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Thursday, Feb 26, 2009
Long before the Runaways, the Slits, Hole, and Sleater-Kinney took the stage, the members of Fanny proved to the narrow-minded masses that a group need not the Y chromosome to rock harder than Led Zeppelin. Fanny co-founder Jean Millington reflects on the last days of a band that truly are "rock and roll survivors".

If you don’t know who Fanny is, you will by the end of this article.


Though debate continues about whether the discourse of “Women in Rock” reinforces gender separatism in popular music, the fact is that female musicians, historically, have endured a plethora of issues completely foreign to their male peers. Women have had to wage combat in the male-dominated medium of rock and roll, fighting sexual objectification and condescending remarks of the “You play good for a girl” variety. Fanny was among the first bands to fight the status quo head on and illustrate to the narrow-minded masses that a group need not the Y chromosome to rock harder than Led Zeppelin.


Signed to Reprise in 1969, Fanny included sisters Jean Millington (bass) and June Millington (guitar), with Alice DeBuhr (drums) and Nickey Barclay (keyboards). June Millington proposed the name “Fanny” to the band members, thinking it represented a female guardian angel watching over the group as they endured the inevitable sexism. Reprise capitalized on the band’s name in a marketing campaign that nearly rendered the music secondary to the obvious double entendre – “Get Behind Fanny” (the slogan was actually a joke suggested by Barclay that management took quite seriously).


Producer and pop marksmen Richard Perry helmed production on their first three albums—Fanny (1970), Charity Ball (1971), and Fanny Hill (1972) – but brought their sizzling stage show down to a simmer in the studio. Matters improved little when Todd Rundgren was enlisted for Mother’s Pride (1973). The albums simply did not accurately convey the true measure of each band member’s musicianship nor did they contain the rawness of their concerts, which were among the most heralded rock and roll events of their time.


Jean Millington recently spoke with me about the tail end of Fanny’s career that culminated with their last album, Rock and Roll Survivors (1974). By then, June Millington and Alice DeBuhr had left the band and were replaced by Patti Quatro and Brie Howard, respectively. With the advent of glam rock, Fanny’s stage show had become more theatrical. Fanny joined a roster of similarly glammed-up and costumed acts like T. Rex, KISS, and Parliament when Rock and Roll Survivors found a home on Neil Bogart’s Casablanca Records. Fanny gave the label its second Top 40 hit when “Butter Boy” charted at #29 in February 1975. Unfortunately, Fanny had disintegrated by the time the song reached its chart peak.


Though our conversation focused on the end of Fanny’s career, Millington reflected on some of the group’s earlier work for Reprise, all of which was released on a deluxe four-CD set by Rhino, First Time in a Long Time (2002). In listening to the music four decades later, and hearing Jean’s vivid recollections, let the record show that long before The Runaways, The Slits, Hole, and Sleater-Kinney took the stage, the members of Fanny were blazing trails and emphasizing that there was more to a name than cheeky sloganeering. (Note: additional portions of this interview will appear in PopMatters’ forthcoming retrospective celebrating the 35th anniversary of Casablanca Records.)


Did the band consciously approach Rock and Roll Survivors as a conceptual piece?
Yes. Nickey was always extremely influenced by the English rock and roll scene. I still consider her to be quite a musical genius. At that time, it was the whole glam rock era. With the addition of Patti into the band, who was very theatrical, that was just the direction it was taking. We thought, Why don’t we go ahead and make a cohesive thing and have a direction. It’s really about after all that we’d been through, we had still survived. We were rock and roll survivors. It really was a conscious thought.

Describe your relationship with Vini Poncia. Was he selected by you or management to produce Rock and Roll Survivors?
He was selected by management. We hung out a lot with Vini on a very personal level.  Basically, in retrospect, I understand what had happened. Richard Perry collaborated a lot with Vini. I don’t remember what project Richard was involved with at the time but I kind of get the feeling that we were handed over to Vini because Richard was really busy.  Plus, I don’t think the rock and roll thing was Richard’s forte at that time.  I think he thought that Vini could do a better job for us.


