In our post-smartass society, incompetence, or being anti-art, is often held up as a virtue: consider all of those punk bands who could probably learn to play their instruments a bit better, but who snear at the very idea. They are the very antithesis of the tortured indviduals who strive to master their respective musical instruments or methods. There's something to be said for such an artistic stance: ignorance can often make the resultant creativity more refreshing and original. It isn't only found in the music world, of course: so-called 'outsider art' has become a respected category in different fields.
In music, the godmothers, the spiritual big sisters of this do-it-yourself philosophy are undoubtedly the all-girl group known as The Shaggs.
The Shaggs were formed in about 1968 of sisters Dorothy ('Dot'), Helen, and Betty Wiggin; they had been pressed into musical service by their father Austin. A day laborer, Austin heard what was happening in the world of music outside the family's small hometown of Fremont, New Hampshire, and decided his daughters could be the family's ticket out of the near-poverty of their existence. To that end, he bought the girls two guitars and a small drum kit (a fourth sister Rachel would later join in on bass) and had them take music lessons in preparation for what would surely be their dazzling rise to stardom.
The only problem was that, even after all of the effort, after all of the forced practices and shows in American Legion halls and local dances, the girls... well... still just weren't very good.
It wasn't that they didn't try: Austin worked the girls constantly. Since their hometown didn't have its own high school, rather than shipping them off to the next county, they were allowed to take correspondence courses; this allowed them to spend even more of their time playing their instruments, writing songs, and becoming more and more comfortable as a working band unit.
But it didn't work. While Dot and Betty strummed admirably enough, they didn't quite do so in synch, or quite on beat; and singing while playing at the same time presents a challenge for even seasoned musicians - one these farm girls simply couldn't overcome. And Helen on drums... well, God bless her, she couldn't carry a beat in a paper bag.
In March of 1969, their dad booked a series of recording sessions, the girls ending up with a newly-started label called Third World in Massachusetts. Their result was a album called Philosophy of the World, which showed the three girls smiling happily at their instruments, in mutedly pleasing fashions of the time. The collection of twelve songs included such tunes as the title track, a song about Dot's runaway cat called "My Pal Foot-Foot," the ode to family "Who Are Parents?", and a holiday tribute, "It's Halloween," among others. A 45-rpm single of "My Pal Foot-Foot" and "Things I Wonder" was also created.
The response, to say the least, was underwhelming. Although accounts differ, the 1,000 albums pressed basically sat in their boxes and refused to be sold, eventually disappearing from the face of the Earth all together. The girls continued to play small shows locally, even getting a regular gig every Saturday night at the town hall, but few patrons actually bought their recordings.
The group stayed together until 1975, when dad Austin died; then the Shaggs simply faded from memory.
Or so it seemed. Harry Palmer, at the time a music industry veteran, happened to visit the studios of Third World one day in about 1970; he was friends with Charles Dreyer, co-owner of the label who had engineered an album of Palmer's band Ford Theatre a few years previous. Noticing boxes of the Shaggs' album tucked away in a corner of the studio, Palmer asked what they were, and Dreyer told him as much of the story as he knew. He also played his friend cuts from the album.
Palmer was stunned. Although the music was obviously incompetent from an aesthetic standpoint, there was something... raw, and honest, about it. Palmer was given a box of copies to take home with him, and over the next few years, he would give them away to friends in the music business. Everyone was astounded at what they heard: astounded, often appalled, usually intrigued.
In time the girls' unpretentious album became a cult object - cassette copies were passed around, as actualy vinyl copies were as rare as hen's teeth. Alt-rock poseurs praised it for its honest, homespun qualities, and eventually even such artists as Frank Zappa were praising it openly. As years passed the album's reputation grew and grew - but it flew completely under the radar of the mainstream musical press.
In 1980, Rounder/Red Rooster re-released Philosophy of the World on vinyl; shortly thereafter a compilation of outtakes and other later recordings by the girls was released on CD as Shagg's Own Thing (with different cover art), then later both albums in a single CD set. Shagg's Own Thing provided longtime fans a chance to hear additional material from the group, but somehow it wasn't the same: the tunes were a bit more polished (if such a thing were possible), and the magic wasn't quite there. In 1999 RCA-Victor reissued Philosophy as a CD with the original cover art intact.
Although the Shaggs disbanded long ago, their music still continues to be... well, listened to, if not quite enjoyed by everyone who hears it. The girls are all adults now, having lived their lives without benefit of lasting fame, aside from whatever cultlike attention their recordings have brought them. Occasionally, one of them is recognized by someone who attened one of their many shows back in the day.
But, even if they did not become superstars as their father wished, at least their music can inspire many of us who aren't perfect, who can't play a melody on the guitar without making a mistake, or keep a consistent beat over an entire song. We can't all be the fastest runners, the strongest, the most beautiful, the best. Most of us are just ordinary folks who sometimes bite off more than we can chew. The Shaggs, bless their smalltown hearts, are proof that even the incompetent can enjoy their day of fame and glory.
Note: Much of the information in this article comes from Songs in the Key of Z by Irwin Chusid, c. 2000 A Cappella Books.
You can visit the Shaggs' homepage on the Web at http://www.theshaggsonline.com.
You can listen to The Shaggs' "Who Are Parents?" by going here.