You can never please/any-boh-oh-dy/in, this, world!
January 20, 2008 9:22 PM   Subscribe

In 1968, three sisters from Fremont, New Hampshire -- Dot, Helen, and Betty Wiggin -- started a band, under the encouragement, support, and management of their father, Austin. Dot recalls that the girls would rise late, practice for two hours, then work on their home-schooling. Then they did their calisthenics, rigidly prescribed by their father, and rehearsed two more hours in the evenings when Austin was home. Over the next 8 years, Austin would rent out the Fremont Town Hall many Saturday nights for a dance; the sisters, known collectively as "The Shaggs," would play their music, while their mother, Annie, would collect tickets and sell sodas (with help from more of the Wiggin siblings). In 1975, Austin Wiggins died; the sisters, without their father to spur them on, laid down their instruments and got on with the rest of their lives.

And that would have been the last that anyone had heard the Wiggin Sisters' music. Except that, a year after the girls had started taking lessons, proud father that he was, Austin (a factory worker in nearby Exeter) paid for time in a recording studio for his daughters, and then paid more money to press the resulting album of songs. "Going into the recording studio was all my father's idea," Dot says. "We didn't feel like we were ready yet; we didn't feel that we knew that much about music. We were just getting started. He gave us a lot of support. He backed us up all the way."

Still, that recording was almost just another Wiggin family story, as the guy whom Austin paid to press the album took off with his money and most of the records. The master tapes, stored in a chest in the attic, also eventually went missing. The few albums that remained somehow found their ways into the right hands, and in 1980 Rounder Records re-released The Shaggs' now-classic LP "Philosophy of the World".

In the 9/27/1999 issue of the New Yorker, Susan Orleans wrote an article, "Meet the Shaggs." The article, and the Wiggins' story, caught the eye of Artisan Entertainment. A biopic seemed to be on the horizon, but that eventually morphed into an award-winning musical. "It was a good article, but if she’d only kept to the truth," Dot muses in the seacoastnh.com article. "A lot of it was right and quite a lot of it was wrong."

Nobody can deny their own first reaction to The Shaggs' music: either you've found bliss, or a headache. It's a mixture of naive innocence, simplicity, chaos, confusion, and beauty. Lester Bangs, deeming the album "one of the landmarks of rock'n'roll history," describes the Shaggs' sound, "sorta like 14 pocket combs being run through a moose's dorsal, but very gently." Frank Zappa thought that the Shaggs were "better than the Beatles."

If "outsider music" had a Mt. Rushmore, the Wiggin sisters would be standing there, 7 stories high, pawn-shop guitars in hand, smiling, ready to light up your world. You can listen to four of their songs on their MySpace page. There are also plenty of examples of their music (but sadly, no footage of them) on YouTube:

- My Pal Foot Foot [previously on MeFi, a different version]
- I Love
- You're Something Special To Me two three four
- Philosophy of the World
- It's Halloween (Possibly one of the best Halloween songs ever.)
- Gimme dat ding
- I'm So Happy When You're Near (video features pandas!)
posted by not_on_display (79 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm going to have weird dreams tonight.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:31 PM on January 20, 2008


I have actually heard My Pal Foot Foot before.

..................... I'm going to leave it at that.
posted by blacklite at 9:31 PM on January 20, 2008


This music has hallucinogenic properties.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:34 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


This American Life did it
posted by infinitewindow at 9:37 PM on January 20, 2008


I've heard My Pal Foot Foot too, the Deerhoof cover though. It turned me off of Deerhoof. I feel like I'm missing something.
posted by arcticwoman at 9:37 PM on January 20, 2008


Yet the question remains, who are parents?
posted by jtron at 9:38 PM on January 20, 2008


The Shaggs should do an album with Mingering Mike.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:40 PM on January 20, 2008


Huh, I've heard Who Are Parents, too, but by The Danielson Famile. Weird, I've heard a few of the Shaggs songs, but never heard of them.
posted by arcticwoman at 9:42 PM on January 20, 2008


Who are parents? Parents are the ones who really care.
Who are parents? Parents are the ones who are always there.
(And ^sorry, I don't listen to NPR much, except for it's my radio alarm clock.)
posted by not_on_display at 9:42 PM on January 20, 2008


Wow, thanks for introducing me to this.
posted by pombe at 10:05 PM on January 20, 2008


The "outsider" label seems to get thrown around when people don't want to say "shitty". Just becasue you enjoy laughing at a shitty band doesn't mean they're outsider artists. They're still a shitty band that were just weird enough to get the underground cool seal of approval and are now an entry-level musical know-it-all's combination punchline/secert handshake.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 10:12 PM on January 20, 2008 [4 favorites]


I'd never heard this before, thanks for the post.