I don’t think he really got who we were. He’s a really great guy, and we had a lot of fun with Vini, but as a producer, I don’t think he was really as strong as what we actually needed.


Did you interact much with the other acts at Casablanca?
Not really. I think that the most that the band stayed together after June and Alice left the band, whatever configurations that we put together, was a year and a half, maybe just a year. The band fell apart. We didn’t have time to build relationships within the context of the record company, like it happened at Reprise Records.


In retrospect, would you have done anything different with Rock and Roll Survivors?
Yes! (laughs) We just really lost the hard-rock edge we had with (the original) Fanny. The original Fanny, there was just so much real, deep musicianship and such a groove that happened with the four of us. As far as the musicianship of it all, June definitely is a heavyweight. Patti, she’s fine and all of that, but she’s just much more about the appearance and the theatricality of it. To me, there just wasn’t enough “meat”, if you will. I listened to it within the last year and I was just kind of appalled of how “non-groove” it sounded to me. For heaven’s sake, cutting “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” with Brie singing the lead vocal, that should have kicked ass. I cringed when I heard the track. I said, “Jesus I can’t believe we sounded that wimpy!”


Going back to your earlier work, what are your impressions now of the albums you did with Richard Perry? What was it like with him in the studio?
I really was kind of loathe to listen to those tracks because what would happen is that Richard was very much pop-oriented and, frankly, I don’t think he did the band justice on record because we would cut these tracks that were really biting and big and then Richard would “pop-ify” them. Of course, we’d be sent out on the road and he would mix while we were gone. There was nothing we could do. We felt like he took the starch out of a lot of the tracks.


I just have to tell you a quick story about my sister June. We were recording in Apple Studios and Geoff Emerick, who was The Beatles’ engineer, was engineering the tracks. There was this one song – I can’t remember which one it was – and June had her amp turned up to ten. Richard went into the studio, he turned her amp down to three or four, and June was just fit to be tied. Somehow the dialogue came up with Geoff, and June said to Geoff something along the lines of, “How did George (Harrison) get that sound?” and Geoff replied, “Well…he had the amp on eleven” (laughs).


For the most part, I don’t go back and listen to the tracks. Then, when we had the reissue with Rhino Records (First Time in a Long Time 2002), I actually listened to the stuff and I was quite impressed. I really was. I was surprised because we had been so upset by being locked out of the studio.


Tell me about working with Todd Rundgren on Mother’s Pride (1973).
One of the major reasons we went with Todd was because we had these meetings with him and he knew that, with Richard, we had been locked out of the studio. We thought, He’s a musician, he’s hip, he’s cool, he’s one of us. At the end of the day, he locked us out of the studio because he wanted to get it over and done with and go record with his band. We were absolutely pissed.


Do you own the masters to any of the Fanny material?
I have no control over it. Right now, June is really trying to work with a man named Tim McHugh. He’s in L.A. and I think he’s quite a well-known film editor. He’s got quite a bit of heavy credentials. June is working with Tim with getting the rights to different things. Between him and Alice, they were able to get copies of a show we had done in Germany called The Beat Club. It was a whole hour. At the time, we had been on the road. That show was just absolutely slamming. They’re trying to figure out how we can get the rights to it. She’s making inquiries. We’re trying to find out from Warner Bros. what we can do. I think at present time it’s something ridiculous like $150 for every ten seconds of a tune.


You really have such an important legacy.
Not to be egotistical or anything, but I don’t there has been a women’s group since Fanny who played with as much depth, musically, as Fanny did.


Is there a chance that Fanny would re-unite?
It would be an interesting thing to come together and do that. I just don’t know…Nickey is in Australia. From what I understand, she still harbors a hell of a lot of resentment. For the longest time, June was just mad as could be and could never, ever think of working with Nickey but June’s really been working on her emotional issues and I think June has gotten to the point where she’d consider it. I honestly don’t know if Nickey would be able to do that. I’d be up for it. I’m sure Alice would be up for it too. I just don’t know at this point about Nickey because she said some pretty vitriolic things in an article that came out about two years ago.


