Contrary to what we may have learned about music history, rock music has never just been a boys club. However, it is also not a secret that many women get sidelined and under-appreciated in the music industry, especially in rock.
But believe it or not, some of the most radical unwritten heroes of musical invention and composition were women. Two of the first composers to produce electronic sound, were Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire, sound engineers who worked in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Oram produced tunes with electronic oscillators and tape loops, decades before synthesizers were invented. Derbyshire was responsible for creating the siren-like sounds we hear in the Dr. Who theme.
Another groundbreaking composer in music history who came later was Laurie Spiegel. In the ‘80s, Spiegel invented the electronic musical composition software, Music Mouse, which was one of the first programs used to produce music on the computer. Similarly, pioneering queer feminist folk rock singers like Laura Nyro and Joan Armatrading from the ‘60s, paved the way for the likes of Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, and Kate Bush. But they were unfortunately written out of music history.
And one particular band whose story we rarely hear, was a trailblazing rock band with all women. Before the Runaways, before the Go-Gos and the Bangles, there was a band called Fanny. Fanny emerged in the 1960s alongside Creedence Clearwater Revival, and they were David Bowie’s favorite band. Bowie reached out to the group by writing them a fan letter and inviting them to one of his parties in Liverpool, and in a 1999 interview with Rolling Stone, Bowie called Fanny “one of the finest fucking rock bands of their time.” He goes on to say, “They were extraordinary: they wrote everything, they played like motherfuckers, 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.” Notice that he said rock band, not “girl band,” rock band.
Fanny was founded in 1969 by Jean and June Millington, two sisters from the Philippines who had started playing music together after moving to California. June played lead guitar and Jean played bass, and the band went through various lineup changes over the years, recruiting the musicianship skills of Brie Brandt, Alice de Buhr, Patti Quatro, Nicky Barclay, and Cam Davis.
Fanny may have been the first all-female and all-queer rock act to release an album on a major label, but even in the major label department they were far from the first rock act with all women. There is so much unwritten and undiscovered history of women in music. In the lost notes segment on the podcast, “Switched on Pop,” the feminist music critic, Jessica Hopper, mines the history of Fanny.
“They’re just not really remembered outside of feminist-minded music histories,” Hopper says, before going on to say, “and when they are written into a lineage, they’re talked about as sort of pre-dating the Runaways. Kim Fowley came to one of their shows and said, ‘I’m gonna do what you’re doing, but I’m going to make money off of it.’ And then a year later there was the Runaways.”
The band was signed to Reprise Records shortly after they had formed. Unfortunately, they would soon come to learn that the label had signed them on the grounds of them being a novelty act, not for their genuine musical talent. They were lucky enough to be mentored by many experienced musicians in the industry, and they certainly worked harder than most of their male counterparts, but those who mentored them often did so because they hadn’t seen them as a threat.
But they were not hindered in the slightest by this pressure from their label to pander to corporate “girl group” standards. They remained authentic to their rock roots all the way to the bitter end. “No matter how much [people] sneered, we kept getting better, and that mattered,” June Millington told Guitar Girl Mag in 2018.
“We had to create our own frame, and then step into it,” Millington told the Guardian in 2018. They were a consciously united band. Even when some of the members like Nickey Barclay and the Millington sisters clashed and didn’t always get along, they insisted that “our music got along, and what you all saw – the smiles, the laughter, the grinning asides – was a part of it, and therefore was the real thing.”
As Francky Knapp wrote in Messy Nessy magazine, “The united front they put up on stage wasn’t a front, it was ‘a conscious thought,’ to show that they ‘were rock and roll survivors.’ As women who’d carved out a place for themselves on the stage, the last thing they wanted to do was pander to the press’ desire for ‘girl group drama.'”
The group opened for bands like Jethro Tull, Slade, and the Kinks. They also collaborated with Barbra Streisand, Todd Rundgren, and Geoff Emerick, who engineered the Beatles’ discography. Fanny was not only a group of women who fought to maintain their creative freedom, but a band that was started by queer women and immigrants. And they really knew how to shred. Listen to any single one of their songs, and their force and passion is extraordinarily palpable.
The band crumbled in 1974 for all the reasons that one would expect: the pressure and lack of promotion from their label, and their inability to reach people before technology and the DIY indie culture of the later punk movement really took off. They were unfortunately a little too ahead of their time. But this doesn’t mean they were forgotten. The Runaways, the Bangles, Heart, and several other pioneering rock bands helmed by women, have all cited Fanny as an influence.
“They’re flag-bearers – they should be in the front of the parade,” Bangles guitarist Vicki Peterson told Rolling Stone in 2018. “As a 10-year-old, or 12-year-old, I was thinking, ‘Oh, my God, these women play better than anyone needs to, and play great music and look great and rock with a ferocious spirit.’”
Cherie Currie from the Runaways has said that the members of Fanny are “like queens to [her],” before going on to say, “They started all of it. They cracked that door and made it possible for us to believe that we could do it too.”
In 2018, the Millington sisters and Brie Howard reunited to form the band Fanny Walked the Earth. They released an album of brand new material with guest players from the Bangles, the Runaways, and the Go-Go’s. When asked why they decided to record their new record under a different name, Millington told Rolling Stone, “I have no attraction to competing with our 23, 24, 25-year-old selves. I think that’s crazy. For us to be nostalgic about the past, there’s no point. Look at where we are now: We’re in an exalted state, doing what we do and being who we are.”
Changing the language matters if we want to shift the framework. It is important that we stop referring to women who play music as “female artists.” Female is not a genre; it’s half the world. And the fact that half the world has always been innovating in one of the most healing and immersive art forms in the world, is far from an anomaly; it’s common sense.
This is why feminist historical recovery in music is so important. These women have always been here. They never went anywhere. We already know that the music business is a toxic environment for a lot of women, and there are slim resources within the industry to hold people accountable for sidelining these women. It’s our job to not only give these women their flowers, but to create an environment where they never have to be left out in the cold again.