CORVALLIS — The words came to June Millington in a dream last year: “Two little girls staring out at the sea / Water touching China, it’s as blue as can be.” It was a childhood memory of life in Manila, of visiting her mother’s hometown and frolicking with younger sister Jean in waves that indeed poured in from the South China Sea.
It was also the beginning of “Play Like a Girl,” the title track of an album rich in musical diversity that rocks and contemplates as only the Millington sisters can.
The disc tells in part the incredible true story of two Caucasian-Filipina girls (their father, Navy lieutenant commander John Millington, had married Yolanda Limjoco in 1947; Jean and June were two of seven children) who in 1961 emigrated with their family to the United States, where in a decade’s time they’d make history with Fanny, one of rock ’n’ roll’s first all-female bands.
It was an impact that afforded both women the ability to pass on lessons learned, to teach future generations of women that there were no limits. Two little girls had once indeed stared out at the sea, and eventually they saw the world beyond it.
Their journey brings them to Corvallis next week. At 1 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 5, the Millingtons will visit Linus Pauling Middle School. Then on Thursday they’ll speak as part of the American Culture & Politics Series at 4 p.m. in Room 109 at Oregon State University’s Memorial Union. Then out come their weapons of choice, guitar and bass, for a 7 p.m. performance in the MU Ballroom. Both events are free.
“What the sisters brought to the table was expertise in playing their instruments and sophisticated writing and singing,” says OSU Associate Professor of History Mina Carson, who, with Drs. Susan Shaw and Tisa Lewis, coauthored 2004’s “Girls Rock: Fifty Years Of Women Making Music,” which features interviews with the Millingtons. (Carson’s 13-year-old daughter Lyn has studied at June’s 25-acre Massachusetts girls music camp, the Institute for the Musical Arts.)
“They were sassy, bold and good, and they rocked out. There weren’t that many women out there doing that. It was just a closed door. But when you talk to June, her personality breaks through a lot of doors.”
‘Do NOT mess around with a girl with an electric guitar’
When the Millingtons arrived in Sacramento, Calif., at the dawn of the ’60s, 13-year-old June and 12-year-old Jean were already deep into a self-imposed musical education, having recently graduated from ukuleles to acoustic guitars.
“It’s so easy to play on a ukulele,” June says. “When we first started, we’d play ‘Yellow Bird’ or all the Neil Sedaka hits: ‘Calendar Girl,’ that kind of stuff. And our parents and the extended family, the Filipino family, loved that we were doing it. When we’d go to a beach or a party, they’d always trot Junie and Jeanie out to sing and play our ukuleles. Right before we moved to the U.S., we got turned on to acoustic guitar.”
Of course, once they found rock ’n’ roll — the Beach Boys, in particular, and that sumptuous surf music — the sisters plugged in and cranked up. It was a daring maneuver in retrospect. In a post-folk boom, girls with acoustics were in plentiful supply. Girls and electric guitars, however, was an explosive combination, a hot-button Bold Statement, especially at a time when rock was still considered a gateway to delinquency and shame. Nice girls don’t do that. But it was the perfect vehicle for two shy biracial young women from another country trying to find their voice.
In late 1964 the sisters formed their first band, the all-female Svelts, with drummer Kathie Terry and guitarist Cathy Carter. June and Jean played rhythm guitar and bass, respectively. A number of personnel, name and location changes over the next few years, along with an abundance of gigs across the country, blowing minds, converting skeptics and occasionally showing fresh punks the error of their ways (as June advises, “Do not mess around with a girl with an electric guitar”), found The Svelts transformed into Wild Honey of Los Angeles.
By then it was the late ’60s, an insanely creative period in California rock to which the band was both eyewitness and participant. In 1969, fate intervened at a Wild Honey show at Doug Weston’s Troubadour in West Hollywood; in the audience that night was producer Richard Perry’s secretary, who raved about them to her boss. (He would produce their first three discs.) This led to a deal with Warner Bros. Records imprint Reprise.
