The story of the Shaggs is one of the most unusual in the history of rock 'n' roll. In 1969, a trio of teenage sisters from rural New Hampshire—lead guitarist Dorothy "Dot" Wiggin, rhythm guitarist Betty Wiggin, and drummer Helen Wiggin—were forced by their father to record an album, even though they had limited musical training, experience, and expertise. This album, Philosophy of the World, featured original pop/rock songs written and performed without regard for traditional musical convention. Played barely in tune and never in time, the songs, mainly written by Dot, celebrated adolescent feelings while addressing spirituality and existential concerns. After its release, Philosophy of the World sank without a trace, and the band drifted into obscurity after the death of their father in 1975.
Over the next few years, copies of the album fell into the hands of collectors and aficionados of avant-garde and underground music. Philosophy of the World started to receive accolades from rock and jazz musicians. Released on compact disc, the album and its sequel, Shaggs' Own Thing, reached a new audience. Now recognized as a pioneering girl group, the Shaggs were hailed as the "Godmothers of Outsider Music," a genre that includes compositions created by artists outside of mainstream culture.
The Shaggs also were noted for helping to lay the groundwork for the punk and indie rock genres and for paving the way for primitivist bands such as Half Japanese and Beat Happening, as well as for individual artists such as the bipolar songwriter Daniel Johnston and the street musician Wesley Willis. One of the most controversial groups in rock music, the Shaggs have generally been either loved or hated; they have been called the best band in the world and the worst. The Shaggs have often been viewed as true originals whose sincere, unpolished music presented listeners with a new way to encounter the art form.
A Palm Reader's Prediction
The saga of the Shaggs began with their paternal grandmother, a psychic who saw the destiny of the group in a palm reading that she did for her young son, Austin Wiggin, Jr. The woman predicted that Austin would marry a strawberry blonde, that they would have two sons whom she would not live to see, and that the Wiggin girls would form a band that would make them famous. When the first two prophecies came true, Austin devoted his life to making the third a reality. After marrying his wife Annie, Austin supported her and their children Dot, Betty, Helen, Rachel, Austin III, and Robert by working in a textile mill in Exeter, New Hampshire; the family lived in Fremont, New Hampshire, a small town 50 miles from Boston.
After noting the success of the Beatles, Austin Wiggin decided that the time had come for his mother's prophecy to be fulfilled. In 1967, he pulled his daughters out of school, enrolled them in correspondence courses, bought them instruments, assigned them roles in the band, and signed them up for music and voice lessons. Their father set up a rigid schedule for the new group, which he named the Shaggs after a then-popular sheepdog-like hair style. The girls, who had a minimal social life, studied and rehearsed in the morning, played more music in the afternoon, and did calisthenics before finishing their day with another rehearsal. Their main musical influences came from the radio; they especially liked perky English rockers Herman's Hermits, among other teen-idol performers.
In 1968, the Shaggs played their first gig, a talent show in Exeter. When they performed the country song "Wheels," the group was jeered at and pelted with soda cans. The girls were mortified, but they continued to practice diligently under their father's strict supervision. Dot began to write songs, and she and Betty worked out guitar parts while Helen accompanied them on the drums. Austin convinced Fremont administrators to allow the Shaggs to become the house band for Saturday night dances at the local town hall.
Over a hundred kids—nearly all of the teenagers in Fremont—usually attended these events. Some would dance, while others would heckle the Shaggs and pelt them with trash. Finally, Austin Wiggin felt that his children were ready to make a record. He booked studio time at Fleetwood Studios in Revere, Massachusetts in March of 1969. When the studio engineer heard the Shaggs rehearse, he told Austin that they were not ready for professional recording. Austin replied that he wanted to get them while they were hot.
After their recording session, the Shaggs had a dozen songs on tape. The studio released a single on Fleet-wood Records that featured the song "My Pal Foot Foot," a paean to Dot's missing, double-amputated gray cat. Over time, the song came to be considered the band's signature tune. Shortly after its release, two members of Fleetwood's staff, Charlie Dreyer and Bobby Herne, started their own company, Third World Recording, in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. When Dreyer offered to press and distribute the Shaggs' album on the Third World label, Austin Wiggin agreed. Dreyer pressed a thousand copies of Philosophy of the World but only 100 survived. It is unclear whether Dreyer absconded with the rest; they may have been thrown away. The surviving records were sold locally or were given to friends and relatives.
