THE VILLAGE VOICE
Published November 24 - 30, 1999Not silly anymore: Betty and Dorothy Wiggin (b&w photo: Rahav Segev)
THE SOUND OF THE CITYFancy a Shagg?
Thirty years after their father inverted the generation gap and forced them to become a rock and roll bandof sortsthe Shaggs made their New York City debut at the Bowery Ballroom last weekend, joining the celebration of another 30th anniversary: their longtime champions NRBQ. With mother Annie in attendance, Dorothy and Betty Wiggins, joined by Q drummer Tommy Ardolino (filling in for the convalescent Helen), played just four songs in what, even so, felt like a comprehensive overview: "Philosophy of the World," the title track of their debut album, rescued from oblivion in 1980 and then given a major label imprimatur this year; "Painful Memories" and "My Cutie," from the later recording Shaggs Own Thing ; and their legendary "My Pal Foot Foot."
Dorothy still wears her hair long, like in those precious band photos; apologetic for their clumsiness but more than game, she seemed as comfortable in front of the audience as, I dunno, Mary Margaret O'Hara, chatting in a voluble New England accent better embodied in the Shaggs' droned harmonies than any rock save Jonathan Richman. Betty, who's cut her hair back severely, looked more nervous, but when she sang her Fastbacks-esque girl-group lament "Painful Memories," mouth anesthetized in that Richard Hell way, she stole the show. The Shaggs were actually the least silly performers in a two-day fest that also included the gibbering Holy Modal Rounders, costumed Sun Ra Arkestra, and far shaggier NRBQ. Their out-of-tune guitars are now in tune (Sonic Youth tune), their mixture of repression and cutesiness no different than Shonen Knife. The set may have been folk art, equal parts goofy and eerie, but it brought home why the Shaggs' Rorschach blottings were eventually read as visions, rough sketches for the future of underground rock. Eric Weisbard
I'm So Happy When You're NearMy CompanionThat Little Sports CarSweet ThingPhilosophy Of The WorldWhat Should I Do?My Pal Foot FootWho Are ParentsThings I WonderWhy Do I Feel?It's HalloweenWe Have A SaviorWho Are Parents (Run-Through)You're Something Special To MeWheelsPaper RosesShagg's Own ThingPainful MemoriesGimme Dat DingMy CutieYesterday Once MoreMy Pal Foot FootI LoveLove At First Sight
"The Shaggs are real, pure, unaffected by outside influences', "say the liner notes on this reissue of an LP originally released some time in the late `60s. The reason the music by these three sisters from Fremont, New Hampshire is so unaffected is probably because theyīd never heard music before in their lives. This album is one of the most hilarious discs ever recorded, and quite possibly the worst. Apparently, Daddy gave the girls (who look like Blue Cheer in drag) two guitars and a drum (and I mean a drum - and a cymbal, too), turned on the tape machine and said, "OK, now play." What came out is recorded here for the time capsule in songs such as "My Pal Foot Foot" and "Itīs Halloween." Such memorable lines as "All the boys who have motorcycles want cars/And all the boys who have cars want motorcycles" are par for the course, and each song features the same two totally out-of-tune chords and the drummer randomly banging away oblivious to the rest. The vocals sound like Girl Scouts singing ragas on real heavy acid. Itīs not easy to describe this music, which sounds as if it emanates from the nations of Catatonia or Dementia. If this album were brand new, the trendy music critics would proclaim it a minimalist masterwork, the most revolutionary album of the year. Maybe it is, who knows? Itīs great for a laugh, though, and extra points to the first radio station to play it.
RCA Victor will reissue the cult classic by The Shaggs, "Philosophy of the World," on February 23, 1999, nearly 30 years to the day after the three sisters from New Hampshire went into the studio to record what Rolling Stone's 1996 Alt Rock-A-Rama ranked among the "100 Most Influential Alternative Releases of All Time." In case you missed it the first time around, "Philosophy of the World" was one of Frank Zappa's favorite albums. The Alt-Rock-A-Rama also ranked it third among "The Greatest Garage Recordings of the 20th Century" and the "The 50 Most Significant Indie Records." The reissue, produced by Irwin Chusid and NRBQ's Terry Adams, will have the original sequence and sport the original artwork on the CD-only release.
Dorothy, Helen and Betty Wiggin formed The Shaggs in 1967 after listening to their favorites, Herman's Hermits, Ricky Nelson and The Monkees on the radio. Their father, Austin Wiggin, Jr., wouldn't allow them to attend concerts, but he did buy them instruments, paid for lessons and encouraged them to form a band featuring two guitars and drums. He named them The Shaggs after the breed of sheep dog and because of the hairstyle that was popular at the time. On March 9, 1969, they entered Fleetwood Studios in Revere, Massachusetts where their father, a textile worker, produced a dozen songs written by Dorothy Wiggin which became "Philosophy of the World." The proud father made a deal with Third World Records and 1,000 copies were pressed.
Some of the copies ended up at radio stations including Boston's WBCN, where it received some airplay. A younger sister, Rachel, joined The Shaggs playing bass onstage soon after they finished the recording. They began playing dance parties every Saturday night at the Town Hall in their hometown of Fremont, New Hampshire and continued until 1975 when their father died. After that, the group disbanded and the daughters never played together again.
