Friday, October 10, 2008

46 Greatest Albums: The Shaggs - 'Philosophy of the World'

Some things are great because they achieve such clarity of talent and perception that they pierce you to the heart. Some things are great because they make you forget that your heart can be pierced and they transport you to a place of lighthearted enjoyment. Some things are great because they speak directly about our society in such a way that something seems to come further into focus.

The Shaggs are not great for any of those reasons. In fact, to use the word great in conjunction with The Shaggs is an iffy proposition.

The Wiggins sisters lived in Fremont, New Hampshire, a small logging town way up north. Their grandmother had had a premonition that her son would have several daughters and that they would become famous musicians. Austin Wiggins believed his mother so, after having married and produced several daughters, he set about the task of bringing his mother's prophecy to light.

It was the late '60's.

He bought a drum set, several pawn shop guitars, and some rudimentary amplifiers. The girls set about learning how to play and writing songs. They were a bit nervous when their dad suggested that they play the Fremont Town Hall Saturday night dance. They didn't think they were ready, even though they'd been taking lessons and practicing together for just over a year. But Austin insisted. They became a fixture there, playing weekly until Austin's death in 1975. The group disbanded after that.

Austin took them out of high school and home-schooled them so they could focus on their music. He also arranged for them to go down to Boston and record an album. Again they weren't sure they were ready for that step but what Austin said went.

The album they recorded is some of the most astounding music you will ever hear. You can't sing along to it, you can't tap your foot, you can't get lost in the melody, you merely try to keep your jaw from hitting the floor too hard.

At the time that they recorded the album their youngest sister Rachel was not yet accompanying them on bass for all the songs. She only plays on 'That Little Sports Car'. The lineup for the rest of the songs is as follows:

Betty Wiggin - rhythm guitar, vocals
Helen Wiggin - drums
Dorothy 'Dot' Wiggin - lead vocal, guitar, arrangements

It is almost impossible to avoid cruelty while describing this music. The girls seem to be playing different songs simultaneously. Legend has it that during the recording the girls would stop and say one of them had made a mistake. The engineer couldn't fathom how any of them could tell.

How can something so disjointed and crude be one of the 'greatest' albums of all time? Well, for one thing, you can't stop listening to it once you start. It leaves you flabbergasted.

I shall take a moment to try and invoke the sound.

Picture 3 very sad teenage marionettes with instruments. They would rather be back in their boxes; they don't like you looking at them or listening to them. But they have no choice so they start to play. Their only job is to keep playing so that the puppet master is happy. They don't realize that they have free will. This mixture of survival instinct and total oppression gives the music a haunted quality, the kind of music one might expect to hear in a concentration camp. Prisoners forced to play instruments they have no affinity for.

Apparently the locals would come out and taunt the girls while they tried to entertain at The Fremont Town Hall. But they kept playing until their father passed away. Then they didn't have to pretend anymore.

But, still, Austin's mother was right. His daughters are famous. Some have greatness thrust upon them.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Return of The Blog

Tomorrow I will attempt to rouse myself from this metaphorical couch, brush the crumbs away from my intellectual lap, and write a new entry.

Stay tuned.