Subscribe

(Credit: Fanny)

Music

The pioneering all-female rock band who won David Bowie's heart

@SamWKemp

You might not have heard their name, but they were one of the most revolutionary bands of the 1970s. Fanny, an all-female group formed by June Millington and her bass-playing sister Jean, are often labelled as a proto girl group who paved the way for the likes of The Spice Girls. And while they certainly helped establish a female presence in the male-dominated world of rock music, Fanny were so much more than a girl group. As David Bowie once said, “they were one of the finest fucking rock bands of their time.”

Indeed, they didn’t just pioneer the role of women in music, they were also one of the first multiracial bands to emerge from the late ’60s hippie scene. They were, in fact, everything you need in a band.

So where did it all begin? June and Jean immigrated from the Phillipines when they were still teenagers and settled in Sacramento, California in 1961, arriving a time when the radio was full of the sound of teeny-boppers and jangling surf guitars. Listening to and performing music quickly became a way for the sisters to build a sense of community in their new home. Having learned the ukulele as a way of passing the time, June and Jean formed The Svelts, which quickly transformed into Wild Honey, featuring Brie Brandt on drums and Addie Lee on guitar.

For a long time, nothing happened. After moving to LA, Wild Honey spent the next year or so working as a Motown covers band, but it seemed as if the music scene had no place for them — always favouring the all-male rock bands that they played alongside. “As a girl, you couldn’t tell anyone ‘I’m in a band,’” said June Millington. “You might as well say ‘I’m flying to the moon.’ It just wasn’t in the realm of experience. We had to create our own frame – and then step into it.”

Why did David Bowie believe that every artist needed to be dysfunctional?

Read More

Feeling disheartened, the band decided to pack it in for good, but only after one last performance at L.A.’s Troubadour club. It proved to be a good call. The producer Richard Perry was in the crowd that night and agreed to sign them to his label. After singing to Reprise in 1969 and recruiting keyboardist Nickey Barcley, Fanny was born.

Fanny released their self-titled debut in 1970, which won them critical acclaim and a number of notable fans, including Barbara Streisand, for whom the members of Fanny also worked as session musicians, performing on the singer’s 1971 album Barbra Joan Streisand. Soon, they began touring the world, opening for everyone from Slade and Jethro Tull to Humble Pie, with their electric performances earning them a reputation as one of the best bands on the circuit. It was also at this time that they formed a friendship with David Bowie, who was so impressed with Fanny’s sound that he wrote them a fan letter singing their praises, something he continued to do until his death. Perhaps he was drawn to their confidence. As June once said: “No matter how much [people] sneered, we kept getting better, and that mattered.” Bowie went on to invite Fanny to a party in Liverpool. “He turned out to be the perfect host,” Addie recalled “He knew how to mingle and tell stories. He even did a mime demonstration for us.”

But the thing that stuck out most about Fanny, was that they all seemed to genuinely care about each other. Compared to the male-fronted stadium bands they supported, Fanny seemed to revel in camaraderie rather than antagonism. “They were excited about the way I played,” Nickey said in an interview in which she described her first few days with the band, “they really liked it. I guess I was used to being the only girl in [rock groups]… They seemed to have a real friendship and an understanding like bands have, but I’d never seen that with girls.”

Even after they broke up, the members of Fanny continued to push for the inclusion of women in the music industry. In 1983, for example, June founded the Institute for Musical Arts, a non-profit organisation designed to support women in music. Then, in 2018, Fanny returned with a new album and accompanying tour.

Describing their new music in a 2018 interview, June said: “We wanted to sing about why it’s so important that Fanny walked the earth. There’s an arc from what we did to what all the women in bands do now. The point was to see what we started continue.”