Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
It's about time everyone knew that Fanny were great
Last year, as part of a university subject, I was required to write a short essay about a part of Australian musical history. I chose to write about The Atlantics, but during the course of my research, I discovered a band called The Vamps, who are widely regarded as one of the first, if not the very first, all-female rock groups. This ended up being what I wrote about, but while researching them, another band kept coming up – Fanny, the first all-girl rock group to release an album on a major record label.
I had not heard any of their music and knew nothing about them, but that was insane. I like music; I pride myself on having some working knowledge of pop and rock music history. Why didn't I know? I found what I could legally online (thanks, YouTube!) and really enjoyed it, but other things (study, book deals) got in the way and they sort of fell by my wayside.
Then, suddenly, this documentary film comes up, and it is like someone was reading my mind. Fanny: The Right To Rock (2021)
Here is the documentary… and spoilers for a documentary. Can you spoil something that is factual? Not sure, but I am.
We open with the members of Fanny getting ready to record their first album in years. The feel between them is very pleasant; the music comes naturally.
And we jump back to the Philippines where the mixed-race sisters grow up. When they move to the USA, they encounter racism from the word go. The current members are Brie Darling (drums) and sisters Jean (bass) and June (guitar) Millington, all of Filipino heritage. The sisters started with the short-lived band The Svelts, and Brie joined. Brie had a child, left and was replaced by Alice de Buhr. In 1969, they go to LA, get signed to a record deal and Nickey Barclay joined as piano player, then they moved into a house called Fanny Hill. Brie moved in with them, and became the band's singer and second percussionist. Some of the artists who came by this place were quite impressive names.
Fanny in 1969
There was a fluid sexuality present, a lot of drugs, and a lot of music. And then Brie was removed from the band and things started to lose their lustre. But in 1970, Warner's released their album. They played with the enthusiasm and stagecraft of (and this sounds demeaning, but it's how it's put in the documentary) male artists. They had issues dealing with the chauvinism of the early 70s, but their Filipino heritage was not as harped on as much as their gender. They did feel better received in the UK, however. They did go through inner band turmoil, though this is glossed over.
The record company grew frustrated at the lack of "hits", forced changes in wardrobe and even a change of musical style on them. As such, June quit the band, and Alice followed her. Brie came back and with Patti Quatro (Suzi's sister) on guitar, the sound changed to something more glam rock. But after their greatest song triumph ('Butter Boy'), the band exploded again, and in 1975, the band broke up for good.
June set up a camp for girls to play music, Brie did some session work, Jean became a stay-at-home mum and did some behind the scenes work. David Bowie championed them and said that they should be brought back, and that was why this new album was put together (as Fanny Walked The Earth) – to do what Bowie wanted done. Alice even comes back for a dual drum sound on a track and Patti Quatro's there, along with a bunch of famous female rock musicians, for another track.
And then we get… Jean suffers a stroke a week before the first return live show and her right side is paralysed. We get the juxtaposition of a Women In Rock concert with Jean rehabbing herself. And we finally hear that Nickey doesn't have anything to do with Fanny.
And then we have a show where Jean sings and her son plays bass in her stead, and finish with the song featuring all the guest artists.
Okay, this felt like three documentaries. A history documentary, a promotion for the new album, and then Jean going through her recovery. It gave it a rather disjointed feel, to be honest. And a lack of talk, really, about Nickey was a noticeable absence. While I understand she did not want to be involved, she was an important part of the band – a songwriter and her piano was amazing – and she got mentions, but no real discussion. They also glossed over the arguments that could have made for an interesting look at band dynamics. It was also curious that, apart from one little throwaway comment, the fact Earl Slick, who was interviewed throughout, had been married to Jean was not really mentioned.
Okay, now the elephant in the room – the music.
Wow. I have ordered the box set of their first four albums.
They are amazing! They rock, and they rock hard. June's guitar playing is stunning. Why isn't she celebrated more? Seriously – she just cuts loose and it is as good as any I have heard. Nickey's piano-playing is wonderful, and the drumming, be it Brie or Alice, is incredible. And then you have Jean's bass-playing, shown in a separate track near the end – she is wonderful. This is a band of musicians. Yes, they were an all-girl group, and that was their "gimmick", but the music they performed was second to none. How did this group, playing such wonderful music, pass me by? They really did blaze the trail for the female bands that came after them, and yet they have been shunted to the backlots of history to all but those who already knew about them. They are the pioneers - they should be known by more.
That is unfair. I really do hope this documentary goes some way to redressing that. Because, even if it is late, they deserve the wider recognition Bowie wanted for them. I am so glad I have seen this, and discovered this music. I recommend everyone else does as well.
All images were supplied by the Sydney Underground Film Festival, with thanks!