I'm not sure if music like this could be made on purpose.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:17 PM on January 20, 2008


Happy YFBS day to you too, Slack!
posted by not_on_display at 10:17 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


The Shaggs story is ultimately really sad. The Shaggs music, on the other hand, is amazing. I'd much rather listen to them than Zappa, personally. If you're going to talk about The Shaggs, you need to mention NRBQ and their connection to the band.

They're still a shitty band that were just weird enough to get the underground cool seal of approval and are now an entry-level musical know-it-all's combination punchline/secert handshake.

Really listen to it. Not even Ornette Coleman/Captain Beefheart's Magic Band could do that if they tried. That's the beauty of it. Of course, if you don't see that, I take my handshake back and bid adieu.
posted by sleepy pete at 10:18 PM on January 20, 2008


"...Just becasue you ..." and "...secert handshake...."

Ummm....those are the outsider spellings of "because" and "secret".
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 10:20 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure if music like this could be made on purpose.

Yep. Beginner's mind or something. I enjoyed it.
posted by Wolof at 10:23 PM on January 20, 2008


I'm not sure if music like this could be made on purpose.

That right there's pretty close to precisely the appeal of the Shaggs. It sounds like music made by people who invented their instruments earlier that day, and have sort of half-discovered just enough of the basics of melody and harmony to bang out a few tunes, and this extraordinary capture-of-fire discovery is so singular they simply must slap these swatches into the first finished song in the history of the world. Because otherwise the world would have no songs. Which lends it a sort of immediacy and spontaneous joy that you just can't plan to do.
posted by gompa at 10:24 PM on January 20, 2008 [8 favorites]


People always assume that if you like outsider museic, it must be because you laugh at it. And, yes, when you first hear the Shaggs, or the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, or Shooby Taylor, you laugh. Nothing wrong with that. You continue to laugh as you continue to listen to them.

But you grow to love them. When music is deliberately idiosyncratic, it is often twee or precious. When it is accidentally idiosyncratic, it's beautiful.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:33 PM on January 20, 2008 [7 favorites]


this extraordinary capture-of-fire discovery

Well said. I think it's delightful music; surreal, but weirdly lovely and earnest. It's very appropriate that they're New Englanders.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:35 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


That guitar playing reminds me a lot of Jack White.
posted by wsg at 10:35 PM on January 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


Being in a band makes me hate the Shaggs songs in a special way. Having various band members over the years who don't understand the way music/rhythm/key signatures work has conditioned me to try and listen with an ear for "what do they actually mean by this? how can this thing that sounds bad NOT sound bad so when my Jazz nerd friends listen I'm not embarrassed when it's eventually played live/posted on metafilter."

When I listen to the Shaggs and my brain tries to do that to the Shaggs stuff, it makes me cry.
posted by Brainy at 10:35 PM on January 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


The Shaggs are my favorite outsider band. Other greats are B. J. Snowden and Daniel Johnston

Here's a good starting point for outsider music- Songs in the Key of Z

a huge collection of outsider and found music is here-
365 days project

This radio archive is great too-
WFMU's Incorrect Music
posted by bhnyc at 10:37 PM on January 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


(When it is accidentally idiosyncratic, it's beautiful.

Well, not always. Sometimes it's just terrible.)
posted by LooseFilter at 10:37 PM on January 20, 2008


not_on_display: Happy YFBS day to you too, Slack!

