The history of rock and roll is probably the least understood of any aspect of popular culture. The narrative, as accepted these days, is full of myths and it is, to be blunt, very male and often maliciously twisted.
Go to YouTube and watch videos of musicians or bands from the 1960′s and 1970′s and you will find a crazy assortment of comments and assertions that are often simply untrue. Recently I saw an assertion that the woman who inspired a certain song had died of heroin overdose years ago. Well, no. The woman in question is alive and well at 74, recently retired from her job and published an autobiography. These facts are easily found, but don’t fit somebody’s narrative. There’s plenty of misinformation online but rock and roll history seems rife with it.
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Fanny: The Right to Rock (Monday, Crave, 9 p.m. and streaming on Crave) is a terrific and eye-opening documentary and an amendment to misconceptions. It is the untold story of a Filipina-American band established by California teens that, for a time, was a fierce, all-women hard-rock force. They never had a major hit, but they toured constantly and were adored by David Bowie and other legends. And then they seemed to disappear from history. Bobbi Jo Hart’s film provides a treasure trove of detail on the band’s story, and it gives agency to the women who were, and are, Fanny. It also shocks with its particulars about their lives, loves and small triumphs.
If the band is known at all, it’s for a period in the mid-to-late 70s when they released several albums, made numerous TV appearances and had one minor hit. They are a footnote, when they should be immortals. But, as one member says at the outset: “Men coveted rock and roll. That was theirs, and they weren’t gonna let us have it.”
The band was formed by the Millington sisters, self-taught musicians who began as The Svelts, playing covers at school dances and talent shows. They were very, very good. And yet the giddiness of their beginning is, in the doc, overshadowed by the racism they talk about. One of the women recalls her boyfriend’s father telling him, “I’ll buy you a Mustang if you stop seeing that half-breed girl.” Another recalls being bluntly told by a boyfriend, “I can’t see you any more. You’re not white.” They persevered. They were dedicated musicians.
For a period around 1969 they were Los Angeles-based. A showcase gig had landed them a recording contract, and they lived in a sprawling house with a studio in the basement. Joe Cocker would be in the kitchen. Little Feat were recording downstairs. The film provides a vivid portrait of a time when rock was drenched in haze of sex, drugs, music and more sex and drugs. June Millington was having relationships with women – and, frankly, neither the record label, nor the press, nor the fans knew how to deal with the lesbian aspect of the band.
They toured, they recorded. “They were ferocious, they didn’t stand around being cute,” says John Sebastian, who produced an early album. There is copious footage from the period, taken from concerts and TV appearances, that proves every assertion about the group’s skills and stage presence. (It’s expertly edited by Catherine Legault.) Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott talks about Fanny with genuine awe.
So, what went wrong? You could claim they didn’t have a huge hit song. But many hard-rock legends didn’t have Top 40 hits. You could say it was bad luck and bad management. But what emerges from this superbly detailed documentary is the ceaseless sexism. The music press seemed incapable of covering Fanny without lapsing into absurd male chauvinism.
In the end, they were all exhausted by the touring, the weeks and months on the road, the stresses of holding a group of strong individuals together. By the time their one hit song, “Butter Boy” (“He was hard as a rock / But I was ready to roll / What a shock to find out / I was in control”), was on the charts in 1975, they had already disbanded, worn out by years of trying for success and respect.
But that wasn’t the end. The doc chronicles their reunion in 2018 and recording new material. A health crisis interrupts that, but nothing interrupts the arc of this story. These remarkable women – complicated people, driven and relentless – are still going strong.
Fanny: The Right to Rock is one vital and wonderfully made addition – and correction – to the old narratives about the history of rock and roll.
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