Philosophy of the World included earnest, hopeful songs about relationships, Halloween, Jesus, and wanting a sports car, among other subjects; the tunes were played in a jangly but discordant style. Although ignored at the time of its release, Philosophy later became a cult classic. After recording their album, the Shaggs returned to the Fremont town hall dances, adding younger sister Rachel on bass; they also played at nursing homes, hospitals, and county fairs. In 1973, the dances were canceled by local administrators, who cited fighting, drug use, and scuff marks on the floor of the town hall as their reasons (even though the Shaggs ended their Saturday nights by rubbing off all of the marks by hand).
At the age of 28, Helen Wiggin married Henry Bickford, a man whom she had met at the Saturday night dances. Afraid to tell her father, she lived at home for three months. When the truth came out, Austin went after Henry with a shotgun (never used) and kicked Helen out of the Shaggs. In 1975, Austin took the Shaggs—with Helen reinstated—back into the studio, where they recorded the tunes that made up their second album, Shaggs' Own Thing, a work not released until 1982.
For the Record . . .
Members include Dorothy "Dot" Wiggin (born on March 24, 1948, Portsmouth, NH; married Fred Semprini; children: William, Matthew), lead guitar, vocals; Betty Wiggin (born on December 24, 1950, Exeter, NH; married Ricky Porter; children: two sons), guitar, vocals; Helen Wiggin (born on December 17, 1946, in Kittery, ME; married Henry Bickford; divorced; children: two sons), drums.
Group formed in Fremont, NH, 1967; played first gig, to unfavorable response, 1968; Fleetwood Records released single with group's best-known song "My Pal Foot Foot," 1969; first album, Philosophy of the World, released by Third World Records, 1969; second album, Shaggs' Own Thing, recorded, 1975 (released 1982); group disbanded after death of their father, 1975; Frank Zappa stimulated resurgence of interest in band with favorable comment in Playboy magazine, 1976; Terry Adams, keyboardist for NRBQ, arranged for re-release of Philosophy on Red Rooster label, 1980; compilation album The Shaggs released on Rounder label; 1988; band's guitarists reunite on stage at NRBQ's 30th anniversary concert, 1999; band's life story is optioned for film, 2000; Animal World Recordings released Shaggs tribute album, 2001; Joy Gregory created award-winning stage play based on the group's life and music, 2003.
Awards: Rolling Stone, Comeback Band of the Year, 1980; Village Voice Pazz and Jop Music Critics' Poll, listing, for Philosophy of the World, 2000; Best Play or Musical, Small Venue, Ventura County Star, for The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, 2003.
Addresses: Record company— Animal World Recordings, 1122 Norfolk St., #26, New York, NY 10002; RCA Records, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036; Rounder Records, 1 Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02150, phone: 800-ROUNDER, website: http://www.rounder.com. Website— The Shaggs Official Website: http://www.theshaggsonline.com.
The eventual critical consensus about this record, which included Betty's only known composition, "Painful Memories," plus cover versions of songs by groups such as the Carpenters and the Pipkins, has held that the material and performances were more technically proficient, a fact that diminishes their charm slightly. However, observers also have noted that much of the Shaggs' characteristic artless quality comes through. In 1975, Austin Wiggin died of a massive heart attack; he was 47 years old. After Austin's death, Helen Wiggin stated that her father had abused her sexually at one time and that she was unable to work because of depression.
Grandmother's Prediction Came True
After the death of their father, the Shaggs disbanded. All of them married, had children, and gave up music. Meanwhile, Austin's legacy began to take shape. Rare copies of Philosophy of the World were discovered and passed around among collectors. Boston radio station WBCN-FM played some cuts from the album and introduced it to progressive musicians such as Frank Zappa, who began championing the band; in 1976, Zappa told Playboy magazine that the Shaggs were "better than the Beatles—even today," and he named Philosophy of the World as his third favorite album of all time. In 1980, Terry Adams, keyboardist for the rock band NRBQ, arranged for Philosophy of the World to be reissued on his band's Red Rooster label, a subsidiary of Rounder Records; two years later, Red Rooster issued Shaggs' Own Thing. In 1988, the albums were combined and released on compact disc as The Shaggs.
