“People like The Stones, or later on The Kinks. They all really liked us and thought that we had something special": The Liverbirds on life as Britain’s first female rock band

The Liverbirds
L-R Sylvia Saunders, Pamela Birch, Mary McGlory and Valerie Gell, Hamburg 1964 (Image credit: K & K Ulf Kruger OHG/Getty Images)

In a fascinating, in-depth interview with our sister site Guitar World, Beatles contemporaries the Liverbirds have given an insight into the many challenges an all-female band faced in the 1960s.

Theirs is a fascinating story that includes run-ins with Chuck Berry’s manager, screaming fans in Europe and the time when they only just evaded the clutches of Gary Glitter. During the '60s they played to packed out arenas in mainland Europe, but never had a chance to make it in their homeland.

Now surviving members 78 year old bassist Mary McGlory and 77 year old drummer Sylvia Saunders have published a memoir The Liverbirds: Our Life In Britain’s First Female Rock N’ Roll Band. Their experiences have also inspired the musical Girls Don’t Play Guitars which will return to Liverpool’s Royal Court theatre in the autumn.

The musical’s title were the exact words John Lennon said to McGlory when she mentioned to him she was forming a band. “It encouraged us more than it disheartened us,” she says today. “But Paul McCartney said, ‘What a great idea.’ And I thought, well, I'll just play bass because that's what Paul McCartney played.”

The Liverbirds' third gig was at the Cavern and eventually were offered a six week residency at the Star Club Hamburg, just as The Beatles had a few years before. That was when the owner made them a management offer they couldn’t refuse.

“He said, ‘I will book all over Europe, if you stay here, not just the Star-Club.’ And that's what he did. He kept his word. And we travelled all over Europe, more or less, and even ended up going to Japan. So even though people said, 'Why didn't you take the offer of Brian Epstein? Or of Larry Page, The Kinks' manager?', we never regretted taking Manfred as our manager, because for six years, he really took care of us.”

The Liverbirds

Outside Hanburg's legendary Star Club, 1963 (Image credit: K & K Ulf Kruger OHG/Getty Images)

But as a result the Liverbirds were a strictly mainland Europe phenomenon, something that baffled some UK contemporaries. “I met Charlie Watts about 10 years ago," McGlory reveals. "We played with the Rolling Stones when we were still in England. And when he found out who I was, he said, ‘You know, Mary, Bill Wyman and I, we always said, we wonder what happened to them fantastic girls. We never heard of them again in England.’

“So you know, even people like The Stones, or later on The Kinks. They all really liked us and thought that we had something special. Which, to be quite honest, there's only Sylvia and I left. And we've only just realized ourselves now how special we were because we had no other girls who we could look up to and say, ‘Well, let's try and be like them.’ We had to be like ourselves.”

The Liverbirds appeared on German TV, and played with some bona fide legends, including a typically difficult Chuck Berry. 

“His manager said, ‘Nobody's allowed to play any Chuck Berry songs at the concert.’ But we had no choice. Otherwise, we couldn't have done the two 20-minute sets. So we started playing Roll Over Beethoven in our second set.”

“Chuck Berry's manager ran onstage and tried to stop us. Valerie (Gell, guitarist) just pushed him off the stage and said ‘Get lost,’ but with other words, even stronger words, and we carried on playing and the audience was going absolutely crazy. They would scream and break the chairs and jump up and down and say, ‘Fantastic, girls, you show them.’”

The Liverbirds’ story isn’t over yet and McGlory and Saunders have teamed up with two of the actors from the musical to record a new Liverbirds album which will be released later in the year.

You can read the full interview at guitarworld.com.

Will Simpson
News and features writer

Will Simpson is a freelance music expert whose work has appeared in Classic Rock, Classic Pop, Guitarist and Total Guitar magazine. He is the author of 'Freedom Through Football: Inside Britain's Most Intrepid Sports Club' and his second book 'An American Cricket Odyssey' is due out in 2025