This review was originally posted on the first Toorak Times web site where publications ceased on that site in March 2017. The old site will be permanently closed in 2020 and these reviews are being re-published in order to preserve them on the current Toorak Times/Tagg site.
This is album retro-review number 151 in the series of retro-reviews of both vinyl and Cd albums in my collection.
The series is called “Cream of The Crate” and each review represents an album that I believe is of significant musical value, either because of it’s rarity, because it represents the best of a style or styles of music or because there is something unique about the group or the music.
Links to the previous 150 reviews can be found at the bottom of this review.
This week it is my absolute delight to present what is possibly the worst group in the world, who had the additional claim to fame of releasing the worst album ever recorded, despite what Frank Zappa appeared to be declaring.
The group is The Shaggs and this is their live album – Philosophy Of The World.
The album was originally a limited edition release on a vinyl format in 1969.
This CD was a re-release of that album, and was released itself in 1999 on the RCAVICTOR label, and it has the identifying code of 09026-63371-2.
The album has 12 tracks and there are actually some gems of music among them, even if we have to redefine the term “music”.
In order to attempt to provide as good a bio as possible on the three sisters that originally made up The Shaggs, I am referring to notes in the accompanying booklet and articles written on the group over the years.
I think as much as their story as possible needs to be told in order to give some context to what I am going to subject you to, musically.
The Shaggs were three sisters, Helen, Betty, and Dorothy (Dot) Wiggin, from Fremont, New Hampshire.
They were managed by their father, Austin Wiggin Jr. and were sometimes accompanied by another sister, Rachel.
They performed almost exclusively at the Fremont town hall and at a local nursing home, their live career beginning in 1968 and ending in 1973.
Many people in Fremont thought the band stank. Austin Wiggin did not. He believed his girls were going to be big stars, and in 1969 he took most of his savings and paid to record an album of their music, and we will learn more of him a bit later.
Where would Austin Wiggin have got the idea that his daughters should form a rock band?
Neither he nor his wife, Annie, was musical; she much preferred television to music, and he, at most, fooled around with a Jew’s harp.
He wasn’t a showoff, dying to be noticed—by all accounts he was an ornery loner who had little to do with other people in town. He was strict and old-fashioned, not a hippie manqué, not a rebel, very disapproving of long hair and short skirts.
He was from a poor family and was raising a poor family—seven kids on a mill hand’s salary—and music lessons and instruments for the girls were a daunting expense.
And yet The Shaggs were definitely his idea—or, more exactly, his mother’s idea.
Austin was terribly superstitious. His mother liked to tell fortunes and when he was young, she studied his palm and told him that in the future he would marry a strawberry blonde and would have two sons whom she would not live to see.
He was also told he would have daughters and that his daughters would play in a band.
Her predictions seem to be borne out.
Annie was a strawberry blonde, and she and Austin did have two sons after his mother died. It was left to Austin to fulfil the last of his mother’s predictions, and when his daughters were old enough he told them they would be taking voice and music lessons and forming a band.
There was no debate: his word was law, and his mother’s prophesies were gospel.
Besides, he chafed at his place in the Fremont social system. It wasn’t so much that his girls would make him rich and raise him out of a mill hand’s dreary métier; it was that they would prove that the Wiggin kids were not only different from, but better than the folks in town.
The Shaggs were not leading rock-and-roll lives.
Austin forbade the girls to date before they were eighteen and discouraged most other friendships. They hadn’t been popular kids, anyway—they didn’t have the looks or the money or the savvy for it.
But being in the band, and being home-schooled, set them apart even more.
Friday nights, the family went out together to do grocery shopping. Sundays they went to church, and the girls practiced when they got home.
Their world was even smaller than the small town of Fremont. Later the girls admitted that prior to making their album, they had never seen music played live!
Their first public performance was at a talent show in nearby Exeter, in 1968. The girls could barely play their instruments. They didn’t think they were ready to appear in public, but Austin thought otherwise.
