(Crappy album covers — sidebar) — The Shaggs: A quandry

Much of my youth was devoted to getting any info I could about the pop music culture I grew up in. From time to time, there would be the odd mention of The Shaggs, a band of four young sisters, Dorothy, Betty, Helen and Rachel Wiggin. In fact, there was (and likely still is) a strong cult following led by the likes of Frank Zappa. The album depicted here is a compilation called “Shagg’s Own Thing”, released in 1982. If anyone were to be introduced to The Shaggs, I would recommend this album first, since it is a better approximation of conventional music.

I don’t wish to go into a long diatribe about the history of The Shaggs. They are well-written about and have been reviewed, especially after the reissue of “Philosophy of the world” by RCA in 1999, in such publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker.

This second album was their 1969 debut, “Philosophy of the World”, recoded a few months before Woodstock. To quote Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell, from their book “The Worst Rock and Roll Records of All Time”: “In their insistence that technical proficiency was immaterial, The Shaggs were the original punk rockers.”

People are largely on two minds about The Shaggs. On the one hand, they don’t seem to know how to play their instruments, their instruments and their voices appear to be out of tune, and they have no consciousness about keeping time with each other. If you listen to their music, this is depressingly obvious, and you feel embarrassed for them.

One gets the feeling that these sisters probably never wanted to be in a band. That was their father’s idea, and the sisters’ desires didn’t matter. This reprint of the New Yorker article paints a picture of daughters who lived in fear of Austin Wiggin, their authoritarian father, who hated much of the popular culture that was around him, and worked hard to shelter his daughters from those influences. Yet, he wanted his daughters to play popular music, partly to make a name for himself in his home of Fremont, New Hampshire; and partly to fulfill a prediction made by his clairvoyant wife that his daughters would play in a band. Neither parent was remotely musical, the kids were homeschooled, and this separated them even more from mainstream culture. What musicality could possibly emerge from such a deprived environment?

That being said, there are those who, thirty years on, still think they were on to something. I go with my instincts, and think that this was a family run by a controlling father, and what desires really exist within them to become whole; any move toward even knowing their own feelings and desires was something that only became possible after the death of Austin in 1975. The Shaggs were an extension of Austin, and had little to do with the young ladies.

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