There was a time when a woman stepped on stage in front of a rock audience at her own peril.
“When you’re a woman in rock, you’re regarded as a freak — it’s hard on the ego,” Jean Millington of Fanny, widely credited as the first all-female rock band to land a contract and issue an album for a major label, told The Times in 1973.
Fanny had been slogging it out in clubs and theaters for four years — and was often derided by the male-dominated culture of rock music in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
“The audience is always shocked when we appear,” she said at the time. “They think we’re a gag until we begin to play. Then they’re freaked out. You see, we’re damn good.”
It’s reasonable to ponder just how much that situation has changed in the ensuing 45 years, given the recent #GrammysSoMale controversy after this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony, which was once again dominated by male recipients in the highest-profile award categories.
Yet more than three decades after establishing the Goshen, Mass.-based Institute for Musical Arts to mentor girls and young women, Jean’s sister and bandmate, June Millington, sees progress.
“How do you change the rot from within — how do you change the sexism, the racism that we just get used to?” June asked. “We’re doing it from the inside out, one girl at a time. We’re making a difference: They’re in bands; they’re writing songs. It’s a big deal, and it’s actually happening. It’s an energetic shift.
“It’s pretty subversive and pretty radical because we’re, doing it ... without making a lot of big noise about it,” June said.
June, Jean and drummer Brie (Howard) Darling, friends since they were teens, are also trying something a bit radical themselves: Now known as Fanny Walked the Earth, they are releasing their first album as a band in more than 40 years. The group’s self-titled record is being put out Friday by L.A.-based Blue Elan Records.
A track that’s likely to gain attention out of the gate is “When We Need Her,” an instant anthem written by Darling and her husband, Dave Darling, who also produced the album.
It features several female musicians who have credited Fanny with helping open the door for them decades ago, among them the Runaways’ Cherie Currie, the Go-Go’s Kathy Valentine, the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs, Vicki and Debbi Peterson, veteran rocker Genya Ravan and former Fanny member Patti Quatro, the sister of ‘70s rocker Suzi Quatro.
A sense of community permeates several of the album’s tracks.
“It really points to that which we’ve learned,” June said. “We can be in the moment, we are in community, and that’s what getting expressed through the band.”
The Millingtons were born shortly after World War II in Manila, their father an American military officer and their mother a native Filipino. After the family moved to the U.S. in 1961, the sisters began to embrace their passion for making music, finding themselves up against two barriers: racism and sexism.
Women were accepted to some degree as singers but weren’t taken seriously as instrumentalists. June worked to change that perception by honing her chops as a lead guitarist, while Jean developed her skills as a bassist. Darling took her position at perhaps the most testosterone-driven spot of all on stage: the drum kit.
Reviewing one of their shows at the Whisky A-Go-Go in West Hollywood in 1972, The Times then-pop music critic Robert Hilburn noted: “Fanny…has shown that women can do more in rock than merely sing lead with a male band. At the most, Fanny is a pleasant, unpretentious, entertaining band with a hard-driving, disciplined sound in the pure rock (as opposed to jazz-rock or experimental rock) tradition of Chuck Berry-Rod Stewart-Creedence Clearwater Revival.”
They came under the tutelage of superstar producer Richard Perry and signed to Reprise Records, for whom they issued a handful of albums from 1970 to 1973. They released another with a revamped lineup for Casablanca Records in 1974, which included the song “Butter Boy,” inspired by Jean’s lover at the time, David Bowie. It became Fanny’s biggest hit, reaching No. 29 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart in 1975.
Nearly 20 years ago, Bowie lamented in a Rolling Stone interview that Fanny had not received its due.
“One of the most important female bands in American rock has been buried without a trace. And that is Fanny. They were one of the finest... rock bands of their time,” he said. “They're as important as anybody else who's ever been, ever; it just wasn't their time. Revivify Fanny. And I will feel that my work is done.”
The Fanny Walked the Earth reunion and album emerged from a 2016 tribute to the various facets of June’s career. She left the band in the early ‘70s, released several solo albums, served as producer and collaborator with women’s music pioneers Cris Williamson and Holly Near, among others, and remains intimately involved with the music institute.
She’s also written the first installment of her autobiography, “Land of a Thousand Bridges: Island Girl in a Rock & Roll World” — “49 chapters and it ends in 1975,” she said— and continues to chip away at a second volume that catches up with the rest of her life story.
Earlier this week, from her home in Goshen, Mass., near the institute—Darling remains based in the L.A. area while Jean moved back to Sacramento, where all three met in their teens--June laughed as she made the realization of what this revivification of Fanny means to her.
“I’m turning 70 in April, so now, just by playing and doing this and writing songs together, we’re possibly breaking a glass ceiling,” she said. “As far as I’m thinking, it may be the last ‘ism’ I’m fighting: ageism. Maybe there’s another one out there that I don’t know about.”
For now, there are no Fanny gigs planned in conjunction with the album’s release, because Jean “suffered a mild stroke in mid-January,” June said. “I have her permission to speak about it. She needs to work her way back to playing. I don’t know how long it will take, but she’s progressing well.”
June has no worries that the classic rock ‘n’ roll band is a thing of the past in today’s age of hip-hop, R&B and pop.
“They all have elements of rock,” she said. “It’s one of those things that will never go away, I think, because it’s so based on the blues, which is such a vital part of American music. You don’t get to jazz without blues, you don’t get to hip-hop without blues, you don’t get to rock or funk without blues.”