Alice de Buhr Says New Fanny Film, The Right to Rock, is a Tool to Cement the Band’s Legacy

Courtesy of Alice de Buhr

Fanny: The Right to Rock finally brings the story of the legendary all-female band to the big screen. Director Bobbi Jo Hart traces Fanny’s journey from the early ’60s formation of Sacramento-based band the Svelts (Filipina sisters Jean and June Millington’s first act), to their transition into Fanny by the end of the decade, the band’s breakup in the mid-1970s, and the reunion on the 2018 album Fanny Walked the Earth. The film had its world premiere in Toronto last April at the Hot Docs festival (winning the Audience Choice Award), the US premiere following in June at the FRAMELINE Film Festival in San Francisco. With more festival screenings leading up to a theatrical release scheduled for the fall, Audiofemme got the chance to talk to Alice de Buhr, Fanny’s drummer. “I thought that Bobbi Jo did a fantastic job,” she says. “It’s a good story arc, and I think she pulled it together quite nicely.”

For de Buhr, who runs the band’s official website and hosts the podcast Get Behind Fanny, the film is “another tool in my tool belt” to keep spreading the word about the group. “What I’m really looking for, is when people say, ‘Have you heard of Fanny?’ they go, ‘Oh yeah, I know them.’ That’s what I want. Instead of ‘No, I’ve never heard of them.’” de Buhr says. “I would like for Fanny to be more well-known and for people know who we were and what we did. Because I think it’s important.”

De Buhr’s path to Fanny began when she was in the second grade, in Mason City, Iowa. Her school’s band director tapped her to join the band as a drummer. De Buhr readily took to the instrument, and by high school she was playing in her first all-female band, the Women. “We played Beach Boys, Beatles, Motown — whatever was on the radio,” she recalls. “One of the first songs we learned was [Tommy Roe’s] ‘Oh Sweet Pea.’ I hate that song to this day!”

After what she describes as a “horrible coming out in a small town” experience, she and her girlfriend left for Sacramento. While looking for a band to play with, de Buhr took any job she could find. “We got a job selling Kirby vacuum cleaners, and we cleaned apartments,” she says. “Collecting pop bottles to get fourteen cents so that we could buy Kraft Macaroni and Cheese — which has taken me years to be able to eat that again.”

Eventually, de Buhr responded to an ad the Millingtons placed looking for a drummer, and, while waiting to hear back, briefly played in a band with three men. “I think everybody thought I was a guy too, with really long hair, because I was pretty flat chested for a long time,” she jokes. The Millingtons finally got in touch, and de Buhr joined the Svelts, only to leave the group with Svelts’ guitarist Addie Clement to form another band, Wild Honey.

But they soon realized how much they missed playing with the Millingtons. “June was the best rhythm guitar player I ever played with,” says de Buhr. “We were in the pocket from almost the beginning. That rhythm section that she and I created was heaven, heaven to play with her. Addie and I decided very shortly that it wasn’t going to happen with either of our bands separated. So we buried the hatchet and got back together.”

Left to Right; Jean Millington, Nickey Barclay, Brie Darling, Alice de Buhr, June Millington. Photo Credit: Linda Wolf

Since it isn’t a mini-series, The Right to Rock understandably condenses Fanny’s convoluted evolution. There were more lineup changes before the band signed with Reprise and renamed themselves Fanny. The film brings the excitement of this period to vivid life. When Norma Kemper, the secretary who led producer Richard Perry to the group, describes the band as “electric,” the accompanying live footage shows you exactly what captured her interest (such footage is especially crucial, as none of the band members felt their live energy was ever captured on their studio recordings).

The day-to-day life at “Fanny Hill,” the band house in Laurel Canyon, is captured in all its glory in the numerous photos shot by the band’s friend, photographer Linda Wolf. De Buhr, a self-described packrat, made her wealth of memorabilia available as well; the stickers and t-shirts she designed, posters and reviews, even her journals. It all helps make The Right to Rock a richer viewing experience.

