Mandy and the Girlfriends were one of Britain’s garage groups of the 1960s. Their all-girl line-up gave them a novelty value that attracted the crowds both in their home town of Hull and at gigs in London. In 1967, they left for Germany, where they toured US air bases and recorded an LP before splitting a year later.
The group was formed in Hull in 1965. Lead singer Mandy Smith had been singing in a band called Mandy and the Moonrakers with her brother, Dennis. However, one evening she met drummer Hilary Morgan and bass guitarist Lesley Saxil-Neilson in local club Sombreros and they decided to form an all-girl group. Further members Karen Baker (guitar), Lynda Harrison (vocals) and Margaret Wedgner (guitar) were recruited over the following months.
All the members of Mandy and the Girlfriends, as they became, were aged 16 or 17. Each had quit school at 15 and most had ended up in jobs where their passion for music remained unfulfilled.
The girls began spending as much of their free time together as possible, practising in the shed in Mandy’s back garden.
News of the band spread around Hull and a combination of talent and novelty value soon brought bookings. Within a year, the group was performing at local clubs, clad in dresses that had been run up by Karen’s mother. Dennis was roped in as their driver and would also take on managing their business affairs, and, because of their age, Mandy’s mother would act as their chaperone.
Disaster struck when Karen quit the group to get married, but Londoner Merle Pryor was quickly brought in as her replacement. The band was then invited to record some tracks at the Fairview studios in Hull, though the results remain unreleased.
By this time, the girls had become known further afield, including in London, where they appeared in a club on the same bill as The Animals. The gig proved a highlight of their career.
In 1967, they were invited to perform a tour of US air bases in Germany. They accepted the offer and would spend three months in Germany and a month then back at home at a time. They were put in a dilemma while in Germany, however, when they received a letter from the producers of TV’s Opportunity knocks. They had auditioned for the talent show before leaving Hull and TV bosses now wanted them to appear on the programme. Collectively, however, the girls opted to remain in Germany – for them, the thrill was in performing live, they decided.
The group attracted a lot of attention in Germany. So much so that they were invited to cut an LP. Recorded in a front room lined with egg boxes to create the right acoustics, the girls spent four hours recording 12 songs for the album.
Like their live set, the LP was a collection of cover versions, including their takes on Motown (Barrett Strong’s Money and Martha and the Vandellas’ Dancing in the street), The Drifters’ Under the boardwalk, The Animals’ House of the rising sun and the wartime classic White cliffs of Dover.
Hilary also attracted another kind of attention in Germany – from a GI. And when she quit the group in 1968 to marry him, it proved the end of Mandy and the Girlfriends. She remained out of the business until 1974.
The rest of the group went their different ways. Lynda became a singer with the resident band at Hull’s Skyline ballroom and Lesley joined a succession of bands. Margaret and Merle became a duo, The Honeys, before joining forces with a band called The Fabians to become comedy show group Sugar and Spice. In this incarnation they played at gigs where The Who and, later, The Bee Gees were the headline acts.
The group remain in touch and occasionally get together for reunions. Hilary and Margaret were interviewed by BBC Radio Humberside in 2010.
In 2013, Margaret and Merle published a book about the band, entitled It’s different for girls.
With thanks to Merle Phillips (Merle Pryor) of Mandy and the Girlfriends for additional information and support.