Meet the Liverbirds, Britain’s First Female (and Now Forgotten) Rock Band

We nev­er ever got as famous as the Bea­t­les. But we start­ed as friends, and we end­ed as friends. —Sylvia Saun­ders, The Liv­er­birds’ drum­mer

John Lennon (a mem­ber of a band who in a par­al­lel uni­verse might’ve been billed as the male Liv­er­birds) announced that the all-female quar­tet would fail, a deeply inac­cu­rate pre­dic­tion.

The band got a lot of atten­tion, toured with The Kinks and The Rolling Stones, dis­missed Bri­an Epstein when he pooh-poohed their desire to play in Ham­burg, reject­ed an offer to play top­less in Las Vegas, and were sought out by Jimi Hen­drix, owing to their bassist’s joint-rolling skills.

They also learned how to play the instru­ments they had opti­misti­cal­ly pur­chased after see­ing The Bea­t­les in Liverpool’s famed Cav­ern Club.

Respect to any grand­moth­er with brag­ging rights to hav­ing seen The Bea­t­les live, but it’s heart­en­ing that these 16-year-old girls imme­di­ate­ly pic­tured them­selves not so much as fans, but as play­ers.

As bassist and for­mer-aspi­rant-nun Mary McGlo­ry recalls in Almost Famous: The Oth­er Fab FourBen Proud­foot’s New York Times’ Op-Doc, above:

“Oh my god!” I said to my cousins, “We’re going to be like them. And we’re going to be the first girls to do it.”

Mis­sion accom­plished, in trousers and neat­ly tucked-in shirts, but­toned all the way to their col­lars.

It’s not ter­ri­bly hard to guess what put an end to their six-year-run.

Moth­er­ly, wife­ly duties…

Sylvia Saun­ders, who became drum­mer by default because sticks were a bet­ter fit with her small hands than frets, got preg­nant, and recused her­self due to com­pli­ca­tions with that preg­nan­cy.

Valerie Gell, the Liv­er­birds’ late gui­tarist and most accom­plished musi­cian, mar­ried a hand­some fan who’d been en route to Ham­burg to pro­pose when he was par­a­lyzed in a car acci­dent, devot­ing her­self to his care for 26 years.

The oth­er two mem­bers car­ried on for a bit, play­ing a Japan­ese tour with a cou­ple of female musi­cians they’d met in Ham­burg, but the chem­istry couldn’t com­pare.

The dream was over, but for­tu­nate­ly rock and roll star­dom was not their only dream.

Unlike the fourth Liv­er­bird, Pam Birch, who descend­ed into addic­tion after the band broke up, nei­ther Saun­ders nor McGlo­ry seems angry or regret­ful over what could have been, smil­ing as they men­tion their long, hap­py mar­riages, chil­dren, and grand­chil­dren.

They were awful­ly tick­led by Girls Don’t Play Gui­tars, a recent West End musi­cal that tells the sto­ry of the Liv­er­birds.

And McGlo­ry is admirably san­guine about Lennon’s famous diss, reveal­ing to the Liv­er­pool Echo that:

He had a smile on his face when he said it—he wasn’t being mali­cious. But it would have been nice to have bumped into him a few years lat­er and for him to say, “Well done, you proved me wrong,” which I’m sure he would have been hap­py to do.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

New Web Project Immor­tal­izes the Over­looked Women Who Helped Cre­ate Rock and Roll in the 1950s

Women of Jazz: Stream a Playlist of 91 Record­ings by Great Female Jazz Musi­cians

Ven­er­a­ble Female Artists, Musi­cians & Authors Give Advice to the Young: Pat­ti Smith, Lau­rie Ander­son & More

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join Ayun’s com­pa­ny The­ater of the Apes in New York City for her book-based vari­ety series, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain, and the world pre­miere of Greg Kotis’ new musi­cal, I AM NOBODY., play­ing at The Tank NYC through March 28 Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Mary says:

    I heard John Lennon said to the Liv­er­birds, ” girls don’t play gui­tars” I would say that was John’s sense of humour, as he was taught to play ukalale by his moth­er Julia and then went on to play gui­tar.

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