The question “Who is Fanny?” is one that could have a simple enough answer. They are a rock band active from the late 1960s to mid 1970s. They are also the first all-female rock band to release an LP under a major record label via Reprise Records. Some of the members like June Millington and Alice de Buhr are queer, and three of the founding members—June, her younger sister Jean Millington, as well as Brie Darling—are Filipino American.
In actuality however, the answer isn’t as straightforward. As June made a point of noting during a Zoom call with five of the members, Fanny has had three different plateaus, making it complicated to answer. “We’ve all been members of the group Fanny, not all together at the same time. So there’s been different formations,” added Darling.
To make the answer even more complicated, compared to their peers from back then like David Bowie, Fanny isn’t as well known. For filmmaker Bobbi Jo Hart, the director of the documentary, Fanny: The Right to Rock, despite being raised by hippies, even she was unfamiliar with their discography until – while looking for a guitar for her daughter – she learned about them through a feature done about June on the Taylor Guitars website.
“It really got me so excited to discover this band, I loved what I was hearing. But I was equally pissed off,” she said. “And those are [the] two factors that are essential for me to make a film. I realize, looking back, for 25 years of making films, I look back and I realize, it’s always been that kind of combination of excitement and intrigue and curiosity, with a combination of being pissed off. That an underrepresented person, underrepresented community, is not getting their due.”
The name, Fanny, was chosen from a list of about 60 other ideas the band members came up with, some more psychedelic than others. They wanted something short and easy to remember. However, what eventually led to the selection of Fanny was from wanting to intentionally choose a girl’s name, after being inspired by another all-female band, The Daisy Chain (later Birtha).
The way they bounced off ideas for the name of the band is similar to that of how they came up with songs: collaboratively and sporadically.
“I mean, most of it to me, if I could, because we jammed all the time, so we would just jam and someone would get an idea and we’d riff off of it, and then pretty soon we’d have a song,” June explained. “As I recall, I know that Jean wrote most of the lyrics to ‘Soulchild,’ but that groove must have come from us as a band. So I think we were just kind of fooled around a lot.”
“I think we all contributed to a lot of the songs, and someone had an idea,” said Jean. “Then they’d go on her own and come back, say, ‘What about this?’ And we say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s good, whatever.’ But it was more of a collaborative effort a lot of times.”
“We would all be stoned and we’d jam, and then something would come out and we’d remember part of it,” June noted.
Their workflow was exhibited even on their most recent album, Fanny Walked the Earth. In creating the song “Not My Monkey,” the first lines were established the night the results from the 2016 presidential election were announced.
“I said, ‘I’ll never sleep again. My happiness is tainted. I’ll never sleep again,’ recalled Darling upon hearing the results. “June said, ‘Write that down. That’s a great first line.’ And so that was the way we started it and kind of took that idea of what happened with that election and how devastated we felt, or [how] I felt devastated.”
Collaboration and lack of ego is what member Patti Quatro particularly enjoyed about being a part of Fanny. As she elaborated, “They were there for the music doing it. It’s so important because a lot of bands go through ego stuff where, ‘Oh, I wrote that and it’s my song.’ These women were into the music and that was a very special thing about creative writing.”
With all the work Fanny put into their albums and the ground they broke at the time, to have been almost erased from history may have resulted from a combination of reasons, as theorized by Hart. However, she believes that the main reason is that they were women who were doing something different, and the press and music critics didn’t know what to make of them.
“You still see, today, a lot of women, whether it’s in music or in other public-facing kinds of … Whether it’s acting, et cetera, that are asked such banal questions,” she pointed out. “They literally, just like, ‘What do you like to wear? What is your favorite makeup?’ I mean, if it’s a fashion show, I get it. But sometimes I find that there’s some shows where they would never ask a guy those kinds of questions. It would just be more about your music, your sound, your craft.”
“I think misogyny is what hurt us the most, both from men and women,” said June. “They just couldn’t say, ‘Hey, Fanny’s good,’ and just leave it at that. They’d have to say, ‘Fanny’s good, but they’re hurting men’s feelings,’ or whatever came next. And when I look back on that, I’m telling you, steam comes out of my ears because they were not listening to us really, for the most part. They weren’t actually hearing the parts that I played or Jean played, or Brie or Alice or Patti. They were not listening to us and really realizing what, they didn’t know what we were doing.”
Despite all the remarks made about being women in a rock band, virtually nothing was ever said about the members of Fanny also being queer or Filipino American. As June spoke on behalf of Jean (who has limited mobility) later via email, the concept of “otherness” was a foreign – and possibly taboo – subject matter at the time.
