I first heard The Shaggs in a small hallway closet in Hadley, Massachusetts. I was 21. My friend Dan Cashman played them for me in the actual closet that was his bedroom in the old schoolhouse we lived in. I was sort of mid-journey from my highschool love all all things witchy and goth (Stevie Nicks, X, Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Birthday Party, Bauhaus, etc) to falling HARD for something new. I reveled in the off-kilter, the lack of consistent and familiar time signature, and some new-to-me styles of dischord. I spent nights listening to every Ornette Coleman record i could get my hands on, Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Frank Zappa, Roky Erickson, Captain Beefheart, was even blessed enough to see Professor Milford Graves perform several times. Something about The Shaggs really clicked together for me a love of pop songwriting with this bonkers version of music i was learning.
I’m not sure there’s a more cult-y origin story?? The Shaggs were created from an actual fortune. A palm reading. Their grandmother helped coax them into being with an offhand mention to their father about having daughters who’d become a famous rock band. In the tiny town of Freemont, New Hampshire, where most folks made their living sewing hankercheifs at the textile mill, this was probably an intoxicating dream. For the sisters Dot, Betty, and Helen, it probably felt more like a nightmare. There’s no way to talk about The Shaggs and their music without talking about abuse. They were forced to practice ceaslessly, as well as do calisthentics all day every day. An unforgiving schedule. On Sunday, only church. The girls weren’t allowed to date, and rarely to socialize. They did most of their performing at a local nursing home or the town hall talent shows.
The sisters stuck together, they wrote songs about what they knew. Their parents, Their cat Foot-Foot. School. The brutal practice schedule inflicted by their father never quite materialized into skill. But in some ways maybe it bore them along. The result is a record full of bent, awkward, arryhthmic songs. Once they were deemed ‘ready’, their father Austin Wiggins shuttled them along to a recording studio and shelled out a fair amount of family savings to make their one and only album, ’Philosophy of the World’. 1000 copies. Legend has it the recording engineer stole 900 of them and disappeared. Whatever the truth, the remaining physical copies made their way into the world and eventually became the darlings of the proto-punk and outsider music collectors. Zappa dubbed them ‘better than the beatles’.
This new re-release, Shaggs Own Thing, is pretty special. It’s remastered from original tape of a 1982 release of the same name, helmed by Terry Adams of NRBQ. That release brought together tracks that the sisters had re-recorded with several more years of independence and experience and growth. It doesn’t matter how many times I listen to these songs, each time they feel new, awkward, guileless, imperfect. Hearing them for the first time around the age was a sort of pivotal moment for me and those feelings don’t go away. It feels like it did then, letting go and leaning into a loose and spacious new way of listening. I just love this record!
– Briana Holt 8/1/2020
- You’re Somethin’ Special To Me
- Paper Roses
- Shaggs’ Own Thing (Musical Version)
- Painful Memories
- Gimme Dat Ding
- My Cutie
- Yesterday Once More
- My Pal Foot Foot
- I Love
- Shaggs’ Own Thing (Vocal Version)
- Love At First Sight (Bonus Track)
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