When Fanny rocked

David Bowie called Fanny “one of the finest f—ing rock bands of their time,” and Amy Ray dubbed former Fanny guitarist June Millington her musical godmother, but these days, few remember the groundbreaking all-woman band. In the early 1970s, Fanny released six albums, toured relentlessly, recorded at the Beatles’ Apple Studios, and shared stages with Ike and Tina Turner, Chicago, Jethro Tull and others, paving the way for many women rockers.

Two of Fanny’s founding members, sisters June and Jean Millington, started out on ukuleles while growing up in the Philippines. They switched to electric guitars when they moved to the States in 1961. Or rather, as Jean remarked in an interview with me, June picked up the guitar and told Jean, “You have to play the bass.”

Jean laughed and recalled: “She was the older sister, 13 months older. She led, I followed.” As it turned out, she was a good bass player, figuring out almost everything by ear. “There were no models for young girls to learn how to play,” she said.

In 1968, they played with several women musicians as the Svelts, a band that also featured drummer Alice de Buhr. They toured the West in a renovated bus, playing Motown songs and other covers. It wasn’t easy. “Men tried to look up our skirts,” noted June. They honed their craft in spite of the obstacles and then traveled to Los Angeles to either sign with a label or go back to school. By this time, they were called Wild Honey.

The choice was almost “go back to school.” On what they thought would be their last gig in L.A., they played the open mic at the famous Troubadour. Richard Perry’s secretary was there. Perry, a staff member at Warner Brothers, had a series of hits with Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon and others. He’d always dreamed of producing an all-woman rock band, and when Wild Honey auditioned for him, he knew he’d struck gold.

June said: “They thought we’d be another novelty act like Tiny Tim. We played for the label executives so they’d be excited about us, proving that we could really play.”

By this time the band was a trio — June, Jean and drummer Alice. After doing some recording, they realized they needed another member. They considered the few female rock musicians they knew, even flying in a few prospective performers, but nothing clicked until they found keyboard player Nickey Barclay. The only problem? Nickey wasn’t interested in joining a women’s band.

She explained via email: “In the late ’60s the concept of a girl band meant one of two things: a Las Vegas-type travesty (think topless), or a radical feminist collective project, and at that stage of my life I was revolted by either prospect. I still am.”

At this point, the search was on for a new name. June remembered hearing about a band that used a woman’s name, so they threw 30 or 40 women’s names around. Fanny stuck. The label machinery started cranking out double entendres like “Get behind Fanny.” Did that bother them? “Most people couldn’t even accept an all-girl band,” said June. “That was a much bigger issue for us. How could we get upset about the name?”

Their self-titled LP — groundbreaking because all of the instruments and vocals were done by women — received a lukewarm response. “We got asked all the time about the male studio musicians who must’ve played on the album,” Alice said. “Those questions stopped after the third or fourth album.”

Jean added, “The first time we played anywhere, people expected us to prove ourselves.”

“We got used to that,” said June, referring to the skepticism, “and just played our asses off and people loved it. It became so much fun.”

Alice recalled a gig from hell in Joliet, Ill., where the promoters expected a topless band. Nickey remembered a performance where there was a dressing room for “the band” and one for “the girls” because the venue assumed they were a topless vocal group.

Was there a lot of groupie groping and hotel room destruction? Not exactly. “We never did a whole lot of partying because no one knew how to approach us,” Alice explained. “It wasn’t ‘Hey baby!’ Men politely asked what kind of drums I played and other questions like that. Women didn’t know how to respond to us. Maybe lesbians would’ve gone back to the hotel with us, but there was no protocol for that.”

Jean added, “That whole gender thing made it awkward, but usually the people who approached us tended to be really nice guys.”

June and Alice once spent the night with Mick Jagger, but it wasn’t what it sounds like. Alice recalled: “We got ripped and had a great time. He was a perfect gentleman.”

Sometime around this period, Perry arranged for them to record with Barbra Streisand. “When Barbra came in to the studio it was just like watching Funny Girl,” June remembered. She said she didn’t know if she could do the song. I said, ‘Look Barbra it’s OK,’ and sang it with her. When she was ready, Barbra did three takes and she slammed it every time. She sang better on the first take than most people. [Women’s music pioneer] Cris Williamson is like that too.”

June added, “I don’t remember a lot of gigs but I remember hanging out with people like Paul and Linda McCartney.”

Several years later, she met another famous Beatle. “I was in New York doing some album work for Holly [Near, the activist-singer] when I got a message that Earl Slick [Bowie’s guitar player] wanted to meet me at a local restaurant,” she said. “When I walked in I saw a whole group of people. John Lennon stood up and mimicked playing a guitar. He really wanted to meet me, and that’s why Earl arranged the meeting. I hung out with him at the studio and had a lot of great conversations. Everyone was afraid to hang out with him, but I wasn’t.”

In some circles, Fanny was considered a feminist band, although they shunned that label. Jean clarified, “We didn’t want the emphasis to be that we were girls, lesbians or politically active — we wanted it to be just about the music.”

She continued: “Unfortunately, the label wanted us to wear skimpy outfits. It didn’t bother me as much as it did June. I’ve always been more femmey so it wasn’t that big a stretch. It did bother me that there was so much emphasis on beauty. You don’t want your reputation built on that.”

