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Fanny - Interview with June Millington

  by Lisa Torem

published: 20 / 7 / 2011

Fanny - Interview with June Millington


Early 1970s's all girl band Fanny were pioneers of the feminist movement and included Little Feat's Lowell George and David Bowie among their fans. Singer and guitarist June Millington talks to Lisa Torem about her band's influence and her musical career

Toting guitars and ukuleles, two thirteen-year-old sisters, June and Jean Millington, left the Phillipines, with their family, to come to California, in 1961. Determined to start an all female rock band, the Svelts took shape in high school. Both June and Jean played guitar, though Jean would later switch to bass. After a series of line-up changes, the sibling duo, plus drummer, Alice de Buhr, who were now known as Wild Honey, headed to the famed Troubadour Club in LA where Richard Perry’s secretary noted their unique, performing skills. Producer Perry was anxious to hear and then sign an authentic, all-girl band; he had already established his career with more conventional acts like Barbra Streisand and Ella Fitzgerald - in fact, later, the band members would complain that the producer of their first albums (Todd Rundgren took over when Fanny recorded ‘Mother’s Pride’ in 1973), applied too much spit and polish to their exciting, riff-heavy, visceral tracks. After all, Fanny would be the first all-girl band to be signed to a major label (Warner-Reprise). They had to be groundbreakers and compete with male rockers; these ladies did not want their unadulterated rock originals to be sugar-coated or refined. Wild Honey still needed a fourth member to create a full sound. Highly skilled, keyboardist Nickey Barclay, who would be swept up by Joe Cocker’s camp, before committing, became that missing link. But, the band’s image-making, formula was still incomplete. In 1970, before their self-titled, debut was released, Wild Honey morphed into the easy-to-remember, but, slightly risqué, Fanny. Both the artists and management felt they needed a bold moniker, and this one would make reference to posterior and anterior body parts; depending on which side of the Atlantic one lived. Their second album, ‘Charity Ball’, in 1971, unearthed their compulsive energy and charted. Those early days in LA enabled these hard-working, young women to hobnob with an eclectic group of artists, such as Joel Tipp (‘Good Time Charlie’s got the Blues’), Lowell George (main songwriter and guitarist of Little Feat, who died of a drug overdose in 1979), and guitarist Earl Slick, who frequently toured with David Bowie, and, more recently, joined the New York Dolls on tour in the UK. Also, by being “pioneers” of a growing feminist movement (which welcomed participation by women of all races and sexual orientation) – though, initially, more by their activities than through dialect, June Millington met up with American folk artists like Toshi Reagan, whose mother performed in ‘Sweet Honey in the Rock’ and Maxine Feldman, the composer of the first, openly lesbian song, ‘Angry Atthis’. In 1975, a song the band had recorded about David Bowie, ‘Butter Boy’ became a surprise hit. Shortly afterwards, however, June Millington left the band and was replaced by Patti Quatro, though, without June’s commitment to songwriting and her driving vocals, the band’s fame would wane. Alice also left; she felt that Fanny’s heart and soul had disappeared with June – the drummer was replaced by Brie Brandt. The constant touring, 24/7 rehearsing, and, perhaps, the turmoil of the era, had got to June, but, in her next carnation, she went on to become a producer and to form the Institute for the Musical Arts (IMA) which provides workshops on album production, recording techniques and songwriting and a Rock ‘n’ Roll overnight camp for girls, in Goshen, Massachusetts. In addition, she put forth several solo albums and in the 1980s began collaborating once more with Jean. “Play Like a Girl” is the tongue- in- cheek title to their newest release which features the percussion of Jean’s son, Lee, a host of new tunes and June’s famous slide technique. The chorus to Fanny’s 1971 song, ‘Blind Alley’ might suggest the challenges that the four, coming-of-age musicians experienced in their career: “We’re leading ourselves down a blind alley/No one to watch over us as we stumble and fall.” Today’s plugged-in, female rockers have a much easier road to navigate because of June and Jean Millington and their talented, all-girl group Fanny. June Millington detailed her musical career to Pennyblackmusic. PB: You started playing with Jean, again, in 1984. With your new album, ‘Play Like a Girl’, Jean’s son, Lee Madloni, adds drums. You and Jean have worked together since you were teens and now you are working with your nephew. Is it challenging to work professionally with two members of your family? JM: It's so great working with both Jean and Lee because we share the same musical DNA. With Jean, there are so many shared experiences, especially since we started singing professionally pretty soon after we arrived in the US. We played on acoustic guitars; which we'd just switched to from ukuleles. Pretty soon, we'd started our first high-school band in 1965 in Sacramento, and a whole new set of fun and intense experiences commenced with dizzying speed, especially as we started to learn the craft on our own, and had so many adventures with the other girls we played with until we arrived in Hollywood in 1969. A lot of this, especially the mechanics of how to play in a band, are described in my autobiography, which is soon to be completed. As for Lee, not only is he a gifted drummer and engineer - he learned, in part, by coming to our gigs since he was small - it doesn't hurt that he's the son of Jean's first husband, Earl Slick, either. I will never forget a big gig we did in San Francisco - a fundraiser for IMA - when he was still small enough to sleep in Jean's bass case while we were onstage. I wish I'd taken a picture! PB: The track, ‘Fall on You’ features some great slide guitar. Who inspired you to play slide and how did you learn this technique? JM: I didn't start to play slide until I got to Los Angeles. My three big influences were Joel Tepp (who actually lived at our house, Fanny Hill, with us, for a few years); Lowell George, who was a close pal; and Bonnie Raitt. Joel started me off on acoustic slide and turned me on to Elmore James and Robert Johnson. Lowell