The Return of the Shaggs
By HOLLY RAMER, Associated Press Writer
27 Apr 2000
EPPING, N.H. (AP) -- After all these years, Dot Semprini can't shake The Shaggs.
She's busy enough -- at 51, she has two teen-age sons, makes a living cleaning houses and working at a day-care center, and tries to make it to church every week.
But 30 years ago, she was Dot Wiggin, lead singer of The Shaggs -- a band driven more by her father's stubbornness than by musical talent. And that now-defunct band has been discovered. Dot and her sisters Betty and Helen started with gigs at the Fremont Town Hall and a nearby nursing home. Today, they get fan mail from around the world, and their lawyers are negotiating a possible movie deal.
The story in between is like the band's music: sometimes sweet, sometimes painful, and always unforgettable. It's a story of three sisters, two records, a cat named Foot Foot and, finally, fame. ''It's almost like we lived two lives: That was then, this is now,'' Semprini says. ''Only the then is becoming the now.''
The idea of The Shaggs is actually older than Semprini and her sisters. When their father was young, his mother made three predictions: He'd marry a strawberry blonde, have two sons she would not live to see, and watch his daughters play in a band.
The first two parts of the fortune came true, and Austin Wiggin was determined to bring about the third. In the mid-1960s, he pulled his daughters out of school and bought them instruments. ''I don't think we would've thought about it if he didn't come up with the idea first, but we thought it was a good idea,'' Semprini said in a recent interview in Epping, where the three sisters now live. ''We always liked music.''
Aside from weekly trips to Manchester for music lessons, they rarely left the small town of Fremont. The next few years blurred into one long day: a few hours of schoolwork from a mail-order company, morning music practice, afternoon music practice, calisthenics. Sometimes they set up their instruments in the living room, but mostly they played in the concrete-walled, concrete-floored basement.
''Then when our father came home from work, we'd practice for him before supper, and sometimes after supper, depending on how it went,'' Semprini said. ''That pretty much took care of the night.''
The routine changed in 1968 when Austin Wiggin arranged for the girls to play at the Fremont Town Hall every Saturday night. Their two brothers helped them lug their speakers and drum set up the stairs to the performance venue, where the Shaggs (named by their father for their long, shaggy hairstyles) played cover songs and their own arrangements. ''I remember those (nights) as fun,'' Semprini said. ''There were some kids who might poke fun or say mean things, but not a whole lot. We'd mingle during intermissions with some of the kids we knew from town.''
The following year, they recorded their first album in a Revere, Mass., studio. The Shaggs, then ages 18 to 22, were reluctant, but their father was firm. ''I want to get them while they're hot,'' he reportedly told the sound engineer.
Betty, now Betty Porter and a 49-year-old widow who works at a kitchen equipment warehouse, said she and her sisters struggled during that long day at the studio.
''We didn't think we were ready to record anything,'' she said. ''There was one song we had to keep going over and over and over again. ... I remember getting tired and thinking 'When are we gonna be done?''' ''It was like the practices night after night,'' Semprini said. ''You'd almost hope something would come up so you could get out of practicing for one night.''
By the end of that day, they had recorded the 12 songs that would become ''Philosophy of the World.'' The songs' subjects (parents, a cat, Halloween) and lyrics (''I'm so happy when you're near/ I'm so sad when you're away'') were simple enough. But the sound was something else. The girls plodded or raced through the songs, painfully out of tune and off beat, lurching from chord to chord with the drums rattling in the background. Their hopes of stardom dwindled when the man who agreed to press and distribute 1,000 copies disappeared with 900 of them. The rest were circulated to New England radio stations, but attracted little attention.
Austin Wiggin was undeterred. The Shaggs were back in the studio a few years later to record a few more songs. He was strict, but supportive, Semprini said.
''He was old-fashioned. He knew what he wanted and there was no two ways about the way it was going to be,'' she said. ''He wanted the best for us and wanted to do everything possible,'' Porter said.
They admit he had a temper, however. Helen eloped at 28, but lived at home for several months, afraid to tell her father what she had done. One of her husband's co-workers told on them before they could break the news, Semprini said. Their father was furious, at first.
''He basically told Helen, 'You're married, go live with him,''' she said. ''He kicked Helen out of the band, but we weren't really doing a whole lot then anyway.''
Helen eventually rejoined the group, but it had already begun to deflate. In 1975, their father died of a heart attack. The Shaggs died along with him.
But while the Wiggin sisters went on with their lives -- got married, had children, moved to another small New Hampshire town -- those 100 records slowly attracted a cult following. A Boston radio station played a few of the songs in the 1970s. A band called NRBQ got its record label to re-release ''Philosophy of the World'' on vinyl in 1980. Eight years later, they combined tracks from both recording sessions on a CD called ''The Shaggs.'' Frank Zappa called the Shaggs ''better than the Beatles.'' In 1996, Rolling Stone named the album one of the 100 ''most influential alternative releases of all time.''
Last year, RCA Victor re-released ''Philosophy of the World.'' And in December, Tom Cruise's production company, Cruise/Wagner Productions, optioned a story about the band that had appeared in The New Yorker. A spokesman for the company said it's too early to talk about the negotiations.