When they opened, with a cover of a loping country song called “Wheels,” people in the audience threw soft drink cans at them and jeered.
The girls were mortified; Austin told them they just had to go home and practice more. If they thought about quitting, they thought about it very privately, because Austin would have had no truck with the idea.
He was the kind of father who didn’t tolerate debate. They practiced more, did their calisthenics, practiced more. 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, which explains a lot about the resulting album.
The songs were misshapen pop tunes, full of shifting time signatures and odd metres and abrupt key changes, with lyrics about Dot’s lost cat, Foot Foot, and her yearning for a sports car and how much she liked to listen to the radio.
The name Shaggs came from Austin and referred to both shaggy dogs and then then popular hairstyle.
Ironically to the rest of the world, it took on a reference to a more colloquial definition!
And so it was in 1969 The Shaggs found themselves in the recording studio, where dear old dad boasted to the studio engineer,”get my girls while they’re hot!”
Dot says she wondered if they were actually good enough to record, but apparently sighed saying, “That dad is paying for it“.
Somewhat bemused and uncertain as to why in fact they were there, but, with their father Austin literally standing over them, they began to lay down tracks.
Little did they know that these tracks would become the topic of much conversation, but not in the way or for the reasons most musicians wanted.
Confusion was the word of the entire production. Reportedly during the recording sessions the band would occasionally stop playing, claiming one of them had made a mistake and that they needed to start over, leaving the sound engineer to wonder how the girls could tell when a mistake had been made.
On its completion there was a mixture of stunned silence mixed with “disbelievement” which gave rise to some memorable quotes about the album.
Wikipedia reports that that on the topic of the album, Cub Koda, an American rock and roll singer, guitarist, songwriter, disc jockey, music critic, and record compiler, wrote, “There’s an innocence to these songs and their performances that’s both charming and unsettling.
Hacked-at drumbeats, whacked-around chords, songs that seem to have little or no meter to them … being played on out-of-tune, pawn-shop-quality guitars all converge, creating dissonance and beauty, chaos and tranquility, causing any listener coming to this music to rearrange any pre-existing notions about the relationships between talent, originality, and ability.
There is no album you might own that sounds remotely like this one.”
Mind you, Rolling Stone described it as “Priceless and Timeless“!
Frank Zappa’s comment about them being better than the Beatles may have been in reference to the fact he also said that the Beatles were only in it for the money, thus it was obvious to him that The Shaggs would be in “it’ for anything but the money.
Of course, Frank may have also had a psychotic attack after listening to the album!
So, what awaits us on this album?
- Philosophy of the World
- That Little Sports Car *
- Who Are Parents
- My Pal Foot Foot
- My Companion
- I’m So Happy When You’re Near
- Things I Wonder
- Sweet Thing
- It’s Halloween
- Why Do I Feel
- What Should I Do
- We Have a Savior
* Featured Rachel Wiggin on bass
Arranged By – The Shaggs
Tracks “Composed” By – Dorothy Wiggin
Drums – Helen Wiggin
Rhythm Guitar, Vocals – Betty Wiggin
Lead Guitar, Vocals – Dorothy Wiggin
Producer – Austin Wiggin, Jr.
It is essential to commence with track one because yes, it is technically the featured track being also the name of the album.
But as I have often commented in my retro-reviews, that it is appropriate to choose track one on non-compilation albums because it gives you a feel for what the artist(s) are trying to present.
Track one is, after all, the calling card. Philosophy of The World.
It IS the calling card of The Shaggs, and it is . . . it is many things!
The track almost starts off with the three girls playing in time and together, but by 5 seconds any semblance that this might happen is quickly lost and by 12 seconds into the track when Dorothy begins to “sing”, well . . . . well the first time I heard this track my brain commanded my liver to leap up my throat and choke myself before the brain itself, simply melted under the disbelief of what it was processing.
