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Punk of the Month: Penelope Houston

August 18, 2011

Penelope HoustonGirl Germs might be an all-female show, but we have plenty of supportive gentleman friends – and even some honorary ladies – who number among our compatriots (see: DJ Phizzy, King Cole and Marinos of On the Corner; Evan and co. over at Fancy Pants Gangsters; and Chris and Qualler of Blogulator Radio, among others).

You might know our friend Nate from Fancy Pants Gangsters comrades Out of Step; he guest DJ’d on Girl Germs back when we were all on Radio K. Nate is our go-to expert on all things punk and he’s kindly agreed to write a monthly feature for you all called Punk of the Month! Watch the blog every month for a profile of a female artist who has broken ground on the punk scene. 

For this month’s featured punk artist, we pay tribute to the Bay Area’s most fearless female punk, Penelope Houston!

Born in Los Angeles but raised in Seattle, Houston relocated to San Francisco in punk’s watershed year of 1977 to attend the San Francisco Institute of Art. Galvanized by Patti Smith and the Sex Pistols, she established the legendary cult band the Avengers, a guise for which she is probably best known. Their somewhat English-derived sound was spirited and spunky, with Houston’s yearning yelp asserting their personal and political missives. An enthusiastic following included esteemed rock critic Greil Marcus, who christened them “San Francisco’s best punk band.”

The career of the Avengers proved to be rather brief and not particularly prolific.  1977 witnessed the release of the classic We Are the One 7” on LA’s Dangerhouse label. The American in Me 12” EP dropped in 1979, featuring tracks from a studio session produced by Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones. The lifespan of the Avengers consummated the same year, although myriad posthumous releases would continue to find their way to the public.

Following the collapse of the Avengers, Houston moved first to LA, and then to England, where she contributed to projects with former Magazine and Buzzcocks frontman Howard Devoto.  Returning to San Francisco, she soon gained inspiration from artists like Tom Waits and Violent Femmes and began experimenting with acoustic instruments.

Houston enlisted a revolving-door cast of musicians and rehearsed under a variety of monikers, culminating in the release of the Birdboys LP in 1988.  She applied the same energetic drive and feisty spirit that she once did in her punkier past, but her new acoustic-based direction inspired its share of confusion from fans expecting another aggressive-sounding Avengers retread.

Still, Houston’s folkier offerings found a considerable audience overseas, where her records were licensed by Warner Brothers’ German imprint.  Undertaking extPenelope Houstonensive European tours during the mid-1990s, she garnered enthusiastic critical and popular acclaim, both domestically and abroad.  A string of solo LPs in the Neo-Folk vein continued throughout the following decade.

In the mid-2000s, Houston dusted off her former band (guess which one?) for a series of shows that became a full U.S. tour.  The freshly reunited and revamped Avengers (including original guitarist Greg Ingraham), continues to tour and play on occasion.

Houston keeps busy with her own website and label, Penelope.net Records, and boasts a new album awaiting release.  Go, Penelope!

–Nate Rastetter

Nate is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and is a co-host of Out of Step on Fancy Pants Gangsters. He has volunteered at Extreme Noise Records in Minneapolis since June 2000 and presently serves on its Board of Directors.  He seriously, fanatically loves record shopping.  Music is his mistress and vinyl is his vice.  He is also a moderately talented bass player.

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