The April before last, we went to Berklee School of Music and we were presented with a lifetime achievement award. They contacted us. Me, June, and Alice rehearsed for about a week. The three of us performed as a trio at the presentation. I must say, it really rocked. Alice, at that point, had not played in forever. She really just didn’t do music at all whereas of course June has IMA (The Institute for the Musical Arts) and the Rock and Roll Girls Camp. She’s producing and she still plays and I’ve also been playing pretty much once, if not twice a year with June and my son, Lee Madeloni. He’s a great drummer. When June and Lee and I perform, it’s pretty unbelievable I have to say. We still absolutely kick butt.


When Fanny was in our heyday, what was always wanted of us was to go into that T&A and sell the sex. We resisted for a long time. One of the reasons June left the band was she felt like we were pushed too much into looking like sexual objects. She hated it. The thing is, it did happen to us. At the time, I thought, Okay well we’ll break barriers and we’ll do such and such, and I thought for sure by 2009, things would have changed. They’re worse than they were in the ‘80s, I think. Women are just exploited and it’s not about the talent.  It’s so disrespectful to women what’s come about. A lot of the young girls either have anorexia or are incredibly overweight. There’s this whole thing of where do we fit in? What are we supposed to be? In the arts, music, theater, and in movies, women are still considered that the more sex appeal you have, that’s what’s going to sell.


If me, June, and Alice resurge—we’re all almost 60—there ain’t gonna be a lot of T and A! (laughs) It would be on the merits of who we are, musically.


(For more information about Fanny, visit www.fannyrocks.com)


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Wednesday, Feb 25, 2009
Watching A Place to Bury Strangers play in Los Angeles, thinking about Lou Reed and the proper way to hold a funeral for twee.

You know when you get so tense and anxiety-ridden that all the nerves at the back of your neck snarl up into one burning ball? Well, if that gland could make music, it would sound like this album.
—Lester Bangs, from “Monolith or Monotone? Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music


It took me a while, but finally, after dipping my toes in the water by attending a mash-up party, I gathered the courage to go to a rock show. I have been semi-avoiding rock shows literally for years, and the blame falls primarily on an indie rock group called Mates of State. If you don’t know them, they’re a married twosome who make pretty songs using keyboard instruments and slightly off-key harmonized singing. They are so incredibly twee that they sound like the hired band at a leprechaun wake. I saw them at the Coachella Music Festival, which happens every year in a scorched earth corner of California, and before a huge assembled audience they were singing in their jaunty, charmingly tuneless way, dressed like clerks in a yarn store.


The set generated good buzz for them, at least among the people I know, but for me it epitomized a senseless optimism grounded in what we might call the music of being yourself. It’s about sounding awkward, dressing down for your shows, and then building songs out of small tribulations and the irrepressible, myopic hope that today will be even better than yesterday. It’s the furthest a performer can run from performance art without actually hopping off the stage. It’s the sung version of being over at their house for a cup of tea, bantering about the day’s gossip.


But you are not at their house, of course: that is a fairly expensive illusion you pay for, and the casualness of the performance belies the fact that the wall between audience and performer stays as high as ever. Arguably, in fact, the wall is even higher because they’re so offhanded, like it’s some kind of weird luck that they’re up there performing everyday life, and now that they are, casual everydayness has been stolen from you, and you have to pour your adulation on them in order to vicariously get it back.


Worst of all, in the midst of all this brightness, something is terribly wrong. It’s like the moment right at the beginning of Mulholland Drive, where the kindly old people stare and wave for just a second too long at eager young Naomi Watts. Call it what you will: guilt over the war, anxiety over the economy, the whole repressed mass of social ills and personal disasters that just can’t be sung away so easily. The same evenings spent hanging out and worrying about running into an ex-lover. The same suburbs you grew up in, or the Manhattan apartment that is so small you have to walk sideways past the mattress. The job that means doing tons of unpaid overtime. It’s the little things and the big, universal crises, both: the two feed into each other. Let a city—hell, a whole country—segregated by income build up enough places you shouldn’t go, or wouldn’t go, or can’t afford, and what’s left will turn into dreary sameness.


