How to Solve a Riddle Like The Shaggs

Music Features The Shaggs
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How to Solve a Riddle Like The Shaggs

In early August, indie label Light in the Attic announced that the improbable story of the Shaggs would have yet another chapter. Forty-seven years after its release, their Philosophy of the World—perhaps the definitive outsider music artifact of the last 50 years—would be remastered and reissued as a deluxe set on vinyl, and the trio of New Hampshire sisters would be celebrated with a proper tribute show at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City. Following her triumphant return as a solo artist in 2013, Shaggs songwriter, vocalist and lead guitarist Dorothy “Dot” Wiggin would be there. Members of the Dresden Dolls, the Monks, and the B-52’s would perform, and Wiggin’s backing band would provide the music. But if you know anything about the Shaggs’ story, you’d know that nothing ever happens quite as planned. This next chapter would be no different.

Dot, herself, was the first to drop out, citing health issues. One by one, most of the identifiable names followed until what was left was a ragtag group of exceptionally skilled but little-known underground musicians (hardcore punk band Bi-Tyrant, experimental guitarist Ava Mendoza, avant-jazz performer Jessica Pavone, etc.). What they lacked in name recognition they more than made up for with a deep admiration for the music of the band they were there to celebrate, and they gamely took turns doing their best to recreate this exceptionally nuanced, counterintuitive music. Packed with an audience comprised of New York City’s best underground free jazz and avant-garde composers, the show was a rousing success. The lack of star power was more than fitting; the Shaggs were never the kids at the cool table or even the kids at the artsy table. (In fact, they were homeschooled.) They always fit best, if they fit all, with the misfits.

That’s been the case since NRBQ’s Terry Adams discovered a rare copy of Philosophy of the World in a New York City record bin and was so taken by the music’s entrancing combination of sour guitars, heartfelt lyrics and misfiring drums that he convinced his label, Rounder Records, to rerelease it in 1980. People had known of the Shaggs before Adams rediscovered them—Frank Zappa famously hailed them as “better than the Beatles” as early as the 1970s—but it was Adams’ support that pushed the Wiggin sisters (Dot on lead guitar, Betty on rhythm guitar, Helen on drums) into the public consciousness. Ever since, they’ve represented an outpost of sorts, the last stop on the pop continuum before you drop off into freeform noise and unstructured experimentation. In the process, they have become a rite of passage for every self-identifying musical outsider. Kurt Cobain named Philosophy of the World his fifth favorite album of all-time. They were namedropped in an episode of Gilmore Girls. Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum is so obsessed with them that he took the Dot Wiggin Band out on tour as his band’s opening act on their sold-out reunion tour. Nearly 50 years later, there is still nothing even remotely like the Shaggs.

If she’s aware of the significance of all of this, Dot seems appreciative but unimpressed. When she released Ready! Get! Go!—her 2013 solo debut with the Dot Wiggin Band—she hadn’t played more than a few one-off shows since the Shaggs disbanded in 1975. Since the end of that tour, she has spent her time much as she had before her return to music, caring for her family and two ailing pugs back in her hometown of Fremont, New Hampshire. Ask her about the reissue and the current groundswell of attention, and she has no answers. “I had nothing to do it with—put it that way,” she says. “I was kind of surprised to hear about it. But it was a good surprise.”

Now as before, to listen to the Shaggs is to drop into an alternate universe of ‘60s pop, one where kids sing about how great their parents are and how much they love Jesus with eerie sing-along choruses and half-tuned guitars. It’s like discovering the folk music of a culture you can barely believe exists, where all of the conventions of rhythm and tone are upended. The patterns are elliptical and random. The melodies bend and sigh, often tapering off at odd points and never resolving quite where you expect. Adding to the surreal quality, it sounds as if the sisters all can play in time but can’t play in time with each other, leading to the impression of three musicians performing slightly different songs simultaneously.

Betty strums her guitar and doubles Dot’s vocals, often a beat behind on both. Helen is a wrecking ball of a drummer, going off into drum rolls whenever she feels like it, often playing loud in the song’s quiet parts and quiet in the loud parts. She clearly has some genuine chops, but one gets the impression that much of her problem was simply in syncing up with the peculiar rhythms in Dot’s songs, arrangements that were so nuanced and idiosyncratic that Glenn Kotche would have struggled to map them out. As a test, just try to ignore the drums and tap out a consistent rhythm with your finger. You will struggle.

The lyrics—the most conventional aspect in the mix—are also at times baffling in their own way. Songs routinely break meter and rhyme scheme. “My Pal Foot Foot”—a song about a lost cat—never identifies the missing character as an animal at all. The song’s protagonist goes to the cat’s house, only to be told by the people there “Foot Foot don’t live here no more.” Foot Foot eventually comes home, but by the end of the story you have more questions than answers. (Why does Foot Foot have his own house? Does he have renters?)

