Better Than the Beatles?: The Enduring Legend of the Shaggs
    • TUESDAY, AUGUST 09, 2016

    • Posted by: Robert Steiner



    Recently, Light in the Attic Records announced that they are planning a reissue of the Shaggs only record, 1969s Philosophy of the World, which will be out on September 9. Not only will the cult classic be remastered, but the reissue will include new liner notes by Lenny Kane (Patti Smith Group, Nuggets), a collection of unseen photos, a poster, and even a newly designed Shaggs t-shirt. Not only that, but there will also be a Shaggs tribute concert in New York and a signing event in Boston by Shaggs lead guitarist/vocalist Dot Wiggin. All this press and publicity may be surprising if you never heard of the Shaggs, but it may be even more surprising if you do know them. I discovered the Shaggs by accident about five years ago, when out of boredom and cheap entertainment, I Googled "worst rock band of all time." Sure enough, the first hit I found was a picture of three pudgy girls with thick bangs, matching outfits, and painfully forced smiles, along with a song of theirs called "Philosophy of the World":

    Oh, the rich people want what the poor people's got
    And the poor people want what the rich people's got
    And the skinny people want what the fat people's got?
    And the fat people want what the skinny people's got
    You can never please anybody in this world




    I couldn't finish listening to it. I was so stunned and dumbfounded I didn't know how to react. Was this supposed to be funny? Was I supposed to laugh? Was this a real song? Was this an Onion article? The question that haunted me most of all, though: Someone paid to put this band on vinyl??? By this point in time, I had miraculously lived through Lulu by Lou Reed & Metallica (aka "I AM THE TABLE!!!"), so I thought I had endured the absolute tip of the shitty iceberg, but then the Shaggs came and proved me very, very wrong. It sounded like three people in three separate rooms were given an instrument they never played before and someone said "GO". I closed out from the song, cleared my browser history, and forced the Shaggs out of my mind until now, when I read the news of the big reissue. Now that I'm older, wiser, and have a slightly more adventurous musical taste than my 2011 self, I decided to look into the Shagg's story for real this time, and in doing so, try to understand how the worst band in rock history has had such a fervent cult following almost 50 years.

    The Shaggs- comprised of sisters Dorothy "Dot" Wiggin, Betty Wiggin on rhythm guitar, and Helen Wiggin on drums- formed in the small town of Fremont, New Hampshire in 1968. On the surface, this may seem like another story of a bunch of small town dreamers who saw the Beatles on TV and were inspired to start a band to escape their humdrum lives and find superstardom, but the Shaggs' story is a whole lot more complicated than that. According to Susan Orlean of The New Yorker, the band was actually conceived by the girls father, Austin Wiggin, who was dead set on his daughters' fame like it was faith. In fact, Austin very much believed his daughters' success was faith, as his mother, a fortuneteller, predicted that he would marry a strawberry blonde, have two sons, and have three daughters that would play in a band and become famous. By 1968, Austin's mom was two for three, and with Dot, Betty, and Helen, he was determined to bring the last prediction to fruition. Despite his small income, Austin paid for the girls' instruments and music lessons, and in order for them to focus solely on their music, he had them homeschooled throughout their teenage years. In place of a social life and friends, the girls practiced day in and day out in accordance to Austin's specifically designed schedule. They would rehearse the same songs over and over again, but they never seemed to satisfy their highly critical father.



    Austin eventually got the band a regular Saturday night slot at the local town hall, where the girls were met weekly with jeers, heckling, or deafening ambivalence. It was clear that the band was no good, even the girls eventually realized that, but Austin wouldn't have it. A man of superstition, he was going to fulfill the destiny laid out for his girls by his mother by any means necessary. A less-than-positive response from the audience just meant that the girls needed to practice even more. The band eventually booked a couple recording sessions at Fleetwood Studios in Boston, which would result in Philosophy of the World, but to Austin's amazement, the album went absolutely nowhere upon its release, and the few copies put into circulation were lost in time. The Shaggs disbanded when Austin died of a heart attack in 1975, and the Wiggins sisters were finally able to leave those tumultuous years of their lives behind.

    The Shaggs' history could very well end right there, with a dream that fizzled out with the band's greatest and only champion. However, if you haven't figured it out already, the Shaggs' story is anything but ordinary. As with most things that had no chance in the mainstream, the Shaggs found a small but dedicated fan base in the underground. The few copies of Philosophy of the World in circulation became highly sought-after rarities, and even a local radio station in Boston, WBCN-FM, began playing album fairly regularly. Over the years, while there are plenty of people who listen to the Shaggs for the spectacle of their unbeatable mediocrity, their core fan base, who included Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain, genuinely love the Shaggs and their music. Zappa even famously said that the Shaggs were "Better than the Beatles" in his mind. This all leads to the big question of the day: Why? Why has the Wiggins sisters' music spoken to so many people, and continues to do so to this day? Some fans claim that the band's music takes major influence from the free jazz style of Ornette Coleman, but I see that more as an argument against Ornette Coleman. The more believable (granted, it's still a hard pill to swallow) argument, and the most accepted narrative by fans, is that the Shaggs are the patron saints of playing music from the heart even when the technical skill isn't there. In a musical world where everything is drenched in production polish and artists are obsessed with taking out every single mistake, the Shaggs more than ever represent a sort of "everyman," or in this case, "everywoman" band. Yes, they were forced by their father to write songs in the first place, but the beautiful thing about music is that whatever a particular song means to a particular person, that becomes truth to them. For Shaggs fans, their truth is that the band is a genuine and unmitigated inspiration, a band who against all odds not only wrote songs that sound like someone dropping kittens on a de-tuned guitar, but recorded those songs for future generations to discover. Renowned rock critic Lester Bangs wrote his praise for the Shaggs for The Village Voice in 1981, saying, "Basically what it comes down to is that unlike the Stones, these girls are saying 'we love you,' whether you're fat, skinny, retarded, or Norman Podhoretz even." Seth Bogart, the artist who designed the t-shirts for the reissue, said, "Good ideas can easily beat technical skill...the Shaggs are living proof."



    After listening to the Shaggs music for real this time, I still hate it, but I now at least understand where their fans are coming from. It's fairly admirable that these girls did something even when better judgment suggested otherwise, and to a misunderstood outcast who wants to leave their mark on the world but isn't sure how to, a discovery like the Shaggs can be life changing. I mean, of course the music isn't great, even most Shaggs will tell you that, but it's clearly about more than just the music. Perhaps Austin was right all along when he wrote Philosophy of the World's original liner notes: "Of all contemporary acts in the world today, perhaps only the Shaggs do what others would like to do, and that is perform only what they believe in, what they feel, not what others think the Shaggs should feel."

    The Philosophy of the World reissue is out September 9, but if you're feeling brave, you can listen to the album in its entirety on Spotify. Before, I would've taken having my wisdom teeth pulled and then eating glass over listening to the record, but knowing what I know now, about the Shaggs' long and winding career and what their music means to people, I cant help but smile. In their own unique way, it seems that the Wiggins sisters proved their grandmother right after all.
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