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The strange story of The Shaggs: The band "better than The Beatles"

@TomTaylorFO

Country songsmith and jaunty hat wearer, Hank Williams, once said of his songwriting: “I pick up the pen and God moves it”. If that indeed is the case, then the lord was certainly moving in mysterious ways when he begot the music of The Shaggs. But perhaps even more baffling than their sound and the divisive legacy they have conjured is the tale of how they came to be. This is the strange story of The Shaggs…

The legend starts when the father of The Shaggs was merely a boy. When Austin Wiggin Jr. was a wide-eyed youngster his fortune-telling mother prognosticated exactly what was to become of him. She said to her son something akin to the following: “You will grow up and marry a wife with strawberry blonde hair. You will have two sons with her who I will not live to see. Then you will have some daughters and these daughters will go on to form the greatest music group in the world”.

Austin Wiggin Jr. logged the plotline of his life into his mind and got on with the business of living. He was a conservative man with not much of an interest in anything but getting by, least of all music. He lived a quiet existence and kept himself to himself. Essentially, he was a man who proved very befitting of the fact that his own prophecy placed him in the background of something larger. But one velvet morning his loneliness was broken when he met a girl with strawberry blonde hair and his mother’s epiphany came back to him. 

He went on to marry his foretold strawberry blonde wife and sure enough, his mother would pass away shortly before she gave birth to the first of two sons. Then the mystic figures of fate weaving this strange saga would ensure that the preordained Shaggs would come into the picture by giving him a trio of daughters. Albeit Austin Wiggin Jr.’s life may have been beige on the surface but the one Achilles heel to his humble normality was a profound belief in superstition. After all, if everything his mother had predicted to this point came true, then why not the grand payoff? 

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Fate may well have thrown this jigsaw together and now it was up to Austin Wiggin Jr. to usher the last piece into place. The issue was that simple chance had borne out the auguries so far, but it takes more than that to form the world’s greatest band. Thus, what followed was a farcical folie of a misguided mindset in every which way. 

The three sisters, Dot, Betty, Helen (and later Rachel) had little say in whether they would like to form a band — when the future is already written, what good is a protest? Austin pulled his daughters out of school for reasons unclear even to those involved, he bestowed them with out of tune instruments and arrange fleeting vocal and music lessons with what little change he could spare. Now, all he had to do was wait and soon enough he would’ve ushered The Shaggs into their rightful place as the greatest group in the world whose songs were manna from heaven for disenfranchised lowly folks all around the globe just like those in the sleepy New Hampshire town of Fremont that spawned them. 

Now, nobody has ever said that making music was easy, but few people in history have ever made anything look harder than the sonic struggle of The Shaggs. The few local gigs they played are described as something akin to a portal to hell arising in Fremont to the great displeasure of the usually passive proletariat. Was Austin Wiggin Jr. perturbed by this? Why would he be, fortune had spoken to him a lot louder than any disgruntled crowd. 

Thus, in 1968 it was time for his young daughters to enter the studio. He pawned possessions, worked night and day, and saved every penny he could to ensure that their debut album, Philosophy of the World, would come to fruition. With the house pilfered of worth his three fated daughters were set for the studio. In walked Dot, Betty and Helen, three teenagers with eyes set firmly on an easy casual country life of going to church, raising children, and potentially being bigger than The Beatles

When they entered the studio, they were the nuclear reversal of rock ‘n’ roll and were yet to ever nail down a firm definitive take on a track. But remarkably, not only did the fate of the world rest on their shoulders but also the fortune of a small-town household. Enter the shady producer who owned Fleetwood Studios. This enigmatic character in a story with a higher concentration of them than the entire filmography of David Lynch proved to be a thrifty drifter. 

He enters the story by telling Austin Wiggin Jr. that his daughters were most certainly not ready to make a record after hearing them rehearsing, only for a nonplussed father to vouch “I want to get them while they’re hot.” The production that ensued is the most discordant piece of music ever produced. It seems almost sinful to mention them in the same sentence but if I was to venture a similarity, I would say that Philosophy of the World sounds something like the final deathly howls of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Sister Ray’ as performed by a tribe who had never heard music before. And yet, in some weird, twisted way, the legacy of the band was half accomplished. They might not have usurped The Beatles but that didn’t stop Frank Zappa from saying that they were better than them. 

They finished recording the album. The promised printing of 1000 records was fulfilled only for the mysterious producer to inexplicably run away with 900 of them for reasons unknown as he seemingly disappeared into the ether clutching his trove of madness. Perhaps he had become feverishly enamoured to the music like a strange sonic case of Stockholm syndrome or perhaps he simply vowed to destroy them and never work in music again?

Naturally, the record failed to gain any attention outside of the Wiggin household aside from passing glances from frankly concerned locals. But then, the fated album began to filter into Outsider Music circles as perhaps the most unfettered record in existence. Now it resides as a musicians favourite, providing a time capsule to a period when a plastic drum for Christmas was banged for the simple sake of creating noise. What’s more, copies can fetch whopping four-figure fees making them undoubtedly the biggest band to ever emerge from Fremont. Seemingly Austin Wiggin Jr.’s mother was just a bit off with her geography after all.

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