Interview with Penelope Houston originally conducted June 2007
Penelope Houston has remained active in music for over 40 years now. Without a doubt, Penelope is one of the most respected performers to come out of the early West Coast punk rock scene and is considered an icon and role model by many.
I can't recall when I first saw her with the Avengers but I do recall being struck by her cool, tough girl image, so neatly captured in the Bev Davies photo of her and Brad Kent. She had extremely short, blond hair, almost boyish, which contrasted with her pretty features. Back in 1977 and early 1978, Penelope and her San Francisco-based band were favorites with the L.A. punks, who adopted Penelope as an honorary Angeleno.
To make matters more confusing, the Avengers recorded a classic e.p. (We Are The One b/w Car Crash & I Believe In Me) on the L.A. based label, Dangerhouse Records. Listen to this blast of brilliant female-led punk from 1977 below:
According to the Wikipedia entry on Penelope, she was born in Los Angeles, so that should settle any argument that she doesn't belong in this section, although before moving to San Francisco, Penelope was involved in the Seattle underground scene that spawned the Tupperwares (pre-Screamers outfit with Tommy Gear and Tomata DuPlenty), so she had the West Coast pretty much covered.
The Avengers were always warm towards the Hollywood punks. Penelope was a gracious hostess and allowed me and Weirdos drummer (and then-boyfriend) Nickey Beat to use her place as a crash pad when we visited San Francisco. I had a chance to reconnect with Penelope a few years ago when she played with the Avengers in L.A. She still performs with strength and conviction and her shows are definitely worth checking out.
And so, without further ado, Ms. Penelope Houston.
1. What was/is your contribution to the punk community?
As singer/lyricist of the Avengers in the late 70's and now again leading the band to play all over the world.
2. Which artist, band concert and/or show had the most impact on your life?
Patti Smith was my first rock/punk/out there influence. I bought "Horses" in 1974 or 75 and it was such an amazing document of poetry, female fierceness and androgyny. She was definitely the one who turned my head. I've met her a few times over the years and she's always quite dismissive, but Lenny Kaye has been supportive of the Avengers and my work.
The best concert I've seen in the last few years was Iggy and The Stooges last month at the Warfield, in SF. Mind-boggling!
3. What was the role of women in the early punk scene?
It seems like there was more freedom and fewer rules in 1977-79, before hardcore took over the mantle of punk. The early scene embraced all comers, be they female, gay, non-white or even older. There was no dress code. Women were pioneers along with everyone else involved. I
noticed no separation. I knew women who were musicians, bookers, managers, photographers, visual artists, film makers, journalists, label owners... etc.
4. What is the legacy of punk in your life?
It's quite huge. Now that I'm playing Avengers shows (with original guitarist Greg Ingraham) again it has loomed into the forefront. Everyone goes through a phase of socialization, usually in their late teens / early twenties when they deeply want to be part of a larger family. I got lucky that I was 19 in 1977 and interested in art and music. Being on the breaking wave of a cultural movement was very exciting. It exposed me to live performance, which is what I've taken with me through my life. It just won't go away.
5. What are you listening to now?
Quieter music, in the singer/songwriter vein. The Moore Brothers, Jesse Sykes. Songs with strings on them. Neko Case, Sufjan Stevens.
6. Do you have any funny or interesting stories to share?
My friends that lived in LA and I always wanted to start girl gangs. Carla Maddog and I once made up a rule that members must pee outside at least once a day. Guys do it all the time, why not us? I'm not sure this idea went very far.
7. Are there any punk women from the early scene that you feel have not been adequately recognized?
Philomena Winstanley of Slash Magazine. She was always in Claude's shadow but was very welcoming to bands like the Avengers.
8. What is something we should know about you that we probably don’t know?
I am an excellent cook, and dreamed of having my own cooking show. Also was co-host on a hilarious public access cable show in SF in the 80's called DogHouse.
Editor's note: I consider myself lucky to have obtained this much-too brief interview with Penelope way back in 2007. Since then, the Avengers have toured around the world and significant releases of their work have been issued. In that time, Penelope has been interviewed extensively and I encourage you to read more of her interviews, starting with this one and especially this one by Richie Unterberger.