Avengers Summer

GOD, THE AVENGERS were a great little band. And I say little band only because time and geography conspired against any possibility of them being recognized as a great band for the music in their time.

But those things happen when a band’s lifespan lasts all of two years (from mid-’77 to mid-’79), home base is San Francisco and the farthest they ever apparently played from the Pacific Ocean was 75 miles inland at Riverside (where a small punk and very early college radio scene flourished down in Orange County). That gig looks to be the farthest east they got by a good 50 miles, too, so you can imagine it was well nigh the impossible dream for a band that pegged to the left coast to escape the ranks of minor players when the idea of cred (street or otherwise) for any West Coast punk band then would be one of the more laughable propositions imaginable in faraway New York or UK punk circles.

Where the Avengers ultimately did get major cred and reputation (big-time prices, too) was in collectors circles for their monumental three-song Dangerhouse single featuring ‘We are the One’. Then there was whatever cachet came from having a four-song session produced by Steve Jones in the aftermath of the Sex Pistols split that would slip out on an even rarer 12″ on an even more obscure label some months after the band broke up. The band did eventually get to release the full-length Avengers LP in 1983, pieced together from the songs on those singles plus material recorded mainly during a few sessions at top Bay Area studios, soon dubbed the Pink album for the dominant tone of the cover photo of singer Penelope Houston. The album arrived way too late to have any major impact beyond serving to satiate the faithful and probably spread the ripples of awareness a bit further out in the wider world.

But as the LP age moved into CD world, the Avengers disappeared from sight and earshot, apart from recycling the trilogy of Dangerhouse songs on scattered compilations put out by Frontier and Rhino (probably others, too, but those are the ones I know and listened to). In 1999, out came The Avengers Died For Your Sins on Lookout, which offered four previously unheard songs, very well-recorded at a rehearsal studio, plus an assortment of very raw audience tapes of the Avengers playing live versions of their previously recorded anthems – valuable as a curio/supplement under any circumstances but one that only heightened the hunger for the real deal.

However, the back cover notes warning that these were the only real, band-approved Avengers recordings available and to “Accept no imitations, and don’t forget to read the fine print” indicated that their early recordings were undoubtedly caught up in some sort of CD legal limboland cul-de-sac.

And then, almost miraculously, word started circulating and upcoming release lists in 2010 began featuring an officially sanctioned 2CD reissue of the Avengers pink album plus bonus material culled from Died For Your Sins and other sources. In typical Avengers fashion, it took another two years before the disc actually materialized in my mailbox and so, in this summer of superhero Avengers in costume with supersize budgets saturating movie screens and the media, came the moment to revisit and gorge myself on music recorded by four scruffy art school Avengers on a shoestring 35 years ago.

And you know what?

Goddamn, the Avengers were a great band.

The weird thing is I don’t really have many specific memories of seeing them live. I know I saw them three of four times and they were exhilarating. I definitely know I saw them at least once at L.A.’s formational underground dive, the Masque (and almost certainly with the Zeros), because it’s by far the strongest memory I have of seeing a band live at the Masque. I’m sure I saw them at the Whisky and probably one or two others places around L.A., most likely with the Alleycats or X or the Zeros again.

The Avengers were one of that handful of brilliant bands up and down the California coast instrumental in laying the foundation for the West Coast punk scene, the first generation groups that laid down on the barbed wire for a scene that kept growing incrementally and spreading out inexorably from the core nucleus scene they originally created, but never got the recognition they deserved. I did make the trek up to San Francisco for the Sex Pistols’ Winterland swansong, where the second-billed Avengers delivered far and away the set of the night by virtually all accounts (no arguments from me, I even liked the Pistols but the Avengers were just a great live band. No specifics again, this time due to…well, let’s just say it was one of a handful of great rock ‘n’ roll excess weekends I ever had, fueled by Scotch and no sleep, but we don’t have to go there now).

I think the lack of specific gig memories comes down to the fact the Avengers were so damned good all the time and the quality of their material so consistently high – even the three finished songs written back in the day that the “scavengers” (aka Houston and guitarist Greg Ingraham plus a new rhythm section) recorded in 1998 to release on Died For Your Sins (amen to that great title) were very strong. John Dougan’s review of the original Pink Album LP in All Music insightfully pointed to how easy it could be to overlook the Avengers since so many groups came along later to mine the same vein: “…contemporary standards diminish what great music this was and what a great band the Avengers were. Dozens of bands came in their wake, but few could recapture the ferocity and excitement of their sound.”

Amen to that again. One locals-only sign – when the West Coast punk scene started cranking up, a half-hearted rivalry between L.A. and S.F. bands existed, mostly inherited from an old sense that there should be one since the two cities were supposed to be at cultural odds with each other but it didn’t really last long. It really couldn’t when there was a scene to build and pretty counterproductive, if not downright stupid, to cut yourself off from the other major city in the state with clubs for gigs where you could maybe make some money to pay the rent. The Avengers were pretty regular visitors to L.A. and one thing I remember distinctly about the L.A. punk audience was everybody loved the Avengers. And I mean everybody.

