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Mary McGlory and Sylvia Saunders - The Liverbirds: Our Life in Britain's First Female Rock 'n' Roll Band

  by Nick Dent-Robinson

published: 4 / 5 / 2024

Mary McGlory and Sylvia Saunders - The Liverbirds: Our Life in Britain's First Female Rock 'n' Roll Band


Nick Dent-Robinson enjoys Mary McGlory and Sylvia Saunders’ new book about their experiences in The Liverbirds, one of the few UK all-girls 60’s groups.

To many of a certain age ‘The Liver Birds’ (two words) will always mean a classic TV sitcom written by Carla Lane and starring Nerys Hughes with Polly James which was a huge hit from its first appearance in 1969. But, as this new book tells us, several years before that, there was also a Liverpudlian female rock band called ‘The Liverbirds’ (one word) who were very popular in their day (from 1963 to 1968). Along with the Liverpool-based Vernon Girls and The Breakaways, The Liverbirds were one of the few UK all-girl groups of the time with Valerie Gell (vocals), Pamela Birch (guitar and vocals), Mary McGlory (bass and vocals) plus Sylvia Saunders (drums). Mary and Sylvia have now written a memoir, ‘The Liverbirds”’ about their five years in this boundary-breaking all-girl group – and it makes fascinating reading! “We got a lot of publicity”, they write - “even though initially we couldn't play a note!”. The four bandmates grew up in wartime Liverpool when over 4,000 civilians were killed and 70,000 were made homeless by enemy bombing. The girls' memoir describes their shared background with bad sanitation, damp and decrepit housing with five children to a bed, coal fires in the living room with fireguards draped with wet nappies plus abject poverty everywhere. Most people around seemed to be Catholics of Irish descent and many schoolteachers were nuns. Yet there was a lot of happiness too with singing everywhere - and Irish folk melodies and harmonies were always apparent in the Scouse sound – including in The Beatles' songs. In post-war Northern England, career opportunities for women were limited with many becoming secretaries (sometimes for sexist male bosses) or factory hands making Spam or book-keepers at Littlewoods or Vernons, the big Liverpool-based football pools companies. “There was certainly no expectation that girls could play music in bands”, the book explains. But, after seeing The Beatles perform at the Cavern Club, the future Liverbirds decided “Oh, we want to do that too”. The early-day scenes in the book are enchanting. Mary, Sylvia, Valerie and Pam were “Full of restless energy”, twisting and shouting at The Cavern regularly when the Beatles were there with their then drummer and the fans' favourite, Pete Best. “The venue was so sweaty and hot with a weird musky smell,” they recall. Cilla Black was the cloakroom attendant. The girls managed to get backstage to meet The Beatles......“More than ever, then, we wanted to be on stage like them...making the crowd rock”, the book relates. McCartney and Lennon were changing and in their underpants in the dressing room. “We'd never seen men in their underpants before, so us four teenage girls just stood there staring at them.” When they told John Lennon of their ambition to form a band, he was both sexist and sarcastic, responding categorically, “Girls don't play guitars”. But, undaunted, the four bought drums and guitars on hire purchase. At first they had no idea how to assemble their new kit, plug in the amplifiers – let alone how to play. But they found a teacher in Birkenhead who showed them the rudiments of chord structure and keys. Now called The Liverbirds, they practised relentlessly for months, sometimes performing for pensioners who drank tea and played bingo while the girls played on. Eventually, partly because the idea of girls performing in the rock'n'roll world was so novel and seemed a gimmick, word started to get around and, within a year, The Liverbirds appeared at The Cavern. “We just loosened up, lost our nervousness and enjoyed the gig.” the book relates. With an unusual repertoire including Shadows songs, TV theme tunes and Henry Mancini numbers, suddenly The Liverbirds started to get more bookings - at £7 each to play at Wigan, Freckleton and Newcastle's Club a' GoGo. Later in 1963 they played Nuneaton and supported an emerging band called The Rolling Stones. Bill Wyman mended a broken guitar string for the girls. “What a gentleman!”, they recall. In June 1964, The Liverbirds supported Chuck Berry on tour and subsequently he invited them to open for him in Las Vegas. Unfortunately the girls learned that “he wants you all to play topless” - so that opportunity was not taken! The Liverbirds also encountered Jimmy Saville who was “at the centre of the music industry and a very influential man” at that time. He helped arrange additional press interest and did nothing untoward - apart from wearing a tiny pair of silk shorts that were “a bit odd and over-revealing”. After a business meeting with Brian Epstein – and having recorded a demo song in London's Dean Street where Mick Jagger shook the maracas during the take, the Liverbirds were offered a lucrative six week residency at Hamburg's Star-Club. They stayed there for four years and on their nights off enjoyed watching ‘Coronation Street’ on TV – dubbed into German. The venue was packed with a mix of Russian sailors, teenage hipsters plus “a lot of lesbians, drag queens and trans people”. The Liverbirds would routinely play Little Richard, Bo Diddley and James Brown covers and they “became louder and more confident as players”. They were soon very popular across Germany and recorded albums in 1965 and 1966 which were Top Five hits there. They also toured Europe and spent a successful six weeks in Japan before returning to Hamburg's Star-Club. But, suddenly, it was all over. The girls grew up, wanted to marry and start families. In 1967 they returned to Britain as the Star-Club redeveloped itself as a “giant sex club featuring live intercourse on stage” - apparently becoming a favourite haunt of Liza Minnelli who allegedly found the on-stage antics hilarious, the atmosphere there helping inspire her Oscar-winning performance in the 1972 film ‘Cabaret’. The final chapters of ‘The Liverbirds’ are far more melancholic. They outline the life of each of The Liverbirds after the band ceased functioning. Pam Birch abandoned her guitar-playing and singing to work as a receptionist and a cashier in a garage before being employed in a restaurant to iron table-cloths. She died of lung cancer in 2009, aged 65. Vocalist Val Gell spent many years looking after her German boyfriend (and later husband) who was paralysed at a young age in a car crash. Later she descended into alcoholism, was sectioned in a secure hospital and then died of blood cancer in 2016. Drummer Sylvia Saunders became a Blackpool landlady before running a bar in Benidorm whilst Mary McGlory married the man who wrote Baccara's ‘Yes, Sir, I Can Boogie’ and was widowed in 2017. Unlike The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, old age for the Liverbirds was not easy. As the authors say, “having tasted the high life” it is always a tall order to revert to normality. But this is a really well-written book, all about hopes and dreams – and, admirably, there is no self-pity or regret anywhere in it. There is just a lot of typically Liverpudlian good sense and wonderfully wry humour. - A very rewarding read! 'The Liverbirds' by Mary McGlory and Sylvia Saunders published by Faber at £20 is widely available now.

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