One critic split the difference and called it ‘brilliantly bad.’
The band formed in 1968 in Fremont, N.H., under the direction of the girls’ father, Austin Wiggin. He believed his daughters would be famous. Austin’s mother had read his palm when he was young and predicted that he would marry a strawberry blonde woman, that he would have two sons after she died and that his daughters would form a popular singing group. The first two came true so Austin figured the last one would too.
Meet the Shaggs
The band consisted of Dot on vocals and lead guitar, Betty on vocals and rhythm guitar, Helen on drums and Rachel on bass. Austin arranged for them to play at the Fremont Town Hall on Saturday night.
Dot later said the girls did whatever their father, a strict disciplinarian, told them to.
“He directed,” she said. “We obeyed. Or did our best.”
The Shaggs recorded Philosophy of the World on March 9, 1969. Dot wrote the songs. They included My Pal Foot Foot, their best known number, about a search for their cat. They also sang Why Do I Feel? and Who Are Parents?, which probably offers an insight into their relationship with their father:
Who are parents?
Parents are the ones who really care
Who are parents?
Parents are the ones who are always there
Some kids think their parents are cruel
Just because they want them to obey certain rules
They start to lean from the ones who really care
Turning, turning from the ones who will always be there
Frank Zappa Finds the Shaggs
One thousand copies of Philosophy of the World were pressed, but the man who pressed them absconded with 900 copies. The remaining discs were released to local radio stations, but got little or no air play. It seemed the Shaggs were done.
But the Shaggs over the years found their audience. Frank Zappa played some of their songs, which he said were his favorites, on the Dr. Demento radio show in the early 1970s. Terry Adams of the band NRBQ compared the Shaggs’ melodic lines and composition with the free jazz of Ornette Coleman.
Adams and a bandmate convinced a record label to reissue the Shaggs’ album in 1980. Rolling Stone gave them the ‘Comeback of the Year’ award, though a Rolling Stone critic said they sounded like lobotomized Trapp Family Singers and the record was ‘stunningly awful wonderful’). The Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker reviewed the record.
Cub Koda, who formed the rock group Brownsville Station, 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.
In 2001, a Shaggs’ tribute album was released under the title Better Than the Beatles. A stage musical about the Shaggs, written in 2003, premiered in New York in 2011.
On Oct. 29, 2013, Dot Wiggin released her debut solo album with previously unreleased Shaggs’ songs. Ready! Get! Go! It came out 44 years after the sisters’ first album.
In December 2014, a book called Rock Covers named the Shaggs’ album cover as one of the best in rock history — “because the cover and the Shaggs’ music is so decidedly, defiantly amateurish.”
Austin Wiggins’ mother may have been right all along.
Listen to them here.
This story was updated in 2020. Promotional image of the Shaggs, By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20132321.