took me under his wing with, among other things, electric slide (he was a true “Warrior of Sound”). And, Bonnie? I never asked her to show me anything; just hanging and seeing her play was enough. We spoke of our beginnings and we both adopted Lowell's electric sound, to some extent - which he was always happy to share. Good times! PB: ‘Radical Harmonies’ was a 90 minute video, directed by Dee Mosbacher, which chronicled 70’s and 80’s women’s music. What was your role in that project? JM: Dee was doing the documentary without knowing all the players, so to speak - as I'd been "out in the field", I pretty much knew them all. At first, she asked if she could use some of the IMA footage (I'm an avid and incessant archivist for IMA, considering it part of our legacy) and that escalated quickly to her asking me to interview women at a Michigan Women's Festival in which I was playing guitar with Toshi Reagan. Interestingly, one of the women I interviewed backstage was Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, who immediately agreed, because, as she said, I was one of her "godmothers". I really appreciated hearing that. It quickly went from those backstage interviews and using IMA footage to my conducting many of the interviews off-camera, for instance, Toshi's mother Bernice Reagan in Washington, DC and Maxine Feldman in New Mexico. PB: In the original lineup of Fanny, there was considerable tension between you and keyboardist Nickey Barclay. Would you say that this tension existed because of stylistic differences? JM: Briefly, and as it turned out - it was more complicated than that. A lot of this has been figured out in retrospect; I've had conversations with Jean, Alice and others during "research" into my own life and it's been very helpful. PB: You left Fanny after four albums, though the group, with the addition of Patti Quatro, continued to perform and record ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Survivor’. Was it an easy or difficult decision to leave the band at that time? JM: It was excruciatingly difficult. After all, we'd essentially been working since 1965 to get to that point ... I had to leave my sister, who is one of the slammin'-est bass players in the world. The entire operation essentially was a family, no matter what the complications were. But I had to leave - my mother was so worried about me. I had so much to learn - this is expanded upon in my autobiography, too. PB: For the third album, ‘Fanny Hill’, the band recorded at Apple Studios in London, with Geoff Emerick. How did the Beatles and the whole 70s youth movement influence Fanny? JM: It was all incredibly influential. First of all, as the times were changing - drugs, Free Love, the Vietnam War and so on - we were starting to play electric with drums, and do gigs. The music was incredible, and that which we now consider “Classics” were inventing themselves: the styles, the guitar sounds, and the lyrics. I mean, consider Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, and Motown. It was so intense, and the only time a bunch of young girls like us could've even considered, not to mention tried, to form an all-girl band. That we ended up as Fanny, in Hollywood, was a miracle. It took a lot of work, by the way. We were so, so dedicated. We all loved music as much as life, and found it where we could, on the radio, clubs, meeting someone who could show us a lick or two. We were in the right place at the right time. The Beatles - wow, what songwriting, harmonies. I modeled myself after George Harrison a lot in the early days; solos you could sing along with. To this day, that's my approach, and I teach it as a guide at IMA's Rock 'n Roll Girl's Camps. PB: Did you have strong political opinions at the time and, if so, were you encouraged by the media, fans or your label to express them? JM: In general, the only energy I had leftover after the racism, sexism and misogyny we were routinely encountering was directed at 1. music 2. getting people to leave us alone enough to do it. Even that didn't take care of it all, fundamentally (political stances, understanding, or ways to deflect) because, as I now understand it, all that is never-ending and there are always some –“ism's” leftover. The only thing to do is learn about ourselves, to reach truth, balance, and compassion ... and bear witness to our own thoughts and reactions. I didn't get political until encountering women's music, and then slowly. I don't recall anyone at the label, media or fans encouraging us to be political; just playing live was a massive statement. PB: Fanny had a good reputation for doing cover versions; ‘Special Care’, ‘Ain’t That Peculiar?’ Your cover of ‘Bulldog’ was quite rich, too. There are so many virtuosic melodic lines in that rendition. How did that arrangement come about and how did the band decide which songs to cover? JM: We only learned and covered songs that we were in love with ourselves. And truthfully, many of the lines and the passionate drive you hear now, originated in the hours and hours of jamming that we all did together and with other people and bands, for example, Little Feat. Also, there were all the club gigs ~ you just heard this stuff after awhile and could extrapolate on it. "Hey Bulldog" is actually a thin recording for the Beatles. It is kind of a skeleton, in my opinion, but, as per usual, there were so many great lines already there. Add to that the fact that we were an extremely hard-working and disciplined band - we practiced almost every day we weren't on the road - and you have the ingredients for the kind of creativity we'd pour into someone else's song and existing arrangement. Honestly, I don't remember how we came up with any individual lines! PB: Why do you think Fanny enjoyed more popularity in the UK, than at home? JM: English people are brilliant with music and sound, and I mean that sincerely. They were just able to "get" us. Plus, Fanny means something quite different in the UK and the Isles, right? But let's not forget Fanny, that sweet lady with warm gingerbread cookies - for me, she was much more present than the rougher-edged, media-inspired vision. I like that Aunt Fanny, and she appears early on in my book. She really softened my place in it all internally, because I was so shy at the time. I really needed her. PB: Thank you, June.

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Fanny - Interview with June Millington

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