Good lord, please don't tell me it's already YFBS day! I totally forgot. My Grandma is going to be disappointed when she goes to the mailbox today and there's not a card from me telling her how much Eddie Cantor blows.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 10:37 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


WSG, I totally hear the Jack White thing. I was just thinking the other day how he has this strange guitar style, like nothing even comes close to resolving until the very last beat it could. Or worse, it never does. Whatever it is, gets under my skin and makes me cringe.
posted by Brainy at 10:38 PM on January 20, 2008


This is an excellent post.
posted by Divine_Wino at 10:47 PM on January 20, 2008


Maybe I'm just sleepy, but there's something so awesome and magical and disturbing about this that I don't really know what to say about it. It looks and sounds like something Lucky McKee (May) would do. Mind you, that's commentary on the music and the video taken as a whole.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:48 PM on January 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


What Astro Zombie said.

They're still a shitty band that were just weird enough to get the underground cool seal of approval and are now an entry-level musical know-it-all's combination punchline/secert handshake.

Oh, please. I never gave a shit about any "underground cool seal of approval" for liking the Shaggs. I just completely fell in love with the way the strange noises they made carved out this beautifully strange and challenging little spot on the edges of the category called "music." Atonal, earnest, fascinating and fun is what it sounded like to me, and I found myself drawn to it over and over again.

If it's not your cuppa, fine; we all have different neuron wiring. But it's bullshit to assume everyone who really, truly likes The Shaggs' music is laughing at them, or only in it for cool points. It's appealing to a lot of folks on at least a slightly deeper level than that.

All I know is from the first time I heard it I was in awe of the noise they made.
posted by mediareport at 10:52 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'd add that the Shaggs always seemed to me to be what my ten year old self would do given the ability to form a band, they sound like messages from a future that never happened. Also, once again, superb post.
posted by Divine_Wino at 10:56 PM on January 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


^Don't worry, I sent her one for ya! Here's a copy.

Really. Eddie Cantor blows.
posted by not_on_display at 11:00 PM on January 20, 2008


As a kind of footnote to mediareport's comment, I'd add that not all laughter is mockery.

That Legendary Stardust Cowboy stuff that AZ links to, for example? Damn straight I laugh every time I hear "Paralyzed," but it is the laugh of a guy who has wandered into a honkytonk in the roughest part of town in some frontier outpost on Mars and can't believe the shit going on there and, while delighted by it in some kind of brothel-at-the-end-of-the-universe sort of way - I mean, who let the meth-addicted aphasic take over the piano in this joint? and is it just me or is that mutant growth on his left shoulder singing backing vocals? - is also very very afraid that if he looks like he isn't having a good time, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy will kill him where he stands. Painfully and with a mad showbiz verve.
posted by gompa at 11:03 PM on January 20, 2008


The first time I heard the song "Philosophy of the World", I was shocked in about five different ways all at once. Something about it was funny sure, but at the same time it was also deeply sad.

The Shags are a real treasure for music lovers.

Also, I'd never read that Seacoast article, thanks.
posted by stinkycheese at 11:08 PM on January 20, 2008


If you dig on the outsider stuff BTW, I'd highly recommend Peter Grudzien's The Unicorn album (I like it even better than The Shaggs personally).
posted by stinkycheese at 11:15 PM on January 20, 2008


I knew the Shaggs for years for one song only: "It's Halloween." I'd heard it on Dr. Demento when I was a kid (WCOZ, 94.5 Boston), and it thrilled me. 7 years later, I saw a used cassette for 99 cents, bought it for that song, and was immediately whisked away. I played it for my friends, and they could only tolerate two, three songs at most. I didn't care. No special clubs, no record-fair trolling, no 'zine subscription needed. The Shaggs just make me smile from somewhere deep inside.

And the web, and especially places like here and the aforementioned WFMU and the 365 Days Project have been such a blessing to my ears...

And!! so many good music posts here, especially lately--and I couldn't believe nobody did a Shaggs monster post yet!

