This is the first in a series of blog posts I’m doing on terrible music that I enjoy.
There’s a strange fascination in listening to really awful music. It’s a complex urge; partly masochistic, partly ironic detachment, partly joy in engaging in something taboo. It’s sadistic at times too; there’s a delight in telling someone “Oh, I have something I want to play for you!” and watching their reaction as they try to figure out why on Earth you’re inflicting this on them.
For something to qualify for this series, it has to be more than just bad. Mere failure to make good music doesn’t interest me in this way; there’s an effectively endless supply of not-very-good music out there.
Additionally, the badness has to be the aspect of the music that interests me. I love, say, the Sex Pistols,despite their awfulness rather than because of it. Alternatively, the music can fail spectacularly to achieve conventional standards of musical quality, if it has something else really interesting about it. Merely belonging in the category of outsider music doesn’t merit inclusion in this series either. While some groups might achieve outsider status by being terrible yet entertaining, there’s some outsider music that’s simply beautiful, and can’t be accused of “doing it badly”, because it’s not attempting to do it by the normal rules in the first place.
No, to satisfy My Taste in Terrible Music, these bands or performers have to be awful by normal standards, yet still do what they do in a unique or entertaining way. As with more everyday issues of musical taste, Your Mileage May Vary, but I hope that I’ll still show readers new music that they’ll enjoy (if you’ll allow me to use the term loosely). Submissions are of course more than welcome, I’m always looking for horrendous new atrocities to inflict upon myself and others.
In this spirit, I present you with the first entry: The Shaggs.
This is a band with a peculiar history. Formed in 1968, The Shaggs were three sisters from Fremont, New Hampshire (Dot Wiggin and Betty Wiggin who shared guitar and vocal duties, and Helen Wiggin on the drums) who didn’t really want to play music, but were pushed to form a band by their father. The father, for his part, was convinced the girls were to become famous rock stars because of a fortune-telling his mother gave him. The story gets weirder; their debut album, Philosophy of the World, initially had 1,000 copies pressed, but only 100 of these went into circulation as the record’s producer disappeared, taking the remaining stock of 900 with him.
The Shagg’s music displays an endearing sincerity, utterly free from the limitations of conventional music theory and song structure. The lyrics are the purest form of earnest expression.
Unsurprisingly, it’s awful:
The guitars and the vocals are out of tune, the melodies are awkward, the phrasing is uncomfortably asymmetrical, and there’s just something wrong with the tempo – it’s like they’re all at different speeds but manage to lurch along stick roughly together. And it’s so entertaining.
The lyrics are magnificently blunt and straightforward, as demonstrated in Who Are Parents?:
Similarly, the title track of their album is even better, following almost without exception a rigid lyrical structure:
Oh the XXX want what YYY got/and the YYY want what the XXX got…
Over the years, the Shaggs have gone through a number of cult revivals, and ever since the reissue of Philosophy of the World in the late 1990s and their inclusion in the outsider music anthology book Songs in the Key of Z, they seem to have maintained a reasonably strong fanbase on the internet. In April of this year, there was a tribute show Still Better than the Beatles held in New York for the benefit of the Fremont Historical Society. In a Q&A with The Shaggs after the show, Dot explained her approach to songwriting: having never had training in music theory, she decided to build all their songs around the lyrics, then the vocal melody – an obvious approach to composing pop music from someone who heard it but didn’t know how to construct it. (Q&A on youtube – the channel has the whole show and rehearsal sessions; thanks to user BlackMonk66 for the link).
For anyone who wishes to read more about them, at the time of the band’s late 90s revival, Susan Orelan’s article in the New Yorker did much to expose the band, and provided Shaggs fans with an update on the strange story that is the lives of these peculiar, reluctant rock stars.