“It’s the American in me that makes me say it’s an honor to die / In a war that’s just a politician’s lie”, rants Penelope Houston of San Francisco punk band the Avengers, in their song “The American in Me”, included on this new selection by the same name. The song is a declaration of culture war against American authority and the status quo that resonates today as loudly as it did in the band’s brief career. The brevity of their time as a band feels now, over 25 years later, like a blistering short set by a band at the peak of the powers; over too fast, succinctly leaving listeners wanting more. To understand the full impact the Avengers had on the punk world (and its later offshoots of popular music at large) in their clipped two-year existence, one needs to place them first in the bilious music scene of West Coast USA, 1977. Punk was just beginning, in New York the Ramones were already at it nearly a year, and the Sex Pistols had come to the States for an abortive tour, ending at a show in San Francisco at the Winterlands. The Avengers opened for the Pistols at the Winterlands, after having played numerous clubs in the city area, like the legendary Mabuhay Gardens, alongside peers Dils, the Screamers, and better known West Coasters like the Dead Kennedys and X. The result of playing a huge concert rife with all the creeping influences of the music industry already getting their claws into the punk movement, they become disenchanted with what punk was becoming. It was the Sex Pistols’ last show, signaling an end, to many outsiders, of punk’s burning urgency in the demise of the Pistols as supposed torchbearers. Pistol guitarist Steve Jones would later produce some of the Avengers’ music in a gesture of camaraderie with a band he felt important.
In two years, the Avengers played over 100 shows, careening through sets of a short list of songs. Houston penned the lyrics, with immediacy, that often called for self-change (rather than the unfocused political rants spouted by many of their peers) and the importance of the individual as the agent of change in society. The first strong American female figure in punk, Houston shone as a beacon for women to include themselves, and not as secondary players. She was defiant about this in their live shows, when verbally coercing the crowd as usual, riling them to participate or react. In the intro to “Zero Hour”, recorded live at the Old Waldorf showcase club in 1979, Houston blurts to the audience, “This song’s for the ladies in the crowd, if there are any.”
This release collects unearthed studio work, including alternate takes of the Steve Jones sessions, and a crystal clear live show at the Old Waldorf in ‘79, when the band were three shows away from their end. With liner notes by Greil Marcus and Penelope Houston, there is a better sense of just how this short-lived band stands out from the pack of so many of its peers and those that followed. The booklet also contains some gorgeous photos of the band, largely unseen until now. The hook-driven studio cut “White Nigger” calls out the working class cogs for their obliviousness. Perhaps the Avengers’ best-known song, “We Are the One” erupts as the first track—the band’s initial guitarist, Greg Ingraham, bashing through as Houston’s near-shriek singing style attempts to define the band’s ethos, “We are the leaders of tomorrow / We are the ones to have more fun / We want control, we want the power / Not gonna stop until its comes”. This message, however ambitious and fiery, at first can seem broad and sweeping, but the chorus maintains that their otherness is what matters, that they know what they aren’t, “We are not Jesus (Christ) / We are not fascists (pigs) / We are not capitalists (industrialists) / We are not Communists / We are the one”.
In June of 2003, Houston and guitarist Pat Johnson played a version of “The American in Me” to a crowd assembled to celebrate Howard Dean’s announcement of his candidacy for president. Houston’s pointed lyrics remain as alive and vibrant in this modern context as ever, reaffirming her and the band’s scribbled, venomous footnote to American history: “Ask not what you can do for your country / What’s your country been doing to you? / In the USA”!
// Notes from the Road
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