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Music

The terrible band Frank Zappa deemed better than The Beatles

I’m sure you’ve heard of The Beatles, but have you heard of The Shaggs? Perhaps not, but if you were Frank Zappa in the early 1970s, you would have seen the latter as the next big thing in music. The Shaggs clearly struck a chord with the avant-garde enthusiast in Zappa with their uniquely discordant rock sound. 

The band consisted of the Wiggin sisters, Dorothy, Helen, Betty and Rachel. Their oddball rock-fanatic father, Austin, insisted that the girls form a rock group; he claimed his late mother had predicted this future for the family. When Austin was just a boy, his mother took a palm reading where she foretold the road ahead of him. He was to marry a strawberry-blonde woman with whom he would have two daughters that his mother wouldn’t live to see. The final twist to the prophecy was that these daughters would form a popular music group.

Naturally, Austin didn’t read too much into this prophecy at first and went about his life as any other would until one day, he indeed fell in love with a woman of strawberry blonde hair. At this point, no doubt memories of his mother’s palm reading came flooding back. The final string to the bow which flung the arrow of The Shaggs’ legacy into full motion was the birth of his daughters, two of whom were born after his mother’s death. 

This, ostensibly, was enough for Austin to drop everything and force the final piece of his mother’s puzzle into place. Making the rash decision to pull his daughters out of school, he bought a few guitars and a drumkit and arranged some music and vocal lessons. 

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After what Austin deemed enough practice and musical theory, he named his new family collective The Shaggs, after the popular “shag” hairstyle and as a reference to shaggy dogs. The year was 1968, and Austin got his hesitant girls a regular spot on a stage in local Fremont on Saturday nights. “[Austin] was something of a disciplinarian,” Dot later recalled. “He was stubborn and he could be temperamental. He directed. We obeyed. Or did our best.”

Counterintuitively, the girls’ lack of musical virtuosity and cohesive experience is the sole reason I’m sitting here writing about this unique band today. Instead of sticking prudently to the confines of musical theory, the sisters expressed their sonic art with no ties to bind them. What ensued was a vastly negative reaction from critics and live audiences. They were quite candidly described in a Rolling Stone article as “sounding like lobotomized Trapp Family singers”.

Undeterred by any negative reaction, Austin pushed for the prophecy with rose-tinted specs and managed to wrangle the girls some time in a local studio. Even believers of fate realise that you sometimes have to put in the legwork. During this period, Austin pawned possessions, worked round the clock and saved every cent he could spare to finance The Shaggs’ first and only album, 1969’s Philosophy of the World.

What resulted was an unintentional avant-garde masterpiece. The crashing drums set off on a tangent of their own while the guitars shimmer in and out of key, and the faded, demure vocals come like a distant school choir. 

Naturally, the album was a commercial disaster upon release. The man who had promised Austin and the girls to 1,000 pressings of Philosophy of the World allegedly absconded with 900 of them and the full payment he had taken in confidence. The remaining 100 copies were circulated around New England radio stations but garnered very little attention or airtime. 

Austin finally lost all hope in his promised fortune, and his daughters found themselves all but embarrassed, admitting the album was an unmitigated disaster and that they sounded horrendous. Little did the Wiggin family know, their 1000 copies were diffusing across the States and for every nine stomachs turned, an ear pricked up. Among these ears were those of Frank Zappa and Cub Koda.

After discovering the album in the early 1970s, Cub Koda wrote of it: “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 tranquillity, 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.”

Meanwhile, experimental icon Frank Zappa also took some time to sing the praises of the album’s unique beauty. Appearing on the Dr. Demento Show in the early ’70s, Zappa was tasked with selecting some of his favourite songs. During the episode, without a chuckle or a hint of irony, he played a couple of tracks from Philosophy of the World while asserting the brilliance of The Shaggs. It is rumoured that Zappa went as far as to say the band was “better than The Beatles.”

This belated attention saw the rare LP highly sought after, and The Shaggs kept gigging until 1975 without the urge to return to the studio. In 1980, Philosophy of the World was reissued by popular demand, now immortalised in its strange corner of rock and roll history. The album has since had a significant influence on avant-garde music and was even endorsed by Kurt Cobain, which, considering he created Nirvana’s ‘Beans’, brings very little in the way of surprise. 

Listen to the weirdly wonderful title track from The Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World below.