Fanny memorabilia. Photo Credit: Byron Wilkins

For the first part of the ’70s, Fanny was in constant motion. “If we weren’t touring, and if we weren’t rehearsing, and if we weren’t recording, we were trying to fit in laundry and grocery shopping, because we rehearsed ten and eleven hours a day,” says de Buhr. The band always looks like they’re having a great time as they storm through a song. But offstage, it was a bit more wearying. “It was brutally tiring,” June says in the film. “To keep giving and giving and giving in that way, was unsustainable.”

And then a depressingly familiar theme comes into play. “The suits in Hollywood, who controlled the dialogue in promotion, couldn’t wrap their heads around four young women playing kick-ass rock and roll,” de Buhr contends. “They just couldn’t do it, couldn’t figure it out. Every time we turned around, there was another door we had to knock down, or another ceiling that we had to at least crack. We’d answer the same questions over and over — what’s it like to play drums as a girl? Well, since I don’t have a dick, I can’t really tell you how it’s different from being a guy. Geez already!”

Given the cultural openness of the era, de Buhr is still surprised Fanny was so underrated and mismanaged. “You’re talking about Fanny back in the day when it was all free love and hippy-dippy,” she says. “You’d think that Fanny would have been accepted more easily. But when it came down to the nuts and the bolts of who got the money, whose record was taken to radio and what DJ was given payola for what group, the politics were male-centric always. And I don’t think that that has changed.”

Fanny billboard in LA. Photo Credit: Linda Wolf

June was the first to leave the band, de Buhr leaving soon after (“I didn’t want to be in a band without June”). With new members, the band had a brief “glam” era before finally breaking up in 1975. After a brief turn with the Peter Ivers Band, de Buhr went into the business side of the music industry, working for a record distributor. Later, as retail marketing coordinator for A&M Records, she worked with the Go-Go’s as they promoted Beauty and the Beat, getting a gold record from the group as a thank you.

She sometimes heard her male co-workers talking about Fanny. “They’d be talking about the band just being a ‘gimmick,’ which pissed me off to no end. I didn’t say much; I didn’t let them know I’d been in Fanny,” de Buhr says. “And then I was doing an inventory at Tower Records on Sunset, and this co-worker hollered at me, ‘Hey Alice, I saw you on TV last night!’ I’m like, ‘What?’ And apparently Nick at Nite had got some of the [German TV music show] Beat-Club footage. That was back in the late ’70s, early ’80s probably. And at that point I said, you know what? What we did mattered, and I’m proud of it. And since then I’ve been trying to keep the name alive long enough to be recognized for what we created.”

The latter part of The Right to Rock focuses on the making of Fanny Walked the Earth (de Buhr made a guest appearance on “Walk the Earth”), and the unexpected health crisis that put promotional plans on hold. Footage of the group being honored at the 2018 She Rocks Awards brings Fanny’s story full circle as rock ‘n’ roll survivors acknowledged for their pioneering work, alongside testimony about their influence from such musicians as Bonnie Raitt, Joe Elliott, Kathy Valentine, Charles Neville, and Cherie Currie.

For those who discovered Fanny via clips on YouTube, Fanny: The Right to Rock fills out the rest of the story about a band of women who wanted to make a difference, and did, defying all obstacles. As de Buhr says in the film, “The conversation about women’s place is right smack dab in the middle of rock ‘n’ roll. And you’ve got this brick wall, we just start taking the bricks out from the bottom. And okay, sometimes the wall falls straight down and it doesn’t fall over. But we’ll just keep taking the bricks out.”

8/6 – Two Riversides Film & Music Festival – Poland
8/13 – SAW Gallery – Ottawa, Ontario
8/15 – Jecheon Film & Music Festival – Jecheon, South Korea
8/27 – OutFest LA closing night film – Los Angeles, CA
9/12 – Musical Écran Bordeaux Rock festival – Bordeaux, France

Check for more info.

