The ’60s girl band who defied The Beatles – and escaped Jimmy Savile

Pamela Birch, Valerie Gell, Mary McGlory and Sylvia Saunders of The Liverbirds in Hamburg in 1965
Pamela Birch, Valerie Gell, Mary McGlory and Sylvia Saunders of The Liverbirds in Hamburg in 1965 - Redferns

One night in 1962, a young woman called Mary McGlory saw The Beatles play the Cavern Club in Liverpool. The next day, she visited Hessy’s music shop – where John Lennon had acquired his Rickenbacker – and bought a guitar. Before the year was out, McGlory had formed a band with three other women and been introduced to The Beatles, once again at the Cavern, this time backstage. Lennon’s response? “Girls don’t play guitars.”

He was right: girls didn’t play guitar on the explosive new Merseybeat scene. And yet, less than a year after Lennon’s scorn, Mary would be part of the first all-girl band to play the Cavern: The Liverbirds. They would go on to record two hit albums, play a four-year residency at Hamburg’s Star-Club, and tour European arenas with clamorous fans in tow.

McGlory and Sylvia Saunders, who played drums and bass respectively, are the two surviving Liverbirds, and in this warm and vivid book, they take turns, in alternating chapters, to tell the story of the band. Writing in the first-person singular and plural, and with the co-authorial help of journalist Lucy O’Brien, they also provide a social history: the economic brutality of post-war Liverpool, the liberal district of St Pauli in Hamburg, and the sense of possibility that defined the 1960s.

The Liverbirds, in McGlory and Saunders’s telling, are early exemplars of the punk-rock attitude. In 1964, they audition for The Kinks’ manager, Larry Page, using Ray and David Davies on backing vocals and Mick Jagger on maracas. Not bad for a band who formed before they could play. “We were so confident, we didn’t think for one second this wasn’t going to work out,” McGlory writes. But even once they’ve mastered their instruments, The Liverbirds are often referred to as the “Female Beatles”, or (worse) the “Little Beatles”.

There are plenty of wonderfully casual ’60s anecdotes. Saunders invites The Rolling Stones to her parents’ house for tea: “Quick, put the china cups away! Get the best towels out of the bathroom!” The Liverbirds share a bill with Jagger and co in Nuneaton in 1963, and watch children pelt Charlie Watts with cream buns. They sleep overnight in Green Park in London, waiting to audition for Brian Epstein. They encounter less savoury types, as well. Invited to sit with Jimmy Savile on his pink hotel-room bed, they pose for a tabloid photographer. Savile is wearing a tiny pair of silk shorts. “We realise now he must have been titillated,” McGlory admits. In Hamburg, she swerves the attentions of singer Paul Raven: “A bit of a pest.” Seven years later, he’ll change his name to Gary Glitter.

As McGlory points out, “being an all-girl band meant there was safety in numbers.” And solidarity runs through this book, from Liverpool girls “proud that women from their home town were onstage”, to male bands who viewed The Liverbirds as “one of the lads”, and the community of sex workers, drag queens, lesbians and trans women who’d already found acceptance in Hamburg and offered their support. Such solidarity still feels frustratingly necessary for women in rock today.

McGlory, Birch, Saunders and Gell outside the Star-Club in Hamburg in 1963
McGlory, Birch, Saunders and Gell outside the Star-Club in Hamburg in 1963 - Redferns

Yet The Liverbirds scattered in 1968, after Saunders became pregnant and was ordered by her doctor to choose between drums and baby. “It was a wrench going from being in the limelight to being the little housewife,” she writes. The book’s final third almost strays into round-robin territory, with its accounts of post-band family life, but ultimately it settles into a heartfelt tribute to the two departed members, Pamela Birch and Valerie Gell.

While Merseybeat may have bitten the dust long ago, its legacy gains something new with McGlory and Saunders’s book. The Liverbirds’ namesake, the mythical cormorant-like birds that perch atop the city’s Royal Liver Building, watch over the docks and sea. Legend has it that if they were to fly away, the city would cease to exist. Stories like this one are equally vital to keep.

The Liverbirds is published by Faber at £20. To order your copy for £xx.xx, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books