DIY Daddy & Daughters
Rock music has spawned its share of outsiders, characters who run on the fringes of popular music. Most of these characters are familiar to aficionados of such music. Wild Man Fischer, a virtually homeless lunatic, caught the ear of Frank Zappa (himself no mainstream panderer) in the late 1960s; Zappa turned him into a cult icon. Captain Beefheart, a cohort of Zappa’s (but sane and not homeless), also fit the mold of either “ahead of his time” or hopelessly Lost in Space.
However, in the late 1960s, there was The Shaggs, three young women from Fremont, New Hampshire, who cut the most amateur recording in the history of pop music. The record, Philosophy of The World, is played badly, atonally and spasmodically, and features a lead vocalist with a speech impediment. In short, this gem is a musical train wreck. Yet, somehow, The Shaggs managed to become cult icons; they are the pop cultural metaphoric grandmothers of the riot grrrl sound of Bikini Kill and L7. Also, The Shaggs’ vocals echo in Japan’s best export, the punk/power pop trio, Shonen Knife.
The early to mid 1960s was a period of transition in music in America. The British Invasion almost destroyed the home-grown rock ’n’ roll of just a few years before. Truly talented acts like The Bobby Fuller Four were ascendant when their lead singer died in a mysterious and apparently accidental suicide, huffing gasoline in a closed vehicle. They died on the vine. Bands like the Velvet Underground formed as do-it-yourself outfits; their DIY, lo-fi sound was influential beyond reckoning. In the rock community there is a saying that the Velvet’s debut album only sold 5,000 copies, but everyone who bought it started his or her own band.
Sometimes aspiring songwriters/musicians/performers have musical ideas far beyond their abilities to execute well. Blondie, in its first incarnation at about the time of its début in 1976 was such a band. They improved musically by their sophomore effort (Plastic Letters), and by the time of Parallel Lines, Blondie was a professional, well-oiled, musically astute hit-making machine. However, some of the charm was gone.
The mid Sixties spawned a genre that later fueled some of punk rock’s DIY music. This genre was later called “garage rock”, and it gave any bunch of people who could tell a G-chord from a D-minor a chance to be stars – at least in their own basements and garages. Famously, many of these DIY’ers cut records that have become classics in music history – The Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard”, The Standells’ “Dirty Water”, and others.
Girls could rock, too. Or, so thought an over-indulgent father of a girl in Fremont, New Hampshire. A teen girl and her two sisters tried to make Dad’s dream of rock stardom come true. What happened, though, was slightly off cue. This teen girl, Dorothy Wiggin, and her two sisters, hailing proudly from Fremont, New Hampshire (home of no other known rock band in the history of the world) created a caterwauling cacophony on record that is still heard and pondered over and loved and loathed and yelled at and adored today.Credit: American People's Encyclopedia map, 1963
“From Nowhere, New Hamster! The Shaggs!”
Austin Wiggin, Jr., a typical 1960’s dad in New England, was atypical in many other ways. He lived in a small town, Fremont (population about 800 at the time). He worked a typical drudge 1960’s dad job, working in a cotton mill in the nearby town of Exeter, New Hampshire. He was also a dreamer and a tremendous flake, believing in ESP and psychic matters. As a boy, his mother dabbled in palm-reading, and she made several predictions for her son based on what she saw in the lines of his hand.
According to Austin’s mother, he would marry a strawberry blond woman. He grew up and did that – her name was Annie. Austin’s mother predicted he would have two sons, but they would die. Credit: RCA Victor BMG, 1999That happened, too. His mother also predicted in the wake of his sons’ deaths, Austin would go on to father several daughters. He did that, too – he and Annie had four daughters, Dorothy, Helen, Betty, and Rachel Wiggin. His mother had also predicted his daughters would form a popular musical group.
Since all of Mother Wiggin’s predictions to date had come true, when his daughters were old enough to handle instruments, Austin bought guitars and a drum kit. These instruments cost the family dearly, but Austin was determined. In an inspired bit of typical 1960’s bad-parenting, he withdrew the girls from school so they could spend more time writing songs, practicing their instruments, and taking vocal lessons.
Apparently, none of the training paid off. Dorothy Wiggin, the de facto leader of the band, later said that neither she nor her sisters ever wanted to be in music. They only did it to please their father. She also said that Austin Wiggin was a disciplinarian, bent on his dream of stardom for them. And he was relentless in pushing the girls. Dorothy said he “was stubborn, and he could be temperamental. He directed. We obeyed. Or did our best.”
