Remembering the Liverbirds, ‘The Female Beatles’
They were an enthralling quartet from Liverpool who caught the attention of music fans in the '60s. No, it wasn’t the Beatles. They were the Liverbirds, one of the first all-female rock groups.
"There must have been some sort of destiny behind us all," bassist and founder Mary McGlory says in a 2019 New York Times documentary short about the group.
The Liverbirds’ origin can be traced to a night at the famed Cavern Club, when McGlory and some of her similarly aged family members packed into the small venue to see the band everyone was talking about: the Beatles.
“I was 16 and I’d never been to a concert of dance before," she remembered. "It was so hot in there. It seemed as if the sweat was running down the walls.” From the moment the Beatles took the stage, the young woman was floored: “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.’”
McGlory’s sister Sheila liked the idea and immediately agreed to be part of the group. The two quickly went out and purchased instruments, embracing their rock-star dreams. The was only one problem: “We couldn’t play a note between us,” Mary McGlory admitted. “We tried and said, ‘Oh, this is a lot harder than we thought it was going be.’”
Enter Sylvia Saunders and Valerie Gell, two fellow female musicians from the area. After hearing word of a girl group being formed, the duo arrived on McGlory’s doorstep one afternoon. “We said, ‘We’re looking for Mary,’” Saunders remembers saying during their unannounced appearance. “We believe she’s got a band.”
Saunders began asking McGlory about the group and came to a quick conclusion: “We knew it was a fraud. They couldn’t play.” Despite that fact, the women hit it off. Since there wasn’t an abundance of female musicians in the area, Gell decided she’d teach her new bandmates.
Sheila soon quit the group and was replaced by Pamella Birch. The lineup was now set, with Birch and Gell on guitar, McGlory on bass and Saunders on drums. Vocals were shared. The women decided on the name the Liverbirds, inspired by the symbol of Liverpool.
The Liverbirds quickly developed buzz in the local music scene, owed partially to their status as an all-female group. With their star clearly on the rise, the women were invited to meet Liverpool’s other popular band.
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“We had our guitars with us,” Mary McGlory recalled. Lennon looked at the aspiring musicians and made a quick quip. “He said, ‘Girls don’t play guitars.'" The comment stuck with the ladies, though McGlory admitted decades later that the Beatle was probably making a joke.
“He had a smile on his face when he said it – he wasn’t being malicious," she confessed to the Liverpool Echo in 2010. "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.’”
The Liverbirds began intense rehearsals, working on their technique while honing their sound. Touring followed throughout England, including stints alongside the Kinks and the Rolling Stones. “We were like a big crowd all together,” McGlory explained to The Express in 2019.
Still, the world of touring was new to the women. At one gig, McGlory burst into tears after her bass string broke. “The Stones were all looking at me,” she remembered. “But then Bill Wyman came on stage, gave me his (bass) and took mine off. He went and put a new string on it and brought it back.”
Needing a manager, the Liverbirds approached Brian Epstein, the man who was already guiding the Beatles’ career. “Brian Epstein said, ‘Yes, I’ll manage you and I want to manage you,” Saunders later recalled, but an agreement would never be reached. The Liverbirds were determined to go to Hamburg after hearing about the Beatles exploits performing in the German city. Epstein insisted it was a bad idea. “If you go to Hamburg, you won’t come back,” the manager bluntly declared.
Undeterred, the Liverbirds ignored his advice, following in the footsteps of the Fab Four. The bustling city provided quite the culture shock for the ladies from Liverpool. “It was all sex,” Saunders remembered. “Sex, sex, sex bars. What is this?”
The band eventually got comfortable in Hamburg, developing a fan base and performing on German television. They were often billed with the subtitle "die weiblichen Beatles" which translates to “the female Beatles.”
Watch the Liverbirds Perform 'Peanut Butter'
One night at the Star Club in Hamburg, the women encountered another of rock’s biggest names. “Jimi Hendrix was sitting there and he said, ‘Are you the Liverbirds?,’” McGlory recalled. “We said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Which one is Mary?’ ‘That’s Me.’ He said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you.’ I said, ‘What for?’ He said, ‘Because I hear that you make the best joints in Hamburg.’”
The Liverbirds dreamed of going further afield, expanding their tours to other parts of the world. Yet when the group received an offer to perform in Las Vegas, they turned it down. Turns out, the promoter wanted them to play topless.
Now based in Hamburg, the band continued to grow their passionate European fanbase. However, things took a turn when Saunders became pregnant. “I had lots of problems,” the former Liverbirds drummer explained. “I had to go and see a doctor. And the doctor said, ‘If you carry on playing, you won’t have this baby.” Heeding the doctor’s advice, Saunders quit the group.
Gell, meanwhile, had begun a relationship with a fan she’d met at a performance in Munich. One night, the young man was driving to see her in Hamburg – with plans to propose marriage – when he got into a car accident and was permanently paralyzed. The two married anyway, and Gell quit the Liverbirds to focus on caring for her new husband.
The remaining band members tried to push forward, recruiting replacements and even touring Japan. Still, the dynamic had changed, and the women no longer felt the same joy they’d experienced when the original band was whole. “This feeling of belonging together, it wasn’t the feeling anymore,” McGlory explained. “So, we decided this is the time to stop.”
The Liverbirds went their separate ways. Birch died in 2009, followed by Gell in 2016. Surviving members McGlory and Saunders remain close friends. A musical play inspired by the Liverbirds career opened in the U.K. in 2019. Its title: Girls Don’t Play Guitars.
“I’m proud of our legacy," McGlory told the Echo. "The fact that we were Liverpool’s first all-girl group and that we were so young when we started – and when we finished."
“We were the Liverbirds,” Saunders proudly declared in 2019. “We never ever got as famous as the Beatles. But we started as friends, and we ended as friends.”
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