Now, who's up for a Nihilist Spasm Band[mp3] post?
posted by not_on_display at 11:17 PM on January 20, 2008


Who named the band? Was that person familiar with British slang?
posted by Cranberry at 11:59 PM on January 20, 2008


Austin Wiggins named the band; Dot thinks it had something to do with the "shag" style of haircut. None of them had that style haircut.
posted by not_on_display at 12:15 AM on January 21, 2008


(I keep saying "Wiggins" -- it's "Wiggin" -- Geeeeezus.)
posted by not_on_display at 12:16 AM on January 21, 2008


I can't believe nobody has mentioned Jandek yet. I was lucky enough to see one of his rare performances this past year--he played piano while local musicians played along with violin, clarinet and oboe. He never looked at, spoke to or even acknowledged that there was an audience. Even in rural Iowa, every seat was filled. Jandek on Corwood is recommended viewing.
posted by TrialByMedia at 12:19 AM on January 21, 2008


Did they write "I love you?" - I've liked that song since I was a kid!

There's really something hypnotic about them...I felt like I was listening to music through some type of time portal in which none of the wavelengths were coming through at the same time. It wasn't that they were completely out of time - it's that they were in time in waves - very trippy. And the vocals on top of it really puts it over the top.

I don't know if they are "better" than the Beatles, but I definitely enjoyed these songs far more than many Beatles songs I know.

Oh, and I LOVED the "My Pal Foot Foot" video!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:29 AM on January 21, 2008


In the comments on "I Love": the bass is really theoretical on this.

I am not cool enough to know what that means, but I think that's okay.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 12:33 AM on January 21, 2008


I applaud that this exists and I feel some odd connection in an intellectual way, but I couldn't tolerate listening to it for very long. There are glimpses of enjoyable sound, momentary chords that marry up pleasantly but I'm not enjoying the clashes in between. Maybe it deserves another listen or two. It reminds me a little of Velvet Underground. Thanks for the post n_o_d.
posted by peacay at 2:02 AM on January 21, 2008


I think it's really wrong to think people like the Shaggs because they're bad musicians.

On the contrary, they were very good. They practiced a lot--they just practiced shit nobody in their right mind would try to do (until Beefheart, arguably).

I'm not really a fan, myself, but I can appreciate them for their uniqueness in a musical landscape that didn't really allow for such a thing.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:06 AM on January 21, 2008


When I first heard the Shaggs, I thought "Wow, this is like rock played by people who've only read about rock." As Joseph Gurl says, they were very good at what they did. A great anecdote: the sound engineer reported that while being recorded, occasionally they would all stop and one of them would apologize for making a mistake, and they'd ask to start again. He could never tell which one had made the mistake, or what it was...
posted by ubersturm at 3:57 AM on January 21, 2008 [3 favorites]


Metafilter will eat anything.
posted by Horken Bazooka at 5:01 AM on January 21, 2008


Are my ears bleeding? I feel like they should be. They are aren't? Bleeding, that is. No?
posted by oddman at 5:10 AM on January 21, 2008


God Bless the Shaggs.

Tom Cruise apparently bought the movie-development rights to the Susan Orleans article. Pray for the Shaggs.
posted by Kinbote at 5:19 AM on January 21, 2008


I love leaves in the wind
Pictures of my friends
Birds in the world ...

and TWINS
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:49 AM on January 21, 2008


I always thought the Shaggs were charming in the same way that 10-year-old kids attempt at The Great American Novel would be, so in that sense they're irresistible.
posted by jonmc at 5:51 AM on January 21, 2008


"Ha! Gotcha. I was just kidding. Wanted to see how many of you suckas would buy this atonal crap"- Frank Zappa (posted posthumously)
posted by Gungho at 5:53 AM on January 21, 2008


My wife and I played "It's Halloween" more or less all night long a couple of Halloweens ago. Sadly, none of the kids who came to our door commented one way or the other on it.
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:06 AM on January 21, 2008


Wow. It's like a crazy combo of the Manson Family and Phoebe Buffay.
posted by macadamiaranch at 6:24 AM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


It makes me smile in the way that listening to Shonen Knife makes me smile and there are a lot of similarities. Philosophy of the World is awesome.
posted by jackiemcghee at 6:24 AM on January 21, 2008


Slack-a-gogo: "The "outsider" label seems to get thrown around when people don't want to say "shitty". Just becasue you enjoy laughing at a shitty band doesn't mean they're outsider artists. They're still a shitty band that were just weird enough to get the underground cool seal of approval and are now an entry-level musical know-it-all's combination punchline/secert handshake."