Mind you, if you keep listening the degree of disbelief rises to 11/10, but I found I just had to keep listening.
At times I’m unsure whether what I am listening to is some form of musical dadaism, or like some element of totally free-form jazz, or, is it just three girls with little talent pushed into a studio by dear dad?
In fact if the lyrics are pondered over a bit, there is a degree of sadness in them that may give a clue to the fact that these three sisters may have understood their limitations (I mean to say they were pretty big limitations), but just wanted to please their father, Austin!
As Dot said, “He was somewhat of a disciplinarian, he was stubborn and temperamental. he directed. We obeyed, or did our best.”
In later interviews it became clear that no one, including Austin, really knew what to really do with what was happening in the studio, and the three sisters in their hearts knew there was no pleasing him.
So in fact there is some philosophy in this track, and it is actually quite sad, for amongst the fact that the “fat people want what the thin people got”, and vice versa, is a declaration that the girls knew they were not pleasing their father, or anyone in fact.
It really is quite rich in pathos!
It doesn’t matter what you do
It doesn’t matter what you say
There will always be one who wants things the opposite way . . . . .
We do our best, we try to please
But we’re like the rest
we’re never at ease . . . . .
You can never please
In this world
Philosophy of The World
I have to put track 2 in front of you because That Little Sports Car is a rare Shaggs track among a list of bizarre tracks.
It has four of the Wiggin sisters playing.
In this track, younger sister Rachel sits in on bass. Now try as I may to find a good reason for having a bass line, I mean the role of the bass is to lock the bottom in, in conjunction with the drums and thus provide a solid platform for the rest of the band.
I couldn’t find that reason.
I recall that Yoko Ono once wrote what is colloquially called her One Note Symphony – in which she said, “Decide on one note that you want to play”.
That is exactly what Rachel does and it mattered not whether it related to the rest of the band, who were having their own existential issues! !
Mind you, she doesn’t ‘wreck’ the track.
Both the track, and the sports car, are doing quite fine achieving that outcome without her.
Dot Wiggins breaks out in this track and does something she probably believes is playing a “lead line”. Look, sometimes things are so bad, they are actually good, and if you think my brain is becoming addled, remember, this is only the second track!
There was a sports car on the road (on the road)
I thought I knew the fellow that drove
That little sports car was slippery as an oyster
Following it was like riding on a roller coaster (roller coaster)
Around the corners and over the bumps
Every minute, faster and faster, my heart thumped (my heart thumped)
Well, finally he stopped to get some gas
If I was to catch up I had to move fast (to move fast)
I stepped on the gas and just made the corner
Wow, I was almost a goner (goner)
When I got there he was gone
I don’t know where I went wrong (I went wrong)
The time went fast, it was late
I knew I had no time to waste (time to waste)
I turned around and headed for home
I learned my lesson never to roam
I learned my lesson never to roam
Never to roam
Never to roam
Never to roam
Never to roam
Little Sports Car
Is track three dedicated to Austin and his wife Annie?
Who the hell knows!
The track is titled Who Are Parents.
But by now the shock of the lack of timing in the tracks, and the incessant sound of the guitars of Dot and Helen aren’t quite jarring (as much).
In this track we are also treated to the two voices of both Dot and Betty. I’ll let you discover for yourselves their wonderful vocal gymnastics.
Now what about Helen and her drumming? Well I have to say, the “kick” drum on this track sounds remarkably like a cheap High School bass drum being played with a stick that has some cloth wrapped around it.
Overall it is pretty bad, but, if you listen very carefully toward the end, there is a really sweet, in tune, few words that I think may be Betty, and the line is,”Parents are the one’s who really care“!
A genuinely sweet moment!
Who Are Parents
I am aware that I am in danger of simply going down the track list in order, but there is no way on this planet am I going to let you get away from hearing track 4 – My Pal Foot Foot.