Out of all this comes the music of that imaginary gland Bangs invented, the burning ball of muscles, nerves and stress. You can hear that sound a little bit on the album by A Place to Bury Strangers. On each song the band creates harsh, sinewy distortion, propped up with great old industrial bass and Cure guitars, and sounding distantly like the Jesus and Mary Chain. This everyone knows, but not enough is said about how incomplete the JAMC project really was. On their earliest albums, they gift-wrapped most of their songs in noise, having already built complete (if wickedly cynical) pop tunes. The two things don’t quite integrate, except on the occasional miracle, such as “Just Like Honey”. Later on they wrote other songs that did meld sounds and tunes together perfectly, but the purity of the noise was gone: “Head On” isn’t going to make your ears bleed. Instead it’s a very poppy, measured take on hard rock.


The album that actually was terribly, completely, endlessly noisy was Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, from all the way back in the mid-seventies. It was as grand a statement as Reed was capable of making. Using a bunch of synthesizers set to warble, stutter, choke and sputter out, he layered one computerized feedback squall on top of another until he had just over an hour of “music,” all of which sounds like the triumphant ending to a blistering, uncompromising rock song, or like the sharp peal of sound when a hand-adjusted radio goes from station to station. Reed left, like some coded message to all future musicians, this furious electrical storm wherein culture empties itself into one great ocean of noise. His own elliptical way of putting this was to imagine that the head of RCA’s “Read Seal” classical label had become obsessed with Metal Machine Music and had praised him for quoting Vivaldi and Bach and Beethoven’s 3rd and 6th symphonies. None of that is actually true, but as far as lies go, the Beethoven is particularly significant because those are the “Eroica” and “Pastoral” symphonies, and that’s what Reed wanted to create. He wanted to be the heroic author of a sound wherein the most primal modern desire, that of a pastoral return to brotherhood and sisterhood, was finally articulated and satisfied.


That’s what the album means. The echo chamber of culture, folded back on itself until it is pure “feedback”, is also the scream buried in the desperate relation between performer and audience, both of whom are trying to escape, through art, from the madness of their real existence. So all this real, necessary hope gets multiplied into an uncountable number of records, and movies, and books, and paintings—Mates of State and the rest included—until the individual grain of each work disappears into the simplicity of that desire to be somewhere else, to be something else. But Reed lacked the ability to put his vision into a single moment, so it stretches over an hour like a bad joke.


A Place to Bury Strangers discovered that moment last Saturday night. The concert was designed as a terrific and increasingly intense alternation between recognizable melody and drenching noise. The album sides definitively with pop: for the romantic ballad “Don’t Think Lover”, the band actually brought up some vocalist who otherwise didn’t perform, and he crooned it like a young Dave Gahan still working hard on being the loverman. It felt nice but too soft, even with the sarcastic refrain “Love lasts forever”. The bridge piece to where the concert ended up is also the best song on the album lyrically, the single “To Fix the Gash in Your Head”. Above the instrumental roar, you could just make out Oliver Ackermann singing


I’ll just wait till you turn around
And kick your face in—
To fix the gash in your head
To fix the gash in your head


It reminded me of a very honest song from the other camp, the Regressive Utopians Who Like The Beach Boys, called “The Gash”:


Is that gash in your leg
Really why you have stopped?
Because I’ve noticed, all the others
Though they’re gashed, they’re still going
Because I feel like the real reason
That you’re quitting and admitting that
You’ve lost all the will to battle on
Will the fight for sanity be the fight of our lives?
Now that we’ve lost all the reasons
That we thought that we had


Wayne Coyne sees a friend who’s stopped fighting, who is slowly bleeding to death along with everyone else, and all he can do is scold him or her for being a quitter. Other people have it just as bad, friend; when the current of love is running this shallow, no wonder “Utopia” has be mere sleight-of-hand, getting the audience to sing along to a kid’s book wherein brave Yoshimi battles the pink robots.


