International Clash Day: Interview with Penelope Houston of The Avengers

International Clash Day, Interviews
photo by Marcus Leatherdale

Penelope Houston knows a thing or two about the roots of punk. As the lead vocalist for The Avengers, she helped build the punk movement on the west coast in their home base of San Francisco. In her time in the band, she saw The Clash play a secret show under the banner "The Only Band That Matters" and even covered a few of their songs. KEXP caught up with Houston to reflect on the legacy of The Clash, their social and political messages, and even dug into her Seattle roots.



KEXP: Are you originally from Seattle?

Penelope Houston: Yeah I was born in L.A. and then at about, well third grade... whatever age that is, moved to Bellevue and went to Medina Elementary School which doesn't really have much to do with anything. I lived in the Bellevue area until about '74 and then I went to college in Bellingham, moved back to Seattle, hung out with Ze Whiz Kids and the Tupperwares, which is an earlier version of The Screamers, and then I got accepted to art school in San Francisco and I moved down here to go to the Art Institute and that's when The Avengers formed.

I was just talking to Moby. So I'm 50 years old Moby's 52 and I remember being a kid around the late 70s early 80s in punk rock and back then if you had a punk rock look, you kinda took your life in your hands walking down the street. People would spit at you and yell at you and try and kick your ass and if you're a skinny little scorning scrawny little guy like me, they did kick your ass. For you, what was it like being like the lead punk rocker in San Francisco in the mid 70s and 80s.

Well maybe because I'm female I didn't get my ass kicked as much but we were definitely looked at like freaks in San Francisco and '77, '78 and the scene was ignored by the press, pretty much thoroughly, and there were no record labels in the Bay Area. We eventually had a single out on Danger House in L.A... Actually that was '77, that wasn't that late, but yeah people kind of looked at us like we were freaks. And it was San Francisco so being a freak really wasn't too dangerous. But yeah I mean it was a small little scene at that point.

I don't I don't want to call you a freak but you used that word so just for the purpose of conversation, in Bellingham and in the Seattle area where you a "Punk Freak?"

Pre-punk, yes, definitely a freak.

So what did that mean? Were you like a Bowie kid or like T-Rex or Stooges, I mean, what were you into?

I did have kind of a Bowie haircut. But I went to this school Fairhaven, which is sort of a hippie school, so I was kind of brought up in a slightly hippy household thinking that music and art were like the twin gods that I would follow and I never felt... I wasn't rebelling from my family because my family was kind of on the edge... sort of out there. I did realize that our ideas were different than a lot of people's ideas but it didn't bother me and I was hanging out with my friends who were pretty crazy at the time in Seattle which was which was fun, Ze Whiz Kids and different people at that time also up in Bellingham at the school there were crazy bands and, I think this is before punk, we all went to thrift stores and bought clothes from the '40s and '50s and there was Dreamland which was this vintage clothing boutique in the U-District and people just kind of spotted each other and hung out and Ze Whiz Kids were doing a lot of crazy stuff and then after them, The Tupperwares. I mean it was it was also a small scene in Seattle too. But now Seattle just seems crazy to me when I go there I'm like 'oh my God this is like the most hipster place on the planet right now... Thursday night at midnight and you see people playing bicycle hockey on Capitol Hill... I'm just like, 'What?' But back then Seattle was really pretty dead and pretty black and white dark people were just leaving, the whole downtown area it was pretty much empty. If anyone had any sense of the future they would have gone and bought all these old buildings in Belltown. But that didn't happen to me.

I remember the first time I heard I guess what we would consider kind of punk rock and that was, I'm from Minneapolis, I was in a Victorian house. I don't remember whose house it wa but I remember hearing Steve Jones' chords, of the Sex Pistols obviously, and that sneer from Johnny Lydon, Johnny Rotten, and being completely taken aback by it and like I was so attracted to it, 'What is this? I want more of this. Play it again please!' Do you recall your first moment hearing this kind of twist in music?

Well I was already listening to Lou Reed and Patti Smith and I think Patti Smith's first record came out in '75 or something, '74...

And so you felt like these albums by the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Ramones, etc. were a continuation of that?

