Is it time to give The Shaggs another listen?
Matt McMahon | Wednesday, September 23, 2015
The late ’60s girl group The Shaggs is the most contentiously debated band you have never had the pleasure (or displeasure, depending on who you ask) of hearing. Experimental musician Frank Zappa has said they are “better than The Beatles.” Kurt Cobain praised their sole album “Philosophy of the World” as his fifth favorite album of all time. Music writer Lester Bangs argued the same album was one of the landmarks of rock ’n’ roll history in his provocative, if ostentatious, 1981 article in The Village Voice named after Zappa’s assertion.
Yet, if you actually listen to the band’s recorded tracks off the album, you are greeted by what sounds like the atonal improvisations of a group of kids getting their hands on their parents’ unguarded instruments. The vocals are chanted erratically, the drums follow no deceivable path and the guitars sound woefully out of tune. Rolling Stone writer Chris Connelly wrote “[‘Philosophy’] may stand as the worst album ever recorded.” Nevertheless, The Shaggs have been repeatedly covered by the press in their wake, and their story is so bizarre that the band was the subject of a recent off-Broadway play, which notably used all original music save for the title cut from “Philosophy.”
The Shaggs were composed of the four Wiggin sisters: Dorothy and Betty both on vocals and guitar, Helen on drums and Rachel on bass. The band formed, as the story told by journalist Susan Orlean goes, after the girls’ father Austin Wiggin Jr. began to see his palm-reading mother’s foretold fortunes about his adult life coming true; her biggest prediction was that his daughters would play in a band. As a result, Austin bought his daughters instruments, pulled them out of school and set a rigorous schedule for them to practice daily and perform at their small New Hampshire town’s community hall.
The Shaggs wrote simplistic songs musing about the little things in their life that they were exposed to enough to write about: losing pets, praising parents, exuding kindness, futile daydreaming. The lyrics are often just as odd as the music played over them. Strangely, though, the sentiment behind simple lines like “There are many things I wonder / There are many things I don’t / It seems as though the things I wonder most / Are the things I never find out” are poignant and lasting. So lasting, as a matter of fact, that the band’s straightforward way of writing songs has seen a huge resurgence in the past couple of years.
The landscape of music has never been as fertile with similarly minded confessional bedroom punk, noise rock and folk from budding female artists, not entirely unlike the Wiggin sisters, as it is now. These young musicians are effectively recontextualizing and giving clarity to The Shaggs impenetrable work and, not to overstate at all, justifying their utter adolescent existences.
The band most inspiring this spiritual connection is Girlpool, a stripped back punk duo with a penchant for raw instrumentation and emotive harmonies. The project, helmed by Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad, combines repetitive guitar riffs with sing-talk vocals that pierce straight to the heart of their lyrics. “I was taught what to believe / Now I’m only certain that no one is free / Tranquilize me with your ideal world,” Tucker and Tividad shout in unison on “Ideal World,” seemingly reading from one of the Wiggin sister’s diaries a few years after recording the titular track from “Philosophy of the World” (which concludes “We do our best, we try to please / But we’re like the rest we’re never at ease / You can never please anybody in this world”).
Like The Shaggs that came before them, Girlpool peers Frankie Cosmos and Palehound, two solo-efforts-turned-full bands, originated covering concise, childlike topics like school, pets and loneliness — all of which are not mutually exclusive. The opening track to Frankie Cosmos’s 2014 affecting debut “Zentropy” is The Shaggs-esque “Art School.” “High school makes you crazy / High school made me cry,” lead singer Greta Kline reverberates. On an early take, the production is lo-fi, the guitar sounds cheap and the recording buzzes from being taped in the close quarters of her bedroom, which she portrays in the song’s music video while dancing alone to Justin Bieber’s “Baby.”
Elsewhere on “Zentropy,” Kline writes a touching ode to her passed dog by way of “Sad 2,” echoing The Shaggs’s own “My Pal Foot Foot.” Kline’s tribute to her best friend features a wealth of tugging two to four line verses, ending with the most vivid expression, “I just want my dog back / Is that so much to ask? / I wish that / I could kiss his paws.” The Shaggs’ footprints can be seen and heard all over the sentimental track, especially considering “My Pal Foot Foot,” which features a very similar verse in “Foot Foot, where can you be? / Foot Foot, why won’t you answer me?… Wherever you are / I want you to come home with me.” Palehound’s contribution to this sub-sub-genre that I’ll cheekily call “Pet Sounds” comes in the form of “Pet Carrot.” Her debut single, “Pet Carrot” has Ellen Kempner hauntingly harmonizing with herself “I’ve got a pet carrot / My best friend is a parrot” over deep twanging folksy grunge. The vocals and abstractions harken back to “Foot Foot” as much as Kline’s direct style.