Irwin Chusid, who produced the latest CD, devotes a chapter to the Shaggs in his book, ''Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music.'' He praises the Shaggs for their ''honest artistic expression of their musical impulses.''
''It's aboriginal rock and roll. It's musical primitivism. It's three girls stumbling across the lost chords,'' he said. ''There's a spastic magic in those grooves.''
The Shaggs even showed up in a scholarly paper by Guy Capuzzo, a music theory professor at Penn State, written when he was a graduate student. He says he was drawn to the Shaggs because they remind him of what musicians sound like when they first start out.
''It's kind of like a balloon that's just about to burst. There's this enormous tension. ... Two of them will be playing at one tempo, the other one is playing at another tempo. You're waiting for the whole thing to fall apart, but it doesn't,'' he said. ''You start to think they're just going to train-wreck, but somehow they get it back together.''
The Shaggs literally got back together in December, when their friends from NRBQ persuaded them to do two shows in New York -- their first in 30 years and their first ever outside New Hampshire. Helen, who suffers from depression, decided not to attend.
''It was $100 a week to rent two guitars, and we really couldn't afford more than that. So we just said we'll take the week and do the best we can,'' Semprini said. ''We couldn't play 'em like we played 'em then. I really don't know how I wrote them, never mind play them.''
''We winged our way through it,'' Porter said. ''We weren't ready the first time, and we weren't ready this time.'' Both were amazed to meet fans who could sing along with all their songs. One woman showed up wearing a T-shirt printed with a drawing of Foot Foot, the cat they sing about in ''My Pal Foot Foot.''
''I'm glad we did it,'' Semprini said. ''Not so much for what we did, but for the fans.''
But The Shaggs also have their critics. ''Shock therapy and all the Prozac in the world would never stop the haunting sounds of these banshees,'' one reviewer wrote on a music Web site. ''We see a lot of the garbage on the Internet,'' Semprini said. She laughs at the attacks, but admits she has toyed with the idea of creating her own site to defend herself. On it, she would explain her philosophy of life, which she boils down to two rules. First, don't judge others until you've walked a mile in their shoes. Second, from the Disney movie ''Bambi'': ''Just like Bambi's mother always told Bambi, if you can't say anything nice, don't say nothing at all,'' she said. ''Everyone is entitled to their true opinion, but some of them could be a little nicer in how they say it.''
The Shaggs don't spend much time dreaming about what might have happened if they had continued performing. They realize that part of their allure lies in the brevity of their careers. ''I'd almost dare to say that we wouldn't be as popular now if we had kept going,'' Semprini said. ''I don't know if we ever would've got big enough to go on tours. I just don't know.'' ''Let's face it,'' Porter cuts in. ''As we got going we would've gotten better, and it seems as though people don't want it better.''
The Shaggs draw strong reactions from listeners, who either put them on a pedestal or want to crush them with one:
Jeffrey Thames features the group about once a month on his Houston radio show ''Sound Awake.'' His advice to first-time listeners: Step away from the car. Thames made the mistake of driving when he first heard the Shaggs' CD, and nearly had a wreck. ''About eight seconds into 'I'm so Happy When You're Near' I was just laughing hysterically,'' he said. ''I tell people, 'Don't listen to this in the car.''' He liked the band immediately, but it wasn't until a few years later that he became a ''raging Shagg-a-holic.'' He's received a few ''What on earth was that?'' calls from listeners, but he urges them to give The Shaggs a chance. ''There are definitely bands I've heard that are better, but they are the most truly original band I'll ever lay ears on,'' he said. ''Long may they reign.''
Of the two dozen people who have submitted reviews on the Amazon.com Web site after buying the CD, about half hated it. ''Why won't it let me assign this album negative three stars?'' lamented a reviewer identified only as ''the Enigma'' from South Carolina. Friends warned him against buying the CD, but he didn't listen. ''Oh my God, do I regret my decision,'' the reviewer wrote. Another gave the album three stars for: ''1. The feeling of nausea and motion sickness. 2. The bad dreams. 3. The temporary loss of sanity I experienced when I decided I'd rather have my ears removed than have to listen to another moment of their mismatched sound.''
The Shaggs so inspired San Francisco caterer Aloma Julian that she named her cat Foot Foot. Julian, who first heard The Shaggs in 1976, is on her fourth copy of the record, having worn out the first three with frequent playing. ''I thought they were the worst band I ever heard, but I loved them for it. I liked the fact they were all girls,'' she said. ''And I had never read a sweeter set of liner notes in my life.'' She claims to have converted hundreds of skeptics into fans. ''I used to have a lot of loft parties, and we'd always make dance tapes. People love it,'' she said. Julian scolds those who can't make it past the first song on the album, ''Philosophy of the World.'' ''They have to listen to 'My Pal Foot Foot,''' she said.
The ode to Dot's lost cat (''My pal's name is Foot Foot/ He always likes to roam/ My pal's name is Foot Foot/ I never find him home), elicits particularly strong reactions: ''Just because something like 'My Pal Foot Foot' will be tattooed on your brain after listening, doesn't make it WORTH listening to,'' said one Internet reviewer. ''I like the idea of keeping it around as a stocking stuffer, but it will bring on the worst hangover you've ever had within 30 seconds, irregardless if you've been drinking.''
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