Lead guitarist Addie Clement left not long afterward, forcing June to step in. “I didn’t want to do it,” she says. But she did, and let the record show — as well as hours of audio recordings and video footage capturing the joy she threw into every note — she essayed the role brilliantly. The rest of the lineup included Jean on bass, drummer Alice de Buhr and keyboardist Nickey Barclay.
With this move also came a name change. Reams of possibilities were considered and tossed. Fanny was the clear winner; all other contenders have been lost in the mists of time.
Fanny recorded four albums for Reprise: a self-titled 1970 debut, followed by “Charity Ball” (1971), “Fanny Hill” (1972) and “Mother’s Pride” (1973). Music buffs will note that the group’s eponymous platter predates The Runaways’ by more than a half-decade, making them clear pioneers in women’s rock.
Truth be told, though, they were just an amazing band, period. That first record finds them already tight and cohesive from years of playing garages, dances, bases, teen centers and nightclubs. “Charity Ball’s” sweet-harmonied title track landed in the Top 40, an accomplishment that would be trumped in 1975 by “Butter Boy” (No. 29).
Recorded at London’s Abbey Road, “Fanny Hill” is a rouser loaded with sass and soul. Todd Rundgren helmed “Mother’s Pride,” the group’s final Reprise effort; it was also, sadly, the last album to feature de Buhr and June Millington. Fanny released one more LP, 1974’s “Rock and Roll Survivors,” on Casablanca Records, home to disco and KISS.
“It was really great until they started losing confidence in who Fanny actually was and where our roots were,” June says. “I think that they forgot we were a self-formed band. They started to get nervous about sales and started to groom us to be — it was just before KISS and that’s not my thing. I’m too shy to get into an outfit and stick my tongue out.
“I was not about to go into that, because I knew I was going to lose something so fundamental that it was going to kill me. I really felt that at the deepest level that you can. But that’s only because that’s how much music means to me. Music is central to who I am and how I see myself, so it saved my life. Thank God for rock ’n’ roll, right?”
All four Reprise LPs, along with a clutch of radio promos, live performances, demos and alternate takes, were compiled into the 4-CD boxed set “First Time in a Long Time: The Reprise Recordings,” released by Rhino Handmade in 2002. All 5,000 copies of the limited-edition collector’s item sold quickly; today the physical set commands up to $350 on Amazon. But you can’t put a price on what Fanny accomplished.
“As a band, Fanny did a radical thing: they were a band,” says the set’s producer, Cheryl Pawelski, owner/partner at independent label Omnivore Recordings. “That may not seem radical in 2011, but back at the dawn of the ’70s, four women writing songs, masterfully playing their own instruments, being signed to a major label and in general rocking was amazing and electrifying. This was no novelty act — these women were for real and provided a real-life example that a rock ’n’ roll life needn’t just live in a girl’s or woman’s imagination.”
‘We really have something to say, and we really are passing it on’
At 63, June Millington can reflect on the kind of life most people can only dream of having lived. The names she’s known. The people she’s met. In fact, it sometimes amazes even her.
But the fruits of her accomplishments are etched in history with confident permanence. After leaving Fanny, she became a pivotal figure in women’s music, playing with and producing Cris Williamson, Holly Near and Mary Watkins. In 1986 she organized the Institute for the Musical Arts with partner Ann Hackler and a formidable board that included activist Angela Davis, producer Roma Baran (Laurie Anderson’s “Big Science” and “O Superman,” among countless others) and “Tonight Show” percussionist Vicki Randle. The nonprofit’s mission is to guide young girls in music-related pursuits from its Goshen, Mass., campus.
“This place is something we’re leaving for future generations of girls and women,” June says. “All of the girls who come to our camps know that. It’s the only place of its kind in the world, in that it’s been started and it’s actively being passed on.”
For more information on IMA, visit www.ima.org.
