Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Shaggs: Philosophy Of The World

I have a somewhat distinct memory of the first time I heard the music of  The Shaggs: I was in England, on a bus, traveling with clarinetist Don Byron. I think it was Don (but it might have been bassist Leo Traversa) who let me hear the music on his headphones. I remember thinking that it was a hilarious prank, and I started laughing hysterically. But after a few minutes, as I continued to listen,  I started to get an altogether different feeling; I started to think that this was actually serious music. I was confused, yet intrigued.

Let me back up a little bit... to 1968; The Shaggs were a rock band made up of sisters from Fremont, a small, boring town in New Hampshire. The Wiggin sisters(Dot, Betty, and Helen) started this band because their father, Austin Wiggin, was convinced that his daughters would become rock stars after his mother gave him a three part prophetic palm reading when he was a boy. Two of her three prophecies eventually came true; therefore, Austin Wiggin figured he would help to facilitate the third. He took his daughters out of high school and had them study through the mail using something called American Home School. The Wiggin sisters' days consisted of practicing their music, studying, and doing calisthenics. It didn't seem to matter that the sisters could barely play their instruments....

The Shaggs, named after the haircut of the same name, played their first concert in 1968 in Exeter, New Hampshire, at a talent show. Austin thought his daughters were ready, although they were of the opposing viewpoint. Even though the audience threw soda cans, Austin was not deterred. He forced his daughters to stick with it. Eventually, after a nursing home gig where residents were probably too feeble to throw anything and just happy to have some company, The Shaggs began a weekly stint at the Freemont Town Hall. Being as it was probably the only music going on in the town on Saturday nights, folks came out to either throw things or just to dance and accept The Shaggs as they were....
In 1969, Austin Wiggin brought his daughters to a studio near Boston, Massachusetts to cut a record, which ended up being called "Philosophy Of The World". The recording engineer tried to persuade Austin that the group wasn't read to record, but Austin replied that he wanted to " get them while they are HOT!" Here are the liner notes which Austin wrote:

"The Shaggs are real, pure, unaffected by outside influences. Their music is different, it is theirs alone. They believe in it, live it.... Of all contemporary acts in the world today, perhaps only the Shaggs do what others would like to do, and that is perform only what they believe in, what they feel, not what others think the Shaggs should feel. The Shaggs love you....They will not change their music or style to meet the whims of a frustrated world. You should appreciate this because you know they are pure what more can you ask? They are sisters and members of a large family where mutual respect and love for each other is at an unbelievable high...in an atmosphere which has encouraged them to develop their music unaffected by outside influences. They are happy people and love what they are doing. They do it because they love it."

If you've listened to any of the material I have posted, you might be having a similar reaction to mine. This band was described by Frank Zappa as "better than the Beatles." I suppose that is a matter of taste. I do think that their music has a kind of haunting, innocent quality to it. It's interesting how the rhythms sound really bad and out of sync at first, and then the same seemingly random rhythmic sequence will be exactly the same every time. There's a certain purity to their music; they write about what they know, which is very little. The Wiggin sisters weren't allowed to date or socialize. There's suggestion that, after his wife died, Austin maybe have had "inappropriate intimacy" with at least one of the daughters. Obviously, there was a really weird dysfunctionality taking place. This might explain why, when Austin died of a heart attack in 1975, The Shaggs immediately broke up the band.

Cut to 1980, when two members of the band NRBQ  convince Rounder Records to reissue the album. It was again reissued by RCA Victor in 1999. It has become a cult favorite. I've heard some cover versions of these songs, and they don't sound right to me, compared with the originals. It's probably because the songs are played "conventionally" by professional musicians. This is what is fascinating about this music. Clearly, the Wiggin sisters were completely untrained and unaware. That's what makes there music so different. I think every musician, at whatever level of expertise, need to have a little bit of untrained innocence added to their music. I guess it all depends on taste. Let me know what you think. If Frank Zappa liked them, then there must be something worth checking out.....


  1. You're something special to me, 2, 3, 4
    My new favorite song.

  2. george colligan commenting on the shaggs seems as odd as the shaggs themselves.

    the shaggs are an interesting band which i must confess a fondness for. not everyday listening material, but when you're in the mood for the shaggs, there's nothing else that can compare. innocent, naive ... whatever you want to think, these girls created a style of sonic expression that is their and theirs alone.

  3. There's just something hipster-ironic about digging the Shaggs. Kinda like Ashton Kutcher wearing the Jesus Is My Homeboy baseball cap.

  4. They remind me of the late Captain Beefheart mixed with Os Mutantes. I completely agree that the untrained innocence added to the music, and really is the only the reason they could do what they did. The Beatles and Hendrix were for the most part musically untrained, and look at what they did. This is one of the reasons I enjoy deviating from my musical "jazz" education and experimenting with other genres as well as other instruments that I have little to no training in. The jazz background helps me to interpret and understand greatly though.

  5. OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH m god.I hink hose space cookies jus kicked in!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Now you're really dealing with the greats! LOL True outsider music--so unpretentious and real it's actually hip!

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