The track opens with Helen Wiggin giving her rendition of Gene Krupa drum solo. The problem is that sadly goes amiss after the first hit on the snare, and from then on, it is simply amazing as there is genuinely no connection between the snare drum, kick drum, hi-hat, ride cymbals.
Finally the tom toms come in but hey – just wait for the guitar… it has its own wandering moment.
The listener could truly be forgiven for thinking the gals were warming up at this stage, as there is really no semblance to a tune.
When Dot starts singing about her pal, foot foot, then believe it or not we are 40 seconds into the actual track, called My Pal Foot Foot.
Then we are entertained when Dot and Betty swap lead vocals while thrashing away on guitars – leaving Helen to be in her ‘happy place” on the drums.
Now toward the end of the track everyone stops playing and singing except for Helen who keeps playing her drums. Whether this was because it was a rehearsed drum solo, or the fact that they other two were just totally lost in Helen’s fantasy land of drumming,? – we can only wonder!
But they do return to finish the track, but not to be outdone, Helen still has the last ‘word”.
OK, by now we must be convinced that dear old dad was utterly tone deaf, and I can only imagine what that poor studio engineer was thinking.
I bet he was never the same after this session.
Anyway, there is actually meaning to the track. Yes! Really!!
“Foot Foot” is a pet.
I’m not certain as to whether it is the Shaggs’ little cat, or a cat belonging to someone else.
Mind you if “Foot Foot” was going to be serenaded every night by The Shaggs, no wonder he never returned.
Now there is a video animation of this track (which I have provided below), and at its conclusion it claims the character artwork was by Dorothy Wiggins. If this is true, we get an insight in to Foot Foot as being little mutant animal that looks a bit like a foot with zebra skin and an elongated animated head.
As a review in “One Hit Wonders” said, ” My Pal Foot Foot” is one of the all-time worst songs ever written and performed about a pet.
Worse even than Michael Jackson’s “Ben,” which is about his love song about his pet rat.”
As for the music, in all honesty, before the vocals are injected into the track it really sounds like a tune up, of a sort!
The vocals themselves are nearly made acceptable by virtue of the backing track being so . . .being so . . . . . Now recognising I still have two more tracks to review, I can’t use up all my adjectives yet, so I’ll leave it at – listen for yourself!
My pal’s name is Foot Foot (Foot Foot)
He always likes to roam
My pal’s name is Foot Foot (Foot Foot)
I never find him home
I go to his house
Knock at his door
People come out and say
Foot Foot don’t live here no more
My pal Foot Foot (Foot Foot)
Always likes to roam
My pal Foot Foot (Foot Foot)
Now he has no home
Where will Foot Foot go
What will Foot Foot do
Oh, Foot Foot
I wish I could find you
I’ve looked here, I’ve looked there
I’ve looked everywhere
Oh, Foot Foot
Why can’t I find you?
Foot Foot, where can you be?
Foot Foot, why won’t you answer me?
Foot Foot, oh Foot Foot
Wherever you are
I want you to come home with me
I don’t have time to roam
I have things to do
I have to go home
Oh, Foot Foot, where are you?
If Foot Foot didn’t like to roam so well
He would still have a place to dwell
Foot Foot, please answer me
I know where you are
You’re behind that tree
Foot Foot, please come to me
Foot Foot, now that you’re near
Won’t you come home
Foot Foot, promise me this
That you will never again roam
My Pal Foot Foot
In track number 10 – there is a moment when we listen in utter amazement.
Helen actually counts the girls in, and, for the first 30 seconds they are beginning to play together, even sounding like a half decent garage band.
Then in come the lyrics and then, here we go again!
Look, this is probably Helen’s most coherent drum track, but sadly the guitars and lyrics cannot match Helen’s apparent increase in skill development.
Why Do I Feel has Dot trying her best to play some decent guitar, but sadly what she does simply doesn’t relate to the rest of the track.