Still, a lot of the forces behind this strange revival are coming from more straight punk acts. After all, The Shaggs resided at the intersection of pop and punk; their songs were attempts at pop structures, but not being able to play the instruments is one of the main ideas behind the origins of punk rock. Examine for instance the 17-minute, 8-song album “Papa Cremp” by Cherry Glazerr, another contemporary of Girlpool and Frankie Cosmos. On “Teenage Girl,” the punk act juxtaposes images of girlhood with the reflection “Internalize so much but so little / Don’t make us feel belittled / World.” Almost exaggerating the style, they dedicate an entire line in a quick moving minute-and-a-half-song to one gigantic yet suffocating word: “World.”
This fascination from many of the aforementioned acts speaks to the universality of what could otherwise be perceived as acute introspections or excused as overly simplistic. The Shaggs, in their quirky lyricism that itself verged on the overly simplistic, have shown that brevity can no less make a lasting impact, in no short part because of the ease of relatability and individual extrapolation.
Getting a bit more dense, Speedy Ortiz’s recent single “Swell Content,” a bruising rush of garage punk about writer’s block, doubles as an allegorical embracement and kiss-off — simultaneously — of first time immature relationships, romantic or otherwise. In the first of a series of escalating diatribes, lead singer and guitarist Sadie Dupuis admits, “I have been rejected for semesters at sea,” recalling an unreliable college relationship that ended at the prospect of exploration abroad.
Meanwhile, the song’s recently released music video recalls an even more youthful expression for the complicated and often times suppressed range of teenaged emotions: summer camp. The short explores finding yourself in the rough, but open, environment of a typical day camp or sleep-away camp, with help from the Buck’s Rock Performing and Creative Arts Camp — where Dupuis attended and worked as counselor, advising, among others, Palehound’s Ellen Kempner. Speedy Ortiz’s loose yet controlled playful style, teetering on falling apart at any second, here is empathetic to the sorts of lasting experiences The Shaggs presumably never had the chance to be a part of, having spent their days and nights practicing for their father.
Straying a bit farther away from The Shaggs, but still navigating in the same musical not quite movement of the past two years, are the more fleshed out but just as personally intimate Waxahatchee, Mitski and Angel Olsen. All three musicians feature tighter backing bands than The Shaggs and infinitely more complex writing, yet they all employ elements of The Shaggs searching perspective. Take the rollicking, overlaid drum riffs on Waxahatchee’s “<” jarring as much as her heartbreaking croon, “You’re less than me / I am nothing.” Or Angel Olsen’s and Mitski’s antique-sounding voices, or their anachronistic, confessional album titles: “Burn Your Fire For No Witness” and “Bury Me at Makeout Creek,” respectively.
Likewise, the more fully formed acts Tacocat, Potty Mouth, Torres, Bully, Chastity Belt and Hop Along, all etching out larger spaces to work in than their claustrophobic ancestor had, are nonetheless similarly indebted to The Shaggs’s adolescent meditations. Each has released a stellar album with some form of gruffness or hard edge in the past year, filling out the teenaged Wiggin’s work making sure their sacrifices in childhood were not for nothing.
To curtly answer the question posed in the introduction, it’s probably not time to give The Shaggs another listen — nor may it ever be. Their described outsider music is still far too atonal and unmelodic to enjoy and with the added knowledge of their background it’s even more difficult to listen to their songs with unbiased ears — it’s near impossible to hear any of the recordings and not feel a tinge of discomfort for their situation at the time.
However, understanding their story and hearing the similarly minded music coming from their over-40-years-their-latter spiritual descendants makes The Shaggs even more essential than when they were originally being hailed as “better than the Beatles.” Synchronistic, off-kilter artists like Girlpool, Frankie Cosmos and Cherry Glazerr are acting like translators, not only for the Wiggin sister’s personal worlds, but also for the worlds of all frustrated young women. These young artists are finally putting into music what The Shaggs weren’t able to nearly 50 years ago.
In fact, Dorothy Wiggin returned to music to release “Ready! Get! Go!” in 2013 as the frontwoman of the Dot Wiggin Band. The album is slightly more listenable and as a result a lot less interesting than her work in The Shaggs. The plain writing and atonal vocals are still there, but the properly arranged and played instrumentation only detracts from The Shaggs’ signature style, or lack thereof. Unfortunately, Dot just barely missed the burst of the stylistic bubble that would have legitimized and explained her comeback. As it stands now, though, the continued expansion of said style in the two years since is only lending more credence to The Shaggs’ highly contentious contributions.