Wonder Women: Mary McGlory

“And John Lennon just looked at us and said, ‘Girls don’t play guitars.’ And we thought, “Oh god, we’re gonna show you.” – Mary McGlory, bassist for the Liverbirds

The Liverbirds

(left to right – Sylvia Saunders, Pamela Birch, Mary McGlory, and Valerie Gell)

We’ve all heard of the Fab Four, but “the other Fab Four” emerged from the Liverpool/Merseybeat scene in the 60’s. The Liverbirds were Britain’s first all-female rock band (and potentially the first all-female rock band in the world), forming in 1962. And it all started with bassist Mary McGlory seeing a concert. In 1962, Mary and her cousins went to the Cavern Club in Liverpool to watch the Beatles play. She was so impressed she immediately decided to form a band of her own, telling her cousins, “Oh my god! We’re going to be like them. And we’re going to be the first girls to do it.’

Despite not knowing how to play (they didn’t even own instruments or know how to play when Mary made her declaration), the word got out that Liverpool’s first all-female Merseybeat group was forming. The group started as the Squaws, but ultimately settled on The Liverbirds as the band name; a nod to the mythical creatures used as a symbol for the city of Liverpool.

Guitars and drums were purchased…and Mersey Beat magazine printed an article about the all-female group forming…and the girls still couldn’t play yet! What could have been a disaster actually ended up connecting Mary with the musicians she needed to find. Valerie Gell (guitar) and Sylvia Saunders (drums) sought out Mary due to the article in Mersey Beat, and the lineup benefitted. Valerie had been taking guitar lessons and was the most advanced musician in the group; she ended up teaching the others how to play. By 1963, they were gigging around Liverpool, and… through The Kinks…they were introduced to Pamela Birch. Pam ultimately finalized their lineup on vocals and guitar as the group’s songwriter.

Inside of five years, they opened for Chuck Berry, the Kinks, and The Rolling Stones. Several high-profile managers (including The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein) were contending for the opportunity to manage the group. The Liverbirds relocated to Hamburg, Germany, to perform at the Star-Club, ultimately recording two albums for the Star-Club label. The albums were largely covers of Chuck Berry songs, but Pam wrote four originals for the group. The Liverbirds even charted in Germany, with a cover of Bo Diddley’s “Diddley Daddy,” reaching No. 5.

The Liverbirds

The road stories the ladies had to share were just as wild as their careers. They were asked to play in Las Vegas…but only if they performed topless…the band declined. Jimi Hendrix was waiting for them at a gig in Hamburg, asking for Mary. The deeply religious bassist (who once aspired to become a nun) was now being sought out by Hendrix as she had a reputation for rolling the best joints in Hamburg.

The Liverbirds also played a critical role in the recording of the Kinks’ 1964 hit “You’ve Really Got Me”:

“The Kinks suggested that we go to London to meet their manager, so off we went. They booked us into a hotel and said that they were in the studio the next day, and that we should bring our guitars, as they may be time for us to play a song for their manager. Just after we arrived, their roadie came in to say that their van had been broken into and all their guitars stolen, so this is how it came about that we lent them our guitars, and they recorded You Really Got Me that day, with our guitars. After the recording was over, as a thank you, we were allowed to record a song, and that gave us a demo of us playing ‘Reelin and Rockin’, with Dave Davies on guitar and Mick Jagger on maracas.” (source)

They were filmed in the Berlin Waldbühne theater (a venue that seats more than 22,000 people) for the 1965 German feature film “Hurra, Hurra, die Rattles kommen” (“Hurray, The Rattles Are Coming!”)

Mary and Sylvia recount some of the road stories of the band (with much humor) in this video by Op-Docs:

The band ultimately broke up after a tour of Japan; two members had life circumstances that forced them to leave the group before the tour. And despite finding skillful female musicians as replacements, the group’s chemistry had changed. The women decided it was time to end the Liverbirds. Sylvia later noted in an interview “We never ever got as famous as the Beatles. But we started as friends, and we ended as friends.” (Source) As time went on, the Liverbirds seemed destined to be forgotten, despite being Britain’s first all-female rock group.

The Liverbirds’ story was revisited in the 2019 musical Girls Don’t Play Guitars, written by Ian Salmon and directed by Bob Eaton. This is a clip of the cast, who are later joined onstage by Mary and Sylvia for a performance:

Mary and Sylvia have also authored an upcoming book, The Liverbirds: Our Life in Britain’s first female rock ‘n’ roll band, chronicling their experiences in The Liverbirds. The book is currently available on pre-order, becoming available on March 14th, 2024.

As far as John Lennon’s quote at the top of this article? It happened backstage at The Cavern Club when the Liverbirds finally had the opportunity to meet John and Paul McCartney. John noticed the girls had their guitars with them and quipped, “Girls don’t play guitars.” Mary adds this to the story, “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.” (Source)

Brittany Frompovich is a highly regarded educator, clinician, blogger, and bassist who currently resides in the Washington DC/NOVA region. For more content from Brittany, check out her blog, her YouTube channel, and her Bandcamp site. She also offers handmade unisex music-themed jewelry through her Etsy store. Get a Wonder Woman Tee!

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