Mary, Sylvia, Val and Pam performed at the same venues as the Rolling Stones and The Kinks and had equal billing with Chuck Berry in Hamburg, where they were known as “the female Beatles”. Which must have really annoyed John Lennon. When he met them backstage at the Cavern, he told them: “Girls don’t play guitars.” They turned down the Fab Four’s manager Brian Epstein, hung out with Jimi Hendrix and The Four Tops, helped The Kinks record their first No1 and guitarist Pam had a fling with Mick Jagger. But Mary McGlory, Sylvia Saunders, Valerie Gell and Pamela Birch never became household names like their male contemporaries.
Now, more than 50 years on, the incredible story of the four teenagers and their part in the Merseybeat revolution is finally being told in a new musical, Girls Don’t Play Guitars, a whirlwind tour through the band’s five years together, created with the help of its two surviving members, drummer Sylvia, 72, and bassist Mary, 73, pictured right.
It all began in The Cavern Club when 16-year-old Mary and her friends saw The Beatles play one night in late 1962. “We just looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do that too’.”
There was only one problem. “Not one of us could play,” Mary, the founder member, recalls.
In need of advice and inspiration, the determined 16-year-olds kitted themselves out as a band and returned to the club with guitar cases – even though one was empty.
There they managed to convince the club’s DJ Bob Wooler to introduce them to The Beatles backstage.
“Bob said to John Lennon, ‘This is going to be England’s first female rock and roll band.’ John was getting changed and just looked at us and said, ‘Girls don’t play guitars’,” says Mary.
They were crestfallen. “Fortunately Paul McCartney said it sounded like a good idea so when we got outside, we said, ‘We’re going to prove John wrong’.”
Mary’s various friends and relatives came and went. The Kinks suggested Mary try out guitarist Pam, then Sylvia and Val joined. “That was it, the four of us belonged together and stayed together,” says Sylvia.
Pam was a natural songwriter, modelling their music on the Rolling Stones’ raw sound. They changed their original name, The Squaws, to The Liverbirds after the city’s iconic statues, six years before Carla Lane used the name for her TV comedy, and performed in shirts, ties and trousers. By 1963, they were touring the country, appearing with The Searchers and Stones.
Sylvia Saunders, Pamela Birch, Mary McGlory and Valerie Gell of the Liverbirds
“We were like a big crowd all together,” says Mary. At one early gig in Brighton, the young bassist found herself struggling with equipment failure. A string broke, and unsure what to do, she burst into tears. “The Stones were all looking at me,” she says. “But then Bill Wyman came on stage, gave me his and took mine off. He went and put a new string on it and brought it back.”
Around that time, unbeknown to her bandmates, Pam had already had a secret fling with Stones frontman Mick Jagger, pictured above with Pam, right. Sylvia, who didn’t suspect a thing at the time, says: “We were very innocent.”
Incredibly, the band turned down deals from not one but two famous band managers: The Beatles’ Brian Epstein and Larry Page who managed The Kinks.
Ray Davies set up a chance for Page to hear them play at a Soho studio so the girls travelled down to London with their guitars. And Davies had good reason to be thankful they were there.
The Liverbirds were huge in Germany in the 1960s
The Kinks were due to record the song that made them stars but there was a problem. “When we arrived, The Kinks’ road manager came running up to Ray and Dave, saying the guitars had been stolen out of the van and what were they gonna do?
“We said, ‘You can use ours’, so they played them on the first demo of You Really Got Me with Mick Jagger on maracas.”
The Kinks’ single went to No1 and the girls got a management offer from Page – but secretly they were wooing Brian Epstein too.
After booking a one-way ticket to London to try to find him, they were sat in a West End cafe when he just happened to walk past. “We ran after him and he sees these four mad girls and thinks we’re four Beatles fans so starts running away down the steps to Piccadilly station underground,” recalls Mary. “We shouted, ‘Brian, Brian, we’re a girl group, not fans’ and he said, ‘Oh gosh girls. Well, I’ll give you my card, come and see me tomorrow’.”
