The Shaggs and How They Changed My Life
by Mike Walsh
"The Shaggs. Better than the Beatles--even today." - Frank Zappa
"They bring my mind to a complete halt." - Carla Bley
"Maybe the best worst rock album ever made." - New York Times
When I first heard The Shaggs album Philosophy of the World, I wondered how this music could've been recorded and distributed. The music was so hilariously bad. The singers simply could not sing, much less harmonize, and not once on the entire record did the drummer manage to bang a drum on beat. Besides that, The Shaggs sang about things like a lost pets ("Foot Foot"), Halloween, and their parents. I assumed the album was some kind of joke.
The record cover, however, revealed no trickery. With the three smiling girls proudly holding their instruments, I easily imagined this music coming from girls that looked like that. (I don't mean to be harsh, but The Shaggs are just plain homely, and as for their homemade clothing. . . ) On the back cover an enigmatic three paragraph note dispensed the precepts of The Shaggs philosophy.
"Their music is different, it is theirs alone," the note proclaimed. This fact I readily conceded. The Shaggs "do it because they love it. . . They believe in it, live it. It is part of them and they are part of it." Obviously someone forgot to let them in on the joke.
The message also noted, "you know they are pure what more could you ask?" Well, I wondered, what more could I ask? First of all, I wasn't convinced they were "pure." Perhaps the drummer was actually a frustrated studio musician who thought it was funny to play off beat. I wanted to know who was behind this mysterious project. But the back cover note carefully avoided facts.
It did not seem possible that anyone who had listened to the radio in the past twenty-five years could have made this record. The note explained that The Shaggs "live in a small town in New Hampshire, in an atmosphere that has encouraged them to develop their music unaffected by outside influences." What the hell do they do in small New Hampshire towns, I wondered, scramble radio signals? These girls and their music simply did not seem plausible.
Strangely, I kept playing the record. I couldn't but notice The Shaggs' absolute and complete innocence. I was moved every time I heard the sorrow and uncertainty of "Things I Wonder" and "What Should I Do." I listened to "Why Do I Feel" over and over. It's a great song. The Shaggs were beginning to sound normal.
Oh, the rich people want what the poor people's got.
And the poor people want what the rich people's got.
And the skinny people want what the fat people's got.
And the fat people want what the skinny people's got.
-- The Shaggs, "Philosophy Of the World"
I came to believe that The Shaggs were kind, trusting girls trying to understand the world. They seemed able to forgive and accept frustrations without anger or cynicism. And despite their sorrows, The Shaggs never despair. The Shaggs love life almost as much as "The Shaggs love you."
So what if they couldn't play guitar? What if the drummer spent twelve songs searching for the beat? There are worse sins, like the inability to express oneself, a flaw which The Shaggs don't possess. Their language is naively direct, silly, and serious at the same time. But more than that, their priorities are right.
"Philosophy of the World," I suddenly realized, was the real thing. A genuine artifact. The Shaggs had accomplished a lasting, honest, meaningful work, something that armies of synthesizers and drum machines couldn't guarantee.
I later discovered that the Daddy Shagg, Austin Wiggins, Jr., had originally financed the record around 1970. (He also receives production credit.) The record was then discovered in the late seventies by Terry Allen of the band NRBQ. Allen managed to persuade Rounder Records to release the record in 1980. It did not go unnoticed.
". . . the most stunningly awful wonderful record I've heard," proclaimed The Rolling Stone, ". . . like a lobotomized Trapp Family Singers." The late Lester Bangs called The Shaggs an "anti-power trio" and claimed that Philosophy of the World was "a landmark in rock and roll history." He also expressed his surprise that the sisters were not junkies. Allen was quoted as saying, "the melodic lines and structures sound like Ornette Coleman in his late fifties period. [Their] music has its own inner logic."
The Spin Alternative Record Guide says that Philosophy Of the World "behaves as if pop conventions of structure, tonality, rhythm, meter, and harmony never existed." The vocalist "sings phrases of irregular length and unpredictable melodic trajectory" while the drummer, "seemingly two or three rooms away," does her own thing, "occasionally wandering onto the beat." Their essence is "utter unselfconsciousness."
Despite all the praise, The Shaggs have remained modest. "We weren't ready to start an album," explained Shaggs songwriter Dorothy Wiggins. "It was right after we started taking lessons."
I've since heard about a second album released a couple years ago called "The Shaggs Own Thing." I won't buy it because it can't possibly be as good at Philosophy of the World. Lessons, a couple practice sessions, a witty producer, and the party is over. You just can't go home, not even if home is Fremont, New Hampshire.