Alice remembered one particular set of costumes. “We were banned at the Palladium [in London] because they thought our outfits were risqué. I wore a tank top made from coins. I had to wear pasties or the coins would pinch my nipples. June’s outfit was turquoise, Jean wore crystals, and Nickey’s shirt had sequins. It was all very Las Vegas showgirl.”

Nickey said they were often viewed as a lesbian band, “and it affected me badly. In fact, I’d say it significantly delayed my realization — some six years after the end of the band — that I am bi and always had been.” When the band was touring she was with one of the roadies, a man. Jean went on to marry Earl Slick. June had relationships with women including women’s music performer Tret Fure, and today runs an organization with partner Ann Hackler.

They all worked hard at their musicianship. “I loved jamming,” stated June. Their house in L.A. had a basement space that was the scene of some serious music making. “One day I woke up and there was Dave Mason in the basement by himself, just warming up ’cause he knew he could do that.”

Once they proved themselves on tour, their second album, Charity Ball, received a more enthusiastic response. The title track debuted at No. 40 on Billboard. And even if it didn’t happen right away, that album and others encouraged women musicians, including Jill Sobule (“I Kissed a Girl”). In 2002 she wrote about Fanny: “I was the only girl ‘rock’ guitar player in my grade school. … Imagine how I felt when I first saw the cover of a Fanny record. Finally, I could pretend I was someone of my own gender. Rock on Charity Ball!”

In 1971 they appeared on the Sonny and Cher Show. “Cher really wanted to meet us so we went to her dressing room,” said June. “They were both so sweet to us.”

Alice remembered: “It was strange because we taped it in the studio when there was no one there. I had to hit my drums softly so the rest of the band could hear to lip sync.”

Their third album, Fanny Hill, gained them even more credibility, partly because they recorded at Apple. “It was very exciting,” Jean said. “Geoff Emerick, the recording engineer, also worked for the Beatles and he would say things like, ‘The boys used that microphone on this amp.’ Later on, we sang backup on one of Ringo’s albums.”

Alice remembered, “That sweater from Help [the one with all four heads in it] was used to muffle my bass drum.”

Todd Rundgren produced their fourth album, Mother’s Pride. Right after its release, June and Alice left the band. “Rock was just achieve, achieve, achieve,” June said. “That was the only goal you could have. It was hard work spiritually and physically. I got tired of being shown as a one-dimensional figure, this girl with a guitar.”

Alice left because she missed June and because her girlfriend laid down the law: “She said ‘me or the band,’ and I chose her. I wish I hadn’t made that decision. The relationship only lasted four and a half years.”

June was replaced by Patti Quatro. They found a new drummer and released Rock and Roll Survivors. Nickey departed in 1974. She was never completely happy with the band, staying as long as she did partly because of contractual obligations. Ironically, the band didn’t survive, disbanding in 1975 just as a single peaked at No. 29 on Billboard.

What would have happened if Fanny had achieved more long-term success? “In terms of girls being encouraged — it would’ve happened sooner,” June theorized. “The industry was such a terrible atmosphere for girls. That’s true even now.”

Jean added: “We could’ve been a lasting influence for women in rock. Bands like the Go-Go’s and the Bangles had more emphasis on pop and the girlie thing. There has not been a hard-hitting women’s rock band since Fanny; individual players, certainly, but not a whole band.”

Several band members still have their hands in music. June is the co-founder of the Institute for Musical Arts, an organization that supports women and girls in music. She recently turned 60, and with that came a desire to write an autobiography. She’d also love to get a grant and do a reunion tour with Fanny and maybe some of the girls from IMA’s rock camp.

Jean enjoys her projects with June and her work in the healing arts. Nickey said, “I’m having a rather good life. I still work in the creative arts.”

June and Jean today.

Alice put away her sticks not long after the band’s demise. She stayed in the entertainment business, though, working first for a record distributor and now in the video industry. For years, she hid that she was even in Fanny. “I’d be in my office and hear one of the guys talking about Fanny and saying, ‘Oh sure, women playing rock.’ Fanny was seen as a joke.” She’s since embraced her spot in rock history, though, and now maintains www.fannyrocks.com.

In 2002 Rhino Records released First Time in a Long Time, a compilation of the band’s songs. In 2007 three of the original members did a reunion performance in Boston where they received the ROCKRGRL Women of Valor Award.

Bonnie Raitt, in the liner notes to First Time in a Long Time, called them a “real rock band full of smart, tough, and talented women — who could really play.” Not bad for a novelty act.

*************

This article first appeared in 2008 on AfterEllen.com. I’ve changed the photos here.

I wrote another article for them that mentions June Millington, Nineteen Great Guitarists Who Happen to be Women. Check it out.

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About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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2 Responses to When Fanny rocked

  1. Chris Wilson says:

    Thanks for the memories, and especially the “where they are today” information. I never saw Fanny but I did have the privilege of seeing June Millington back up Cris Williamson — what a fabulous guitar player with great stage presence!

  2. Pingback: Still finding the fire, part 2: where are women’s music performers today? | Jamiebobamie

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