This vintage album has for the past 36 years sharply polarised opinions, almost like no other album ever made, dividing even the sanest and most-respected of rock fans, fellow-artists and critics alike, as to its merits (or not). It’s been variously and controversially described as the worst thing ever made – and one of the greatest LPs of the century (and Frank Zappa famously dubbed The Shaggs “better than The Beatles”!). The magazine Rolling Stone probably summed it up best when the album was re-released in 1980, its reviewer describing it as “the most stunningly awful wonderful record I’ve heard in ages”. Well, they can’t all be right – and yet they probably are! Y’know when a record is musically truly dreadful but at the same time treasurable in the “can’t do without it” sense? Well OK, no track from The Shaggs made it onto the Kenny Everett World’s Worst Record Show compilation (for a start I don’t think it’s anywhere near tasteless enough anyway!), but that came out in 1978, almost two years before a copy of The Shaggs’ LP was discovered (by the band NRBQ, would you believe!) at a Massachusetts radio station – after languishing in almost total vinyl oblivion since its original appearance in 1969. But even to us “connoisseurs of the strange”, the guileless amateurism of The Shaggs is uniquely compelling. (That is, if it’s all not one big goddamn April Fool joke…)
The facts of the case are these, well at any rate as documented in the liner notes: Some time in 1968, in Fremont, New Hampshire, Austin Wiggin Jr. insisted that three of his four daughters form a pop band – to fulfil a prediction made by his late wife. So Dorothy, Betty and Helen (then aged variously between 18 and 22) became The Shaggs, and after a (by all accounts) strict regimen of practice (and fuelled by the brazen confidence of their father) they reluctantly entered a Massachusetts recording studio to lay down a dozen of Dot’s compositions in what might be termed a charming yet discordant garage-rock style that (one might say) transcended the punk ethic. Austin spent most of his savings on the studio session and the subsequent manufacture of the LP, but 900 of the 1000 pressed copies mysteriously vanished! The record’s cult following began when it was re-released in 1980, which (let’s face it) was a strange time for music, straddling punk, new wave and indie, a time when tolerance and acceptance of anything different was itself distinctly polarised, retro and curio being either old-hat or cult in an unstable pre-CD age.
IMHO, to get anything out of The Shaggs’ wonderful music (for yes, that’s what it is!) you need to get into a different way of hearing almost. First jettison preconceptions, try to forget conventional ideas of song structure and musicianship, and go put your mind back into the freethinking spirit of ’68. The title track comes first, and assaults the ears with an uncompromising barrage of tumbling rhythm, discordant guitar and out-of-kilter, weirdly harmonised vocals. This is girl-rock, Jim, but not as you know it (and that’s not even a pukka Trek paraphrase!)… To me the closest aural reference points would be called to mind in three Zappa-related products of the same year, the GTOs’ album Permanent Damage; An Evening With Wild Man Fischer; and, more crucially, the magnificent, seminal Beefheart double-set Trout Mask Replica; while audibly also paving the way for the more acerbic vocalisations of The Roches and The Slits. First exposure to The Shaggs brings a collision of the simple and obvious truths voiced in the “just came out of my head” lyrics with the pandemonium of the musical settings, which sound as though they’re trying to be high-school rock’n’roll but at the same time subverting conventional tuning and rhythm considerations. Extraordinary, raw and unashamed and yet so vital in what might seem just a tuneless onslaught with everything all over the place. Yet there’s a definite sense of control in the ostensibly chaotic melee of lead and rhythm guitars and cascading drumming (no bass, except for one track where fourth sister Rachel drops into the studio momentarily).
The lurid purple typewriter-script of the 16-page booklet is entirely appropriate for its essay by Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Band guitarist) that does a great job in recounting the Shaggs’ story and maintaining an informed critical perspective, furnishing listeners with exactly the right balance of fact and assessment. It also makes you drool over the idea of potential recordings that were never made during the group’s seven-year existence (it disbanded in 1975, immediately after the sudden death of Austin), and makes you wish you’d been a fly on the wall when the band played covers of old Johnny Cash, Beatles and Herman’s Hermits numbers, the Beer Barrel Polka and the “almost doesn’t-bear-thinking-about” Gimme Dat Ding during their residency at Fremont Town Hall.
Best place to start in the Shaggs universe? Yeah, that title song, or else the pet-cat homage My Pal Foot Foot, or the uncannily existential Why Do I Feel? But once you get in tune with the complete animal, you wouldn’t want it any other way. So, a zillion thanks to Light In The Attic for exhuming this masterwork. And it sounds splendid played loud too, of course.
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