Graded on a Curve: Fanny, Fanny

As they were the first all-female rock band to release an LP on a major label, you might be surprised that Fanny isn’t a household name, especially as they were a solid four-piece who in their first recording incarnation cut four albums for the Warner Brothers subsidiary Reprise. But the reality is that Fanny was terribly underappreciated during their initial existence and long since. It was an unfortunate situation, directly related to sexism while they were extant, though the subsequent lack of fervent cult following is a bit more complex. The best place to begin absorbing this worthy outfit’s story is at the beginning, as their self-titled debut from 1970 is freshly reissued June 26 on white vinyl by Real Gone Music.

Let’s be clear; Fanny do have a fanbase, one big enough but also niche enough that Rhino Handmade released the 4CD box set First Time In A Long Time: The Reprise Recordings back in 2002 in a limited edition of 5,000 copies. Indeed, Fanny’s history isn’t difficult to get acquainted with, and the same is true of their music as it’s been added to a handful of streaming sites. They even have a well-designed and maintained website, fannyrocks.com.

As Fanny’s background encourages a deep dive into how it all transpired, we’ll attempt a condensed version here and then proceed to engage with the contents of their debut. Sisters June and Jean Millington, California residents who were born in the Philippines, played first in the Svelts and then joined Wild Honey alongside Alice de Buhr. June played guitar, Jean bass, and Alice drums. Producer Richard Perry’s secretary caught them live and after hipping her boss, they were signed sans audition, with pianist Nickey Barclay added thereafter. Fanny was born.

Reprise reportedly entered into this situation expecting a novelty but got a surplus of talent. The band not only played their instruments with considerable skill and élan (unlike the prior norm of girl-group singers getting backed-up by studio and touring pros) but wrote their own high quality material, as well. All four sang, and that they were unusually astute interpreters of others’ compositions was the icing on the cake.

As Reprise was something of a musicians’ label, Fanny ended up fitting into their scheme quite well. Before they were done, they’d scored a pair of Top 40 singles and sold enough LPs that their sophomore effort, ’71’s Charity Ball and the following year’s Fanny Hill both made the lower reaches of the Billboard album chart. That their debut Fanny didn’t chart (and that their second and third efforts didn’t rise higher) was down to pure sexism, as the band were instrumentally sharp as they hit vinyl and proficient at crafting a catchy tune.

Yes, Fanny were pop savvy as well as rockers, and they didn’t so much swing between these poles as productively blend them together, though producer Perry, who was just getting started but was soon to become one of the dominant constructors of the ’70s Middle of the Road, could’ve done Fanny a solid by delivering moments that were a little tougher and punchier. Rawer, even.

But it should be noted that Fanny weren’t a garage band, nor were they proto punk. They were certainly not early metal. And while they could rock hard, it would be inaccurate to call them hard rock. They were an unabashed pop-rock act with designs on making it in the mainstream of their era, which is probably why that elusive cult hasn’t coalesced around their discography; Fanny aren’t angry or angsty or bombastic or disheveled. Instead, they are melodious and soulful (sometimes funky) with panache to spare and the ability to lay down some boogie without excessively choogling.

Fanny’s opener “Come and Hold Me,” co-written by the June and Jean, favors the pop side of their equation but with enough chiming guitar, rich vocal harmony and non-hackneyed writing to still sound fresh today. It’s in some ways comparable to Badfinger (as others have noted), but with a hint of sunshine pop, though they resist getting too cheerful. “I Just Realized” follows, upping the funk edge as Barclay’s piano comes to the fore.

Barclay co-wrote the song with June, whose guitar is equally up-front, especially her appealing slide playing at the conclusion of the track nears. “Candlelighter Man” is another Millington co-credit, a tougher rocker than the opener that flaunts both full-bodied, flowing organ and a piano solo from Barclay plus lively drumming from de Buhr (who is on point throughout). Fanny then bring it down with “Conversation with a Cop,” a Barclay credit that finds her lyrically navigating a meeting with a police officer while taking her dog out for a walk late at night/ early in the morning.

In slowing the tempo and getting introspective, many bands of this era became sluggish and downright sleepy, but Fanny put it off by infusing the track with feeling, vocally and instrumentally, without straining for effect, and adding a smidge of social commentary. It illuminates their expertise as a unit at this relatively early stage, but it’s the side-closing cover of Cream’s “Badge” that really shines, with every member clicking right into place as the guitar solos and the vocals stand out (but hey, the rhythm section is just killing it and the Barclay’s organ is sharp once again).

The flip begins rather reservedly with the late-night piano bar ambience that opens “Changing Horses,” though it’s ultimately a fake-out, as in short order the cut bursts into a key-pounding raver. It’s the first of three straight Barclay tunes, followed by the pleasant mid-tempo of “Bitter Wine,” though its chorus is still fairly punchy (I also dig the subtle guitar wah). “Take a Message to the Captain” is next, a rousing group sing with a very period-appropriate blend of electric piano and country-rock twang.

That one leads into the album’s other non-original, “It Takes a Lot of Good Lovin’” (written by Al Bell and Booker T. Jones), and while it goes down okay, it also flirts with another common impulse of the era, namely Rockin’ Soul, a sound that in the wrong hands could spell disaster. While that doesn’t happen here, Barclay’s own tune “Shade Me” does retain aspects of the approach, reminding me a bit of Traffic instrumentally. “Seven Roads” offers de Buhr’s only writing credit (together with June and Jean) on a track nicely tying together Fanny’s strengths for an impassioned groove-rocking big-riffed finale.

One might consider the grade below to be a little harsh in relation to the achievements detailed above and Fanny’s stature as pioneers, but I’ll add that all their subsequent efforts with this lineup are stronger showings; ’73’s Mother’s Pride, their fourth, produced by Todd Rundgren, might be my favorite. That Fanny sustained a high standard of quality over a series of records is testament to their worthiness (in short, they didn’t hit their peak with this debut). The curious should start right here, check out the rest and then spread the word.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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