The name of the group, The Shaggs, was of Austin’s devising. It referenced shaggy dogs and a hair style becoming popular in 1967, a hairstyle (ironically) none of the sisters wore. The band consisted of twin lead or twin rhythm guitars (whatever spin one wants to put on it) and a drummer.
Dorothy wrote all the songs and sang lead vocals. She played guitar. Helen, the cave woman of the group, played like a ham-fisted, troglodytic and mentally-challenged Keith Moon. The third sister Betty also played guitar. The fourth sister, Rachel, not officially an original member of the group played bass later in live shows and on one track of their only studio album.
The group worked up some tunes Dorothy had put together, and Austin secured them their first gig in the Fremont Town Hall in 1968. This evolved into a steady Saturday night job for The Shaggs. The rest is music history.
Philosophy of The World
Not too much time passed before Austin’s dreams of recording came to fruition. He booked some studio time in Revere, Massachusetts, roughly 40 miles SSE of Fremont on the outskirts of Boston. The studio was a DIY operation for local musicians, and Austin’s paid time was limited. On March 9, 1969, The Shaggs made music history. Dorothy truthfully reported they felt unready to go into a studio. The record is a Credit: RCA Victor BMG, 1999delightful disaster; the resultant amateurish mess is an aural assault unlike anything recorded before.
There are twelve tracks on the original master. The first song became the album’s title track, the loftily named Philosophy of The World. Anyone familiar with working in a studio knows what “playing live” in the studio means. This record, from start to finish, sounds as if it was recorded “live”, in the order the songs are listed on the record, and in only one or (at most) two takes.
The opening track starts out with a bashing, erratic drum; it cannot charitably be called a beat, as the time signature is all over the map, as if a chimp were given a pair of drumsticks and some kitchen ware to bang on. The twin guitar attack of Dorothy and Betty Wiggin starts out with two embattled instruments that are clearly not in tune, are mis-chorded, and then gradually grow more atonal as the album progresses (it is clear no one bothered to tune-up between songs). It is a horrendous mess of an LP. But it is a wonderful, horrendous mess. There are gloriously shining moments on this record where for a single note or musical phrase, the three Wiggin sisters are in synch.
Of the three girls, and this is a terrific stretch, the most musically competent was the drummer Helen. Occasionally, she works up a steady beat, throws in some bizarre fills that are on-time, and bashes away with clear abandon. Mostly, however, it sounds as if all three are playing different songs without consulting the others. Attempts at musicality are charming, as in some rinky-dink guitar runs in “That Little Sports Car” (the only song on the disc to feature bass guitar, played by baby sister Rachel).
Dorothy’s “singing” is something to experience, as well. She delivers all lyrics in the same deadpan monotone, with almost no inflection except to project enough volume to insure the words actually make it out of her mouth. Dorothy also had a speech impediment which lent her singing an almost Elmer Fudd-lerian quality (or “quawity”. For one example, in a song called “It’s Halloween,” she sing/speaks, “Why, even Dwacuwa wiw be thewr”). It is alternately annoying and endearing. Backing “vocals” by Betty consist of high-pitched and grating repetitions of a song’s line.
The subjects on this record are expansive. ”Philosophy of The World” investigates “grass-is-greener-ism” in lines such as, “And the skinny people want / What the fat people’s got / And the fat people want / What the skinny people’s got…” They sing about mom-n-dad (“Who Are Parents”); a runaway cat (“My Pal Foot Foot”); and introspection (“Why Do I Feel?”). Interwoven is the caterwauling and the clash.
The Shaggs Rise
With a running time of slightly under 32 minutes, the session was mastered and given over to a vanity-record presser named Charlie Dreyer operating a shady business called Third World. Third World only had one artist on its roster – The Shaggs. Austin Wiggin paid for pressing 1,000 copies of Philosophy of The World. The Shaggs did not have a distribution deal – it is only presumed these discs would be sold individually by the girls or Austin at their regular Saturday night shows.
