A decade before the Go Gos, the Runaways, and the Bangles were at the top of the musical charts, there was a small cluster of pioneering women rock groups that boldly went where few women dared to go during the mid 1960s and early 1970s. In a time when women were stereotyped as folk singers strumming guitars, this first wave of talented female musicians emphatically sent out the first salvo to the male-dominated music industry. Among these pioneering groups were Goldie and the Gingerbreads, the Persuaders, and Fanny, all self-contained groups playing their own instruments. Fanny, an L.A.-based group, was the first to be signed to a major label in 1970. Led by sisters June Millington on guitar and vocals, and younger sister Jean Millington on bass guitar and vocals, Fanny paved the way for the success of many future girl bands. As June Millington states definitively, “Don’t get me wrong, we never considered getting down and dirty like girls did just a decade later. That came gradually, because we weren’t supposed to do any of it at all. The frame wasn’t there. The frame at the time was: Can you play like a guy? So we learned how to play like guys. That was important, and meant more for the generations to come than they will ever know. “
In a recent blog in Ms magazine, Millington succinctly reflects back on her rollercoaster ride in the early days of juggling school, band practices, and gigs. “We were painting our music on cave walls for a decade, beginning in the mid-’60s, and it was a full-time job. I remember my sister Jean’s first song on electric bass: The Beau Brummel’s “Laugh, Laugh,” which we rehearsed with our first all-girl band, the Svelts, in our drummer’s living room in Sacramento. We’d gone from playing ukuleles, as kids in the Philippines, to taking up acoustic guitars after arriving in the U.S. in 1961, evolving into electric guitar, bass, and drums by 1965. I say cave walls because where were all the other women rock musicians in 1965? It was awfully dark in that cave. Was it hard? Hell, yeah. Girls weren’t supposed to go electric, so the resistance was incredible at first. Was it fun? You bet. By keeping our grades up at school, we began to lead successful double lives as Philippine-American girls by day, budding rockers at night, except we didn’t do rock as much as we did girl group songs and Motown, which meant “He’s So Fine” and “Heatwave,” with “The Night Before” and “You Really Got Me” thrown in. If people danced to it, we did it. They were all great songs to cut your teeth on and learn compositionally.”
After a move to Los Angeles, along with a couple of personnel changes, and billed as Wild Honey, producer Richard Perry took quick notice of their assertive and spirited R&B-based sound, signing the quartet to a major record deal with Reprise Records. Teamed up with Alice de Buhr on drums and Nickey Barclay on keyboards, the Millington sisters were about to embark on their pioneering journey as the godmothers of rock music, albeit one final piece to the puzzle, a new striking one-word band name: Fanny.
“Our first big gig as Fanny was at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium with the Kinks and Procol Harum,” she continues. “An interesting thing started to happen: from being sort of dismissed as a novelty in the beginning, audiences and fellow bands – all men – went from disbelief to being outright fans and falling in love with us. We had to work hard to make that happen at each concert city we played, but it happened like clockwork. We were changing a mindset and knew we were opening doors for girl bands yet to come.” Their first album, Fanny, burst on the scene in 1970, followed by Charity Ball in 1971 and Fanny Hill in 1972. Their fourth album, Mother’s Pride, released in 1973 and produced by Todd Rundgren, was followed by a worldwide tour, opening for Slade, Jethro Tull, and Humble Pie. As the mid ’70s loomed ahead, Millington began to sense the music industry’s changing image toward glam rock, forcing her to make not only a dramatic musical shift with her departure from Fanny but also a personal philosophical shift in her life. “I think I’ve always been a seeker,” she told me in a recent interview. “All during Fanny I was reading books that really appealed to me – on Buddhism; all the forms of Hindu asceticism; Chinese Tao; Japanese forms of discipline, both physical and mental; Sufism; Gurdjieff; Madame Blavatsky; Paramahansa Yogananda; Alan Watts; Carl Jung; Chinese poetry; and so on. What has seemed to take the greatest hold is Buddhism, particularly the Tibetan style,” she continued. “As I’ve learned so often during discourses, it all depends on one’s karmic predisposition. Mine seems to be constantly investigating, although once I understood the four Noble Truths in conjunction with the Eightfold Path and actually experienced moments of no consciousness; slowly, my life was transformed. Before that, I had a deep feeling of hopelessness These practices haven’t been easy but pretty brutal to go through in many instances.”