June Millington Looks Back on Fanny as Real Gone Music Preps Reissue of 1970 Debut

When Fanny was released in 1970, it was notable for being more than just the self-titled debut album of the Los Angeles-based rock act. It was also the very first album, by an all-female band, released by a major label.

In some ways, that was surprising; women had certainly been involved in rock and pop from the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, from Wanda Jackson to the Supremes, from the Shangri Las to Janis Joplin. But female musicians, especially those playing electric instruments, were not nearly as prevalent. Nor would major labels take a chance on the few all-female bands that were around; acts like Goldie & the Gingerbreads or the Pleasure Seekers were only able to release singles at the time.

So it was Fanny, and Fanny, that made the breakthrough. The 11-track album (newly reissued in a limited edition run by collector’s label Real Gone Music) is an enticing blend of spirited rock, leavened with doses of sweet soul, and a touch of edgy funk. “It’s quite the debut, I think,” says Fanny’s guitarist, June Millington. That’s certainly true of the music – but even just showing women wielding their guitars and drumsticks with passion and skill on the gatefold sleeve made a statement in itself.

Making music together had been a lifelong pursuit for June and her sister Jean. The two were born in the Philippines to an American father and Filipina mother, and emigrated to California in 1961, forming their first band when they were teenagers. There were lineup and name changes over the years, but one thing remained constant: the group was always all-female. “We really wanted to have an all-girl band,” says Millington. “It was like we were obsessed. I really believe it was our destiny. We were meant to do it.”

It was fitting, then, that it was a woman who helped the band get their big break. Norma Goldstein, secretary to record producer Richard Perry (who’d recently scored his first hit with Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”), recommended the group to her boss after catching a powerhouse set at LA club the Troubadour in 1968. Soon the group had a contract with Reprise Records, a new lineup (June on guitar, Jean on bass, Nicole “Nicky” Barclay on keyboards, Alice de Buhr on drums; all four members sang), and a new name — Fanny. Millington liked the idea of using a woman’s name; to her it represented a friendly guide, “a woman’s spirit watching over us” like a guardian angel. Being a double entendre also made it more playful, something the label was quick to capitalize on, producing swag with the cheeky slogan “Get behind Fanny.”

After years of playing Top 40 hits like “Louie Louie,” “Nowhere to Run,” and “To Sir, With Love,” at legion halls, fraternities, and community centers up and down the West Coast, Fanny was anxious to flex their creative muscle, and most of the tracks on their debut were originals. Barclay’s ballad “Conversation with a Cop” caught the zeitgeist of the hippie era, but still has relevance today, drawn from her own experience of being hassled by the police for walking her dog (“I thought I had the right to take a walk at any time I pleased/I never knew the night could turn a whim into a crime”). “Take a Message to the Captain” is a tuneful, forthright statement of independence with tight harmonies. The fiery “Shade Me” is a stomping rocker, showing Fanny at their wildest.

Millington welcomed the chance to learn more about the recording process, something she’d explore more deeply in the future. “I think we were really lucky to end up with Richard, because he trained us well,” she says. “And he was learning as well, and he was as dedicated as we were. He told me, ‘You learned from every single session. When you came back, you were better.’ He saw how passionate I was about it, and he really did respond to that.”

This, despite the fact that Millington wasn’t entirely happy with Perry’s production. “I’m still totally critical,” she agrees. “We were all totally intent in putting out a sound that would be competitive in the marketplace. I think that Fanny live really presented a sound that was hard for other bands to compete with. Because we were that good, we had that big of a sound. But he definitely toned that down.” Subsequent live releases do show that Fanny packed more of a punch in concert.