I'm sure there's plenty of folk who like The Shaggs for those reasons, but, as others have said, it's perfectly possible to just honestly like some of their music. And its only their long run of hip obscurity that makes you sniffy about their quality, I suspect. Since we're on the subject of singing sisters (well, mothers, aunts and daughters these days), I bet an 'acceptably' popular band like ESG would occupy the same space as The Shaggs do today if it weren't for the accident of hip hop producers sampling their metronomic beats/Factory putting their record out/&c. - if you listen to all their super-familiar songs with fresh ears, they're totally bloody eccentric, because they made their music in relative isolation at the behest of a pushy parent too.

I can't believe nobody has mentioned Jandek yet.

I'm not entirely convinced that Jandek counts as 'outsider' music in the 'bizarre amateur' sense. First, he very obviously managed his career and marketed himself with consumate skill over the years, and now, aside from his first couple of live performances in Glasgow in 2004 (I missed the first ever by 15 minutes because he insisted on being left off the bill and playing unnanounced before the Instal festival had actually started) which were in the style of his pre-live gigs recordings, he's shown himself to be very much au fait with avant garde/improvised music scene of the last couple of decades, and is now doing performances very much in that vein.

Not that I don't go and see him every time he plays, because he's bloody great (his live performances aren't rare at all now that he's started playing live, by the way), but I really don't buy the 'total weirdo doing his own thing' bit - I think everything about the way he ran his career was a careful, if not exactly cynical, bid to turn himself into a cult artist.
posted by jack_mo at 6:49 AM on January 21, 2008


Kinbote: Actually, the Wiggins gave their "life rights" and the rights to their songs to Christine Vachon of Killer Films (who produced I'm Not There, among others). About ten years ago, Vachon and critic-turned-director Katherine Dieckmann had begun work on a biopic about the Shaggs that was set to star Kirsten Dunst. This fell through rather spectacularly, as Vachon's book A Killer Life details.

AFAIK Vachon still holds the life rights and music rights to the Shaggs, which would ensure that Cruise's film version would be beset by some challenges, should it ever get made.

[/derail]
posted by pxe2000 at 6:58 AM on January 21, 2008


Man, I really wish I could hear the wonderment that so many of you find in the Shaggs. I used to have a soft spot for “It’s Halloween” (which I also first heard on Dr Demento), but after a while it seemed like a joke that wasn’t funny anymore. I get the interest in the naivety of their delivery and I can appreciate other “difficult listens”, but I just don’t find the beauty in the music of Shaggs. Astro Zombie’s “when it is accidentally idiosyncratic, it's beautiful” comment makes me feel like I’m missing something wonderful. Maybe it’s time for me to drag that album out again and see what happens. Mrs. Slack is gonna love that!

And even when I don’t agree with everyone else’s opinions, which is obviously the case here, I love talking to and reading posts from people that are passionate about the music they love and want to share why they like it so damn much. I’ve been introduced (or reintroduced) to many current favorites because of a “you didn’t like __________? Give it another chance, check out this cut first” conversation.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 7:05 AM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


This fell through rather spectacularly, as Vachon's book A Killer Life details.

Thanks to Amazon's "Search inside the book," I was able to read the story (on pages 145-147); short version, for anyone who's curious: Vachon's production company was trying to sell the Shaggs project on the strength of Dunst's participation, and pretty much had a deal worked out when Dunst pulled out after the success of Spider-Man. (Her agent said "She doesn't want to play a teenager... Other commitments have come up.") So they had to reconceive it as a low-budget "little film," and got financing from Hole Digger, a group of young guys who decided they wanted to produce it as well and cut Vachon's company out. But they never paid for the rights and eventually went belly-up.

The whole thing reminds me of my wife's experiences with the movie industry, an industry which I urge anyone with any concern for their integrity and peace of mind to stay well clear of.
posted by languagehat at 7:32 AM on January 21, 2008


Oh, and great post. The Orleans piece is well written and infinitely sad, and the music is... unique. What else can you say? The more I hear "Foot Foot" the more I love it. Thanks, not_on_display!
posted by languagehat at 8:04 AM on January 21, 2008


The thing that first turned me on to The Shaggs was that they really are as peculiar as people had told me they were. Love 'em or hate 'em, they deliver.

