Everybody loves a comeback story. Remember Fanny, the all-girl glam-rock band that almost made it in the ‘70s? Allow David Bowie to refresh your memory:
“They were one of the most important female bands in American rock that has been buried without a trace,” he declared in 1999.
And they were Fil-Am rockers, at that.
Now Fanny: The Right to Rock, the acclaimed documentary about the ’70s band that fell through the cracks of rock history, is here (showing in Manila Aug. 17). It tells the story of the teenage Millington sisters, Jean and June, who move from their native Philippines in the 1960s with family to live in California and form a band, The Svelts, then hook up with another Fil-Am, Brie Darling on drums.
The Svelts eventually segue from pop to hard rock by the late ‘60s, calling themselves Fanny and mining an earthy mix of blues, boogie and proto-metal riffs.
So already a bunch of walls have been busted through. Girls with guitars? Girls rocking?
By the early ’70s, Fanny were respected enough to earn accolades from David Bowie, have their third album produced by Todd Rundgren, play at LA’s famed Troubador club and tour England, where their glam-rock edge made fans bite their lip at the double entendre of their name (in the States, “fanny” simply means derriere, while in the UK… well, it means vagina).
Fanny: The Right to Rock is about two Fil-Am sisters forming a formidable band, one perhaps too far ahead of the times: in hippie spirit, they rent out silent film actress Hedy Lamarr’s old house in LA (dubbing it “Fanny Hill”), and turn it into a girl power commune, basically.
While male glam rockers played around with gender-bending makeup and wardrobe, June and drummer Alice were open about being lesbians.
It helped that they were talented musicians. Jean (on bass and vocals) and June (on shred guitar and vocals) cooked as a unit, and replacement Alice de Buhr was a tight drummer (Darling left the band for a while to become a mother and had to be replaced). Keyboardist Nickey Barclay added a layer of ‘70s boogie piano in the vein of Mott the Hoople, Slade or Humble Pie, and they were off to the races. In the film, longtime supporter and fan Bonnie Raitt calls them “the first all-woman rock band that could really play, and really get some credibility in the musician community.” (Raitt may have picked up a few slide guitar licks from June, come to think of it.) “We were a bunch of hands-on chicks,” acknowledges Jean, as they recall their early gigs in which they opened, Zelig-like, for the more famous acts on rosters. The thing about musicians is they respect musicianship: all these big stars who caught Fanny’s live shows saw something extraordinary. Something that overcame race, sex, and gender identity.
Bowie was more than a fan. While he gave this endorsement to the forgotten band in 1999, he also dated Jean back in the early ‘70s. (Fanny apparently wrote their biggest-charting song, Butter Boy, loosely based on Bowie’s sexual fluidity.) Jean later went on to marry and have kids with Bowie’s seminal guitarist Earl Slick, who also sings their praises.
But while being a woman was one obstacle for Fanny in a male-centric rock world, being gay was another. While male glam rockers played around with gender-bending makeup and wardrobe, June and drummer Alice were open about being lesbians. Photographer Linda Wolf recalls Fanny Hill was a “male’s wet dream,” punctuated by scenes of topless female musicians and fans. The label and PR people didn’t like the image, but it’s who they were. Call it another glass ceiling they smashed through.
The documentary, distributed here through canny TBA Studios, which hopes more Filipinos can discover this hidden gem in rock history, has the arc of a comeback story: we open on Jean and June, reunited with Brie, jamming in a Massachusetts space. The band, now in their 60s, are back: a comeback is brewing. While the members of Fanny went off to their own private lives for decades (Barclay declined to be interviewed here), somehow they’ve circled back to rock, reforming as Fanny Walks the Earth. Even now, they joke about future success (“I think it’s possible we might finally make it in our 80s!” quips Jean). And of course, there’s the inevitable tick-tock of time behind it all.
Yet put them in a room together, and the three Filipinas can still whip up a storm: guitar, bass, drums and a vocal blend that may have a burr here or there, but still remains intact. They completed a “comeback” self-titled album, got ready for the return tour, and then… well, you’ll just have to watch the film to avoid any spoilers. Let’s just say that this is a feel-good movie about the power of rock, but with some bittersweet feels as well.
And that also is the story of rock ‘n’ roll. Every band is a journey, after all (even Journey). The fact that they opened the door for future female rock acts — The Runaways (whose singer Cherie Currie comments here), The Go-Go’s (whose bassist Kathy Valentine weighs in: “They made five records; we get a whole lot more attention, and we only made three records”), The Bangles, all the way through L7, Hole and Sleater-Kinney — is acknowledged. All owe something, unknowingly or not, to the existence of Fanny.
In their story, we see traces of bands that shoulda-been big, like the ill-fated Big Star (though Fanny’s Billboard success and sales of 60,000 units is nothing to sneeze at); but we also see the true purpose of rocking out, with or without financial success: because it feels good, it feels liberating… and sometimes, you’ve just gotta do it.
Let Bowie, the ultimate oddball, have the last word: “They were extraordinary: they wrote everything, they played like motherfu**kers, they were just colossal and wonderful, and nobody’s ever mentioned them. They’re as important as anybody else who’s ever been, ever; it just wasn’t their time.”
Now, with Fanny: The Right to Rock, perhaps it is.
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Fanny: The Right to Rock is distributed by TBA Studios and coming to local cinemas Aug. 17.