.  For the Avengers the appearance at Winterland heightened their profile and whilst they rarely played outside of San Francisco or LA, they remained one of the most popular bands around.

In 1978 they enlisted the services of ex-Pistol Steve Jones, who produced their next EP 'The American In Me' (White Noise).  'The American In Me' is another brilliant song, but the playful humour of 'We Are The One' is gone. Instead the song is a bitter attack on society, their society:
"It’s the American in me that makes me say its an honor to die
in a war that’s just a politicians lie...
They say
“Ask not what you can do for your country,
what’s your country been doing to you..”
Penelope remembers the sessions as fairly haphazard “I think we were one of the first bands he produced and he spent a lot of time on the guitar sound! Didn’t have a clue about the vocals…we ended up re-recording the vox and re-mixing the whole thing.”

On Friday 22nd June 1979 after headlining acts such as Dead Kennedys, X and the GoGos, they played their last gig, not at the Mabuhay Gardens, but at the Geary Street Temple, San Francisco. Penelope alludes the break-up of the Avengers to lack of support from record labels, plus they were just not getting the airplay, “We had reached a plateau of popularity on the West Coast with just one EP {Car Crash} but no one was getting any radio/club/label support.” The West Coasts favourite punk band could do no more. Penelope “Maybe if we’d been able to record a full album we might have been able to develop musically.” She concludes that  “we were worn down by the apathy of popular culture.”

Nothing more was heard from the Avengers until 1981 when a self-titled LP was released (CD Presents).  As with the rest of the Avengers slim back catalogue, this too is extremely rare and therefore highly desirable.  Basically a compilation, it combines all of their standards, 'Car Crash', 'The American in Me', 'I Believe In Me' along with cover versions of 'Paint It Black' and 'Money'.  As with so many of the more obscure punk acts the album sold few copies. Click here to see an (almost) complete discography of the Avengers.
Sadly the pioneering work of the Avengers is still vastly under-rated.  However, a 1999 release by Lookout Records, 'Died For Your Sins', combines unreleased, live and demo tracks mostly recorded at the peak of their success. 'Died For You Sins' also showcases for the first time three songs recorded in 1998 by Penelope and Greg, taken from lyrics written by the group back in 1977. Personally, I think that the live versions on this release are better than the studio versions from their 1981 LP.  Punk bands should always be heard live, and with a group as accomplished as the Avengers it merely highlights their power when heard live on stage. Check out the Avengers website.

After the group disbanded, the members went their different ways. According to Penelope, Danny O’Brien is now a vegetarian chef in Sweden.
Greg still lives in San Francisco with his wife and two children and is now a mechanic. However, he joined up with Penelope in 1998 for five reunion concerts, performing as the Scavengers to promote the ‘Died For Your Sins’ release.  They teamed up with drummer Danny Panic and Bassist Joel Reader as Wilsey and O’Brien were incommunicado. Before the gigs, the Scavengers re-recorded three unreleased songs, ‘End Of The World’, ‘I Want In’ and ‘Crazy Homicide’ for the Died For Your Sins album. They played two well attended gigs in San Francisco and Penelope expressed surprise at how well the songs had aged with time, although the majority of the audience were hearing the songs for the first time. Penelope had this to say about the reunion concerts: “They were all a screamingly good time…But in the long run I prefer what I do now.”
After leaving the Avengers, Jimmy Wilsey formed the Silvertones with young unknown Chris Isaak on vocals.  They landed themselves a record contract with Warner Bros and in 1991 Chris Isaak had a worldwide hit with Wicked Game on which Jimmy’s intricate guitar work can be heard.  After four more albums, Isaak and Wilsey parted company and Wilsey formed The Mysteries along with drummer Nicky Alexander,nee Beat (ex-Weirdos, amongst others!), guitarist Dez Cadena (once Black Flag lead singer) and bassist Chuck Morris. The Mysteries play instrumental tracks which Wilsey describe as “space-age hillybilly rock” which “was conceived as modernising the sound of the wide-open Western spaces.” They credit Link Wray, Duane Eddy and The Shadows amongst their influences.  According to their website: they are currently recording their debut CD.

Penelope Houston has undergone the most startling transformation.  After leaving the Avengers, Penelope moved to LA where she took part in film and video projects, then moving onto England where she was enlisted by Howard Devoto to help with his post-Magazine projects.  After being influenced by the likes of Tom Waits and the Violent Femmes, she returned to San Francisco where she began to work on her own music once more.  With punk well and truly dead, Penelope found folk music a more satisfying medium for her talent. Preferring the acoustic approach, she formed a band and toured the US and Europe and has released 11 albums.  Her captivating music has won her such accolades as Best Singer of the Year, Best Album (for The Whole Wide World) and Best Concert.  Today her multi-faceted music combines many different styles and Penelope is credited in The Unknown Legends of Rock and Roll not for her appearance in the Avengers but for “{helping} pioneer the melodic-yet-hard-hitting alternative rock...”
She has also just begun her own record label ‘Once In A Blue Moon.’ Her first release on the label is a collection of rarities recorded between 1993 and 1996, also titled Once In A Blue Moon.
I asked Penelope a few questions about her solo career:
The transition from punk to folk-rock is pretty radical, have you always loved the acoustic side of music?
PH: In my youth I listened to Pentangle and the Incredible String Band as well as Hank Williams.
Do you feel more comfortable singing folk now than punk? The performances with the Avengers must have held you in good stead for the future!
PH: What I'm doing now isn't really folk, it's a dark pop-rock.
Have you any plans to tour the UK or Europe?
PH: Perhaps Germany again. (I've toured the continent 6-7 times, but sadly never the UK)
Tell me a little about your new record label Why did you decide to start the label and what plans have you got for it?
PH: Just a way to put out some of my records in the US. No big plans for it.
Your first album on the new label, Once In A Blue Moon, is a collection of rarities recorded between 93-96. Why did you choose this as opposed to a completely new album? And what plans have you got for your next studio album?
PH: I owed a compilation record to the German label "Normal" and decided to also release it myself in America. My next studio album will begin recording in July 2001.
On certain songs on the Karmal Apple album, your voice sounds a little like Courtney Love or should I say she sounds like you!  What do you think of today’s women in rock music? I think they owe a big debt to the groundbreakers such as yourself, Patti Smith, Lydia Lunch etc.
PH: Funny, a few people have mentioned the Courtney similarity, but I haven't noticed it. I'm a big fan of interesting and original women songwriters and have offered quite a few of my favourites (just the indie ones) through my website shop: Barbara Manning, Bikini Kill, Bonfire Madigan, Bratmobile, Beth Custer, Ex-girl, Handsome 3Some, Jean Caffeine, Lois Maffeo, Sleater Kinney, and Virginia Dare, to name a few.
The Avengers...Died For Yours Sins and most of Penelope Houston's solo are available through Penelope's Glad I'm A Girl Store