Yeah like the New York Dolls, Lou Reed, Bryan Ferry, Patti Smith and The Damned were pretty early on too. By the time they came around it was just like that's what we were into. There was one particular TV show where they showed British punks tearing their clothes and ripping them up and safety pinning them back together. I remember that moment of being like 'Wow... that's a crazy idea. Let's do that.' I also remember the first time I heard the Pretenders single it was "Brass in Pocket." That was pretty early too, and just thinking how this just sounds like nothing else out there.

So how did that feel? The Pretenders' 'Brass in Pocket' - How did hearing that song feel?

I just I just felt like this is different than anything else that came before it and it has this amazing female voice on it and I was really inspired. But before that I was inspired by Patti Smith, whose music is at that time is kind of just rock and roll in a way. But her and her lyrics and her performance were way out there for that for that time. So I was already listening to stuff, Captian Beefheart, just different things that were outside of your regular rock 'n roll sphere.

Well so how are you so sophisticated musically, like where did you find all of this stuff? How did you know about it?

Well I was a teenager but my friends had older siblings who were listening to things like the Bonzo Dog Band and Captain Beefheart and stuff like that so there was some of that influence. But also, the kind of people that I sought out at that time were weirdos who were living on the edge and going to art school or trying to do something else with their lives and they would also introduce me to different kinds of music. When The Avengers first played we did cover songs. We played at a warehouse party, that was our first show, and we just did cover songs. Then a couple of days after that I went down to LA and I was visiting with The Screamers and Tomata and Tommy Gear said 'Yeah, you got to write your own songs.' And we had a show maybe a week later and we wrote five songs in that time.. a couple of which actually stuck. It was a time where we were just like, 'Oh yeah, of course we're going to write our own songs, let's do that!' and then not really having a clue, just like 'blah! here it goes...' I think 'Car Crash' was one of the first ones and 'I Believe In Me' probably was one of the first ones and then a few that just went went away for good reason.

What do you think of those songs. I mean it's interesting. You probably didn't you in the band play didn't have a level of sophistication that songwriters you do now. It was raw it was news probably really exciting for you. What do you think of the songs and you hear them now?

Well I still do. I still perform with the Avengers occasionally and I think they pulled up really well. I mean especially the ones we wrote a little further down the line like "The American In Me" and "Corpus Christi." Those are fairly complex lyrically and, not so much musically but lyrically, with developed ideas. And I'm totally happy singing those now and then even some of the simpler ones like "I Believe In Me" or "Fuck You." I don't know if I can see that on the radio. Those ones are still super fun to do because they're anthemic. It's for a lot of people it's as much about the guitar sound as it is about anything else with the Avengers. So I have to give credit to Greg Ingraham who came up with that guitar sound. It was kind of awesome and anthemic and just lifted people out.

Was that happenstance him creating this his own guitar sound or how did that come about?

He was playing guitar for a long time. He was in bands in Fullerton, California with our drummer Danny Furious and Danny was the one who moved to San Francisco first and was going to the Art Institute when I met him. And he said he was going to start a band and he was going to bring down a friend of his that he'd already been playing with. So those guys had like a long already long history of being in like garage bands and playing rock n roll and thinking about all that stuff. So Greg had probably already developed this tone at that point. And then he came to town and we started the band.

Were you always someone who sang?

I always thought I was going to be a visual artist a painter.

And you are now aren't you?

I do, yes. I do that. I have a website which has all my art on it. But I was going to art school and I kind of felt that Andy Warhol quote, 'In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.' I always thought, 'OK I'm ready for my 15 minutes.' Although not really knowing what I was going to be famous for. So when I joined The Avengers, I mean I joined the band that became the Avengers, I was ready to get up there and do whatever I had to do but without really knowing. But I had sung in choruses in school and, I mean... I wasn't planning on being a singer just turned out that way.

I was watching videos of you you know live stuff from the 70s and it seems like you were really really really comfortable almost initially on stage is that a fair assessment or off base?

