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Fanny: The Untold Story Of The Original Queens Of Noise
By Geoff Barton September 04, 2015 Classic Rock
They may have been overshadowed by The Runaways, but nobody did it quite like Fanny, the original all-girl rock’n’roll band who blazed a trail through the early-70s rock scene.
When Fanny formed in 1969, the music world was an entirely different place. No one believed that four women could possibly be skilled songwriters and musicians, much less be able to rock with the commitment and ferocity of their male counterparts. Fanny could do it all – and spent their entire career battling to win over the cynics and non-believers. “Kim Fowley came into our dressing room at the Whisky A Go Go,” recalls Fanny guitarist June Millington. “He said, like he’d just had this bright idea: ‘I’m going to form a band like yours but we’re going to make money.’ And that last part was what would make the difference. Because Fanny was working real hard but we weren’t making very much money. I went kind of quiet for a second, because I do think about things, then I turned to him and said: ‘Why not?’ That was my assessment. Why not? We knew we were opening the doors for other female bands, only now it was a guy who was going to take advantage of it. But you know what? He did it. They did it.” True to his word, Fowley hit pay dirt with his jailbait fantasy The Runaways.
Meanwhile, Fanny – the first all-girl rock band to release an album on a major record label – faded into bitter obscurity. Is there much about them in the history books? Sweet FA. It was an unseemly, uncalled-for fate for the pioneering Queens Of Noise.
Fanny’s roots go back to the beginning of the 1960s, when sisters June and Jean Millington moved with their family from the Philippines to Sacramento, California. In ’65 they formed their first band, The Svelts, with June on guitar and Jean on bass. The line-up would also feature two other future Fanny members: Brie Brandt and Alice de Buhr. The former was The Svelts’ original drummer; the latter her replacement.
De Buhr left to form another all-female group, Wild Honey, while June and Jean continued with The Svelts. “But neither of us was finding any great success or having a whole lot of fun,” she says. “So we decided, y’know, let’s get over the petty differences and get the band back together. So that’s what we did, but we kept the name Wild Honey instead of The Svelts. We thought: ‘Hey, let’s go to LA and try to make it, get a record contract. And if we don’t, we’ll all come back and go to school. We’ll give it all up.’”
In fact, Wild Honey were on the verge of doing precisely that – splitting up – when they were talent-spotted at the Troubadour by the secretary of record producer Richard Perry. They snaffled a deal with Warner Brothers offshoot Reprise on the strength of a 15-minute audition for Perry at Hollywood’s Wally Heider studios, home to the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Neil Young. “What did Richard see in us?” asks de Buhr. “He saw a bunch of good-looking girls rocking their asses off and he said: ‘This is a band that needs to be recorded.’”
In 1970, the band that would become Fanny – completed by keyboardist Nickey Barclay – entered the studio to record their debut album, with Perry producing.
There was another pressing matter to consider: a new name for the band. June mentioned “Someone called out ‘Fanny’ and it got added to a list of wild, zany, far-out, psychedelic sixties names. A few days later I found out that our manager and producer liked that name too. And just like that we had the name of our band: Fanny.”
Fanny were determined to level the male-dominated playing field. Bassist Jean provided a sultry counterpart to her wild-eyed sister, and her partnership with drummer Alice de Buhr was intuitive and rock-solid. Nickey Barclay, meanwhile, was in many ways Fanny’s secret weapon. Her classy keyboard skills were well-renowned: before committing full-time to the band she had been a member of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen touring ensemble. As a bonus, all four of Fanny were excellent singers, with Barclay’s soulful voice just edging it.
Despite their musical prowess, Fanny found it hard to win over audiences. “There was a whole lot of curiosity about us,” says Jean. Fanny fought hard to be accepted as serious musicians.
Ultimately, the pressure of being a trailblazing female rock guitarist proved too much. In 1973, June Millington had a nervous breakdown. “I couldn’t eat or sleep, my body just gave up,” she says. “People assumed it was down to drugs, but it wasn’t. All we did was rehearse or go on the road or record. I was just really tired and I snapped under the strain. It was very scary. I didn’t want to leave Jean. I didn’t want to leave the band after we’d worked so hard. It was a pretty terrible decision to make. But I just couldn’t continue. I was lost.”
“I’m still pretty impressed by what we did forty years ago,” says Jean. “As a matter of fact, when June and I get together for the occasional show, it comes right back. It’s unbelievable.”
“To me, the name Fanny brought up a sweet aunt somewhere in the Midwest, or a favourite grandmother who fed you warm cookies,” June reflects today. “And it had an edge, too. Hey, this was rock’n’roll. We had to prove we could play like guys, and we couldn’t use a can opener to sway public opinion. We needed a buzzsaw. We didn’t want to just conquer the world, we wanted to be immortal.”