I love 'em.
posted by dirtdirt at 8:22 AM on January 21, 2008


I wanted to add to jack_mo's thoughts on Jandek and say that not only is it contrived (even if it is in a "good" way), his music just creeps me the fuck out.

Thanks again for the post, not_on_display.
posted by sleepy pete at 8:26 AM on January 21, 2008


I wanted to add to jack_mo's thoughts on Jandek and say that not only is it contrived (even if it is in a "good" way), his music just creeps me the fuck out.

I'm with sleepy pete on this. Jandek's very interesting as a curiosity, but I wouldn't sit around listening to him. He lacks the earnestness and genuine charm that makes the Shaggs (and Wild Man Fischer, for instance) more than just oddities.
posted by jonmc at 8:31 AM on January 21, 2008


First, I thought "So THIS is why people like The Moldy Peaches!" because this was pretty endearing stuff. Then I thought "Waitwaitwait, this is why people SHOULD NOT like The Moldy Peaches!" because The Moldy Peaches are kind of trying very hard to do this without any of the actual innocence that gave birth to this music. Sort of an affect, you know?

Anyway, that movie Juno was good, but The Moldy Peaches are not. That's what I have to say about those two things and The Shaggs.
posted by shmegegge at 9:23 AM on January 21, 2008


I'm not sure if music like this could be made on purpose.

Yep. Beginner's mind or something. I enjoyed it.


The Shaggs have absolutely fascinated me since I first heard them in college. I was originally drawn to them because they were hyped as the music world's equivalent of Plan Nine from Outer Space, an example of amateur ineptitude producing the worst ever in their own chosen field. But as I listened to it more and more, I practically fell in love with the wide-eyed childlike naivete of the music. In fact, I was going out my first college girlfriend, my first girlfriend ever, the first girl I had ever loved, and she too had a similar sense of naivete that I fell in love with. The Shaggs lyrics were not about standard rock 'n' roll topics, but about parents and Halloween and lost dogs and all things that would fill a sheltered little girl on the verge of adolescence with wonderment.

In the final days of my grad school career, I had the idea about writing a scholarly article on outsider music with the Shaggs as a centerpiece. I never finished the article, but some of the research I did could probably be used as the basis for a book about the music of the Shaggs. If you look at the story of how the Shaggs were "discovered" in the 1970s by record collectors and other musicians (and I haven't filled in all the gaps), it's a weird story with many digressions that includes not only NRBQ and Zappa, but R. Stevie Moore and the Patti Smith Group. (I heard rumors that members of the Patti Smith Group were such big Shaggs fans that they called each other "Foot Foot.") One thing is that the Shaggs themselves would have to be approached very gingerly about any participation in such a project. The Susan Orlean article on the Shaggs that was published by the New Yorker (Ms. Orlean is best known as the author of the Orchid Thief) has reportedly opened up a lot of hurt feelings with the Wiggin family, because a very brief two-sentence reference to the possibility that Austin Wiggin had molested his daughters, although the sisters themselves don't seem to agree as to what happened. (Orlean writes, "The rumor around town was that Austin forced his daughters to be in the band. There was even talk that he was inappropriately intimate with them. When asked about it years later, Betty said that the talk wasn't true, but Helen said that Austin once was intimate with her. ") I think that's why most public appearances and interactions with the media are done by Dot Wiggin, because the sisters have definitely had some pain and tragedy in their lives. In fact, I once got in touch with a guy who did film the sisters for a documentary project, but he eventually shelved the project, because he felt the sisters had had a hard enough life, and he didn't want to contribute to having them suffer any more.

