HELP COMPLETE DAVID BOWIE’S LIFE’S WORK: FALL IN LOVE WITH FANNY!
Play that thang up there while you read this. Turn it UP.
The year is 1971. The band is Fanny.
That’s Nickey Barclay calling out the misogyny of the so-called progressive male leadership of the day (including the self-proclaimed moral superiority of the Jesus Freaks) taking women down a blind alley, pounding the keys as hard as anyone in 1971. Jean Millington’s voice right beside her, on a swooping bass rivaled only by John Entwistle and Chris Squire that year, June Millington crunching riffs and lead guitar alone with Pete Townshend at the top of that class, and Alice de Buhr bashing skins as hard as anyone this side of Bonzo.
Take care of yourself
This is your story
Your voice is shaking the walls
And they’re crumbling down
Fanny wasn’t just a pioneering all-women hard rock band: they were terrific, and you need to know about them. As David Bowie told Rolling Stone in 1999:
“They were one of the finest fucking rock bands of their time. They were extraordinary. They wrote everything, they played like motherfuckers, they were just colossal and wonderful. They’re as important as anybody else who’s ever been, ever.
“Revivify Fanny. And I will feel that my work is done.”
Let David tell you again: “They’re as important as anybody else who’s ever been, ever.”
They weren’t even close to the first all-women rock group – after all, Fanny’s original trio of June and Jean Millington and Alice de Buhr had been in all-women groups as far back as 1963 – but they were the first to record a major-label album, 1970′s Fanny – and the first to achieve global acclaim.
1971 was the year it came together for Fanny, as the trio still known as Wild Honey added Nickey Barclay on keyboards (fresh from her stint touring as part of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen), all four of them singing and writing, and putting on a hell of a show – in 1971 in particular, starting January 1-4 at the Whisky on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.
Those dates were supporting The Flying Burrito Brothers, but they were headlining by spring. They played so many shows there in the early part of the year that it became all-but-a residency.
The title track from their 1971 album Charity Ball hit the US top 40 (pic via), propelling them to appear on the premiere season of Sonny & Cher, Dick Cavett, The Old Grey Whistle Test in the UK, and Germany’s Beat Club, among many others. Opening for acts as varied as Van Morrison, Jethro Tull, Slade, Humble Pie, Lee Michaels, and so many others had Sounds Magazine observing in 1971 that it “seems that they are the support group to everyone these days.”
My guess is that a band of men with these chops would have been headlining more than just the Whisky long before this point. The reviewer of their 1971 Fillmore East show for the New York Times (”Fanny, a Four-Girl Rock Group, Poses a Challenge to Male Ego”) observed that the merely polite applause they received would have been a standing ovation for similarly skilled men.
He went on to note, “Fanny sounds more like The Rolling Stones than a pop choir. It plays basic rock’n’roll featuring a barrelhouse piano style and prominent bass. Where other bands (male in this case) might aim for some special jazz-classical-rock minutiae and miss embarrassingly, Fanny aims at basic gut rock’n’roll excitement and hits it solidly.”
While most of their songs were originals, they tended to have one cover per album. This cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “Special Care” from 1971′s Charity Ball (from Germany’s Beat Club) is one of my favorite performances of theirs at YouTube: Jean on lead vocals this time, with strong vocal support from all three bandmates.
Stick around for the last minute and a half, an instrumental breakaway: Nickey gives Elton John a run for his money, simultaneously whipped aloft on Jean’s soaring bassline and grounded by Alice’s syncopated beats,
with June single-handling the guitar parts of BOTH Neil Young and Stephen Stills just fine, thanks. TURN IT UP.
It’s unfortunate that their studio albums never quite captured that power. Their third album, Fanny Hill came closest, recorded in late 1971 at Apple Studios in London, engineered by Beatles board man Geoff Emerick.
Their cover song this time around is, appropriately enough, a Beatles tune, the oft-overlooked “Hey Bulldog”. There’s no point starting a “did it better than The Beatles” argument, so I’ll just say I personally think they wore it out better and leave it at that. Feel free to disagree, but in any case, turn it up and enjoy.
Another reason to avoid any “better than The Beatles” scuffles: all four Beatles were fans and friends of Fanny’s. Other fan-friends included Little Feat, Joe Walsh, Gram Parsons, Rod Stewart, Deep Purple, Chicago, and the aforementioned David Bowie among many others.
Indeed, Jean Millington sings on “Fame”, and later married David’s longtime guitarist Earl Slick – but not before she’d had a fling with David herself, immortalized in Fanny’s 1975 hit “Butter Boy” (which reached #29). (When asked if any butter was in fact involved, Jean laughs. “Er no! It was au naturel, if you will.”)
That said, one of the things that remains most remarkable to me is that Fanny absolutely did NOT emphasize their sexuality. Some of that was defensive. June and Alice are lesbians, and Nickey is bi, and their record label was desperate to keep a lid on it. Nickey later acknowledged that the pressure to protect themselves prevented her from acknowledging to herself that she was in fact bi, and always had been, until years after she left the group.
