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Jean Millington: An Interview with a Rock and Roll Survivor

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Thursday, Feb 26, 2009
Photo: Bram Goodwin
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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