by Emma Sun for PopMatters
I can’t decide if the release of this self-titled compilation from the Avengers is phenomenally good timing or phenomenally bad timing. Through a quirk of fate, it arrives only weeks after the release of the blockbuster movie of the same name. Will the name be an asset or will this record just get lost in the melee? The only thing I know for sure is that these Avengers are my superheroes. The band’s self-titled LP, recorded in the late ‘70s and originally released in 1983, has surfaced in a variety of forms in the last three decades, but it has neither as consistently available as a record of its genius and influence ought be. This new version, packaged with a wealth of bonuses in addition to the original record, aims to change that.
Formed in 1977, the Avengers were pioneers of West Coast punk, part of the group of bands bridging the gap between the first wave of punk and the advent of hardcore. Although they never achieved the name recognition of the Dead Kennedys or the commercial success of X, the Avengers ran with the best of ‘em during their brief halcyon days of 1977 and 1978. Singer Penelope Houston’s uncompromising politics, youthful anger and ear for melody made the band a quick favorite in the bay area’s burgeoning punk scene, back when the Kennedys were just a twinkle in Jello’s eye. They even scored the opening slot for the Sex Pistols at their infamous final performance at the Winterland in 1978.
In their flicker of an existence, the band left only scattered recordings. Most of the studio recordings were subsequently compiled and released by CD Presents in 1983 the self-titled LP that makes up the first disc of this release. This recording drifted in and out of print due to legal disputes, and resurfaced in a variety of incarnations over the years. It was supplemented with additional compilations of studio, live and rehearsal recordings, and many of the best of these, along with a few tracks making their first official appearance, feature on the second half of the new release.
The first disc will come as no surprise to dedicated fans, but it will come as a relief for those frustrated by the present unavailability of this seminal release. For others, it makes an excellent introduction to the band. The production is rough and raw, the songs punchy and mean. So many of the tunes are punk classics, it’s hard to single out highlights. “I Believe in Me”, “The Amerikan in Me” and “Fuck You” will satisfy any fan of classic hardcore. Meanwhile, riskier tracks like “No Martyr” and “Corpus Christi” take the music beyond the narrow confines of standard hXc. And some—“Thin White Line”, “We Are the One”—are just noisily, messily irresistable.
Highlights of disc two include the blistering “Friends of Mine”, the arrestingly melodic “Cheap Tragedies” and the poignant “Time to Die”. The Avengers were so far ahead of their time that at moments they seem to predict the likes of Joy Division (the bridge in “Cheap Tragedies”) and the Pixies (the guitar on “The Good the Bad the Kowalskis”). The run of live songs in the middle of disc two is rough in terms of sound quality, although that’s hardly surprising as these recordings weren’t made for public release. Even so, it can be a frustrating listen, just one more reminder of how many great Avengers songs were never committed to tape. Still, it’s impressive to hear how tight the band was playing back then. They’re on fire.
Few punk bands have balanced personal and political angst as gracefully as the Avengers, ranging easily from flagrant songs like “The Amerikan in Me” and “White Nigger” to the deeply personal “Misery”. Even in their most introspective moments, though, the band doesn’t lose energy or edge. The band’s breadth comes to the fore particularly in the later tracks of disc two, which show a musical and emotional range not quite conveyed by the so-called Pink Album. This short stretch from “Misery” to “Zero Hour” shows a band willing to push boundaries in the very genre they helped to invent.
The Avengers never really got their due, thanks to their lack of recorded output and their premature split, but there is no question they stand alongside the Dead Kennedys, the Germs, X and the other leading lights of West Coast punk. As for those other Avengers you’ve been hearing about lately, they’re alright but I betcha Penelope Houston could take any one of them with one hand behind her back. Cheers