Fanny received good reviews, with the band’s terrific cover of Cream’s song “Badge” singled out for special praise. It’s a song Millington felt was “written for women to sing. If you say the words to ‘Badge’ out loud, those are for girls to sing. And we totally made that song ours — or it made us theirs.” She takes a special pride in her guitar work, having been pressed to take on lead guitar duties when Fanny’s lineup was reworked, post major-label deal. “I wasn’t even playing lead guitar a year before that album was put out,” she says. “I went from zero to the solo in ‘Badge’ in a year. That’s when I look back and go ‘Who was that woman on guitar? I’d love to meet her!’”

Fanny spent much of the next four years on the road, not only to promote their records, but also to prove that they really could play their instruments and hadn’t relied on session musicians. “We knew how good we were,” says Millington. “And we had to prove it at every gig. We understood that.” But they couldn’t escape the stereotypical assumptions about female musicians, “the constant put downs,” as Millington puts it. “People were so condescending. We had to listen to stupid questions. We were infantilized all over the place. ‘What is it like to be a female guitar player?’ I mean, what? Really? You just asked me that? Why don’t you ask me how I got this sound? There was not one question about equipment, about our approach to writing — it was all fluff. There were questions about make-up and diets. That kind of stuff, it wears on you.”

And while they enjoyed the occasional singles success — “Charity Ball” reached the Top 40 in 1971 — Reprise was disappointed with the band’s album sales. “They were worried that we weren’t selling. We were selling 60,000 units per album, but that wasn’t enough, I guess,” Millington sighs. “So they wanted us to expose more of our bodies, that kind of stuff. It wasn’t enough to be just — ‘just,’ in quotes — a great band. It was exasperating. Beyond exasperating, honestly.”

“I think we were just ahead of the curve. I feel like we were trying to do intelligent rock, but people were not ready to listen,” she adds, noting that no one seemed to be able to put the novelty of the band’s gender aside. “I think the damage done to us from a society that wasn’t ready to receive us, is really what did us in. The lack of confidence, and the infighting within the band… just got to be too much for me. But to leave was really hard.”

Millington left Fanny in 1974, and the group broke up the following year. She pursued a solo career, produced records by artists like Cris Williamson and Holly Near, and co-founded the Institute for the Musical Arts, a nonprofit supporting women and girls in music. For a long time, her days with Fanny were too painful to revisit.

But that changed with the release of the Fanny box set First Time in a Long Time: The Reprise Recordings (Rhino Handmade) in 2002. Listening to the music as the set was being prepared gave her a new appreciation for what Fanny accomplished. “I started to listen to the stuff because I had to. And then I wrangled my way, me and Jean, to be there for the mastering, and we then listened to all of it again. And I realized, ‘Yeah, this is really good stuff!’”

The internet has also led people to Fanny’s door; on YouTube, their live version of “Ain’t That Peculiar” on the Beat Club channel has over two and a half million views. “I get notes from people all the time,” says Millington. “Messages from people about how they remember where they were the first time they heard Fanny, who talk about having seen us live, or people discovering the band: ‘I just heard you, and I can’t believe I didn’t know about you!’ And so that makes me feel good, and I think that has given me a huge clue as to, okay, yeah, we really did do something that other people find valuable.”

Millington eventually chronicled her Fanny experience in her fascinating 2015 memoir, Land of a Thousand Bridges: Island Girl in a Rock & Roll World (which she’s now turning into an audio book, as well as writing a second memoir). A documentary about the band is also in the works.

Fanny might not have gotten the commercial breakthrough they hoped for. But their impact turned out to reach beyond the heights of the Top 40 – their efforts helped change perceptions of women in rock, by the simple act of picking up an electric guitar and plugging in.

“What a hard-working band we were,” Millington says. “We were working every single day, and working hard at it. And you can hear it even now. We always hoped we’d have a hit record. But it was more the destiny thing; we definitely felt that destiny calling us. And so we had to do it. And people are really finding the value in Fanny, and the work that we did. So that’s pretty incredible.”

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