|The Shaggs: (from l to r) Betty, Helen, and Dot Wiggin|
One of the great ironies/injustices of popular culture is that the music specifically marketed to teenagers is getting progressively more polished and "perfect" with each advance in technology, while the teenagers themselves remain -- as always -- bumpy, lurching, and awkward. There's an odd disconnect between the relentlessly smoothed-out, robotic, studio-crafted pop being released by a group like One Direction and the messy, utterly human vulnerability of that group's fans. Teenage music, then, bears no resemblance whatsoever to teenage life. A hopeless chasm exists between the two.
|Mick: Handsomely un-handsome|
All of this brings me back to the topic of the Shaggs.
I couldn't possibly tell you the entire saga of this astonishing all-female 1960s singing group composed of sisters from a working class New Hampshire family. You'll have to rely on this bizarre but affectionate New Yorker article by Susan Orlean for the details. Here's an overview for the newbies: in 1968, a Fremont, NH mill worker named Austin Wiggin decided that he must fulfill the deathbed prophecy of his mother, who proclaimed that Austin's then-teenage daughters would be famous. Austin pulled the girls out of school and forced them to become a rock band, even though the girls had no musical inclination whatsoever and definitely did not want to become performers. Only one of the daughters, Dot, had any enthusiasm whatsoever for her dad's dream, so she was elected to be lead singer and songwriter of the resulting group, dubbed The Shaggs in honor of the Wiggin sisters' shaggy hairdos (and supposedly, the shagginess of the family dog). Despite their total lack of aptitude and success, The Shaggs soldiered on for 7 years, playing local gigs for audiences who either tolerated them politely or heckled them outright. The band finally ended in 1975 when Austin died, and the Wiggin girls -- no longer kids by then, of course -- went on to lead very ordinary, non-musical lives.
|The Shaggs' lone, infamous LP|
But what about the original music itself? What's it like to listen to The Shaggs? I won't lie to you, dear reader, you will probably find it torturous, verging on unlistenable. For three demure New Hampshire girls, The Shaggs make a powerful racket, clanging away at their out-of-tune instruments with abandon. In particular, drummer Helen Wiggin seems to be in a world all her own. Throughout the album, there are lots and lots of what music teachers would call "wrong notes," and the three ladies cannot seem to agree on a collective tempo, key, or time signature. Susan Orlean was right when she described their melodies as "squashed and bent." The album sounds like it was left out in the sun on a hot day and melted. If it weren't from 1969, you'd guess it to be some kind of primitive punk music, but the rawness of the music is at odds with the sweet simplicity of the lyrics. The Shaggs sing about looking for a lost cat ("My Pal Foot Foot"), the importance of obeying one's parents ("Who Are Parents?"), praising Jesus ("We Have a Savior"), and how nice it is to have a radio ("My Companion"). Austin Wiggin seems like he was a dictatorial parent who did everything in his power to keep the world away from his girls and vice-versa, so maybe the transistor radio was one of Dot Wiggin's few links to the outside world. Another recurring theme on the album is the foolishness of straying too far from one's home. "Little Sports Car" ends with Dot and her sisters singing, "I learned my lesson never to roam, never to roam, never to roam."
|The late, great Crow's Nest in Crest Hill, IL|
P.S. - The rarities compilation is well worth checking out, too. It contains some later studio recordings by the group, some of which demonstrate that the Wiggins had been indeed practicing their instruments at least a little. One song in particular I love is "You're Something Special to Me," which contains a lyric which summarizes a lot about my own personal mindset: "Please don't speak unkind words to me. That would make me unhappy." Very simple, of course, but very true as well. If that last song was too much for you, maybe this will be more your speed.