The late American rock critic Lester Bangs described the Wiggins sisters’ one and only album, Philosophy of the World as ‘a landmark in rock and roll history’, Frank Zappa apparently declared them ‘better than the Beatles’ and Kurt Cobain put the album at number five in his all-time Top 50, well ahead of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and REM’s Green.
It’s true that people tend to be passionate about The Shaggs … one way or another. In the opposing corner of the ring, Rolling Stone magazine described The Shaggs as sounding like ‘lobotomised Von Trapp Family Singers’, The New Yorker as ‘hauntingly bad’ and another reviewer was sufficiently traumatised by the listening experience to state he’d ” walk across the desert while eating charcoal briquettes soaked in Tabasco for forty days and forty nights not to ever have to listen to anything Shaggs-related ever again.’
The fact that this seemingly inconsequential curio of an album could engender such extreme reactions is one of the many delicious aspects of The Shaggs’ enduring appeal.
Their story features some archetypal themes, including a domineering father from Freemont, New Hampshire, hell-bent on realising the American dream of his daughters’ fame as a three-piece band, foretold by his mother in a palm reading. In the relentless pursuit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, Austin Wiggin hauled them out of school and made them practice endlessly until they were, by his reckoning at least, match fit to record an album..
As weirdestbandintheworld.com notes, at first listen, Philosophy of the World seems like an absolute mess; the drums are arrhythmic and out of sync; the guitars are often out of tune; the sisters’ harmonies are childlike and spookily dissonant. The lyrics make Rebecca Black’s “Friday” sound like Emily Dickinson; songs are about such profound topics as Dot’s pet cat (“My Pal Foot Foot”) and how awesome the Wiggin parents are (“Who Are Parents”), although they do also try to get deep on the title track: “The skinny people want what the fat people’s got/And the fat people want what the skinny people’s got/You can’t please anybody in this world.”
But, as many musicians and critics have pointed out, there’s a consistency to The Shaggs’ music that suggests they actually knew exactly what they were doing. During the recording sessions (at which the engineers would have to mute the control room so the Wiggins couldn’t hear the howling laughter), Austin would often stop the girls midway through a take because “they made a mistake” The engineers were shocked, considering what they heard sounded like nothing but mistakes.
Either way, The Shaggs sounded unlike any other band on the planet but there’s nothing to suggest it was a contrivance on their part. They were just being who they were (and for the most part that meant supremely untalented), but as Bangs pointed out, the beauty of it was that ‘they wrung out every ounce of whatever talent they did have.’
Whether you consider them banal or brilliant, more idiot than savant, gratingly simplistic or intensely complex, syncopated or constipated, The Shaggs certainly put the sing into singular.