It’s tough being a pioneer. You do all the hard work and then get forgotten about or ignored. This seemed to be the fate of San Francisco’s Avengers, a first wave American punk band who were dynamic and striking, and good musicians as well. Unfortunately, they only released a few singles, then had a full-length album posthumously released in the early ’80s on CD Presents, which soon folded. This is a shame, because the Avengers made some excellent music that remained forgotten about for the most part, other than a Lookout Records compilation of live tracks in the ’90s.
Obviously, great bands go unheard and forgotten, especially early punk bands, but this was a band that opened for the Sex Pistols’ final show, and featured the formidable vocal talents of Penelope Houston, a punk singer who could actually sing. You’d think at least they’d get mentioned when critics write up those “Women in Rock” lists.
Luckily, a new double CD collecting just about all the Avengers’ material should rectify this situation, resulting in “We Are the One” being played at football games and “Car Crash” used in commercials.
OK, that might be a bit of a stretch, but that brings up one of the paradoxes of the Avengers’ music. On the one hand, it sounds like exciting, basic, supercharged Chuck Berry influenced rock and roll, which begs the question, why was stuff like this so marginalized at the time? On the other you can understand how alien this must have sounded to a rock crowd looking for “tasty licks” or light shows or used to the murky production of, say, Molly Hatchet.
But for those who were paying attention, The Avengers crafted some amazing songs. This is what rock and roll should be — Greg Ingraham’s never-flashy but muscular riffs with a tight rhythm section and Penelope Houston’s impassioned vocals recall everything good about basic, simple rock music — that feeling that gets your feet moving or your fist pumping in traffic. Check out the sly nod to The Who’s “My Generation” in “Teenage Rebel.” As with the Ramones, if you don’t like this, you either don’t like rock and roll or you hate America.
It is interesting to hear the influence the group would have on the soon-to-be-born American hardcore movement. The Avengers took music back to the basics, but rather than aping the Brits and wallowing in trendy nihilism, were capable of expressing in songs such as “We Are the One,” and “I Believe in Me,” the promise of defining yourself and your generation, the beauty of creating your own space. Strip away the cartoonish violence of the punk and hardcore scene, and that’s really what most of the music was about.
This collection compiles the old CD Presents material on the first disc, along with some live and demo stuff on the second, some of which was recorded at that final Sex Pistols show. Out of so many great songs, “Thin White Line” might be my favorite. Is it an ode to selling out? A cautionary tale? A lust for power? Who knows? Ingraham’s guitar solo recalls everything good about ’50s and ’60s rock music, and Houston singing lines like “You can hear me for a million miles/ I’m surrounded by a thousand dials/ And what I want to see/Is a million more of me,” with such passion, such emotion, such genuine feeling that’s missing in so much art these days, makes “Thin White Line” a microcosm of both The Avengers and the power of rock and punk in general. Everyone should listen to this.
Speaking of things everyone should listen to, Houston’s solo album On Market Street is a revelation. While it might sound like a back-handed compliment, On Market Street sounds like music for grown-ups. The best songs have an air of melancholy, recalling the more subdued Rolling Stones stuff of the early ’70s. Houston has an incredibly expressive voice, and a band that remains tasteful and basic. Songs like “Missouri Lounge” bring to mind sitting in an old man bar in the middle of the day, while On Market Street, a song about society’s underclass, is haunting and spare. On Market Street is the sound of an artist growing up (you won’t get the snarls of “We Are the One” here) and making relevant, heartfelt music.