The First All-Female Rock Band Signed to a Major Label, and Other Pioneer Girl Groups
Fanny

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Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.

The self-titled debut album by Fanny, originally released in 1970, was re-released this week. The band — sisters Jean and June Millington, Alice de Buhr and Nickey Barclay — never really turns up on the radio any more, and they barely did the first time around. (1971′s terrific glam-rock single “Charity Ball,” seen in a Sonny and Cher Show performance below, just scraped the bottom of the Top 40.) But their early records have held up amazingly well, and they were an enormously important band historically: The first rock band consisting entirely of women to release an album on a major label.

There were lots of vocal groups of women in pop, but the “all-girl band” — the kind that played instruments on stage — was a real anomaly before Fanny came along. (And for a while afterward, too: the earliest song by one that’s unmistakably part of the rock canon is the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb,” released in 1976.) There were only a few hundred bands of women who left any kind of recorded documentation from before 1970 — some of them have been collected on the Girls in the Garage series of compilations — and a scant few made any kind of broad impact in their time.

One of the earliest was Goldie and the Gingerbreads, a group of Americans who were playing as early as 1962. Their frontwoman, Gena Ravan, a.k.a. Goldie Zelkowitz, went on to produce the Dead Boys‘ early punk album Young Loud and Snotty. Goldie and the Gingerbreads released a small stack of singles between 1964 and 1967. The most successful one (a minor chart hit in the U.K.) was their 1965 version of “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” released shortly before the more familiar recording by Herman’s Hermits; they mimed it on TV in this clip.

The Liverbirds formed in Liverpool in 1963, and rode the Merseybeat wave to minor success in Germany; the Kinks reportedly borrowed Valerie Gell and Pamela Birch’s guitars to record “You Really Got Me,” since their own equipment had just been stolen. A lot of the Liverbirds’ repertoire seems to have consisted of covers (especially Bo Diddley songs). Here’s a clip of them playing the Marathons’ “Peanut Butter” on German TV in a heavily Beatles-inspired style.

A pair of sisters from Detroit, 17-year-old Patti Quatro and 15-year-old Suzi Quatro (later joined by two more of their sisters, Arlene and Nancy), formed the Pleasure Seekers in 1964; their first single’s B-side was the berserk garage rocker “What a Way to Die.”

The earliest film of the Pleasure Seekers in circulation, though, seems to be from 1968: a choreography-heavy cover of the Four Tops‘ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” Suzi Quatro subsequently went solo, and had a string of glam-rock hits in the early 1970s (she’s probably best known now for having played Leather Tuscadero on Happy Days); Nancy Quatro eventually joined Fanny; Arlene Quatro’s daughter is actress Sherilynn Fenn.

A few all-women rock bands turned up on the charts in Europe, too, like the Honeybeats, a German group who somehow caught on in Italy; here’s a 1966 clip of them performing “Dicci Come Fini,” an Italian-language version of the Ikettes‘ “Peaches ‘n’ Cream.”

Back in the States, the Feminine Complex formed in a Nashville high school, and were around from 1966 to 1968; their first single was “Six O’Clock in the Morning,” recorded with the assistance of a studio horn section.

There were thousands of garage bands springing up in 1966 and 1967, most of whom went nowhere in particular but got rediscovered by garage-rock collectors much later, and nearly every one of them could probably have pulled out a cover of “Gloria” by Them on demand. But the Miami, Florida quartet the Belles had the brilliant idea of gender-flipping it, and emerged with the fairly jawdropping single “Melvin.”

In 1968, the Heart Beats, from Lubbock, Texas, played on a national TV show, “Happening 68,” which was having a “battle of the bands” competition — they did a Paul Revere & the Raiders song, “Time Won’t Let Me.” They won a VW bus, which became their tour bus. Their promo flyer included a paragraph noting that “they have had and will continue to have close supervision. This is to maintain in appearance and reality a group of decent, wholesome girls.” Several of their promo photographs showed them wearing adorable matching sweaters.

The San Francisco acid-rock scene of the Summer of Love and immediately thereafter had one all-woman band, Ace of Cups: associates of Jefferson Airplane who never released a record while they were together (a compilation came out in 2003). But they were filmed for a few documentaries and TV shows, including this 1968 performance of “Simplicity.”

By the end of the ’60s, there had been a handful of other bands of women that had toured extensively, or recorded for bigger-than-tiny labels: Birtha, the Luv’d Ones, Ariel, the What Four, and more. And even so, the idea that women would be in a band without any men at all was remarkable enough that the Carrie Nations — the all-female, mixed-race rock band in 1970′s movie Beyond the Valley of The Dolls (playing “Find It,” below) — seemed like pure satire.

That was the atmosphere into which Fanny emerged, and kicked ass — their version of the Cream song “Badge,” from that 1970 debut album, is below. In the late ’90s, David Bowie wrote about them: “They were extraordinary: They wrote everything, they played like motherfuckers, they were just colossal and wonderful… Revivify Fanny. And I will feel that my work is done.”

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