Unsung Figures No.7: The Shaggs

Music, like all art, elicits – or at least should elicit – all kinds of value laden responses from those who engage with it, whether casually or obsessively or somewhere inbetween. We can all think of music we hate, and indeed if you are an obsessive (like us) then the music you don’t like defines you just as strongly as the music you do. Example: in the wake of Phil Collins anouncing his un-retirement music fans everywhere seem to be queuing up to insist the he un-unretires, such is the strength of feeling towards his music. It’s kind of inexplicable (is he really that awful? ‘Sussudio’ is a tune!) but it illustrates perfectly the point that we listen with much more than just our ears.

So what is bad music? How can you define such a thing? For many who’ve heard it the music of The Shaggs would provide a ready definition. Ramshackle, rudimentary, lacking any obvious musical proficiency, and songs that follow no obvious or accepted structures; on the surface their solitary album Philosophy of The World could provide the dictionary definition of ‘bad’. And yet no less a figure than Frank Zappa apparently thought them better than The Beatles; Kurt Cobain listed it at number 5 in his greatest albums list; and bands like Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth, not to mention the legendary music critic Lester Bangs have all declared their love for them at some point. Bad? Well, as with all of these things that’s a matter of opinion.

So who were The Shaggs? For those who don’t know the story it goes something like this. A man called Austin Wiggin Jr who lived in Fremont, New Hampshire had a mother who claimed to be psychic. She told her son that she predicted he would marry a strawberry blonde woman, have two sons after she, his mother, had died, and that his daughters would become a famous musical act. When the first two predictions came true he decided to dedicate his time to making good on the third one.

And so it was that Dorothy or Dot (vocals/lead guitar), Betty (vocals/rhythm guitar) and Helen Wiggin (drums), all teenagers, became The Shaggs (named after a popular hairstyle of the time). Later on their other sister Rachel would join them on bass guitar. So convinced was Austin of his daughter’s destiny he pulled them out of school and set about making them practice for hours every day like the strict disciplinarian he was. After a while Dot started writing songs and Austin somewhow managed to get them a Saturday night slot at Fremont town hall playing at the weekly dance.

The reaction to their gigs was not good, with kids apparently throwing things at them and laughing, although some others happily danced along it seems. Not one to be discouraged Austin simply made them practice harder and in March of 1969 booked them some recording time in a studio in Massachusets. Upon hearing them the engineers tried to suggest they weren’t ready for recording but Austin pushed ahead. Legend has it that when the girls stopped halfway through a take because one of them had ‘made a mistake’ the engineers were puzzled as to how they could tell. To them the whole thing sounded like a mistake.

A thousand copies of the album were pressed but for reasons not fully clear only a hundred of them survived, the rest mysteriously dissapearing. Undettered Austin sent the copies he had to various radio stations but to no avail. It seemed his mother’s third prediction was not going to come true after all. The band continued to rehearse and gig but when their father died in 1975 so did The Shaggs. They gave up music, got married, and forgot all about their father’s dream for them.

Then a few years later a funny thing happened. Two members of the avant-rock band NRBQ, Terry Adams and Tom Ardolino had come in to posession of a copy of Philosophy Of The World and had become obsessed with it. They took it to their label, Rounder Records, and managed to convince them to reissue it. It recieved many reviews, most of them bad, but it brought them to the attention of enough people to gain them some kind of cult following. Slowly but surely people were coming round to the idiosyncratic charms of their music.

As for me, I first heard The Shaggs after a university lecturer of mine mentioned them to me after we had both attended a Daniel Johnston gig here in Liverpool. Indeed, Johnston provides quite a good point of comparison in that his music is also a triumph of expession over any obvious technique. Another touchstone might be Captain Beefheart who wilfully and joyfully diregarded the so-called rules of rock and roll throughout his career to make music that challenges and confounds.

But the truth is The Shaggs’ music lacks informed music geekery of Johnston’s and the deliberate deconstructiveness of Beefheart’s. This is music that has no obvious reference points, that seems to have been created without any great musical knowledge. Yet the girls all had musical tuition at their father’s insistence and apparently listened to the radio like any 60’s teenagers, with Herman’s Hermits being favourites so they didn’t exist in a complete bubble.

Yet the charm of their music lays in how their lack of technique becomes a virtue when seemingly filtered through a disregard, deliberate or not, for any convention. The aforementioned studio mistake that so confounded the engineers suggests that at least they knew how the music should sound, that actually what they were doing had a degree of deliberacy about it. Or to put it another way, what they were hearing didn’t sound bad at all, everything was as it should have been.

Which brings us back to the question: what is bad music? In academic circles it’s a long running and hotly contested debate. For me it goes something like this – bad music is whatever you tell yourself bad music should be based on cultural conventions specific to your life situation that you have learnt and digested to the point where they become some kind of objective truth *draws breath*. And yet music, and art generally (some of it at least) should exist to upset those expectations. By doing so we expand our horizons, and learn something new about both music and ourselves. Far from being ‘bad’, if The Shaggs are new to you and you’re willing to give their charmingly addictive and utterly unique music a listen they might just teach you something.

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