"We were ahead of our time," said June Millington, one of the original members of Fanny, the first successful all-women instrumental rock 'n' roll band in the '70s.
The phenomenon of all-girl bands was sporadic during the entire decade. It wasn't really an outgrowth of the female vocal groups, such as the Supremes and Shangri-Las, so popular throughout the '60s, since what came next was an assault on a stubborn rock tradition: that girls could sing but not play like the boys.
The folk boom of the middle '60s led both sexes to pick up guitars in unprecedented numbers. By the dawn of the '70s, a number of women musicians were ready to plug in. Fanny broke the mold of topless and talentless girl bands that had ruled the field up to that point. The group kept its clothes on and played its rock 'n' roll straight ahead.
Oddly enough, there's been a resurgence of the genre in the last year with groups such as the Modettes, the Slits, B-Girls, the Raincoats, Cheap Perfume and The Curse. Millington will be bringing a less rocky version of her music to d.c. space tonight at 9 and 11.
With her sister Jean Millington had come to rock 'n' roll in a roundabout was -- as California teen-agers, they had boyfriends who were in surfbands. Having played hootenannies, the girls experimented with the guys' electric guitars, moving to play between sets. Eventually, they found two other girl rockers and formed Fanny.When they started competing with their boyfriends for the same jobs -- and winning -- "that was the end. We had to buy our own instruments, couldn't borrow theirs anymore," said June Millington.
"From a very early age we discovered there was an energy and power in playing with other women that was different. Gigs were no problem; it was such a novelty to see women on stage who could actually play. But there was a lack of credibility from people within the industry who kept insisting there was no market for us out there. We had to create that market ourselves."
A long series of minor bookings led them to Richard Perry and Warner Bros. Fanny recorded six albums, none of which sold in significant numbers. The group's live sound was raw and rough, much more so that Birtha or Isis, two contemporary all-women rock bands. The cost of "making it" was enormous.
"We got caught up in a world that had nothing to do with the real world, partly because there were no role models to look at. I didn't know who I was outside of that group."
Millington quit Fanny in 1973, and the group broke up. She had a nerveous breakdown, crying every day for six months. She moved to Woodstock, N.Y., and began to expand her horizon. "Rock is a real limiting art form," she explained. "I don't think rock 'n' roll is music that women would naturally want to play. It's very male-energy oriented. The reason I wanted to play it was to prove to myself that I could do it."
Now in her late 20s, Millington can look back on the Fanny experience with warmth. "We were special because we were so tenacious. We kept doing it long after we knew that it was over for us internally."
In 1975, the word came from California that producer Kim Fowley was auditioning women musicians. "I heard there was a woman's band being put together," Millington recalls, "and I didn't give it much thought because, truthfully, I'd already been through it. We weren't put together, we put ourselves together, but I knew the trip. My attitude was 'let's wait five years and see where those women are then."
That group was called the Runaways. Five years and two gold albums later, vocalist Cherie Currie has learned to survive, though the group did not.
There's a cool Hollywood gloss about Currie, who was in town this week promoting a new album recorded with her 20-year-old twin sister, Marie. In the last five years she's worked in the worst of two worlds -- rock 'n' roll and films. ("Foxes," in which she costars with Jodie Foster, opens next month around the country.)
The Runaways were a phenomenal hype. Fowley took five inexperienced teen-agers (Currie was only 15) and started them out on the road. The image the group evoked was rough and raunchy, or as one writer put it, "jailbait with a backbeat."
"When Cherie started, she was real normal," recalled Marie, who's only entered the rock wars recently. "Then she'd be on the road for months and when she came back I wouldn't even know her. She'd lose every bit of feeling or sensitivity in her entire body, she was like a walking zombie. It happened to all the girls. It took her years to get back to what I remembered as being normal."
The Curries both look tired, a bit cold and anxious. The Runaways are in the past, but the group is very much present in the conversation, which returns to images of Cherie Currie as a survivor.
"We learned a hell of a lot more than we would have in school," Cherie Currie said grudgingly. She dropped out of 10th grade to go on the road; she'd never left home before.
"We sweated blood. It ruined us physically and emotionally and by the time we got home, we were mentally exhausted.
"We had two gold albums, two gold singles, toured the world and I got $5,000 in three years. I don't understand it," complained Currie.
Currie left the Runaways in late 1977. "It was the fame that killed it, the jealousies; the pressure became too much for the girls," she explained. The group's bassist, Jackie Fox, left shortly after. And by the beginning of 1979, the group broke up and the last of the Runaways headed for home.