Graded on a Curve: Avengers, (s/t)

The state of California produced a compelling batch of ‘70s punk treasures, and high in their number is the work of the Avengers. A key component in San Francisco’s initial wave, by 1979 they were done, with the majority of the band’s releases surfacing post-breakup. Avengers first appeared in ’83, subsequently drifting in and out of availability while undergoing assorted CD expansions; the core LP is the group’s essential document and by extension is a mandatory acquisition for punk collectors. On December 4 it gets a fresh vinyl pressing through Superior Viaduct.

The definitive lineup of the Avengers, specifically Jimmy Wilsey on bass (replacing Jonathan Postal), Danny Furious on drums, Greg Ingraham on guitar, and Penelope Houston on vocals, only issued one EP while extant, though they were still quite busy during their relatively brief reign and impressively so given the lack of hospitable venues for the new music.

The payoff for the Avengers’ tenacity was a warm-up slot at The Sex Pistols’ last show, sandwiched between the Nuns and the headlining spectacle, the event taking place at San Fran’s Winterland Ballroom in January of ’78. Reportedly besting the Pistols (the recorded evidence bears this out), the opportunity seemed to cultivate disillusionment in the band, especially in Furious, though it was Ingraham who quit a year later, his spot filled by Brad Kent (of D.O.A., Pointed Sticks, Subhumans etc). The Avengers dissolved in June of ’79, a few months prior to the arrival of their sophomore 12-inch.

Avengers, or The Pink Album as it’s sometimes referred, corrals both EPs with added material of the same vintage to succinctly detail their enduring worthiness. Opening with the debut for Dangerhouse, the LP immediately makes the strongest possible case for the four-piece as one of the finest US punk acts of the pre-HC era.

For many the mantra of punk perseveres as “young loud and snotty,” but it’s those delivering the ingredients with a heaviness spawned from relentless determination (a.k.a. practice) that sit at the head of the class; beginning with exquisite guitar clamor, “We Are the One” brings heft, velocity, and an uncompromising vocal presence to the convulsions of ‘77’s rock revolution.

Furthermore, hundreds of punk combos managed to hold it together for a single song, but far fewer stuffed their introductory platter with three killers, and those possessing an utterly righteous four-minute-plus b-side can be counted on a single hand with digits to spare. In not wearing out its welcome “Car Crash” relies on surprisingly mature writing chops from a period where pure attitude could momentarily suffice.

As an anthem of youthful non-conformist self-empowerment, the lyrical stance accompanying the speedy throttle of “I Believe in Me” might be a tad limited for folks in the clutches of middle-age (or later), but on the other hand it remains a stone gas to hear Houston rail so defiantly against the generational divide, the impassioned contents linked to Black Flag, Minor Threat, and less loftily to countless outfits playing Sunday afternoon shows hosted by their hometown Knights of Columbus.

A major reason for Avengers’ success stems from its non-chronological approach, as CD Presents placed their self-titled 4-song ’79 EP for White Noise Records in the midst of side two. As part of a session produced post-Winterland by Pistol Steve Jones, their sequencing lends the record a well-balanced quality underlined by the quick-paced brawniness and increased political awareness of “The American in Me.”

Slower but no less socially concerned is “White Nigger,” the incendiary title surely inspired by the audacity of a similar Patti Smith number as the Avengers essentially take a different tack. Dealing only cursorily with race, Houston instead critiques the behavior of obsessed (and yes, Caucasian) careerists; ultimately, the tune is a rough prototype for “Life Sentence” by fellow San Fran punkers Dead Kennedys.

Even with Jones contributing piano “Uh Oh” is amongst the unit’s most rock-inclined cuts, sporting bursts of guitar redolent of The Damned’s first album or maybe more appropriately Bay Area cohorts Crime. Interestingly, “Second to None” flaunts the sort of beefy sing-along momentum this writer has long associated with salt-of-the-earth “tough-guy” punk; amazingly, it avoids any of the unpleasant aspects.

At least in theory, this is due to Houston’s charisma quashing a potential overdose of testosterone. Likewise, the religion skewering “Corpus Christi” uninhibitedly grapples with the kind of anthemic template that would eventually contribute to punk’s ‘80s unraveling; here however, the paradigm sounds fantastic in part because Houston’s pipes are golden and Kent’s guitar sounds flat-out fucking perfect.

Additionally, their revving-up of the Stones’ “Paint it Black” is basically spotless and stands amid the sweetest instances of unfaltering musicality found in the Avengers’ book. Scads of likeminded punk gestures simply elect to inflict a good roughing up to a chosen source, but this instance is made substantially more remarkable through the tricky infusing of a superb foundation with the grit and dynamics of the Avengers’ chosen genre.

The band fires on full cylinders and Houston emotes like a slightly more robust Deborah Harry. For a while “Paint it Black” was easier to find on a 45 issued by CD Presents; the spiffy chug and rant of its flip-side “Thin White Line,” complete with one of the finer post-Berry guitar breaks to have made these ears’ acquaintance, is also included here.

Frankly, much of the Avengers’ strength rests upon the talents of Houston and Ingraham, though the rhythm tandem of Wilsey and Furious are absolutely deserving of kudos. Even on the demo selections “Open Your Eyes” and “Desperation” the elements integrate without a hitch and “No Martyr” subtly exceeds the rudimentary and underlines their lasting influence.

Said importance extends to hardcore, the pummeling live closer “Fuck You” making this abundantly clear as Houston wails like she’s Darby’s maniacal sister. Really, The Pink Album’s only miniscule limitation is its inescapable reality (via production variances) as a compilation; in the end it’s not as seamless an experience as X’s Los Angeles or the Germs’ (GI). Of course, proper punk isn’t about perfection but rather energy, ingenuity, and forward motion. For a short moment, the Avengers were masters.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • JoJo

    The Avengers are one of my favorite punk bands. Penelope is so awesome. Her solo work is exceptional too. I have all her music and listen to it often.

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