A 1980 reissue of "Philosophy of The World" on NRBQ's own label through Rounder Records, prompted Rolling Stone to name The Shaggs "Comeback of the Year," while the L.A. Weekly raved, "If we can judge music on the basis of its honesty, originality and impact, then The Shaggs' 'Philosophy of the World' is the greatest record ever recorded in the history of the universe.'" A writer for The Record claimed, "I have to yet to play a Shaggs cut for a professional musician who didn't roll his eyes and whisper 'Where can I get this record?'"
The result, writes reissue co-producer Irwin Chusid in the new liner notes, is "hacked-at chords, missed downbeats, out-of-socket transitions, blown accents and accidental convergences and yet--it all works! That an album which escaped public notice upon its release 30 years ago continues to inspire and delight, should give hope to others who may be ahead of--or simply apart from--their time."
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"These girls are the Charles Ives of popular music""There are basically two schools of thought on the Shaggs. The first is that they're geniuses. The second is that they're retarded. I've been a musician for 30 years and I can't tell which."---customer from Cambridge, MA
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Sampling of customer comments about THE SHAGGS "Philosophy of the World" on AMAZON.COM
A music fan from Corona CA , April 30, 1999 [four stars]
A painful pleasure
The Shaggs are undoubtedly the most retarded group ever put down on vinyl or CD. The only groups even comparable to this dissonant racket are the Godz (who couldn't play their instruments but sounded like they could) and Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band (they could play, but sounded like they couldn't). "My Pal Foot Foot," "My Companion" and "Things I Wonder" are so appauling that that you will laugh every time you hear them. That is why you should buy this disc. The Shaggs seem free from any musical context (like verse chorus verse, for example ; or pop music), and the disc could possibly be successful just on Dorothy Wiggins enthusiasm alone. If you don't smile or laugh listening to this, then you probably don't need to buy this disc. Instead, buy the Titanic soundtrack.
A music fan from Cincinnati, Ohio , July 13, 1999 [five stars out of five]
Music for the aural masochist
If only one good thing is to be said about this record, that one thing would have to be that no record can clear a room faster. Of course, not just ONE good thing would suffice in this case. Everything from the top to the bottom of this album cracks me up, and I have no idea if I'm laughing with The Shaggs or just laughing at The Shaggs. *shrug*
When I listen to this, I often wonder "What the ...?" among other things. The fact that the vocals are two voices laid on top of one another on every single song, and that there is not a DIFFERENCE between them, suggests that these weren't just random studio sessions but were actually songs painstakingly written, practiced, and recorded. Truly weird. You have to own this album. It is the ugly and misshapen 3rd grade ashtray of rock music history.
email@example.com from Mexico City , April 29, 1999 [five stars]
My wife gave me this record of birthday gift and itīs the most surprising music than I have hear in many years. Disonant, anarchic in armonic notion, strange but with a own logic. If you love Raincoats, Slits ans Zappa music you will love The Shaggs.
A music fan from The People's Republic of Cambridge , March 23, 1999 [five stars]
There are basically two schools of thought on the Shaggs. The first is that they're geniuses. The second is that they're retarded. I've been a musician for 30 years and I can't tell which is fact, but in any case, this is a seminal recording. At first listen the drummer sounds like she's taking a dump, but closer attention reveals there's some amazing polyrhythms going on. For all the talk of the two guitars being "out of tune", they mesh perfectly. Note too, the perfect unison vocals. Also the lyrics are innocent and beautiful, lacking any pretension. I just love everything about this record, the playing, the singing, the cover photo, the liner notes, and those paisley skirts! A must own.
firstname.lastname@example.org from somewhere else , March 8, 1999 [five stars]
seperates the humans from the grups
Don't get it? Too bad for you. This is certainly not a great album and not suitable for routine listening. It's an artifact that speaks volumes about the battle between the inner monkey and the broken adult. Maybe Bruce Springsteen or Lauryn Hill or REM are more appropriate to listen to in your plastic Saturn. But for people who aspire to create for themselves, not for the approval of sad cynics, this is a seminal document. It's a hint of a spirit of rock and roll and the compulsion to create regardless of formal genius and conventional talent that would be fully realized in later decades by Half Japanese, the Raincoats, and Beat Happening; mirrors the faux naif Sensibilities extant in film and painting and comics that are not the Art itself, but the Means of conveying the pure art that dwells within every human heart. The impulse expressed is artless, but the moment captured is pure almost jazz-like creation. I'm glad some people don't 'get' it: it enabled me to get my copy used.
A music fan from Seattle , March 5, 1999 [one star]
I can't see why the Wall Street Journal wrote it up. This is incredibly bad. It is obvious why they never got released. Listen to the music samples, and save your money.
A music fan from Virginia , March 6, 1999 [five stars]
Ethereal listening experience
These girls are the Charles Ives of popular music. Thank heavens their father was inspired to get this down on tape for the ages. Who knows where they would have gone with the guidance of a George Martin.
Like any great art, this music was drawn from a realm beyond (or within) -- totally unaffected by current fashion. To my ears, they sound more authentic than the Rolling Stones at their sloppiest. I expect Frank Zappa plays this music often in Rock 'n' Roll heaven.
Brian from NJ , March 2, 1999
There's No Accounting For Taste
It's so bad, it's interesting to listen to!
A music fan from in the fetal position, writhing in pain , March 24, 1999 [one star]
I don't think I will ever sleep again after listening to "My Pal's Name is Foot Foot".
I would walk across the desert while eating charcoal briquettes soaked in Tabasco for forty days and forty nights NOT to ever have to listen to anything Shagg-related EVER again.
Shock therapy and all the Prozac in the world would never stop the haunting sounds of these banshees.