Ackermann, on the other hand, explicitly acknowledges the sadism of what he’s doing. He’s going to wait until you stop battling your way forward, until you turn around to see how your fellows are getting on, and then he’s going to kick your face in. In that moment you realize that he’s also doing this to himself, that he is also the subject of this willingness to push the noise too far, to drown in it, to deny absolutely nothing of the horror in order to fix, not ignore, the gash in your head. After that song things reached the point where you knew, from hearing the album and following the general outlines of the melody, what words he must be singing, but they were buried so low in the mix that they became indistinguishable. Finally, on “Ocean”, they brought out some fancy guitars in order to play the complex verse melody, and they did, everything starting out clean and beautiful.


Then, by fiddling with some of his homemade Death by Audio machines, Ackermann summoned the wall of sound, and it kept growing and surging until the bass player stopped playing, then the drummer, and then Ackermann, and finally the sound was going by itself, but Ackermann couldn’t let go of the guitar. He bent low to the ground, whirling the instrument around, watching the cord snake and twist, lost in wonder. He played with it like a kid will with a flame, as though he was poking at the spark that started a bonfire. With nobody manning the machines, what was keeping the sound going, exploding out of the big Marshall stacks until everything else was silent? No longer one person, particularly not Ackermann, now almost ridiculously hunchbacked over his guitar with his Costco boxers showing, moving to an unheard rhythm. The momentum came from everyone in that room, standing on tiptoe, together in an agony of hope.


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Wednesday, Feb 25, 2009

The great Smokey Robinson joins Elvis Costello for the final episode of the first season of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With…, airing tonight at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel. Costello, wowed by the Motown singer-songwriter’s presence, remarks that if Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Groucho Marx all walked onto the stage, he wouldn’t be more thrilled. For his part, Robinson doesn’t disappoint. He holds court with great stories about meeting Berry Gordy for the first time, writing and recording songs for the original Motown roster, and watching on, dumbfounded, as Ray Charles wrote spontaneous arrangements for “Bad Girl” during his first performance at the Apollo Theater. In fact, Robinson keeps Costello silent for extended periods of time, which, if you’ve been watching this series from the beginning, ain’t no easy task.


Speaking of the Apollo Theater, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the entire season of Spectacle has been filmed at the legendary Harlem venue—the very place where, as Robinson notes, Ella Fitzgerald won an amateur singing competition as a teenager. Having Robinson as a guest on Spectacle, in a room that has historic significance for 20th century American R&B, is especially notable; his presence and desire to bring the conversation back to where they’re sitting makes the Apollo a more integral piece of the program.


There are performances here, as usual: Costello and his band play a few off-beat Robinson compositions, like “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game”, while Robinson sings a snippet of “The Tracks of My Tears” and duets with Costello on “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”. But it’s the conversation here that really turns up the heat. The two get talking about love as the championing emotion in Robinson’s body of work, and Robinson, noting that the greatest hate is created by equally devout love, gets into an impassioned discussion about how prejudice is the most “absurd” of human emotions. It’s hard to watch this exchange, Robinson staring intensely into Costello’s eyes while Costello silently takes it all in, and not think about Costello’s infamous 1979 near-career-ending incident at a Holiday Inn in Ohio. I don’t mean to suggest that Robinson is confronting Costello here, nor do I think that Costello needs to be confronted, but the combined history of the venue with personal histories makes for some fascinating subtext.


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Tuesday, Feb 24, 2009
The Hold Steady frontman illuminates the importance of this '80s MOR Midwestern hardcore band.

When I first head Secretly Canadian’s re-release of the second Zero Boys album, History Of I was not blown away.  I thought it was OK, but I’m no ‘80s hardcore completist, and for me it sounded like a mix of early Black Flag, DOA, and a less playful Descendents. That’s the problem with ‘80s hardcore and punk releases; a lot of the time they don’t stand up musically to the more popular bands of the time. 


