“Fanny: The Right To Rock” Airs on PBS May 22

    I remember buying Suzie Quatro’s first album in 1973. It had great songs like “48 Crash” and “Can the Can” but knowing nothing about her I mainly bought it because of the sex appeal of the cover photo. Quatro was wearing jeans, a leather jacket and stared into the camera with piercing confidence as the other members of the band (all male) cut up in the back. I was mesmerized.

    Like a lot of rock fans I hadn’t been exposed at that point to many female hard rock bands. Rockers were supposed to be male, the sexist stereotype went–women sang folk songs or Motown hits. Even as late as the ‘90s some idiot rock critic wrote an editorial in the long defunct “New York Press” newsweekly protesting that women couldn’t (or shouldn’t) play rock and roll. For one thing, he observed, their hands were too small to reach around a guitar’s neck! (He made the point with an obscene comparison I won’t repeat here.)

    This silly notion was always wrong. Just witness the guitar virtuosity of Saint Vincent and many other female rock and roll instrumentalists and songwriters. An important chapter in the history of women-led rock groups is told in the new documentary, “Fanny: The Right to Rock,” which airs Monday, May 22 at 10 p.m. ET on PBS.

    Directed by Bobbi Jo Hart, it tells the story of 1970s rock band Fanny, the first all-female rock act to record an album for a major record label. The four original members of Fanny were June Millington (guitar, vocals), Jean Millington (bass, vocals), Alice de Buhr (drums, vocals), and Nickey Barclay (keyboards, vocals).  The Millington sisters were Filipina/Americans who grew up in Sacramento, California. The self-taught musicians began jamming with other female musicians from their high school. At an open-mic night at the legendary Troubadour Club in Los Angeles, record producer Richard Perry’s secretary was impressed by them, leading to the band being signed to Reprise Records.

    They recorded five successful albums in the seventies, working with recording legends Perry, Beatles’ engineer Geoff Emerick, Todd Rundgren and toured widely in the U.S. and Europe. After they broke up in 1975, their accomplishments seemed to have been forgotten, a fact noted in 1999 by David Bowie speaking to “Rolling Stone” magazine: “They were extraordinary: they wrote everything, they played like motherfuckers, they were just colossal and wonderful, and nobody’s ever mentioned them. They’re as important as anybody else who’s ever been, ever; it just wasn’t their time.”

    The highly entertaining documentary alternates between the history of the band and their recent revival and the recording of their first album in 43 years, “Fanny Walked The Earth.” One of the most interesting sections covers the group’s residence at a rented mansion once owned by actress Hedy Lamarr, a house frequented by a long list of fellow L.A. musicians. Members of the Bangles, the Runaways and the Go-Gos testify to the considerable influence Fanny had on them. Band members talk about the sexism they faced in the ‘70s and the ageism they must confront today as musicians in their seventies. This is a must-see film for classic rock fans and an important corrective to the male-dominated history of rock music.

    Here is a beautifully-preserved (though with a distracting blue screen in the background) video of Fanny performing a blistering cover of the Beatles song “Hey Bulldog” in 1971.

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