If you’re at all interested in weird music (and if you aren’t, you’re really on the wrong website), we highly recommend that you track down a copy of a book called Songs in the Key of Z by Irwin Chusid. Jake and I are still really dilettantes when it comes to this stuff, but Chusid’s the real deal, a leading expert on the topic of outsider music (in fact, he’s sometimes credited with coining the term) who’s written for the New York Times and hosted an influential radio show on WFMU since 1975. We pretty much want to be him when we grow up.
Anyway, today’s weird band is lifted straight from the pages of Songs in the Key of Z. They’re a trio of sisters called The Shaggs who were active in the late ’60s and early ’70s and they are, in Chusid’s words, “the legendary—and unwitting—godmothers of outsider music.” They’re also quite possibly the all-time greatest example of a band that was so abjectly terrible that they were actually kind of amazing.
The Wiggin sisters—Dot, Betty and Helen—hailed from a small town called Fremont, New Hampshire, which back in the ’60s meant that they grew up culturally isolated in a way that these days is virtually impossible, unless you live in the Amazon basin or maybe one of those separatist militia compounds in Idaho. They could hear a few hits on AM Top 40 radio but that was about it. Their father, Austin, was nonetheless determined that his daughters would become stars. He bought them their instruments and had them home-schooled so they’d have more time to practice.
When Austin felt his girls were ready, he drove them down to a recording studio in Revere, Mass., where they cut an album called Philosophy of the World. According to legend, only 100 copies of the record were ever circulated; another 900 were, depending on whom you believe, stolen by one of the session’s engineers, hoarded by the paranoid Austin for fear that other bands would try to copy The Shaggs’ original sound, or simply thrown out because neither Austin nor the band’s label, Third World Recordings, could give them away.
At first listen, Philosophy of the World seems like an absolute mess; the drums are arrhythmic and out of sync with the other instruments; the guitars are often out of tune; the sisters’ harmonies are childlike and spookily dissonant. The lyrics make Rebecca Black’s “Friday” sound like Emily Dickinson; songs are about such profound topics as Dot’s pet cat (“My Pal Foot Foot”) and how awesome the Wiggin parents are (“Who Are Parents”), although they do also try to get deep on the title track: “The skinny people want what the fat people’s got/And the fat people want what the skinny people’s got/You can’t please anybody in this world.”
But, as many musicians and critics have pointed out, there’s an internal consistency to The Shaggs’ music that suggests they knew exactly what they were doing. During the recording sessions (at which the engineers would have to keep Austin out of the control room so he couldn’t hear them howling with laughter), Austin would often stop the girls midway through a take because “they made a mistake”—which would seem to suggest that the final takes that made it onto the record were pretty close to what he and the band intended.
Austin Wiggin died in 1975, so we’ll never know what he actually thought of Philosophy of the World—though it’s doubtful he ever would have admitted The Shaggs sucked, even if he knew deep down that they did. It’s pretty clear that Austin was more emotionally invested in The Shaggs than his own daughters were; they disbanded the same year he died, perhaps relieved that they would never again have to be cajoled back into a recording studio or a gig at the Fremont Town Hall.
The Shaggs were virtually forgotten until 1980, when Philosophy of the World was reissued on Rounder Records thanks to the intervention of the band NRBQ, who are among the band’s many well-known admirers (other Shaggs praisers: Frank Zappa, Jonathan Richman, Bonnie Raitt and legendary rock critic Lester Bangs). Since then, Philosophy of the World has become an unlikely critics’ darling, hailed by the likes of Rolling Stone as one of the “100 Most Influential Alternative Releases of All Time.” The Shaggs themselves are now routinely praised as ahead of their time, creators of “a new rock ‘n’ roll language, using the sophistication of Appalachian folk music and Dot Wiggin’s brand of teen angst as ground zero.” (Okay, that last quote, courtesy of Byron Coley in New York Rocker, represents the pretentious extreme of critical praise heaped on the band, but still.) They’ve even been the subject of an off-Broadway musical.
Three of the Wiggin sisters (including Rachel, the youngest, who sometimes played bass with the group live) are still alive and living in various parts of New England. Helen, the band’s drummer, died in 2006. They rarely speak to the press about The Shaggs, and according to Chusid, they’ve only played one show since Austin’s death, a 1999 gig at New York’s Bowery Ballroom with NRBQ,
But Chusid did manage to get Dot Wiggin on the phone sometime around 1999 or 2000, when he was working on Songs in the Key of Z, and got her to reflect on the band’s unusual legacy as both cult icons and, in some circles, the William Hung of rock bands.
“We weren’t the greatest,” Dot admitted to Chusid. “We could have done a lot more practicing and getting it together before we recorded.”
But who knows? Maybe more practice would’ve killed The Shaggs’ mojo. Instead, we’re left with the sound of a band that, to quote the original Philosophy of the World liner notes (likely written by Austin Wiggin), “will not change their music or style to meet the whims of a frustrated world.”