But what was there not to like? The Avengers had great songs and knew how to arrange them, great vocal and musical hooks and how to frame them, very sharp and oppositional lyrics in the best outspoken and uncompromising early punk tradition. They had their musical dynamics down and were one of those memorable balanced bands where each member was absolutely integral to the overall sound. Greg Ingraham was a tremendous guitarist, with an ear for magnetic riffs and a searing tone meshed with a great sense of economy, perfectly content to let a distorted chordal roar ring out and float while the rampaging rhythm section carried the momentum. Bass player Jimmy Wilsey and drummer Danny Furious had the skills and savvy as a rhythm section to know when to step forward and give that extra kick to the songs and when to drop back into serving as the basic foundation for Ingraham and Houston without letting the ferocity and excitement lag (good word choices there, John Dougan). And Penelope Houston was a great singer and incisive lyricist, a performer who relished engaging the audience when she was onstage, be it playful sparring and encouragement or more confrontational harangues to get her message across. She was also an absolutely gorgeous buzzcut punkette (objective fact, that) who absolutely never pandered.

And they had anthems, did they ever have anthems. The chorus of ‘We are the One’ from that monumental first Dangerhouse single is a chorus that has never left my head, never will leave my head, and even coloured my perceptions of the whole “We are the 99% against the 1%” movement this summer. Because I want no part of that 1%, but yeah, put me down for this One:

“We are the leaders of tomorrow
We are the ones who have the fun
We want control, we want the power
Not gonna rest until it comes
We are not Jesus Christ
We are not fascist pigs
We are not capitalist executives
We are not communists
We are the One”

Hell, yes, combined with the ringing chords creating anticipation for one killer descending chord progression and you have an all-time anthem permanently embedded in the cranial hard drive. And it’s got company up there. Right next door is Ingraham’s clarion call opening riff to ‘The American in Me’, triggering layered chords and Houston not only impressively negotiating a tricky extended melodic line but weighing in with some pretty perceptive snapshots of the American psyche viewed through the filter of the Kennedy assassination. The chorus is an absolutely brilliant and pure punk invocation and inversion of JFK’s inaugural address call to patriotic arms, about as close to the irreverence and “sacrilege” displayed against hallowed national iconography committed by ‘God Save the Queen’ as you could get in the U.S. circa 1978:

“Ask not what you can do for your country
But what your country’s been doing to you (your mind)”

Now it did take a memory jog to bring back ‘I Believe in Me’, the third piece of the anthem trilogy with its resounding chorus chant of “I believe in me / I make my dreams real”, a prime example of the positivity and sense of self-affirmation at the core of early punk and particularly the West Coast strain the Avengers were instrumental in developing. But it took hearing the live version on this new expanded Avengers, recorded at the Winterland show when they opened for the Pistols, to really bring it home full force. The lyrics always seemed set up primarily as an open platform for Houston to free associate on her favourite theme of the necessity of self-reliance in life, rejecting and condemning imposed rules and people telling her what to do. And here she uses the first verse to throw down the gauntlet to the audience:

“Hey, well, I see you all packed right in here
I see you all came
You want to see the Sex Pistols
What are they going to tell you
That you don’t already know
What are they gonna tell you
You gotta figure it out for yourself
I believe in me
I make my dreams real”

And this after surviving a false start before laying into the sweeping slash-and-burn garage rock riff sweeping the song along and a brief stutter step when Ingraham momentarily loses the chordal roar which, rather than derail the song’s momentum, only seems to relaunch the band’s ferocious assault with even more intensity. But the piece de resistance arrives in the final chorus when Houston snarls “No one else will” right after the final “I make my dreams real”. Simply a glorious moment.

Both versions are found on the new expanded Avengers for your listening pleasure comparison. It’s almost certainly designed as the definitive compilation, the most complete reference and final home for the band’s long scattered songbook and recording history. Even though the bonus disc does cherry-pick the best finished tracks, it doesn’t entirely supersede Died for your Sins for the period snapshot of raw live Avengers, Houston bantering with the audience, and the three scAvengers studio tracks that aren’t included on this Avengers.

One of them, ‘Crazy Homicide’, does kick off the live Winterland segment of the bonus disc with an in-full-flight barrage of lyric (“Nothing in the world satisfies you/But you won’t give up and be like the rest/ Nobody cares if you live or die/So you join the party called homicide”) and sweeping riff that is one helluva jolting opening. The duplicate songs on both discs do have a purpose, since the remix of ‘Uh-Oh’ basically salvages the song and its guitar rampage for listenability from the echo overkilled vocals of the (unfinished?) version on the first disc. The ‘American in Me’ remix raises and brightens Houston’s voice to highlight the lyrics and well, any excuse to listen to more two-minute blasts of that anthemic guitar lick and chorus is just fine by me. As for ‘White N*****’, it’s one of the three punk-era songs using the word I can tolerate (Patti’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll N*****’ and X’s ‘Los Angeles’ are the others and yes, I’m playing favourites because I love all those songs), because the absence of racial connotations in context is clear as a betrayed Houston vehemently lays into the object of her scorn for selling out and living a lie far from ideals once held dear.