Sister Jean, 62, lives on the opposite coast, in Davis, Calif. Her post-Fanny credits include work with Keith Moon, Tonio K., Leroy Jones, Melanie DeMore and vocal turns on David Bowie’s 1975 classic, “Young Americans.” She’s also taught bass at IMA camps and reunited with June for a number of projects, including the duo Slammin’ Babes and for “Play Like a Girl,” which features the drum work of her son, Lee Madeloni. And of course, she still wields one of the baddest Fender Precisions to ever hold down the bottom.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” June says, “The fact that we’re still here, that we can stand up in front of people and play — we don’t take it lightly. I hope everyone appreciates it as much as we do, and that they come and meet us in that way we want to meet you: through the music. We really have something to say, and we really are passing it on.”
On the title track, you sing, “If they tell you you can’t do it / you just turn it up and play like a girl.” Then you spend the rest of the album demonstrating musically what that is. But what does it mean to play like a girl?
There’s a sort of youthful enthusiasm and a way that girls play together, and that’s just girlfriends hanging out. In our case, it was very much girlfriends hanging out with electric guitars. (laughs)
Basically, girls who are teenagers — we need to hang out as a pod. Girls cooperate and compete in a particular way. In our case, it worked to our advantage. We loved hanging out, we loved rehearsing and playing, and we loved proving that girls could play like guys, which was the only agenda you had at the time. When we got to L.A., it was the tip-top of the agenda.
Before that, from 1965 to 1969, aside from proving that we could play like guys, we were just having a great time. We were a pod of girls who laughed and played together, we shared boyfriends — all the stuff that young girls do. We fought, made up, played again, and we just kicked butt. The gigs we played — we really did play all these high school dances and air-force bases and clubs. We would sneak into clubs and play. We’d lie about our ages. We did everything we could to just get on stage.
It was such a good time. I can't even tell you all the adventures we had. It was nuts. It’s the perfect way for girls to express themselves. When you have a vehicle like rock music — or back in the day, it was surf and The Beatles and especially Motown and the girl groups — man, when you ride that ship or ride that boat or ride that sleek motorcycle, it is just the best.
So that's “Play Like a Girl”: a bunch of girls hanging out but having a mission. We did our homework. We learned how to do it at school. But we were doing our own homework, creating our own curricula and then getting out on stage and strutting, which is what young girls want to do. You want to be seen and recognized. But we sang great harmonies and we were learning the craft as we went along. We worked very hard at it.
The album has a great opening one-two punch with not only “Play Like a Girl” but “I Love Your Hair!”
It’s a true story. That song is my career as seen through my hair. All the references I make — before disco, before Queen, before Madonna, before computers and rap — since my hair has turned white, people stop me everywhere I go and say, “I love your hair.” And it’s men and women together.
And I realized the reason I let my hair grow so long and I don’t do anything to it is in part because I’m lazy but also because it’s a political statement. I know that’s why people of all ages come up to me and say, “I love your hair” appropo of nothing.
I was in New Mexico doing a gig about eight years ago, and the woman who was working at the hotel ran up to me — she was a Native American — and said, “Can I touch your hair?” Touching hair is very intimate. I so appreciate that she asked me. She said, “I used to braid my grandmother’s hair and this is the closest I’ve seen it since my grandmother died. May I touch your hair?” And I said, “Of course.” She touched my hair, and it just was bliss for both of us.
So that song is very visceral and emotional for me, not only for my experience but from the stories that other people tell me just from seeing or touching my hair. It’s very intense. It’s a glorious song, really.
Were there any guitarists when you were growing up who made you say, “Yeah, that's the stuff”?
Oh, definitely Lowell George (Little Feat). He was a close friend of mine and he taught me a lot.
Before that there were several people in Sacramento. The thing is that the public in general has been told about what happened at Haight-Ashbury and the “flower power” thing, but Sacramento is only an hour-and-a-half from San Francisco, and there was an incredible music scene. In fact, the bass player for the Eagles, Timothy B. Schmidt, came from Sacramento; he was in a band called The New Breed that we used to gig with. In fact, we shared photographers sometimes for photo shoots because we didn’t have that much money. We knew Timothy when we were in The Svelts. There were great bands out of Sacramento.