Airplay was not had. Neither was any kind of success. The records never got into the right hands. Dreyer, the grifter who ran the Third World label that had pressed the disc, took off with The Shaggs’ money and 900 copies of the album. He had however, turned over 100 of them, some of which made their way as promotional copies to a handful of radio stations, and some were either given to friends and family or managed to get sold and passed around. [In the vinyl LP collectibles market this disc ranks right up there in terms of value with Prince’s original pressing of his mid 1980’s album later called The Black Album. Philosophy of the World – the original 1969 pressing on the homemade Third World label – because of its rarity, is worth conservatively, depending upon condition, anywhere from $1500 to $3000.].
The Wiggin sisters continued playing their Saturday night gigs in the town hall. They improved on their instruments, and by 1975, Austin was ready to try his luck in the studio one more time. He had arranged a second recording session, and they managed to get several songs down on tape. Austin died from a heart attack during the process, and The Shaggs abandoned the project, and disbanded.
Several years later, a member of the 1960’s band NRBQ (who personally owned an original Third World copy of Philosophy of The World and loved it for its trashy amateurism) talked his record company into re-issuing the record on their label. Rounder Records put this obscure gem out in 1980, and it caused a reaction immediately, almost all negative. However, Rolling Stone reviewed it and reveled in its DIY ethos and bad musicianship. The re-issue found its way, through better marketing and distribution, into the hands of many fans of the obscure. It also reproduced the Third World album’s liner notes, which are hysterically overwrought for what is contained on the disc:
“…at last you know you can listen to artists who are real. They will not change their music or their style to meet the whims of a frustrated world.”
The LP attracted a lot of attention. NRBQ dug up some of the material from the unfinished 1975 sessions, and Rounder released those songs under the title Shaggs’ Own Thing in 1982. Dorothy found the original master tapes for the Philosophy of the World session stashed in her closet in 1988. The material from the unfinished 1975 session and Philosophy of The World were released together under the unified title The Shaggs. Finally, in 1999, RCA re-mastered and re-issued Philosophy of The World on CD in 1999, restoring the proper track sequence and re-printing the original liner notes.
Coincident with the CD re-issue of Philosophy of The World, NRBQ put together an anniversary series of shows (they had been in the business for 30 years by then). NRBQ managed to get The Shaggs together as their opening act. Helen Wiggin, the drummer, suffered from depression and declined to take part. Thus, NRBQ’s drummer filled in trying to “play down” to The Shaggs’ skill level. The women played the same four-song set in each of the two shows (November 19 and November 20, 1999), and then went home. It was the first time they’d ever played outside Fremont, New Hampshire.
The Shaggs Live On
This band of bunglers somehow managed early in their career to catch the attention of many. In the 1970s, Frank Zappa, a true connoisseur of the bizarre, named Philosophy of The World as his third-favorite record of all time (in a Playboy music poll).
Reviews for the re-issue were alternately adoring, respectful, and spiteful:
“Philosophy of the World is the sickest, most stunningly awful wonderful record I've heard in ages: the perfect mental purgative for doldrums of any kind…” Debra Rae Cohen, Rolling Stone review of 1980 Rounder re-issue
“Like a lobotomized Trapp Family Singers, the Shaggs warble earnest greeting-card lyrics…in happy, hapless quasi-unison along ostensible lines of melody while strumming their tinny guitars like someone worrying a zipper. The drummer pounds gamely to the call of a different muse, as if she had to guess which song they were playing – and missed every time...Without exaggeration it may stand as the worst album ever recorded…” Chris Connelly, Rolling Stone article about the record after release
The disc was voted one of “The Most 100 Influential Alternative Releases of All Time.” It placed at the Number 3 spot on “The Greatest Garage Credit: RCA Victor BMG, 1999Recordings of the Twentieth Century”. It also holds a pride of place on “The Fifty Most Significant Indie Records” list. The record spawned a Shaggs’ tribute album in 2001, and in November 2003 a stage musical about the record opened in Los Angeles.
In 2005, Annie Wiggin, the mother, died. In 2006, Helen Wiggin, the drummer died. She was 59 years old; strangely, she was living in a home for the elderly despite her relatively young age.
The DIY spirit of The Shaggs is what most indie and alternative musicians have taken to heart. Never mind that the guitars are out-of-tune, the drumming is out-of-time, or the singing is off-pitch, off-key, and off-kilter. It’s the making of the noise that matters, the capturing of a moment. It’s the shock and awe of something both shocking and awesome.
Delight in the disaster -- listen to the title track, "Philosophy of The World"