“I don’t think anybody really was aware of Filipinos or the Philippines,” commented Darling, noting the overall lack of diversity in entertainment at the time. “I used to do auditions for acting things as well. There were hardly any Blacks on TV shows then at the time. Never mind any other kind of brown people. And if I did get to audition for something, it was either [I] was an Indian, they thought I was Indian, or I might be partially Hispanic, which there is some Hispanic in there.
“So I don’t think that the country was even really aware of anybody less than not white, but anywhere in between Black and white,” she added, “There just wasn’t enough opportunity for people of any color to do anything.”
Darling also noted how at the time, she hadn’t yet come to terms of even identifying as Filipino American. “I had been fighting feeling different and it not being talked about up to that point in my life, I was always uncomfortable. I always knew I looked a little bit different. So never mind taking it to just a few years later, the band was doing press and everything, and I don’t even think I came to terms with a lot of being Filipino American before this documentary happened, because it really brought out my awareness and made me ask questions. I’m grateful to it for that. That’s how [expletive] disappeared we are.”
Hart was saddened to learn that Darling had felt that way. Given what all the members of Fanny had endured, she felt a lot of pressure to do them justice with The Right to Rock. Even so, Hart made it clear that there is more to their story than can be captured in the movie. In addition to the documentary, Jean is writing a book and de Buhr hosts the Get Behind Fanny podcast.
Since the film premiered at Hot Docs in 2021, people have also contacted Hart about possibly doing a feature film and a Broadway play is currently in the works.
With their recent re-emergence in music, Fanny has come to be inspirations for present-day Filipino American artists. As rapper Ruby Ibarra told CAAM, “The members of Fanny are pioneers – for musicians, women, and Filipinos worldwide. They have made groundbreaking achievements throughout their decades-spanning career all while keeping their artistic integrity. As a Filipina artist, I admire them and I’m inspired by them. They are a perfect example of how powerful art can be when it defies societal norms and expectations. They are rockstar legends and I hope that more people become familiar with their amazing work through their new film.”
Both the film and the band itself will be featured at this year’s CAAMFest. Fanny: The Right to Rock screens at the Phyllis Wattis Theater at the San Francisco Museum of Art on May 19. The following day, five of the members of Fanny will perform live at Yerba Buena Gardens, as part of a historic, statewide tour presented by CAAM.
“Working with Fanny has been a rewarding and crucial experience for CAAM,” stated CAAM’s Director of Programs, Don Young. “This band made their mark in music history in multiple ways, and for them to nearly be forgotten in time is an act we want to work to reverse. To be female, queer, and Filipino American in the music industry at the time they rose to prominence is a feat much more difficult to navigate then compared to now. For CAAM to have a hand in preserving Fanny’s legacy for present and future generations to find out about and explore is why we do the work that we’ve been doing for the Asian American community.”
As for their future legacy, Hart believes that Fanny has a lot going for them. Aside from now taking on ageism in their ongoing ability to rock, she sees them also righting the wrongs of what they endured in the past by normalizing women who are older, queer, and Asian American in rock music.
She also would love nothing more than for them to be recognized and inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
“Fanny deserves to be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,” she said. “End of story. It took forever for Sister Rosetta Tharpe to get in there, and there’s still only like eight percent of the inductees are women. You can just Google it, women in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and you’ll see, every year, there’s people that are speaking out about it and frustrated about how there needs to be something shaken up there, for them to have more women, not to mention women of color.”
As for what’s next for Fanny, as the individual members continue to work away on their respective endeavors, they were intrigued by the idea of possibly recording another album together – that is if they secure the funds for it and if they are still alive.
“I’m turning 75 next month and I’m looking at these realities,” said June. “I got x amount of stuff I need to get done. Maybe I’ll live till I am… Okay, let’s give it the shadow of the doubt. 85, another 10 years. I got songs in me still, but I need someone to carry my amp. I need someone to hand me my guitar because my balance isn’t good. [Expletive] like that. It never was an issue back in the day. Now I need three people to help me do what I could do.”
“June, is that what happens when you turn almost 75? Is that what’s going to happen to us?” Darling asked.
“That is what’s happening to me,” June remarked.
Regardless of the physical challenges they are experiencing now, Fanny will be hitting the road this month, for a six-stop tour of California, including a free concert with Ruby Ibarra and Peaboo and the Catz at CAAMFest.
Catch the Fanny Revivify tour of Northern and Southern California in May, including a free concert at CAAMFest on Saturday, May 20. Fanny: The Right to Rock will screen at SFMOMA on Friday, May 19. Get details and tickets at the CAAMFest website.