I’m almost sure it was a sunny summer’s day when it happened. But as that day existed in long ago 1972, I may be mistaken. Whatever, it was the day when I pushed the record button on my brand new cassette recorder and captured from the radio, quite by chance, a song called ‘Borrowed Time’ by a band unknown to me at the time – Fanny – and a journey had begun.
I bought ‘Fanny Hill’ and loved it. ‘Charity Ball’ followed and then ‘Mother’s Pride’, purchased on the day of its release in 1973. It was only then that I discovered that there was a debut LP ‘Fanny’ (not released in the UK) and tracked down a mail order import business that could ship me a copy direct from the States. This operation took several weeks but it was worth the wait.
Skip to 35 years later and the journey is showing no sign of ending but if and when it does, it’ll have been worth it because Fanny were my very own discovery, a band that I not only loved dearly, but one I could champion and bore everyone to death with over a very long period and make no mistake, I did. Ask anybody!
I remember reading an article about them in the music press just after the release of ‘Fanny Hill’ with its austere monochrome cover where the tag ‘the female Beatles’ was used. This sounded preposterous but on closer inspection and despite the obvious differences there are similarities. Here was a four-piece rock band that played their own instruments and wrote their own material – so far so good, but there is more.
The Beatles comprised two main singers and songwriters of differing styles, a third singer and back up writer and a drummer who did neither – and so did Fanny.
Looking in from the outside, the enigmatic Nickey Barclay seems best fit for John Lennon, the extrovert with a troubled soul. Lennon’s style was brash, intuitive and unstructured, ignoring rules and running roughshod over convention, yet still unsure enough to write ‘I’m Down’, ‘Help!’ and ‘I’m a Loser’. Nickey had similar traits. A keyboard player of considerable talent, she was responsible for most of Fanny’s real rockers, full of energy and conviction, yet also produced the melancholic ‘Bitter Wine’, ‘Conversation with a Cop’ and ‘Beside Myself’.
Pitted against her was founder and acclaimed slide guitarist, June Millington, the Paul McCartney figure, countering Barclay’s aggressive, bluesy funk with delicate folk-rock melodies full of careful craft and ethereal beauty. McCartney was never afraid to offer stripped down compositions in a band situation – ‘Blackbird’, ‘And I Love Her’ and of course, ‘Yesterday’. June’s contributions were often equally minimalist and wistful, ‘Long Road Home’, ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘You’ve got a Home’.
The role of ‘the quiet one’ in the Beatles was dark horse George Harrison, content to be in the shadow of Lennon and McCartney yet still able to shine with ‘Something’ and ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. Fanny’s counterpart was the laid back Jean Millington, a naturally talented bass player and owner of a fabulous, not-so-quiet voice. She too, lived in the glare of songwriters Nickey Barclay and sister June yet still gave us ‘What’s Wrong with me?’ and the gorgeous ‘ Wonderful Feeling’. I still rate her as one of my all time favourite bass players.
The Beatles wouldn’t be complete without non-singing drummer, Ringo Starr and nor would Fanny without Alice de Buhr. Both gave us their unique vocal style and their vice-like time-keeping. Of all the instruments in a rock band, drums were probably the last male preserve, guitars and keyboards had already been taken hostage, and I can imagine that this was a constant source of frustration for Alice as she battled the disbelief of press and public alike. Yet the variety of styles on show from jazz to hard rock would put most drummers to shame.
Sadly, this is where the analogy ends. The Beatles garnered worldwide notoriety and acclaim – Fanny didn’t. So why did greater commercial success elude Fanny? I can see two possible reasons and they are unavoidably connected with gender.
The first is to do with single releases. In the late 1960s and early 1970s women just didn’t play rock ‘n’ roll, at least in the eyes of the music industry and to an alarming extent in the eyes of audiences as well, including my own friends. Fanny comprised serious musicians and wanted to be treated as such rather than pander to the public’s perception of a novelty act. This meant putting out ‘real’ singles rather than lightweight kitsch designed to titillate the public’s fickle ear. However, with the indifference of the buying public against them and without a true ‘breaker’ single there was never going to be massive sales despite tireless touring. Nevertheless, I’d take integrity over crass commerciality any day.
Secondly and more controversially, there is the effect of having keyboards player Nickey Barclay in the band and let me stress that this has nothing to do with her personally and everything to do with how women in rock were perceived in the early 1970s. With her background appearing to be rooted more in the blues/R&B musical style as opposed to the Millington’s more folk orientation, her inclusion drove a wedge through their ‘safe’ image and pushed Fanny into being a harder edged band than might have been.
This was perhaps a double edged sword in that whilst Fanny with Nickey in the fold undoubtedly became a much better and certainly a more versatile band, they may have sacrificed a wider commercial appeal by losing their folksy girlishness, which in the chauvinistic 70s may have been seen as less of a ‘threat’. No one complained about the folk singing of Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez or even the trashed blues vocals of Janis Joplin. It seemed that women were acceptable in the roles of singers or folk instrumentalists, but it was not acceptable for women to play rock instruments.
In truth, we will never understand what might have been given different times and attitudes, but I know which version of the band I preferred and it wasn’t a media led folk trio. What is not in doubt is that they left a lasting legacy for me and, I’m sure, many hardcore fans who played their vinyl to death and now re-live those great songs through Rhino’s brilliant CD boxset.
That legacy can be represented by one of their best songs, ‘Place in the Country’. This bluesy romp from the pen of Nickey Barclay displays all Fanny’s strengths in one package. It sets a tragic lyric to an uplifting tune in a way only Abba could match and then wraps around it some of the best instrumental playing on record. Alice’s drums are crisp and precise, emphasizing the many rhythm changes, Jean’s swooping bass lines show immaculate understanding of harmony, Nickey’s keys inject urgency and edginess and June chips in with a master class of rhythm guitar playing and tops it off with a stunning solo.
What more could you ask?
Martin Warminger is the author of ‘Memoirs of a Music Obsessive’ published by Pen Press and available through Amazon.co.uk (ISBN 1-905621-55-8). See also my website www.musicobsessive.com for more details.