If I ever get a chance to publish anything about the Shaggs, I would try focus on the music and minimize researching their personal histories, because a lot of outside music isn't sufficiently appreciated as music. If I had to describe the secret to the Shaggs sound, I would say that it's the result of amateur musicians who were forced to practice relentlessly on an individual basis, but their "stage father" never really understood the basic idea that a band is supposed to work together as a collectivity in sync with each other. There's a sentence in the Susan Orlean article that suggests she almost gets this ("Dot wrote the songs and the basic melodies, and she and Betty worked together on the chords and rhythms. Helen made up her drum parts on her own."), but doesn't fully draw out its implications. However, I did manage track down some unpublished conference papers by musicology professors and grad students on the Shaggs, which have an interesting theory. Basically, the drummer Helen kept in time with some very basic time signatures, because she had been required to play rhythm exercises over and over again in forced practice sessions, but she never got in time with her sisters. Helen would be playing a proper time signature, but it would be out-of-sync with her sisters, although in some of the songs, it would go back in sync, only to go back out of sync again. The way the rhythm bounces off out-of-sync with the simple melody line on guitar gives the Shaggs a "free jazz by accident" quality that led Lester Bangs to compare the group to Ornette Coleman. In addition, the jazz vocalist Carla Bley is a big fan of the group, raving that "they blew my mind completely."

Another thing that strikes me as unique about the music of the Shaggs is related to the white-bread nature of their musical influences. Even though the Shaggs might sound like free jazz, as far as I can tell, the musical diet of the Shaggs was pretty much limited to stuff like Herman's Hermits, Tommy Sands, and Dino, Desi, & Billy. My theory is that the Shaggs sound like what rock & roll sounds like when you are in a sheltered, isolated homogeneously white rural enclave in the middle of a nowhere, and you have no clue whatsoever that rock & roll has any connection to rhythm & blues, country music, gospel music, sexuality, anger, or teenage rebellion. I think is what has drawn white indie rock groups to the Shaggs, such as Half Japanese and Beat Happening, while at the same time, the group also finds devotees among jazz fans who link weird, out-of-sync rhythms.

Anyhow, that's my story. Anybody interested in signing me up to a book contract to write about the Shaggs?
posted by jonp72 at 9:50 AM on January 21, 2008 [11 favorites]


sleepy pete: "I wanted to add to jack_mo's thoughts on Jandek and say that not only is it contrived (even if it is in a "good" way), his music just creeps me the fuck out."

That's why I listen to him, really (the pre-playing live stuff, anyway - the recent live recordings are a different kettle of fish entirely).

jonmc: "He lacks the earnestness and genuine charm that makes the Shaggs (and Wild Man Fischer, for instance) more than just oddities."

Yep. But there are defo some songs, especially from the mid-80s, that do have that quality - check out 'You Painted Your Teeth' from the Telegraph Melts album.

Also, when he's not doing his The Cell suite stuff live, he's absolutely genuine, for want of a better word. A couple of years ago, I got mixed up and went to the wrong venue to meet friends, and at the very moment I walked through the door, Jandek started up, unannounced once again, playing a simple bluesey set and I was completely mesmerised - stood on my own, literally didn't move for the next hour, not even to get a beer!

So, yeah, I find the whole 'outsider' shtick a bit hinky, but the music can be absolutely mind-blowing at times.
posted by jack_mo at 10:12 AM on January 21, 2008


I can dig it, jack_mo. I've tried, really. I've had experiences like that, just never with Jandek. I don't think less of him, though.
posted by sleepy pete at 10:19 AM on January 21, 2008


Well, first off, I should say that when I first heard The Shaggs, I definitely got the connection to Trout Mask Replica-era Captain Beefheart - although I'm not quite sure what that says about Captain Beefheart.

However, I wonder if what sets The Shaggs apart is the fact that they were discovered at all. I mean, when I was 12, I was in a "band" called the Dangerous Six, which consisted entirely of kids I went to art camp with. We probably sounded a bit like this.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:49 AM on January 21, 2008


jonp72 - for sure. Steve Reich made a career out of the interesting possibilities that come out of phasing in sound and music. If I remember correctly, the live "Gimme Dat Ding" has the drums in synch and basically just sounds like a sloppy but reasonably straightforward tune. I think there's one other studio song the Shaggs managed like that, can't remember which one. Usually, yeah, the drumming isn't particularly good, but it does "make sense" on its own. But it has nothing to do with what the guitar and bass are doing, making things sound so disjointed and jambled up.
Anyway, I'm obviously no music critic, but I do enjoy the Shaggs.
posted by zoinks at 10:56 AM on January 21, 2008


Yep. But there are defo some songs, especially from the mid-80s, that do have that quality - check out 'You Painted Your Teeth' from the Telegraph Melts album.