Even the “cheeky” marketing slogans (”Get behind Fanny”, etc) came from Nickey – more as jokes than not, but still, these were playful puns, and not backed with the sexist imagery that was all too common in the day’s marketing. The rather more explicit meaning of the band’s name in England was unknown to them when June suggested it as a reference to the spirit of womanhood watching over them.
They had to put up with incredible shit along the way, including promoters who assumed that they’d be performing topless, because hey, why else would anybody come see a band of women, right?
(In some fairness, Nickey herself thought an all-woman group sounded like a gimmick. She didn’t even return the band’s first phone call asking her to join. It was finally Joe Cocker who told her to forget all that nonsense and just go for it.)
Of course, Fanny certainly embraced the more explicit English heritage of the word when titling their 1971-recorded album for the 18th century English erotic novel of the same name! When Fanny Hill finally hit the streets in early 1972, Rolling Stone raved about it:
“June Millington’s guitar work is superb, uniformly functional from both the standpoint of lead and rhythm–and as good as it is, it’s merely typical of Fanny’s ensemble playing throughout the album, which is full of melodic hooks exactly when they’re most needed…The number of groups that can inspire affection the way Fanny have with this album, simply from the pure exuberance of their music, are far and few between.”
There’s a bunch more to say about Fanny, and I definitely will, but mostly, I hope you take some time to just listen. I’ll end with a couple more clips from 1971.
This mid-tempo romp, “You’re The One” from The Old Grey Whistle Test in November offers great 4-part group harmonies, an especially tasty bass line from Jean, and a short but stinging lead from June at about the 2-minute mark.
I’ve got another that I’m not going to embed here because to be honest, it’s not that great, but their 1971 appearance on Sonny & Cher playing their hit single “Charity Ball” was historic: the first time an all-woman rock group had appeared on national TV – certainly in the US, but as far as I know, anywhere in the world.
They lip-synced (as tended to be the rule in the US), which meant the milder studio version rather than the unleashed live versions I posted above… and it’s kind of hilarious how delicately Alice had to play the drums so that the rest of the band could hear the music track playback in the studio…but seriously, THIS HAD NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE 1971. AN ALL-WOMEN BAND PLAYING ROCK AND ROLL ON TV. So check it out when you get a chance.
But before you watch that, watch THIS version of “Charity Ball” from Dick Cavett, also in 1971. Especially cool to note: Dick mentions that this was taped the day before they played Carnegie Hall! A rave review of that show from the New York Times:
Fanny, a fairly new West Coast group immediately demonstrated the joyous vitality that still courses through what has been described lately as a moribund form…Barclay and Jean Millington in particular are exceptional singers, but the group performed with such solid togetherness that I hesitate to single out anyone for special praise.
Anyway, I can’t embed this video because it’s licensed exclusively to Fanny’s own terrific website, FannyRocks.com (run by Alice, with major contributions from Nickey). It’s a must-see because it’s NOT lip-synced, and “Charity Ball” rolls straight into “Cat Fever” (another Fanny original), which lights up after a deceptively mellow intro. (Think Three Dog Night shifting gears into Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fanny-style.)
Watch their hands, though, all of ‘em: Jean up and down the neck of that bass, Nickey roaring across the keys, Alice slamming the skins, and June shredding the frets – if you can see her hands through her hair! She’s all over this shit.
Look, I don’t want to overstate the case. There’s no need. Zeppelin was coming fully into their own in 1971, The Who destroyed the stage that year, Bowie was remaking the world in his own image(s), plus all the usual suspects who make 1971 the year that rock became classic (including women having landmark years like Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Carly Simon, Rita Coolidge, Fanny’s good friend Bonnie Raitt, Janis Joplin’s Pearl released in January 1971, and even Barbara Streisand, who had Fanny members play on both her 1971 albums) –
– but seriously now, c’mon. Was there anybody else having as much fun in 1971 as these four women?
You’re gonna have to show me some evidence if you got it, because I’ve got this. See for yourself!
After you’ve crawled all over FannyRocks.com to hear the story directly from the four women themselves, here’s some further reading:
- Fanny: The Untold Story of The Original Queens of Noise (Team Rock)
- When Fanny Rocked (After Ellen)
- Underrated Band of the Month: Fanny (Queens of Noise Zine)
- Years Before The Runaways, Rock Had Fanny (Denver Post)
- How Discrimination Kept Fanny From Being Recognized as Rock Pioneers (Pitchfork) Fantastic interview with June Millington
- Fanny (Metal Maidens)
- June Millington on Facebook (You’ll also see June in the comments of many Fanny YouTube videos, which are refreshingly free of the usual bs on women’s videos there)
(Do note that almost every one of those articles contains at least an error or two, all of which I’ve tried to correct here.)
Don’t forget: David Bowie is counting on you to continue his life’s work by revivifying Fanny. I’ve done my part. Now you do yours.
“We always knew that we were supposed to do something. We didn’t know what it was, but there was something beckoning us. I really believe it was our destiny. We were meant to do it.” ~June Millington