The whole thing, musician and music gets so lost in desperation, Dot even tries to drag Helen out of her semi-coherent drum track, but Helen retaliates and goes her own way, determined to march to the beat (or beats) of a different drum.
Meanwhile despite this tug-of war, Dorothy and sister Betty continue to go their own way, but in a more stumbling manner. The end comes with a tempo change, that kind of falls out of the track.
It leaves us perplexed as to why the hell they did the things they did, and why, did they do it to us?
Why Do I Feel
The final track, track 12, is We Have A Saviour.
The first thing that we are confronted with is, the announcement that this is “take 2”.
I shudder to think what the first take was like. But, do you know for the first nine seconds of music, these girls are actually playing in time and together, and, it includes a tempo change – They nail it!
Your heart rises in anticipation that by track 12 they had “got their shit together”, having built on the beginning of track 10!
Fear not, The Shaggs aren’t going to let a momentary lapse in their disjointed approach to playing to last for long. In fact it is tempting to think the opening was tacked onto the track at a later time, because as Dot and Betty start to sing about their “saviour”, we can only hope the lord will save us by creating a power black-out.
The poor darlings actually sound totally ‘shagged out” by the end of the track, and then Dorothy (bless her socks), finishes off with what is for her, some pretty guitar work.
I’d swear there are times when Betty and Dot aren’t even singing the same lyrics, but maybe my ears are tired?
I am tempted to provide you with the lyrics, but hell, why spoil the the event?
By now, if there ever was the need of a saviour, we surely need one. At this stage I suspect most listeners are either sighing with collective relief, or trying to end the psychotic attack that has been building gradually!
We Have A Saviour
The album Philosophy of the World was reviewed in Rolling Stone twice in 1980 and was described as “priceless and timeless.”
In some ways the original vinyl copies are almost priceless – at least hideously expensive.
You see originally a thousand copies of Philosophy of the World were released on the “Third World” label. Oh, interestingly The Shaggs are the only group on that labels roster.
Somehow nine hundred mysteriously vanished right after being pressed, along with the record’s shady producer, Charley Dreyer. Even so, the album has endured for fifty years.
Music collectors got hold of the remaining copies of Philosophy of the World and started a small Shaggs cult.
In the mid-seventies, WBCN-FM, in Boston, began playing a few cuts from the record.
In 1988, the songs were repackaged and re-released on compact disk and became celebrated by outsider-music mavens, who were taken with The Shaggs’ artless style.
Sadly Helen Wiggin passed away in 1975, and the group folded. But with no disrespect to her memory, in 1999 there was the “need” to reform The Shaggs but there was no Helen to play drums – well, hit the drums, and on the group’s reformation she was replaced by Tom Ardolino.
He was the drummer in the group NRBQ, who are mentioned later on.
Incidentally Tom passed away in 2012.
One final thing about membership of The Shaggs, there was even a version of the group with dear old dad in it!
- Dorothy “Dot” Wiggin — vocals, “lead” guitar (1968–1975, 1999)
- Betty Wiggin — guitar, vocals (1968–1975, 1999)
- Helen Wiggin (deceased) — drums (1968–1975)
- Rachel Wiggin — bass guitar (1969–1975)
- Tom Ardolino — drums (1999)
- Austin Wiggin Jr. — vocals (1973)
- Robert Wiggin — vocals (1973)
Now The Shaggs are entering another phase of their life: “Philosophy of the World” was reissued in the spring of 1999 by RCA Victor.
The CD we have reviewed of “Philosophy of the World” has the same cover as the original 1969 album—a photograph of the Wiggin girls posed in front of a dark-green curtain.
In the picture, Helen is twenty-two, Dot is twenty-one, and Betty is eighteen.
They have long blond hair and long blond bangs and stiff, quizzical half-smiles. Helen, sitting behind her drum set, is wearing flowered trousers and a white Nehru shirt; Betty and Dot, clutching their guitars, are wearing matching floral tunics, pleated plaid skirts, and square-heeled white pumps.