I've heard it. Not my cup of tea. Sounds like a guy trying to show how weird he can be. The Shaggs and Wild Man Fischer didn't even see themselves as weird.
posted by jonmc at 10:59 AM on January 21, 2008


jonp72 - if you ever write that book, i will buy it. even if it's self-published, through lulu.com, or just a pdf. so please, please, please, write it. hell, i'm sure feral house or someone would put it out.
posted by jtron at 11:16 AM on January 21, 2008


"You Painted Your Teeth" is my favorite Jandek tune! I'd love to cover it as a punk song!

True story (jonmc will no doubt appreciate this): Some years back, I was meeting friends at Otto's Shrunken Head (a tiki bar in New York's Alphabet City that has bands in the back room), and I was killing time and put a bunch of songs on the jukebox, one of which was "My Pal Foot Foot." About 15 seconds in, the bartender yelled "I can't take this shit anymore!" and must've hit a button under the bar or something, cos' it immediately went to my next song...
posted by AJaffe at 12:14 PM on January 21, 2008


First, [Jandek] very obviously managed his career and marketed himself with consumate skill over the years

Really? I mean, I know he made sure to send free records to places like Factsheet Five and such, but "marketing himself with consummate skill" seems a bit much.
posted by mediareport at 12:19 PM on January 21, 2008


My son's reaction to "It's Halloween":

"Dad, turn this off. It scares me. It creeps me out. You have weird taste in music."
posted by not_on_display at 12:37 PM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


mediareport: "First, [Jandek] very obviously managed his career and marketed himself with consumate skill over the years

Really? I mean, I know he made sure to send free records to places like Factsheet Five and such, but "marketing himself with consummate skill" seems a bit much.
"

I just reckon that the whole thing seems a bit too spot on - if you were going to build up a mysterious underground star of the sort people obsess over, you'd do it exactly as Sterling Smith/Jandek/'a representative from Corwood Industries' did it. It's like he's perfected a template based on past underground obscurities. This, of course, doesn't mean that Jandek is a cynic, it means that I am for suspecting him of orchestrating some sort of art project/canny marketing scheme, and not just being a eccentric, very private person doing their thing (having briefly chatted with him, he struck me as quite jolly and down to earth, just to confuse things further!). And if it is all a bit of a blag, it needed the music to be great, which is the main thing in the end.
posted by jack_mo at 1:01 PM on January 21, 2008


My theory on why Jandek started performing live is that in his "real" life, Sterling Smith advised people on their investments and now he is of an age where he might be retired from that and doesn't have to keep up appearances with clients anymore.
posted by AJaffe at 1:10 PM on January 21, 2008


I have this growing suspicion that the vast majority of music I've enjoyed since around 1997 now qualifies as 'found' or 'outsider' music. Many bands that don't exist anymore. Some bands that are remembered by less people than would fill the DMV on a slow day. This is sometimes depressing, but this is music that is mine. The fact that it's not in demand by the masses or doesn't register on some curious and antiquated measure of success makes no difference to me. It's no less precious to me. The glass really is half full.
posted by ZachsMind at 1:49 PM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


I am surprised that so many people haven't heard of the Shaggs!

Jonp72, that sounds like the 33 1/3 for Philosophy of the World that I would want to read. I recommend you propose it, if they have another call for proposals anytime soon.
posted by Casuistry at 1:54 PM on January 21, 2008


jonp72:the jazz vocalist Carla Bley

While she has sung on a few projects (most famously Escalator Over the Hill), Carla Bley is usually identified as a composer/band leader. Minor nitpick.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 2:07 PM on January 21, 2008


.
posted by kozad at 9:31 PM on January 21, 2008


Great post. Never heard of 'em. After listening to some examples, it seems evident that heavy duty hallucinogenic drugs must have been used in the creation (and enjoyment) of their music.
posted by spock at 11:12 PM on January 21, 2008


Great post, not_on_display. Looking over the comments here, I guess I'm a little surprised at the number of folks who hadn't heard of the Shaggs til now. It's a great thing that you've introduced so many to the unparalleled alternate musical reality that those 3 girls represent. Kudos!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:12 AM on January 22, 2008


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