When we started I had a little formula of drinking three gin and tonics one after another before getting on stage and then letting them start take effect. So the first half of the set I could probably remember most of the lyrics and the last half I'd just be making them up which happened a lot with our songs anyway. So I would say I was not that comfortable at the beginning and then at some point I got more comfortable with it. Also knowing the music and knowing the band and everything certainly makes you more comfortable. But when I perform now I feel like really like kind of a different person just because I can sing better now and I am comfortable on stage. But some of the things I said to the audience between songs back when I was 19 just cracked me up. I was very snarky. I can still be very snarky, but I was pretty snarky when I was a teenager.

What did you say?

Oh, I don't know. Various things. Like railing on hippies or yelling at the audience to get up. Oh I think the Zahav who is a percussionist performance artist was playing before the Avengers 1 show and I got up to it and I was like, 'What was that. You call that art?' And I think we put that on one of our live recordings. It was in there between songs. I don't know if people knew I was referring to Zahav. Probably not but Greil Marcus wrote a whole piece on the tone of my voice when I said the word art which I thought was incredible. But yeah I had full on snark going on.

Did he get it right. What the tone of your voice meant in his article?

Yeah I think so. I would have to go back and find it read it read it again because Greil's fairly...His writing is pretty complex so I'll go back and see it again. I think it's in The Believer. I can't remember where it is but it's pretty funny. Oh no. Maybe it's in Salon and maybe in Salon. It's from a while ago, like 10-15 years ago.

That's interesting. I think the tone that artists like you and Joe Strummer and John Liden presented was the was the shift you know forgive me if I've already said this to you. That to me is the shift that's so interesting is the almost a sneer as it were.

Oh yeah, yeah and I mean that is a huge part of punk. It's just that attitude. And the sneer and the sneer in your vocal is huge. [It's] the expression of that of that attitude and the attitude was that we recognize that things are screwed up and we're going to call out the powers that be on things being screwed up and we're not afraid of being social critics. And even if we do it in a really bratty way that doesn't mean that what we're saying isn't true. Definitely The Clash and The Pistols were were at the forefront of that. I mean the Ramones have a sound and a kind of amazing formula that was totally listenable but also shocking. And in a way they were social critics, but not quite as directly I think as say The Clash or The Pistols.

Yeah they're almost critics in the way like Mad Magazine was critical of society, right?

Yes! When we all loved that magazine.

Right, they lampooned in an almost gentle way, sort of. In doing some research for the interview, I think there's times where you were critical of – and I don't mean an overtly negative way – but it's you know, just speaking about Joe Strummer and his political views and at times would appear to be humorlessness. So I'm curious from your perspective, what do you think he and The Clash got right and what did they get wrong?

Well I think that one of the things they got right was having a pretty firm political stance and couching it in super listenable music. I think that The Clash's music, especially with its kind of reggae influence and rock n roll influence, was really easy to listen to. In that way, it's gonna go further than something that's like white noise with somebody screaming over it. And so I liked their first album right off the bat and I liked that they were political. I feel like I'm looking at it from this huge distance from California, from the West Coast, looking at people in London like The Pistols or The Clash and not knowing exactly where they came from or exactly what the details of their lyrics or their appearance or their presentation meant to people there. But over here we felt like this is really great stuff and I don't remember actually ever saying anything about Joe Strummer being humorless.

So I was paraphrasing there so forgive me. And I'm sure I'm off base there a bit. So sorry.

I'm not sure what I've ever said about The Clash that's ended up in print but certainly the Pistols were cynical and kind of humorous but then with the Pistols you also have to question like what came from them and what came from Malcolm McLaren. Whereas The Clash you just felt like that was them. What you got from them was like genuinely from them as opposed to being any kind of manipulation from above. I remember liking The Clash and also liking the Pistols and also liking the Ramones, but there were certain people in the Bay Area that felt The Clash were like totally one with our local little movement. And when they came to play, I think they were playing for Bill Graham, they did a show and I don't know if that show sold out probably was sold out or close to sold out, but these local punks had a little group called New Youth, which is mysteriously fascistic sounding name, talk The Clash into doing a benefit for them. I'm not sure but maybe the show they were playing was 21 and over and people wanted them to play an all ages show or something?