There is nothing playful about the picture; it is melancholy, foreboding, with black shadows and the queer, depthless quality of an aquarium.
But now the whole thing was re-revived yet again when in 2011 the musical, “The Shaggs” opened in New York.
Mind you, in what was a very appropriate response to the show, indeed reflecting the general response to The Shaggs when they played live, the reviewers were singularly unimpressed, saying:
“The animating impulse behind “The Shaggs” is to unleash the spiritual music that soars in the souls of even the tone-deaf among us — as “Gypsy” certainly did.
But the uneven pop-rock score isn’t engaging or exciting enough to bring the point home. When Austin sings his defiant anthem about having done what he did for “every guy who ever wanted” and “every kid who ever dared,” you don’t feel much of anything, except maybe relief that he’s descending into the grave as he’s doing so.
Ms. Gregory [ a play writer] does give Dot an incisively wry line when the women are dumbfounded by the Rolling Stone article lauding their comeback. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” she grouses. “What are we coming back from? We never even showed up.”“
Surely the final word about the tracks on this album should rightly go to Austin Wiggin.
On both the vinyl and CD album’s liner notes, Austin wrote: “The Shaggs are real, pure, unaffected by outside influences. Their music is different, it is theirs alone.
They believe in it, live it. . . . 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 Shaggs love you. . . . They will not change their music or style to meet the whims of a frustrated world. You should appreciate this because you know they are pure what more can you ask?
They are sisters and members of a large family where mutual respect and love for each other is at an unbelievable high . . . in an atmosphere which has encouraged them to develop their music unaffected by outside influences.
They are happy people and love what they are doing. They do it because they love it.”
It seems as though Austin had stars in his eyes, and concrete in his ears.
The Shaggs of course, never made any money from their album until years later, when members of the band NRBQ heard “Philosophy of the World” and were thrilled by its strange innocence.
NRBQ’s own record label, Red Rooster, released records by such idiosyncratic bands as Jake & the Family Jewels, and they asked the Wiggins if they could compile a selection of songs from the group’s two recording sessions, the other album they released being – The Shaggs Own Thing“.
I don’t think I can bring myself to reviewing that one, in fact I don’t own it!
I think one Shaggs album in any collection is an absolute must, but only one!
Yes in some ways it is masterful in its awfulness, but isn’t the history of R&R full of memorable moments?
Good and bad! Two words that we all load with our own values – so make of my statement as you will.
The album is actually so bad . . . it IS good!
I mean, we recognise and cherish those moments that stand out because they are either so good or so bad. Now, if you are going to recognise and cherish the worst, then The Shaggs is a magnificent place to start!
The CD can be bought on Ebay for as little as $8.00 and that comes with free postage! Oh dear, even their retro-fame hasn’t bought with it, a decent income from the music.
Now if only someone could find the missing original 900 vinyl albums!
The ‘Shaggs model’ guitars – which is actually a Japanese made Avalon AV-2T was only sold for 2 years (1967-8) and because it was a fairly high price axe made in the same factory as Teisco-Del-Ray’s (and looked equally goofy) didn’t sell too many! Now they are highly sought after and yes, are known as The Shaggs model guitar. No doubt Mr. Wiggin (the girls father and record producer) got a good deal on them at the time, which did not include lessons, allowing the gals to create their unique sound and of course, songs to match!
[Information provided by Keith Glass, well know Australian musician who now resides in the USA and owns and operates Mobile Records ]
Not surprisingly there are no videos of live performances by the Shaggs, which is a real shame. I have provided two vids, one featuring the graphics as drawn by Dorothy Wiggins to the music of My Friend Foot Foot, and the other is a clip from the live show called “The Shaggs”.
My Friend Foot Foot
A clip taken from the live performance of the stage play – The Shaggs