What is Good? What is Bad? What Are The Shaggs?
When Frank Zappa described The Shaggs as being "better than The Beatles," he was being a provocateur; simultaneously skewering a sacred cow whilst lionizing a band who, as nearly-anonymous entity, were known for one thing only: being awful. Yet, in a greater sense, Zappa was bringing something important into discussion: the sheer subjectiveness of taste; which, if someone's lucky enough to actually have some, amounts to nothing more than instinctive personal preference. For all the consensus critical plaudits in the world, no one band can be proven definitively 'better' than another, and, this is, of course, where The Shaggs come in.
The outsider-art sisters are one of the most challenging bands, ever, when it comes to the notion of taste; of rating what is 'good' and 'bad.' The Shaggs are, by most familiar measures, one of the worst bands of all time. Their one-and-only album, 1969's Philosophy of the World, hits none of the positive markers listeners are expecting. The songs herein are made was those most standard of rock'n'roll instruments —guitar, bass, drums— yet they're turned into utterly foreign, alien tools of sound; used to hash out nebulous song-forms that follow no familiar rhyme nor meter.
Its guitars are out of time and out of tune, its melodies haphazard, its lyrics bizarrely bland. The cheap sounding guitars klang and collide; the harmonies are anything but; unintentional dissonance buts up against unexpected, ungainly melody. It feels like people who've never really listened to pop fumbling at their own haphazard approximations of it. The fact that it is so close to familiar music —almost cohering into proto-indie-pop, the forerunner of The Raincoats, Beat Happening, Jad Fair, Danielson Famile, and Maher Shalal Hash Baz— is what makes it so unnerving. For as much as it sounds like complete amateurism, this is not just noise; there is a logic here, but it's not our own; it's the impenetrable logic of The Shaggs.
It can rattle even the most experimental, open-minded of music-lovers; somehow feeling painful to listen to, or putting listeners on edge. For the vast majority of those who hear it, Philosophy of the World will think it, in fact, completely, unbearably awful. So why, then, are they better than The Beatles? Why is The Shaggs' only album somehow one of the best albums of the 1960s?
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Shaggs
No discussion of The Shaggs is complete, though, without talking about their father. Austin Wiggin Jr has, over time, become one of pop music's most monomaniacal stage-parents. In his youth, Wiggin's mother envisioned —in a psychic jolt mid-palm-reading, that young Austin would marry a strawberry blonde woman, would have two sons after his mother died, and that his daughters would form a pop group. After the first two prophesies came truth, Wiggin sought to honor his late mother by bringing the third truth into being.
When his four daughters —Dot, Betty, Rachel, and Helen— were teenagers, he bought them all instruments, and instituted a regimen of mandatory rehearsals. In an unintentional harbinger of punk's DIY spirit, they weren't given any formal training, but left to figure out how to play themselves. Living in a Christian household in a tiny hamlet in rural New Hampshire, the sense of cultural isolation undoubtedly contributed to just how strange the Wiggins ended up sounding; but how exactly they played music like no one before ever had remains an essential mystery; and part of the mythological 'greatness' that has slowly rise up, years after Philosophy of the World came out.
Of course, the LP never really 'came out,' as such: pushed to record by their father, the girl's record was the definition of a vanity project; privately pressed on a local label by a shyster who left with almost all of the stock, and Wiggin's money. Though recorded in 1969, it lay undiscovered 'til being discovered by a member of the sarcastic rock troupe NRBQ, from where it slowly trickled out to lovers of outsider art, of bad records, of the absurd. Eventually it was repressed, a found its way to a more sympathetic listenership.
Eventually, the tide of critical discussion caught up with The Shaggs, and they were no longer outcasts, derided for their lack of skill and the disaster of their father's deluded ambitions. For many, Philosophy of the World is a classic of its own making; a singular album shrouded in tender naïveté, with a tinge of tragedy to it. It is an album unlike any other, and in an era of musical over-proliferation —where two dozen chillwave bands can pop up overnight— that uniqueness makes this priceless.
Record Label: Third World
Release Date: 1969