On the musical front, Millington took the first step that so many successful musicians take, which is leaving one’s comfort zone and testing yourself in other musical arenas. In her case, it began with relocating to the New York City area. “I jammed with whomever whenever I could, as that was part of what I’d felt was missing from my life. Most people don’t realize how many women players there were in New York at that time. There were a lot, funky too, and serious about playing; they’d be practicing all the time.” Certainly true, as this author can attest to, having played briefly in the Fandangos, a mixed gender R&B group in New York City in 1973, which included a couple of members from Isis, a hard driving, all-female eight-piece horn band, often compared to Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago. They were led by Carol MacDonald and Ginger Bianco, formerly of Goldie and the Gingerbreads, and rocked the walls of Trudy Heller’s nightclub in Greenwich Village as a long-standing house band there. During that time, Millington made a guest appearance on Isis’ second album, Ain’t No Backin’ Up Now, produced by the legendary Allen Toussaint at his New Orleans studio. Sister Moon was another soulful band in the Big Apple, an all-female quintet, that gigged regularly around lower Manhattan. They rehearsed at a loft where I resided in Times Square, where I first crossed paths with Ms. Millington, when Sister Moon invited her to an impromptu evening jam in the winter of 1973. At the time, we discovered that we were both taking occasional guitar lessons with John Abercrombie at his loft in the Soho district. “John was really nice to me, good teacher, but nothing really can take the place of all that jamming,” Millington emphasized, “particularly with some people I knew from my Fanny days, like Sha Na Na drummer, Jocko, and superlative guitarist Elliott Randall. Through them I met a lot of other players, one in particular, a drummer, Leo Adamian, a big influence. I learned of reggae from Leo, and how it was played, and got even more into the funk with that disco-salsa edge.” Adamian is currently married to her sister, Jean, and residing in Davis, California.
By 1975, Millington began drawing some concrete conclusions about her musical, personal, and spiritual evolution. “We were feminists, although we didn’t know it right away. I found out all about it when Cris Williamson asked me to play on her landmark album, The Changer and the Changed. That, and touring with Cris, just when women’s music was bursting onto the scene,” she said, “gave me an instant tutorial into feminism and the courage of women who were taking control of their lives.” She then wound up producing Williamson’s next album, Strange Paradise, followed by production duties on two other albums, Mary Watkins’ Something Moving and
Holly Near’s Fire in the Rain.
In the autumn of 1984, Millington started following the Dalai Lama around, receiving teachings. During that same time period, she got together with her partner, Ann Hackler, and moved to the Amherst, Massachusetts area, where Hackler was director of the Women’s Center at Hampshire College. “I lived with her at the college for two years and learned a lot about institutional thinking,” she stated. That experience launched what would become Millington’s pride and joy, and passion over the past quarter century: the creation of the Institute for the Musical Arts, IMA for short, a unique setting for women and girls to establish themselves in a supportive environment, learning guitar, bass, drums, voice, recording, and performance skills, with a heavy emphasis on rock music. “The first day of classes,” Millington says, “we stressed attitude.” Started in 1986 by Hackler and Millington in northern California, they moved operations to Northampton, Massachusetts in 2001, settling into a 25-acre estate, with barns serving as recording studios and performance spaces. In a recent interview on Tish Pearlman’s “Out of Bounds” radio show, Millington discussed in detail the dynamics at IMA. “So much of it here is about the synergy between the girls, as they gain self confidence and self esteem during their stay. There are pre-teen and teen performance camps with three or more instructors, along with guest artists dropping in at each session.” Although women have come a long way in the music business, in her experience, Millington points out one interesting road block with some of the girl’s progression as artists. “Body image,” she states, “as many women are swept up into gigs, managers, and record deals, body image can become a terrorizing factor.” At IMA, changing one girl at a time has become their mantra. “Right when they enter their surroundings here,” she continued, “we want them to feel empowered.”
Recently, the Millington sisters reunited to record a new album, Play Like a Girl, released in 2011, featuring these poignant lyrics from their title track: “if they tell you…you can’t do it… you just turn it up and play like a girl.” Another track, “Let Love Linger,” reminds one of the funky, fiery rhythms back in the heyday of Fanny, and “Fall on Love” is a haunting lyrical and musical solo acoustic guitar piece, featuring June on some nifty slide guitar work.
Millington is also in the process of writing her memoirs, eventually culminating into an autobiography. With all the successes in her reign with Fanny and beyond, in addition to her outstanding career as an educator, role model and inspiration to so many young women, there is still that one elusive brass ring: an induction of Fanny into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a topic she has no qualms discussing: “It was so hard to get to where we did in the first place, carving out precious territory for others, and then to be rubbed out of the picture as well? It’s about time the male-dominated rock industry gives us the props we deserve.”