For years, much of the attention the band has received has had a slightly unpleasant (or at least patronizing) undertone, somewhat akin to the popular kid in high school buddying up with an awkward outcast because he enjoys prodding him to make a spectacle of himself for everyone’s amusement. Especially in the early days of their rediscovery, the music press could be downright nasty. They’ve been called the “worst band ever” more times than you can count. One infamous Rolling Stone review described them as the “lobotomized Trapp Family singers.” Even today, most of those who write about them do so from an intellectual distance, seemingly too afraid to comment much on the music for fear of not “getting” it but not digging in enough to offer any critical analysis of it, either. Instead, we get endless recitations of the band’s backstory, one that is arguably as compelling as the band’s music.

Named after the then-popular haircut, the Shaggs were not formed by three teenage girls who dreamed of escaping their small-town life and achieving pop stardom. Instead, they were formed by their father, Austin Wiggin, a strict taskmaster who dreamed of seeing his daughters on The Ed Sullivan Show. According to legend, his mother had read his palm and found that his children were destined to form a successful musical act. She’d been right about him marrying a strawberry blonde and having two sons after four daughters, so who was he to question her? So, believing it was his responsibility to make their future a reality, he pulled his daughters out of public school so that he could homeschool them and make sure that they could schedule their lives around endless hours of practicing. They would rarely, if ever, please him.

It was during those long practice sessions that Dot, Helen and Betty began to form the musical equivalent of a twin language, one that held up despite the voice and guitar lessons they were receiving concurrently. They’d been playing together for several years by the time they made the drive to Revere, Massachusetts, to record Philosophy of the World, with Austin hoping to capture the trio on tape “while they were still hot.” But the Wiggin sisters weren’t quite convinced. “I think us girls felt we weren’t ready yet,” Dot recalls. “We could have had a little more experience and practice first, but our dad thought we were ready…” she says, trailing off. “So that’s where it went.”

Opening with the title track—the first song Dot ever wrote—their aesthetic is locked in place. The guitars bleat and churn while the drums pound away a totally different pace, Dot singing in unison with her rising and falling guitar leads. She checks off a list of apparent paradoxes—the kids with short hair want long hair and vice versa, the kids with motorcycles want cars and vice versa—and no one is ever satisfied. “You can never please anybody in this world” is her gloomy conclusion, one that is difficult not to interpret as representing her frustration in never satisfying an authoritarian father.

There isn’t a whiff of teenage rebellion to be found on these tracks, but in a strange way Dot was writing songs that were no less countercultural than her peers. Instead of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, she offered “Who Are Parents?”—a pointed rebuttal to counterculture kids who “do as they please” and don’t want to “obey certain rules.” When the recklessly driving protagonist in “That Little Sports Car” finds her adventure has taken her far from home, she panics. The takeaway is learning “never to roam.” (Tellingly, this is also the lesson that Foot Foot learns.) There are songs of teenage depression and confusion (“Why Do I Feel?” and “What Should I Do?”), as well as love songs that seem to be written from the perspective of someone who was never allowed to go outside and mix with the other kids. There’s a song about the joys of Halloween (“It’s Halloween”) and one about the joys of Jesus (“We Have a Savior”). And it’s all so inconceivably intricate and odd, with thousands of little details that wiggle and squirm away right when you think you have them between your fingers. Listen to the album 100 times and you’ll still hear things that catch you by surprise on the 101st.

But even in the era of experimentation that was 1969, Philosophy of the World was outlandish. Because they wrote and practiced in isolation—only emerging from seclusion to play a weekly Saturday night show at the Fremont Town Hall—the Wiggin sisters never really knew how they were being received. When their debut was released in 1969—with the record label owner only delivering 100 of the 1000 promised albums that Austin Wiggin paid for—the feedback wasn’t good or bad. There wasn’t any at all.

“The most we got was the comments from the kids at the dances,” Dot says, hurt still clinging in her voice. “And my youngest sister, Rachel, went to regular high school, and she heard a lot of the negative stuff on the bus. Even though the kids went [to the dances] and had a good time, they still said not-so-nice things about the songs and our group.” All of the criticism took its toll. After Austin Wiggin passed away in 1975, the Shaggs immediately disbanded. There was no reason to keep chasing someone else’s dream. But his mother was right; his daughters would go on to be a famous musical group, their story becoming so legendary that it inspired a Broadway play and a perennially in-development film project. Where thousands of albums released in the 60s are now forgotten, conscribed to the bargain bin of history, the Shaggs live on.

Then, just as now, you have to rewire your brain to enjoy this music. Ask Brittany Anjou, a classically trained pianist and vibraphonist who sings and plays in the Dot Wiggin Band (as well as the aforementioned Bi-Tyrant), and she’ll tell you that you have to rewire it even more to play it. Not only does the band collaborate with Wiggin on writing arrangements for her new songs, they also have taken it upon themselves to work out all of the strangely tuned, bizarrely timed songs from Philosophy of the World. With Dot sidelined from playing guitar due to arthritis, her bandmates become the Shaggs for her, playing their songs as note-for-note recreations while Dot sings. In so doing, they have added some scholarly heft to Shaggs fandom.

