SOUNDS LIKE:As we will discuss below, the music of the Shaggs cannot be adequately compared to any other musicians. Largely because other musicians make music.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: The Shaggs are one of the most beloved – and heavily debated - “bands” of all time.
These days, any musical train wreck goes viral almost instantly. Something is apparently hardwired in the human mind that derives pleasure from seeing others embarrass themselves, particularly if those we’re seeing are unaware of their lack of talent, and our mockery of it. (Case in point: the audition episodes of American Idol.)
But these stories usually end simply enough; these folks get their fifteen minutes of fame – their videos rack up millions of hits, they make brief appearances on talk shows, maybe appear in a hastily produced commercial for pistachios - but they’re back out of the spotlight just as quickly as they were thrust into it. Their t-shirts end up at the dollar store and their names become increasingly obscure until they nearly vanish altogether (looking at you, William Hung). No one really believed these folks had staying power, we just wanted a laugh.
What then, to make of the Shaggs?
For those who haven’t heard it, here’s the story: back in the late 1960s there was a man from New Hampshire named Austin Wiggin. Austin’s mother was a bit of an odd duck and liked to dabble in fortune telling. She made three bold predictions for her son after reading his palm: he would marry a blonde woman; he would have two sons AFTER she (his mother) died, and he would have daughters who would be in a wildly popular rock band. Most of us would shake this off with a casual “okay, mom,” but amazingly Mother Wiggin’s first two predictions actually came to pass.
Austin then became a bit obsessed with prodding the hand of fate on the third. He pulled his teenage girls from school, bought them instruments, and forced them to practice night and day. Adding to this already preposterous situation was the fact that Austin didn’t like rock and roll and, according to some stories, had actually flat-out banned music in his home. In other words he was asking his three daughters who not only didn’t play instruments but likely had never even heard much actual music to become rock stars.
Their complete lack of talent and songwriting ability notwithstanding, Austin put them in a studio and they released an album called Philosophy of the World in 1969. Sort of. Austin made an arrangement to buy 1,000 copies of the album – but only 100 showed up before Austin’s musical connection absconded with the rest of the money (and the other 900 records, if they actually existed).
Undaunted, Austin happily provided copies of his daughters’ masterwork to local radio stations. No one cared because Philosophy of the World was almost incomprehensibly awful. As the New York Times would note years later, “They didn't seem to know anything about music of any sort. The drummer might as well have been playing several blocks away from the two guitarists, one of whom echoed the lead vocalist, while the other bashed out random chords.”
There were no viral videos in 1969, no eviscerating reviews on Pitchfork, no Tosh.0. These days, we like to wallow in trash before we throw it away. Back then, if something was perceived as garbage – or worse, just plain uninteresting – it came and went with no notice. So it was with Philosophy of the World.
The band continued to play – relatively speaking – until Austin died in 1975. One imagines the girls breathing a sigh of relief as his body is lowered into the ground, knowing they are finally free of being in a goddamn rock band. That should have been the end of the story.
But of course it wasn’t. Four years later, NRBQ keyboardist Terry Adams listened to and fell in love with Philosophy of the World. “Our keyboardist had a cassette,” he told NPR in 2011. “The whole band loved it.” Adams had recently started a record label (Red Rooster) and decided to re-release Philosophy of the World so a larger audience could judge it for themselves. “People had to hear this,” said Adams.
After driving to New Hampshire to track down the surviving sisters and convincing them that this was not a joke, the album was re-released in 1980. It was instantly popular and polarizing; Rolling Stone called them the “Comeback Band of the Year” - they would later call Philosophy one of the 100 most influential alternative albums of all time. The New York Times said “the songs have their own peculiar structural coherence and their own peculiar charms.” No less a critic than Lester Bangs wrote “How do they sound? Perfect! They can’t play a lick! But mainly they got the right attitude, which is all rock n’ roll’s ever been about from day one.” Trouser Press may have put it best when it called the album “a startling treatise that tears down every skill-related barrier that generally precludes musically unskilled children from making records."
And herein lays the debate. Many proponents – Frank Zappa, Kurt Cobain, and Yo La Tengo’s James McNew among them – argue that the girls’ complete lack of musical ability and experience helped them create something that almost transcends music. It has an “innocence,” a “beauty”, and it’s “unassuming,” as many writers have said. Others just hear the random noise of three completely unskilled musicians attempting to make what they assume must be music. Joe Mozian of RCA Victor records (which released Philosophy on CD in 1988) noted “No one will ever say ‘oh, the Shaggs, they’re OK.’ They either love them or think they’re the worst band they’ve ever heard.” The Shaggs, then, are the cilantro of music, always adored unquestioningly, or completely despised. There is no middle ground.
No tune in the Shaggs’ catalog is more hotly debated than a song (apparently) about a lost cat called “My Pal Foot Foot.” It begins with a wildly out-of-tempo drum solo (the Chicago Tribune noted it “sounds like the kit's components are being dropped one at a time down a flight of stairs”) before seguing into two distinct guitar parts neither of which are anything close to each other or actual chords. There is no melody and less harmony as the sister’s overlapping New Hampshire accents grate against each other like a dull knife blade against a piece of rusty aluminum roof.
The family that plays together, stays to..yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAnd yet, there is unmistakable beauty. The girls are singing a song about their beloved cat. And they sound happy.
Or at least they attempt to sound happy. Being Austin Wiggin’s daughters could not have been easy; the girls were booed and had cans thrown at them at their live performances, which were never further than their own hometown. Being homeschooled (if you could call it that), the only time the girls saw kids their own age were at these concerts, and it was those same kids that were doing the booing and the throwing. But Austin continued to trot them out as often as he could. It would be one thing to be subjected to that level of pressure and ridicule if you were making money, but Austin’s pursuit of his daughter’s fame seems driven less by financial gain and more by fulfilling an insane prophecy made by his troubled mother. Perhaps that sadness comes across in the Shaggs’ “music;” maybe that’s why only some people connect with it.
For their part, the remaining Wiggin sisters have always been wary of their oddly gotten fame; they live in the same area of New Hampshire where they grew up, they generally refuse interviews, have only played one show since 1975 (an NRBQ 25th anniversary concert), and were extremely hesitant to allow a musical to be made about them (but it was made anyway; a movie is reportedly in the works as well). Rather than cashing in, they avoid the spotlight entirely. Thus, as we did with JD Salinger and Syd Barrett, we are forced to make up our own stories, have our questions left unanswered, and continue our debates about whether the Shaggs were unlikely geniuses or simply the unfortunate progeny of a madman.
But any music that can bring on that level of discourse can’t be all bad. Credit to their grandmother – the Shaggs have indeed become rock stars.