These reissues only magnified the band's reputation. The Shaggs continued to find favor among cutting-edge musicians such as Kurt Cobain, Carla Bley, and John Zorn. They were cited as an influence by rock groups such as Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and the Dead Milkmen; the latter paid homage to the Shaggs in their song "When I Get to Heaven" on the album Stoney's Extra Stout (Pig) in 1995. In 1999, NRBQ held a 30th-anniversary concert at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City. Dot Wiggin Semprini and Betty Wiggin Porter, accompanied by NRBQ's Tom Ardolino on drums, played four Shaggs songs at the show; this was the first time that the sisters had been onstage in 25 years.
That same year, Philosophy of the World was issued on CD in its original form and journalist Susan Orlean wrote a profile on the Shaggs for the New Yorker. In 2000, Orlean's article was optioned for film by Cruise/Wagner Productions, the company belonging to actor Tom Cruise, and Artisan Entertainment. In 2001, Animal World Recordings released Better than the Beat-les: A Tribute Album to the Shaggs, which included performances of the band's songs by artists such as R. Stevie Moore and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. In 2003, Joy Gregory wrote the book and lyrics for the stage musical The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World; with music by the Shaggs and Gunnar Madsen, a founding member of a cappella group the Bobs. The musical was performed at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Los Angeles to great acclaim and was scheduled to open at Chicago's Lookinglass Theatre in mid-2004. Dot Wiggin Semprini also reported that she had begun to write songs again.
The Shaggs in Books and Mags
Since the Shaggs entered public consciousness, critics have been divided about their merits. Some reviewers have claimed that the Wiggin sisters are untalented jokes with no concept of musical structure, while others have called them geniuses who invented a radically brilliant musical lexicon. "The Wiggin sisters (an anti-power trio) not only redefined the art but had a coherent Weltanschaaung on their very first album," wrote Lester Bangs in the Village Voice. "How do they sound? Perfect! They can't play a lick! But mainly they got the right attitude, which is what rock 'n' roll's ever been about from day one. … Yet it rocks. Does it ever. … God bless the Shaggs."
Writing in his book Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious World of Outsider Music, Irwin Chusid had this opinion: "Some listeners may feel uneasy and squirm in their seats when they find themselves entertained by the Shaggs. Others don't get it and never will, perhaps because they do not share the fear—if not the conviction—that those of us who love the Shaggs harbor: that we are all capable of combining scout's-honor sincerity with a near-total lack of conventional talent in a given area, producing similar results." Cub Koda of the All Music Guide to Rock commented that the Shaggs cause "any listener coming to this music to rearrange any pre-existing notions about the relationship between talent, originality, and ability."
"There is no album you might own that sounds remotely like this one," Koda wrote of Philosophy of the World. Matt Fink, writing in Delusions of Adequacy, stated that it was "most important to note that the Shaggs were not creating intentional high-concept art. That they most assuredly didn't know what they were doing, but still had the audacity to do it, earns them a rightful place in the annals of pop history. Their music intended to make no grandiose statement yet because—or in spite of—that fact, it ends up making one loud enough that it still resonates over 30 years later." Speaking to Orlean of the New Yorker, Dot Wiggin said, "We might have felt special at the time we made the record. The really cool part, to me, is that it's 30 years later and we're still talking about it. I never thought we'd really be famous. I never thought we'd even be as famous as we are." As Dot told Holly Ramer of the Associated Press, "It's almost like we lived two lives. That was then, this is now. Only the then is becoming the now."
"My Pal Foot Foot"/"Things I Wonder" (single), Fleetwood, 1969.
Philosophy of the World, Third World, 1969; reissued, Red Rooster/Rounder, 1980; reissued on CD, RCA, 1999.
Shaggs' Own Thing, Red Rooster/Rounder, 1982.
The Shaggs (compilation of first two albums plus bonus tracks), Rounder, 1988.
Bogandov, Vladimir, Chris Woodstra, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine, editors, All Music Guide to Rock: The Definitive Guide to Pop, Rock, and Soul, All Media Guide/Backbeat, 2002.
Chusid, Irwin, Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious World of Outsider Music, A Cappella, 2000.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 3rd edition, Muze, 1998.
Unterberger, Richie, Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll, Backbeat, 1998.
Associated Press, June 21, 2000.
In Music We Trust, November, 1999.
New Yorker, September 27, 1999.
Village Voice, January 28, 1981.
"My Pal Foot Foot," http://www.shaggs.com (December 31, 2003).
"Philosophy of the World, " Delusions of Adequacy, http://www.adequacy.net (January 2, 2004).
The Shaggs Online! Official Website of the Shaggs and Dot Wiggin, http://www.theshaggsonline.com (January 5, 2004).
—Gerard J. Senick
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