“Most music when you hear it, it makes sense,” Anjou explains. “But when you try to memorize [the Shaggs’ music], it’s like you’re trying to decode some weird, cryptic language. I think the most beautiful thing is that the melodies really break down to pentatonic scales, then they’ll go off the rails onto the ninth or the fourth. They would use the same key five ingredients and notes, but they’d completely fuck the order of it and it will sound like the most random melody that you could possibly think of. Dot was playing lead guitar and singing, and that makes so much sense to me as a jazz improviser. But she was not improvising. She had these very fixed compositions, and every single note was written. Whether in tune or out of tune, it will be really beautiful,” she says with a sigh. “I don’t understand how they got such magic to come across on those records.”

There are two ways to interpret the magic of the Shaggs. One, they were trying to create Top 40 pop music and somehow developed a bizarre and never before seen musical synergy. Philosophy of the World is what they wanted to sound like, because this is what they thought pop music was. They were auteurs who developed a heartfelt musical nomenclature that no one had ever heard before. Insular and idiosyncratic, this was intentional. (“We hate people who say The Shaggs didn’t know what they were doing,” Anjou says, “because they fucking knew. They fucking wrote the songs! They fucking killed it.”)

The other, less charitable, view is that the music of the Shaggs is the result of three girls straining and failing to play their own incompetent interpretation of pop music. They were trying to be Herman’s Hermits—their favorite band—but couldn’t even play in time with each other or keep their instruments tuned. As a result, they fell into a sort of uncanny valley pop music, familiar in content and structure but just off-center enough to unsettle your senses. The results might have been utterly bizarre and inadvertently sophisticated when transcribed for a score, but it was not intentional. It was just the best they could do.

The truth appears to be somewhere in between. No one suggests that the Wiggin sisters were high-minded avant-garde artists who were trying to meld Ornette Coleman with garage rock. No one even suggests that they’d ever heard of Ornette Coleman or garage rock. Nor were they Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band—accomplished jazz musicians who made an ungodly racket by deconstructing pop structures into a precisely clattering mess. They are the opposite of Half Japanese, art-damaged primitives who wanted to be The Velvet Underground but lacked any technical skill, so they just pounded on guitars and drums instead. The Shaggs are the realest of outsider acts and belong to a separate category.
Intentional or not, there are moments on Philosophy of the World that do seem to approach a kind of genius. Dot writes songs with an intuitive meter and phrasing, her melodies often rising and souring at the end of each line in ways that no one in the pop universe would ever do intentionally. These are not mistakes; she is not trying to hit a note and failing. This is the intentional craft of a musician who, for whatever reason, likes the sound of melodies that resolve in very strange ways, far more eastern than western in how they unravel.

That’s not to say, however, that Philosophy of the World is the sound they wanted to make. In a 1999 interview with The New Yorker, Betty Wiggin expressed continued embarrassment about the album. Read any interviews with Dot from the past 25 years, and you’ll see she talks about Philosophy of the World with a mix of pride and bafflement, as if she’s not entirely sure that all of the accolades the album receives aren’t part of some cruel prank that she hasn’t been let in on yet. (If you want to hear something that’s likely closer to what they wanted to sound like, check out Shaggs’ Own Thing, their unofficial second album that showcases a more conventional, yet still somewhat strange, band.) On tour with Neutral Milk Hotel, Wiggin was able to see for the first time that hundreds, if not thousands, of people actually enjoyed her music. After shows kids young enough to be her grandchildren would line up for autographs. City by city, the legend of the Shaggs grew.

“We had these large audiences, and it was such an amazing experience, because we could see who in the crowd were hardcore Shaggs fans and who in the crowd had no idea,” Anjou recalls. “And then later in the tour, we would read comments online of people going like, ‘What is this music? It is totally insane,’ There were people correcting each other online, like, ‘This band was so horrible. I didn’t get it.’ And then other people would say, ‘No, there’s this whole story! It’s supposed to be like that.’”

Anjou said she realized how much Wiggin was enjoying the tour when she opted to bunk with the band one night while they were only an hour from her home in New Hampshire. It turns out the girl who wrote songs about characters who learn “never to roam” had become quite a roamer herself. Now with the beginnings of a new set of songs for the Dot Wiggin Band, she appears ready to add yet another chapter to rock music’s most improbable story.

“When we disbanded after our father passed away and got married, we just thought that was part of our life then and this was now. We never thought it would resurface,” Dot says, pausing to watch a hummingbird hover near the window. She laughs to herself. “It’s a good feeling.”