They had no money for a hotel so slept in Hyde Park but the meeting landed them a free train ticket back to Liverpool, a trial gig and a firm yes.
“Brian said, ‘I definitely want to manage you. Just now I’ve got Cilla, and then we will slot you in’,” remembers Sylvia. But the girls had already committed to a six-week spot at the legendary Star-Club in Hamburg, made famous by The Beatles. He warned them that if they went, they wouldn’t come back. They swore they would, but time proved him right.
Ray Davies of The Kinks with Pamela Birch
The Liverbirds stayed in Germany and became a big name in Europe but never in the UK. Their biggest hit was a cover of Bo Diddley’s Diddley Daddy. Their fan base was predominantly male and, earning good money, they were living the high life.
“We went to Jimi Hendrix’s dressing room,” says Mary, “and he said, ‘Are you the Liverbirds? Which one’s Mary?’ ‘That’s me,’ I replied. Jimi said, ‘I believe you make the best joints in Hamburg’.”
Mary laughs at the memory: “I didn’t even smoke but I made good joints so I made him one and he was made up.”
After playing with Chuck Berry in Munich, the singer invited them to tour America with him. But their manager persuaded them not to go. “He told us, ‘You will play in Las Vegas and they will want you topless,” recalls Mary.
“We said, ‘Oh no, we don’t want that’.” It was a career-changing decision that stopped the girls from potentially becoming huge international stars.
Do they have regrets? “Not for a minute,” says Mary. “Sylvia and I met our husbands in the Star-Club so we wouldn’t have had our children or grandchildren and we enjoyed every minute.”
It was Sylvia getting pregnant by her future husband John Wiggins in 1967 that signalled the end of the group.
The Liverbirds outside the All-Star Club in Hamburg
The years that followed were not kind to the Liverbirds.
Val’s German boyfriend, Stefan, was paralysed from the neck down after he crashed his Mercedes on the way to ask her to marry him. Sylvia and Mary believe she was so consumed by guilt she accepted his proposal, left the band and cared for him for the next 26 years until his death. She died of leukaemia in 2016.
Mary and Pam toured Japan with two replacement band members but it wasn’t the same and so, with heavy hearts, they disbanded in 1968.
Sylvia and John had two children and they spent 35 years running bars in Benidorm. Pam died from lung cancer in 2009. “I was with her when she died, holding her hand,” recalls Mary.
Mary’s husband, Frank Dostal, was a singer-songwriter, who wrote Yes Sir, I Can Boogie.
Working with Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts six years ago, he took Mary to a dinner where she revealed she was a Liverbird. “Charlie went, ‘Oh my god. You can’t imagine how often we’ve asked ourselves what became of you’.”
Sylvia and Mary are sad their bandmates are no longer around to see their story told for a new audience but are happy their legacy was “starting and finishing as friends”.
The musical Girls Don’t Play Guitars came about after a friend of writer Ian Salmon suggested The Liverbirds’ story deserved greater exposure.
The resulting play is at the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool until November 2. Sylvia and Mary have been involved at every step. “The cast do us proud,” says Sylvia, “They are fantastic musicians, singers and actors. It’s funny, it’s sad and it’s all true.”
The pair, whose husbands died within 16 days of one another in 2017, say the play “has kept them going”.
They continue to perform in Germany. At a show in Berlin this year, Sylvia’s children texted their kids saying: “You should see your nanna, she’s going wild.”
They’re besieged by autograph hunters after their shows. And Hollywood hasn’t ruled out making a film of their story.
“They reckon the play is going to tour too there’s that much interest in it,” says Mary.
So the world could yet come calling for The Liverbirds. They just hope that up in heaven, John Lennon is listening.
Girls Don’t Play Guitars is at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre until November 2, liverpoolsroyalcourt.com