They were called the queens of rock and roll. The first all-woman rock band to ever shake up the US music scene and release an LP with a major label. And they were called Fanny, which was started by two Filipina-American sisters: June and Jean Millington.
“They were one of the finest fucking rock bands of their time,” David Bowie told Rolling Stone magazine in an interview in 1999. “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.”
The band, which was also composed of Alice de Buhr (drums, vocals), and Nickey Barclay (keyboards, vocals), is the subject of a new documentary by Bobbi Jo Hart called “Fanny: The Right To Rock.” It tells the story of two Fil-Am teenage girls who formed a band in the 60s and turned that band into some kind of a legend. After recording five albums, and developing a fan base that included some international music greats, their story seemed to have disappeared from music history. As Bowie would say, “One of the most important female bands in American rock has been buried without a trace.”
Until Fanny reunited 50 years later. In 2018, the band, who now calls itself Fanny Walked the Earth, released an LP containing 11 new songs, showcasing rich vocal harmonies and spectacular guitar riffs. This landmark reunion also makes it into the documentary.
The film’s trailer begins with Def Leppard lead singer Joe Elliott looking back at that time he first heard the group play. Elliott says he was immediately hooked after listening to four minutes’ worth of Fanny’s music.
And then there’s Grammy-winning American blues singer Bonnie Raitt saying “Fanny was the first all-woman rock band that could really play and really get some credibility within the musician community.”
The Philippine-born Millington sisters were still in their teens when they moved to Sacramento, California in 1961. They came with their parents, of course, an American naval officer and a Filipina socialite. What helped them cope with the stresses of the new, unfamiliar environment was music. In the beginning, it was just the two sisters performing, but the duo would eventually become an all-female quartet named The Svelts. The group later on evolved to become Wild Honey, and then finally, Fanny.
The ladies picked the name because they felt they needed something short, memorable and at the same time feminine and bold. “We really didn’t think of [the name Fanny] as a butt, a sexual term. We felt it was like a woman’s spirit watching over us,” June explained.
June admits it wasn’t easy navigating through the gender and racial stereotypes during their heydays. Rock and roll was still largely considered men’s territory back then. “Well, at first they hated the idea,” June told NBC News Now in a recent guest appearance for Filipino-American History Month. “I mean they couldn’t even accept that girls would be playing electric instruments whatsoever. There was nothing in their recognition system to take us in.”
Her sister Jean shares in the film that there was so much pressure all the time back then. “I mean you have to remember how young we were and how scared we were really. We were brown and nobody knows where the Philippines is.”
Suffice it to say, the girls had to prove their worth. They had to prove being a “chick band” wasn’t a novelty. “The second we started to play, and we started to play the hits of the day, like ‘Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie,’ ‘In the Midnight Hour,’ stuff like that, really great dance songs, they would rush to the dance floor and they would forget we were girls. So what I’m saying is we were really good,” June, now 73, told the News Now anchors. “You know, Filipinos are known as some of the best musicians in the world and I think that’s in our DNA.”
There was another layer to the group’s being a minority. While three of the Fanny band members identified themselves as lesbians and bisexuals, they could not be loud and proud about it back in the 70s. “It was hard,” admits Alice in the documentary. “Being gay was still a disease. You could not be a lesbian in Fanny.”
The girls were also asked to wear glam rock outfits at some point—something that June didn’t exactly appreciate—but other than that, she says they were allowed by their record company to be their own person. “I never tried to play guitar like I was a guy,” she says. “I played guitar the way June Millington plays guitar and a lot of people love it even now.”
June says it was quite interesting to revisit their experience for the documentary at a time when “people can accept us for who we are or who we were,” she tells NBC. While their groundbreaking impact in music may have been left out of music history for a long time, “Fanny The Right To Rock” —which has been screening in the US and Canada since April this year and will be coming to London, New York and Hamburg this month— should do the job of bringing it back.