But again it’s less the individual elements than the balance of the band and their savvy ways with arrangements and dynamics that shines through. Even on a lesser song like ‘Cheap Tragedies’, the way the rhythm section swells up to frame and inject dynamics underneath Ingraham’s repeated lick solo imprints that section in the memory, just as the Furious drum flurries bring some life to ‘No Martyr’. The powersurge of the rhythm section on ‘Car Crash’ from the first Dangerhouse single, drives the song in tandem with Ingraham’s ominous riffing and stinging solo, while Houston’s zombie state of shock mutters and moans serve as background before it all careens towards an early nod to noise with an audio verite simulation of the song title.

But the most salient point about finally collecting these songs in one place comes immediately after the opening trilogy from the Dangerhouse single, when the searing guitar, menacing undertow and accusatory lyrics (to be aware, challenge assumptions and mindless group think, always a favourite Houston theme) of ‘Open Your Eyes’ points the way towards the overall high quality of the material beyond the anthems. ‘Teenage Rebel’, ‘Friends of Mine’, ‘White N*****’, ‘Open Your Eyes’ ‘Second to None’ and ‘Corpus Christi’ are all great songs in their own right and most of the others at least have something to recommend them. The rhythm section steps up to a more pronounced role on ‘Rebel’ and ‘Friends’, both driving uptempo songs that bear some kinship with early X, not that surprising for West Coast contemporaries who shared the same punk club and formative stages. ‘Thin White Line’ is very fine, equal parts punky and punchy pop with Penelope spitting out tongue-in-cheeky lyrics (“You say don’t go, don’t go / Don’t go to Babylon/Well, hey Joe, I’m already there”), and more faint echoes of X in a guitar solo that lands halfway between Billy Zoom and Johnny Thunders.

Which fits because the Avengers aren’t so much Ramones school as extension of the Dolls/Pistols brand of Thunders-esque guitar rampage (‘Uh-Oh’, ‘Second to None’ ‘No Martyr’) with the live ‘Something’s Wrong’ catching them at their most ramalama Ramonic. The pair of covers, ‘Paint It, Black’ and the early Berry Gordon R&B staple ‘Money’ are both surprisingly traditional choices and very faithful performances except the initial wave of punk bands were essentially rock ‘n’ roll bands formed by people who loved the music so much they couldn’t stand what it had turned into without trying to do something about it. Or so it always struck me, and particularly true of the West Coast – I wonder if it’s any coincidence the Stones song also is the title for Janet Fitch’s novel centered around the L.A. punk scene of that time period. Maybe something in the air.

And they knew how to frame their choruses, witness the punctuations setting up ‘Second to None’ as Houston sketches the different phases of parental attitudes towards lifestyle choices. I was surprised by how frequently overt Christ and Catholic imagery popped up in the lyrics but then I didn’t expect to have a chorus like ‘Corpus Christi’ (“See how they run/Sheep to the fold/See how they fall/Corpse of the Cross”) be catchy enough to keep running through my head for a couple of weeks either .

The latter song was the only one featuring Brad Kent as Ingraham’s replacement on the original vinyl Avengers pink LP and the material does drop off markedly with the four live Kent tracks near the end of the bonus disk. ‘Misery’ and ‘Time to Die’ in particular deteriorate into the kind of desultory, disjointed thrashing that sounds like a band on its last legs. Whether Ingraham leaving severed the crucial link in the band sound or just unbalanced the overall chemistry, whether it was cumulative internal band tensions or the frustrations of wrestling with the record industry machinery trying to get their music out there, or whether that first exhilarating flush of excitement that comes when creativity is flowing and you know the music’s happening had just run its course, the magic is clearly gone.

On the brief original LP liner notes reproduced on the new expanded Avengers CD, one V. Vale capsulized things this way: “In San Francisco 1977-78, before the proliferation of ten thousand garage bands (“hardcore” and otherwise) the Avengers invented and played a few classic teenage rebel songs…created amidst a genuine underground as it was originating.” And for all the rhapsodizing and flinging around of superlatives I’ve done here, in some respects that’s all the 27 songs and 31 tracks found here amounted to when you get down to it. I had the chance to feel the music live and direct in that forming underground so it resonates deeply with me but still I think there’s an elemental quality to the music here that takes it beyond its specific context. No matter if some lyrical references are outdated or they sometimes showed their youth, no matter if they stumbled reaching for something beyond their abilities or how often their musical elements have been recycled since, the Avengers caught the moment they lived in, that brief window when everything blew wide open.

In their time, when it mattered, they nailed it.

Damn, the Avengers were a great band.

© Don Snowden, September 2012

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