When we got to Hollywood, I found that the better the guitar player was, the more he would show me or become my friend — or be impressed, even. Lowell was at the top of the list. Second would be Kent Henry, who was the replacement guitarist in Steppenwolf. Actually, he’s the guy who sold me my Les Paul, which I still have.
Third, I would have to say Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. He was my guitar repairman and he worked on both my Strat and my Les Paul. I’ll never forget the first time he worked on my guitars — in fact, he remembers it, too. I brought my guitars in and he tweaked them and he added the master volume controls. He picked up one of the guitars and said, “Oh, yeah, it’s good now.” And he played it for me. I remember thinking, “Oh, my God! Who is this guy? Why is he a guitar repairman?” (laughs)
Then we started to chat and he said, “I’ve got this band and we’re doing a gig. Why don’t you come down?” I didn’t go because I thought it was a country band, and I wasn’t interested in that kind of stuff at the time. Well, it was Steely Dan. Anyway, we’re still really good friends. He's not just somebody who showed me stuff.
I would say Lowell and Jeff Baxter were soul buddies. We were connected that way. I feel like Lowell is here at IMA. He was always giving me strength, always egging me on. That’s the type of guy Lowell was. Talk about somebody who never let anything stop him. He dreamed big. He’s a big part of who I am and what we're doing here, quite frankly.
I know you’ve been asked this a million times, but what was it like — and it’s weird to even couch it as “one of the first all-female rock groups,” because there was very little precedent for what you guys were doing. I was wondering what life was like then, because at the time most female groups were vocal groups.
There’s a couple ways that I can answer or look at the question. When we first started playing out, as you know, we got a lot of jeering catcalls, which turned into kind of a love affair. People realized we were really good. The weird thing was that where they had resistance to us, that same energy turned into falling in love with us.
The other thing is that a lot of people thought initially that we would be a topless band, because that was all they’d seen. I know that sounds weird, but let’s remember that this was back in the day when anything went. Many times we had go-go girls in cages hung from the cages dancing on either side of the stage, and that was normal. Nobody blinked at all. They climbed into those cages cheerfully in their go-go boots for an entire set. We're talking about the (Sunset Strip landmark) Whisky a Go Go, where that started, and in any number of clubs up and down the coast and everywhere we played.
But before that were the topless bands. The very first tour we did, we were still in The Svelts, so that was the summer of ’67. We were so excited. The first gig we did was in Winnepeg. I remember that we schlepped our stuff up the stairs, and the audience, which were mostly guys, were expecting a topless band, because the band that had played before us were called Eight of a Kind and were four women. Do the math. And that’s whom they expected to see.
We just took it with a grain of salt. It was just constant. The barrage of that energy coming at us: first disbelief, then this whole sexual barrage of expectations. To tell you the truth, when I first started playing with Cris Williamson, that’s one of the things I loved about playing with her. Very few people knew me in her audience, and I didn’t have that same sexuality coming at me. It was just a vacation. I loved it. That's when I realized, “Oh, my God, I've been dealing with this energy for 11 years.” And I didn’t realize how tiring it was.
So the last part of my answer to you is that it was incredibly tiring to be point for the whole thing. I ended up playing lead guitar; I was point for everybody else who came along. It was incredibly tiring. I was exhausted when I left. I had not one thought left in my brain except, “I’ve got to get out of this.” I had to abandon Jean. I really did abandon the whole thing. My mom thought I was going to die. I was a wreck. Every day, the same questions, and none of the sort of second-level, deeper-level questions. They couldn't see me because it hadn’t been seen before. So all they could see was this chick playing lead guitar. It destroyed me, in a way. It was so tiring, because I’m a smart person, and everyone was only seeing the one-dimensionality of me and the entire band.
I recall reading somewhere that you didn’t think of the “Fanny” name as a sexual term but as a “woman’s spirit watching over us.”
