Photo from Light in the Attic Records
by K. Krombie
Outsider art is as compelling to some as it is nauseating and perplexing to others. Therein lies the compulsion to create alongside material that isn't for everyone. Characterized by unconventional creatives who inhabit cultural margins by way of an autodidactic method, the two compilation albums Songs in the Key of Z are a great place to trace the likes of Daniel Johnston, Joe Meek and others who may never be found elsewhere. Idiosyncrasy is vital for standout art, but what happens when invention is whipped or stirred under command? More specifically, what happens when a band that can't play and don't want to play, do so anyway under duress?
Occasionally, the mainstream fences of pedestrian entertainment, arguably less finely-tuned to the beat of Mother Nature, take a well-earned kicking. Elsewhere, while we cannot tether outsider talent that was never there to begin with, artistic expression, given an outlet, is present in everyone, maybe. Music by force – now there's an idea.
There are examples of such force that's sources range from oppressive regimes to retribution and torture, and last but certainly not least, pushy parenting. An online games reviewer, while playing the life-simulation game Sims 4, created a sim character and trapped him in a virtual box with basic amenities just to see if he could master playing the piano. The sim did so after four days of intensive practice, albeit driven mad by solitude and the inability to sustain the necessary drive.
A marginally less virtual case in point are the YouTube favorites the North Korea Kids, who despite demonstrating musical prowess and precise choreography, lack any obvious joy beyond their rictus grinning. So too you would imagine would be the horrifying spectacle of the musically gifted prisoners of various concentration camps, who were forced into performing music including SS folk songs designed to debilitate and degrade.
The above instances indicate a certain amount of finesse under ruthless if not perverse and extreme coercion. As subjective as these things may be, this next example was never in the running for a Grammy award, nor even a support-slot outside of their hometown. And The Shaggs, as they were known, would be the first to admit it.
In 1968, in the small town of Fremont, New Hampshire, paternal ambition led to another example of imposed artistic vision and the formation of a now infamous all-girl group. Fremont is the place where the first B52 in US history crashed with a 100% survival rate, and where palm reader and mother of invention Grandma Wiggin predicted that her son's daughters would form a successful band. From this, Austin Wiggin III formed a vision and a purpose. What transpired has all the makings of a Greek-lite tragedy.
Under Austin's instruction, his daughters, Dot, Betty, Helen and later Rachel Wiggin, unaccustomed to listening to the radio or popular music thanks to a strict upbringing, were taken out of school, bought instruments and made to indulge in a vigorous regime of home school, star jumping exercise and band practice, with Dot on lead guitar and vocals, Helen on drums, Betty on vocals and rhythm guitar and occasionally Rachel on bass guitar. The Shaggs were born, so called because of the then popular shag hairstyle each sister exhibited. No secretary school for Austin's girls, though some say that is what they would have preferred.
Their Art Brut sensibilities were exemplified by the extremity of 1960's counter-culture that continued to evade them. In an era of rock and roll hedonism, the peak of the civil rights movement and idealistic optimism, the Wiggin sisters landed with an ill-timed thud on the world's welcome mat, its bristles aiming for the soft cheeks of ineptness and inexperience. When their father-cum-manager deemed them as "ready," the girls were driven to a recording studio in Revere, Massachusetts to record their first album, Philosophy of the World. Once there, an engineer suggested that perhaps, seeing as the girls couldn't play, that they should go away and practice before cutting a record. Unperturbed, Austin told him, "I want to get them while they're hot."
Their songs, written in the main by Dot Wiggin, explore the short scope of their day-to-day issues. The opening track that shares the album's title, Philosophy of the World, bemoans in the plainest lyrical design, people who want what they haven't got, or more precisely, the opposite of what they've got, fat for thin, rich for poor etc. But it is Helen's drumming at the end of each brief chorus ("You can never please anybody in this world") that releases the Muppet-style Animal of something resembling rock and roll abandon. Once again, it is the drum kit that is the wind tunnel-caught headliner of "My Pal Foot Foot," a song about a neighbor's missing dog that underneath the sentiment, sounds like rhythm becoming bored with itself, with casual rehearsal guitar strumming over the top. Slightly more conventional time-keeping falls on "Who Are Parents?" – a song in which the moral compass of breeders accompanies a head scratching vocal melody. The final track, We Have a Savior, a reassuring Jesus-fix in a world where "unholy" folk kill and feel sad, is a comparatively subdued effort. But it is welcome. At the album's end, both music maker and listener need to lie down.
Throughout Philosophy of the World, there is a Good Christian optimism, as in being content with one's lot amid cooperative domestic generosity. It is hard to dismiss the underlying zeal as mere adolescent guilelessness, but to over-analyze would take the listener further away from a bunch of kids under an overbearing thumb.
A self-proclaimed entrepreneur convinced Austin to let him release Philosophy of the World on his Third World record label. 1000 copies of the album were cut, at which point Mr. Third World disappeared with 900 of them along with Austin's investment.
Now penniless and holding onto the coattails of his rock & roll cheese dream, Austin organized a regular gig for the girls at their local Fremont Town Hall every Saturday night. It is here that they were ritualistically heckled and catapulted with soda bottles and where drummer Helen managed to conduct an affair with a local boy. Unbeknownst to her father, she married him, but continued to live at home. Austin, upon discovering his daughter's nuptials, went after his son-in-law with a shotgun. The Fremont sheriff then forced Helen into choosing between her father and her husband. Helen chose her husband. And who could blame her? It was a long time before she and her father spoke again, despite the band carrying on. In 1975, Austin Wiggin died of a massive heart attack aged forty-seven. Immediately after, The Shaggs broke up.
It was another five years before one of the remaining 100 copies of their Philosophy of the World album found its way to Massachusetts WBCN-FM radio station's airplay. The album was discovered by the band NRBQ and Frank Zappa, who would catapult these Godmothers of Outsider Music and their ad hoc follow-up album Shaggs Own Thing (released 1982, recorded 1975) to cult status. Critics have described them as "Dadaist geniuses," "urban legends," "better than the Beatles" and Philosophy of the World as the "best worst rock album ever made." They were the subjects of a stage musical. Tom Cruise once optioned an article about them for a movie that remains unmade.
Whatever verdict the listener arrives at upon hearing The Shaggs, it is worth noting that from this peculiar case of enforced artistic expression, another sound has emerged. A YouTube post of a 1972 Freemont Town Hall Shaggs gig allows us a grainy bister-hued peephole into clunky side-to-side dance steps from the band and sparse audience alike. Given that The Shaggs sound is so unwieldy from a shortfall in time signature and the kind of head-bowing concentration it must take to play it, the buoyant dance moves of the Wiggin Sisters are cheerfully surprising. The footage gives stock to the subsequent output of Dot Wiggin who, now in her sixties, has returned to songwriting and performing with the Dot Wiggin Band. Signed to former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra's label Tentacle Records, their 2013 album release Ready! Get! Go! has retained the undeniable punk nursery rhyme fun of the Wiggin sisters' body of work. Their live shows include a faithful re-rendering of old Shaggs songs, only this time, they are gleefully free of force and obligation.
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