So anyway, the show was set up at one of our local theater places that could be rented that punks sometimes had shows at. And they couldn't use the name The Clash, so they used the name The Only Band That Matters. And everybody knew who that was. Maybe it said the only British band it matters, like maybe somebody decided 'No way my bad matters!' or something like that, I'm not sure [laughs]. But anyway there were posters all over town that said the only band that matters, plus negative trend and blah blah blah and whoever else was on the bill. Can't really remember. We were not on the bill, sadly. I went to that show and that was really exciting and it was just kind of funny to us that we could organize, not me personally, but our little scene could organize a Clash concert but not use their name [laughs]. But everybody basically knew what that was anyway. So yeah, I mean for for our scene I think The Clash had a special depth and meaning. The fact that they were unapologetically political was kind of great.

Do you have a favorite song of theirs?

Well, "Lost In The Supermarket" is one of my favorites because we did a cover of it. There were some Joe Strummer night in one of the small local clubs and we were asked to play two or three songs. "Police and Thieves" is amazing, but that's another song. "London's Burning". But "Lost In The Supermarket" was my favorite one to actually sing. So I would say that one.

Well you're a really great singer so you know music, what makes that song great to sing?

The lyrics. Yeah the lyrics and I just... I don't know. I just thought it was a funny idea. It's also a very British concept, but I like the displaced feeling that the singer, the lyrics put forth in that.

You've mentioned there there are political in nature. I'm just curious in this climate now, which is a strange one – we're fairly divided as a country. What's important to you right now politically, socially, whatever?

There's so many things that are going south right now with our current administration just like there's so many things to speak up against and fight against. It's like everything that seemed to be in place is getting torn away and immigration, the environment, individual's rights. There's just so much that one can still upset about right now. It's a long laundry list. It's just frightening. And last year was just such a hard year. Right from the get go. And then all the way through and then it seemed like there were endless amounts of mass shootings and then we had the fires here and then there were all the hurricanes. It was like everything; nature and and the administration were just beating down on the people of America. Fucked. It was a terrible year. For me personally it wasn't too terrible because I was painting and ydoing my various things, but in general I just felt like, 'God will this ever end?' And every week it was like either some other horrible horrible thing like a massacre or flames coming everywhere. In San Francisco we were smelling the smoke up north bay for weeks on end. The sky was just deep brown. But then on top of it there would be having this basically out of control person in the White House tweeting idiotic things every single week. Horrible year. So tomorrow I will be out marching with the women's march.

Why does music matter to you?

Oh music does matter. And I would say that it's a an excellent way to reach people. And to reach out to all kinds of people that you wouldn't necessarily sit down and have a conversation with. But if they can hear your songs or you can hear their songs you can make a connection and communicate ideas. And I think that's really important in this day and age. People are getting more and more separated because of technology. But we could also reach out to each other because of technology as well. And I think that a lot of people... like there's too much music. Like there's too much access to too much music. But in some ways, especially for young people, listening to music is a way to focus what you feel or to connect with other people who feel the way you feel. And I think that's always going to be important to people in their teens and 20s as a kind of form of communication and it's it's important that the music that's going out there and the music that it's available to people is still truly in the spirit of their of their times. It's not like fed to them by huge record labels or whatever.

I think now people have the opportunity to listen to whatever they want whereas pre-internet you had to search it out. If you lived in some small podunk town in the middle of Iowa, you're not going to hear about The Clash or the Pistols or the Avengers or Dead Kennedys or any of that until really a good long time after, depending on what radio stations you could get probably. But it's a lot easier now for people to access music. So in some ways it's it's overwhelming, in other ways it's really good. I mean The Clash are kind of classic and I would say that their music also transcends that time period. It's crazy how all this music squawking about is like 40 years old or whatever because it's still still fresh and it's still meaningful.

Why do you think that is?

It represents a kind of rebellion. That kind of rejection of the status quo that people need to keep in mind. I mean I'm sure there's some great great quotes here that I can't think of off the top of my head, but freedom needs vigilant defending. Freedom of thought and freedom to move around and all the freedoms that we can so easily take for granted. They need to be defended and The Clash's music is one of those things that would defend that. So I think that's one of the reasons it's still important.

KEXP is celebrating International Clash Day all day long, both online and on the air; click here to see more KEXP interviews and articles.

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