One of the most individual and eclectic figures on the Northern California music scene, Penelope Houston is a singer and songwriter whose music is guided by one sole constant, a fierce honesty that’s informed work encompassing elements of punk rock, indie pop, contemporary folk, jazz, and many points in between.
Houston was born in Los Angeles, California on December 17, 1958, and spent most of her childhood in Seattle, Washington. She grew up in a household of music fans and as a teenager she was interested in British folk-rock bands such Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band, and as the first waves of punk began to spread in the mid-'70s, she embraced the edgier sounds of Lou Reed and Patti Smith. In 1977, Houston enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute and struck up a friendship with recent graduate Danny Furious (aka Danny O'Brien), who played drums and shared Houston's musical tastes. Furious introduced Houston to his friend Greg Ingraham, who played guitar, and with bassist James Wilsey they formed the Avengers, who became one of the most celebrated bands on the San Francisco punk rock scene; Greil Marcus described them as "San Francisco's best punk band -- in their moments, they were, you know, better than any other band playing that night anywhere in the world." The Avengers played frequently along the West Coast, cut the seminal single "We Are the One," and opened for the Sex Pistols at their infamous 1978 show at San Francisco's Winterland. However, within a year the group began to splinter and in 1979 the Avengers broke up.
After the Avengers' split, Houston relocated to Los Angeles and worked with filmmaker and video artist Rene Daalder, appearing in his film Population: One, before spending several years in Europe, where she collaborated with Buzzcocks and Magazine founder Howard Devoto, appearing on his album Jerky Versions of the Dream. After returning to San Francisco, Houston launched a solo career, but rather than diving back into the Bay Area's punk scene, she began exploring acoustic music, inspired by Tom Waits and influenced by the British folk music she doted on. While Houston's new music didn't immediately fund a home either among rock fans or folk purists, her first solo album, 1988's Birdboys, earned enthusiastic reviews and her next album, 1993's The Whole World, was equally strong and spawned a fine, spunky single, "Glad I'm a Girl." As Houston's new work slowly attracted a following in the United States, she had a growing fan base in Germany, and she began working with the German independent label Normal Records, beginning with 1994's moody Karmal Apple. That album and several collections of rare material fared well enough that Houston signed a deal with WEA's German division; WEA's Reprise imprint picked it up for U.S. release, and 1996's Cut You became Houston's first major-label album. While the set was dominated by sophisticated contemporary folk with hints of jazz and pop, Houston would soon reconnect with her punk roots; interest in the Avengers had slowly and steadily grown over the years, and the group's original recordings were caught in legal limbo. In 1998, Houston, with the cooperation of her former bandmates, assembled a collection called The Avengers Died for Your Sins, featuring live material, studio outtakes, and a few unreleased songs re-recorded by "The Scavengers," an ad-hoc group featuring Houston and Greg Ingraham joined by Joel Reader and Danny "Panic" Sullivan. The Scavengers played a few shows in support of the album, and Houston's next solo effort, Tongue, was a more aggressive pop/rock effort than her previous releases and featured a guest appearance by Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day on guitar. Armstrong also recorded a new version of the Avengers' "Corpus Christi" with Houston that appeared on the compilation Eighteen Stories Down, which was released only in Europe after Houston parted ways with her American label. It wasn't until 2004 that she returned with a new solo album, a striking folk-rock set called The Pale Green Girl; it was released in the United States by the independent DBK Works label, who the same year released another collection of Avengers rarities, The American in Me.
Following the release of The American in Me, Houston and Ingraham assembled a new version of the Avengers with bassist Joel Reader and drummer Luis Illades, setting out on periodic tours in the United States and Europe. After several years devoted to personal issues and resolving the legal obstacles that prevented the reissue of the original Avengers recordings, Houston began work on a new solo album in 2011, and On Market Street was released by the European Glitterhouse label in early 2012. ~ Mark Deming