Not only that, I think one of Alice's great-aunts was named Fanny. I really honor that name because I saw “Fanny” as a really cool woman who was strong and fed you warm cookies, and she was sort of my alter-ego spiritual godmother. The whole time I was up there shredding (laughs). Because I really was very shy, so in order to get the nerve up to do that, to play lead guitar, I had to learn on the spot. Thank God for Lowell and Jeffrey and (guitarist) Elliot Randall and Kent Henry, because they all helped me so much.
But I was riding on my Aunt Fanny’s shoulders. It really was she who gave me the strength to do it. She must have saved my life, because I left Fanny just in the nick of time. Believe me: I did not want to go. I had to trust whatever voice or impulse in me that said, “You have to leave. There’s something else you have to do.” I felt that really strongly, and it scared the heck out of me. Here Jean and I had worked so hard all these years, and we were finally on stage. We were doing “The Tonight Show” and “The Beat Club” in Germany and playing all these tours and we'd met most of the Beatles. I didn’t meet John (Lennon) until Jean’s ex-husband, Earl Slick, played on “Double Fantasy.” But it scared the heck out of me, because we’d worked so hard and it was family.
So what does it mean to you to have played alongside your sister all of these years?
I’ve realized that the shared experiences are what make us human and make us feel great as all of us, as human beings, and having familial and friend connections with each other, those deep connections. Now I realize I can’t play with anybody else the way that I play with Jean, because of the fact that we started with “He’s So Fine” in 1965: (sings) “Doo-lang, doo-lang, doo-lang.” Unless you’ve done that with someone and progressed the way we did to where we were doing “The Letter” by The Box Tops and realized that four-on-the-floor was what was happening, or "Hold On, I’m Comin’.” Playing those guitar parts and then on to everything else we’ve experienced after that — you just can’t do it in the same way.
I realized that after the (Aug. 16) Highline gig (in New York). Why was I on fire at the Highline? It wasn’t just the fact that it was a great gig and we had the girls from camp singing with us, which we did, and Lee, Jean’s son. It was something else that got called up that I can’t do with other people (laughs). It’s those shared experiences. They just bubble up. All of a sudden we’re 17. And we have that same exact feeling in how we’re attacking our instruments. And we really are. We’re digging in.
And P.S.: We have the same bass and guitar that we had in Fanny. Those instruments practically play themselves. Incredible! I practiced for two weeks on another guitar, actually the guitar that I wrote and played on the song “Play Like a Girl.” It's an Olympic, the only one of its kind in the world. I happen to have the prototype; it’s never gotten made. It was designed for women. That being said, I picked up the Les Paul for the start of rehearsals when Jean got here, and I never played another guitar! It took over the whole show. It was incredible. No matter how much I try to play other guitars — and I do — that Les Paul always takes over in the end. The same thing with Jean’s bass.
All those hours that we spent practicing — not just performing, but playing licks together and trying to figure it out, scratching our heads, doing it note by note, and slowing down Jimi Hendrix. And Jean hanging out with (bassist) Will Lee, learning those licks. All of that is in the subtext of how we approach music and how we play it. I was really amazed. It seems like magic to me the way it happens. It comes from somewhere else. It doesn’t matter what mood we're in. Once we do a few rehearsals, it’s all right back. There it is. It’s an energy coming from somewhere else, and I mean that sincerely. I really treasure it now. It's special. And that’s what we want to share with people.
I asked one of my coworkers (Jane Stoltz), who’s also a Fanny fan, what question she would want to ask you. She wanted me to ask, “What else do you like to do when you're not rocking out?”
I love to read. I swallowed that Keith Richards autobiography (“Life”). The last book I read that I loved was “The Wave,” written by (Susan Casey). It talks about the 100-foot waves that surfers have been trying to find all these years. It has all of this scientific information. The fact is that I’m kind of a closet scientist at heart (laughs). I was going to become a doctor. I was actually pre-med at UC Davis and UC Berkeley with a minor in music. I thought I was going to be a surgeon and music was going to be something I did as long as I could. But I love anything historical that has scientific facts. I am a bookworm.