The Shaggs: So bad they’re good, or something else entirely?

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The all-girl group, The Shaggs, are sometimes difficult to classify in the scheme of rock music. However, because their fame persists into the 21st century, it is worth considering the appeal of a group that seemed to defy everything that most people understand about popular music.

Introducing The Shaggs

The Shaggs were the Wiggin sisters of New Hampshire. Part of their mythology details that their father, Austin, forced the formation of the band. The group is named after the haircut popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the shag. On at least one recording, the group’s name appears with one “g.”

Again, according to research available about the band, Austin pulled the sisters out of school because a fortuneteller had informed him that his daughters would be famous popular performers. Never having heard music before, the Wiggin sisters began playing gigs. Mostly they played around their native New England. And they recorded an album.

Unique style: The Shaggs

What does music sound like when played by people who have allegedly never heard it? The answer is The Shaggs. There is a timidity or an innocence that informs The Shaggs’ work. Maybe their lack of finesse came from working under the strict tutelage of their father. It seems fair to say that it is difficult to perform well when frightened.

The range of comments about The Shaggs range from it’s awful to it’s cerebral and nuanced. The Shaggs’ disjointed and often off-kilter playing style causes some critics to categorize the group as “garage rock.”

The band’s style is persistent. Especially on songs like “Philosophy of the World,” the group sounds as though they have an idea of what they want to say and are determined to say it. The message is clear, though. And, even though one critic dismissed Helen’s drumming as “hacked at drumbeats,” it doesn’t always sound that way. On “Philosophy of the World,” the drumming sounds like the most skillful aspect of the instrumentation. The vocals and guitar playing are awkward. Some might insist that the members are not serious. But their approach never really changes, so there seems little credence to that theory.

The Shaggs post-1975

Sisters Dot, Helen, Betty and later, Rachel (who played bass) are remembered for their ability to craft music outside the mainstream. According to the New Yorker, music historian Irwin Chusid, The Shaggs are the “unwitting godmothers of outsider music.”

The group broke up in 1975 after the death of their father. But that didn’t stop the cult fame of The Shaggs from extending beyond the geographic borders of New England, and outside of the mid-1970s time frame.

One early proponent of The Shaggs was Frank Zappa. According to Rolling Stone, Zappa once pronounced that The Shaggs were “better than the Beatles.” Although forum.zappa.com questions if the late musician meant it. The magazine also reports that Kurt Cobain placed the group at No. 5 on his list of the top 50 bands. The Shaggs revival of live shows has seemingly been spearheaded by Wilco. Wilco included them in the fifth year of their Solid Sound Festival this year.

None of the surviving sisters play instruments anymore. Dot has a band, the Dot Wiggin Band. That is the group that backs the sisters when they perform.

Only 1000 copies of “Philosophy of the World” were pressed. According to online sources, one copy can be valued as high as $500. This alone speaks volumes about The Shaggs’ cultural value. They weren’t a novelty act, and they weren’t delusional. Their work has “spooky” and “haunting” qualities that make it sound as though the sisters communicate differently from other people, and best with each other.

Probably the verdict for The Shaggs’ value, as it is for almost any band, is that it is a matter of taste. Fan or not, some of the band’ s qualities can be heard on their one album. The lyrical contents’ persisting innocence or naivete is the most charming element of The Shaggs’ allure.

 

 

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