For every Minor Threat there were a thousand lesser hardcore groups that have been forgotten, and for most of them it’s probably best that they’re not remembered. Though there’s the mind frame with record collectors and DIY historians that the forgotten are the most important, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the music is most important, but as historical artifacts there’s a lot to learn from these forgotten bands.


Craig Finn of the Hold Steady illustrates this point amazingly well in his article for the Guardian—where he talks about the importance that the Zero Boys held for him as a Midwestern hardcore fan in the ‘80s.


Taken from newsday.com

Taken from newsday.com


Finn really paints a picture of what it’s like to be an ‘80s Midwestern punk fan, and all the excitement that went along with the burgeoning hardcore scene.  Finn also clearly illustrates the necessary progression of punk fans and how it’s inevitably detrimental to the scene.


After reading Finn’s article, one can understand the cultural importance of the forgotten, even if it seems they’re a copy of the more popular bands of the time. Not to say Zero Boys fall into this category—they’re competent at what they do and the lyrics and intensity really shine a light on ‘80s Midwestern malaise. Though they’re not the best hardcore band of the time, they stand out as Midwestern trailblazers and Finn’s article will make you understand their importance. This article is a must read for all hardcore/punk fans, all that were raised in the middle of nowhere, all the punk fans that grew up and got disillusioned, and everyone that considered punk rock the only music as a teen but felt alienated by it as a young adult.


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Tuesday, Feb 24, 2009
In Grant park on the night of America’s victory in November 2008, Barack opened with: "It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America." It is my sincere hope that readers don’t miss that. Barack has a deep and personal understanding of this unique and complex American history. A cool, smooth, blues man has come to lead the nation.

Otis Redding, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, the Isley Brothers, the O’Jays, the more contemporary Maxwell and Eric Benet, or even Michael Jackson—the black one, not the white one, you know, the little Black boy from the Gary ghetto. Or, imagine President Barack Obama as Bill Withers, alone on a broad stage, or leading a carefully orchestrated band, slapping a guitar, crooning about “Grandma’s hands”. This kind of leadership rarely leads to crusades. Can you see Keith Sweat begging on bended knees, his falsetto prostrating himself, drowned in his willingness to show his vulnerability and therefore his strength?


By sharing his iPod playlists, by breaking it down on Ellen the way he did, grooving but holding back to match the host and let her shine, all makes clear to those sensitized, that he is the (first) blues president. If Bill Clinton, with his jazz sax on late night talk shows was the jazz president, then Clinton was Kenny G or Herb Alpert—awesome, but something wholly different than the blues. So What, one might ask? The difference is that Miles Davis, John Coltrane, even Duke Ellington and especially Louis Armstrong, all had the blues. They refused defeat that taints the souls of the assimilated into believing the hype. They perceived a world ridden with conflict and injustice, filthy with the greed, anger and stupidity of riot, war and hunger. Yet, they were fierce enough to look and create beauty.


Can’t you imagine one or both of the Obamas in the shower singing “People don’t let money / Don’t let money change you—almighty dollar” into a loufah in the shower? Or Barack with foam on face and razor in had in front of the bathroom mirror shouting along with Nina: “They keep on sayin’ ‘Too SLOW!’ But that’s just the trouble, too slow!” Or Barack doing the shackles-on-my-feet dance, sliding back and forth across the floor, bending his arms next to his waist, snapping his fingers, raising his shoulders with his lips puckered out, “I don’t care about your past, I just our love to last!” With the way the first couple kisses and embraces, you know that Barry White and Luther Vandross are not far away in spirit.


The blues, describes Cornel West, is “a philosophical disposition towards the world… a tragic comic hope, a way of looking unflinchingly at despair and still enduring!” I cannot speak for masses of whites. However, without fail, African-Americans I have spoken to see Obama’s swagger when he walks into the room. That brother is as smooth as Guinness stout under the sweet Southern delta sun. Smooth, we add, is wholly different from slick. George Bush was as slick as Elvis Presley’s imitative lyrics and beats. Naturally, Elvis has left the building.


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