Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Shaggs

Perhaps it's my instant endearment to any failed attempt at seriousness, perhaps it's my recurring support for an underdog, who knows, but there is something about The Shaggs that I find oddly appealing (I'm just not entirely sure it's their music). The same schadenfreude sensibilities that usually lead me to give Pick Me Up! a furtive browse while waiting at check-outs recently gave way to an intense, albeit passing, immersion in the band. And, just like the tales of exploding breasts and furry babies in those 'real-life' magazines, the story of The Shaggs is just as curious.

In terms of 1960s girl groups, The Shaggs would be the autistic, tortured soul of a sister to The Shangri-Las. Whilst Mary Weiss was out smoking dope, smuggling guns and breaking hearts, Helen, Betty and Dot Wiggin were being home-schooled and performing in their local nursing home. Rather homely-looking girls, their name is more ironic than tongue-in-cheek, referring to their hairstyles. The conception of The Shaggs is actually older than the members. When their father was young, his mother made three predictions whilst reading his palm: that he would marry a strawberry blonde, have two sons that she would not live to see and that he would one day watch his daughters play in a rock band. When the first two fortunes were fulfilled, Austin Wiggin believed that his daughters' success was fated and saw it as his ticket out of the millworker life. He withdrew them from school, assigned them roles and issued instruments before he plunged his life savings into stubbornly trying to realize his mother's final prophecy.

The sisters had no musical aspirations whatsoever but practiced diligently under the manic reign of their father-cum-drill instructor (Austin's regime included an hour of jumping jacks and leg lifts before bed). Their talent is undeniably rudimentary, their songs (about lost cats, Jesus and Halloween) so offbeat in every sense of the word that they seem unaware of any standard musical or lyrical convention. In fact, they were unaware - Daddy Shagg isolated his daughters from outside influences and demanded they practiced constantly. The result is so unusual it is difficult to fully capture in words - some say 'ground-breaking' most, I imagine, would say 'shit'.

In their heyday, the group played at their local town hall every Saturday night. Objects were thrown, names were called. Every Sunday they would have to return to rub any scuff marks off the dance floor. It seemed the hand of fate had dealt a joker; global superstardom and chart domination were never reached. Dot now cleans houses for a living. Betty was a school janitor until recently, when she took a job in the stockroom of a kitchen utensil warehouse, and the now deceased Helen lived on disability benefits her whole life. Fanning the final flames, Austin had encouraged and paid for the girls to record their one and only album, Philosophy of the World, in a studio session. It was unsuccessful and as dreams of stardom faded, the Wiggin sisters carried on with their lives.

Over the past thirty years, as the girls became women, the album has slowly gathered a cult following. Stripped from all the pretentious justifications and deceptive acclaim, however, it remains a bad record. And yet I can't write that without apology: "Just like Bambi's mother always told Bambi; if you can't say anything nice, don't say nothing at all" writes Dot Wiggin on her website, outlining her new philosophy of the world. What's more; despite the deadpan vocals, the discordant, cheap sounding instruments and the way in which Helen drums on, seemingly unconscious of the music going on around her, there is something unforgettable about their music. To use, reluctantly, that clichéd old idiom: it's so bad, it's almost good.

Giving them a hasty first listen, one would perhaps envision an un-rehearsed, maladjusted X-Factor audition, but upon knowing the family dynamics and background behind the band (the movie rights to which have already been bought) is what, for me, turns their innocent and hopeful lyrics into something which is at once slightly sinister and yet curiously charming. Kurt Cobain, amongst others, later heralded The Shaggs as heroines of outsider music, but they were clearly uninvolved and uninterested in attaining this label (they disbanded, rather tellingly, as soon as their father died in the 1970s). I say listen to Philosophy of the World (or as much as you can) out of morbid curiosity and consider it the intriguing fruits of borderline child abuse.

Having said that their music is difficult to aptly describe, I think the whole saga can be summed up succinctly by Dot herself when she explains, 'We did our best'...


  1. Great post. I read it with much delight.
    Philosophy of the World is an American treasure. My take on it is this, it's simply
    the other side of the "pop family" coin. On one side we have The Cowsills, and on the other side we have The Shaggs. Funny, if it weren't for The Partridges, nobody would remember The Cowsills, but it seems everyone know The Shaggs.
    I cherish my Rounder Records reissue LP of Philosophy of the World.

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