When I took the paste-up artist job at the music trade magazine, Record World in 1977, I arrived in New York amidst the music industry's frantic frenzy to find and market the next big thing.
Pop was fizzling, and country had yet to go urban and was still being referred to as country western. But on the other side of the coin, Saturday Night Fever had just been released, and disco was waiting in the wings for a chance to dance. Then, of course, there was The Sex Pistols, one of the premier bands that ushered in punk, the British musical black sheep that could be counted on to throw up in the punchbowl and turn over the all the tables and chairs.
Record label starmakers rightly realized that punk was a force that would not and could not be ignored, so they set about the task of trying to figure out how to homogenize it and package it for the suburban youths of America.
|The resulting tag was New Wave, as in the second wave of the British Invasion. The first British Invasion had introduced the Beatles and the Stones to America; the second wave included such diverse names as Joe Jackson, Dave Edmunds, The Specials, and Elvis Costello, to name a few. Not to be outdone, American new wave bands such as Talking Heads picked up the slack on this side of the Atlantic.
I grew up in Nashville surrounded by music, and although I was heavily influenced by that town's native sounds, I had also played in garage bands in the mid-60's doing bad imitations of Herman's Hermits and The Dave Clark Five. I took the Record World job mainly so I could be surrounded by music of all kinds. In that aspect, I was not disappointed.
My two roommates had been DJs at a popular New England college radio station, and they were both constantly bringing in music I could never have imagined before my arrival in New York. One of them worked with me at the magazine as a writer (as well as freelancing for The Village Voice and Rolling Stone), and he was the one who brought home "Philosophy of the World," the most unusual album I ever heard. When he put it on the turntable, he simply said, "Listen to this."
Immediately, the title track leapt into the sound system: "Oh, the rich people want what the poor people's got / And the poor people want what the rich people's got / And the skinny people want what the fat people's got / And the fat people want what the skinny people's got / You can never please anybody in this world."
This song was followed up by the curious "That Little Sports Car," and a couple of cuts later, the now-famous "My Pal Foot Foot." The latter was an ode to Foot Foot, the cat, who obviously had run away. There was even a picture of Foot Foot on the album's back cover--a half-cat, half-foot cartoon.
At the first listen, the musicians sounded out of tune as well as out of sync, and they seemed to juggle time signatures with wreckless abandon before discarding them completely. That being said, they were all amazingly in sync with one another as if the cacophony was incredibly planned and, well, intentional.
The artists behind (as well as in front of) this music were three New Hampshire sisters, Betty, Helen and Dorothy Wiggin, and they called themselves The Shaggs.
They had gone into a Revere, Massachusetts studio to record the album in the Spring of 1969 with the help and in fact, insistence of their father, a textile worker named Austin Wiggin, Jr.
The elder Wiggin was not a hip dude. He didn't like hippies or loud rock music, and he forbade his daughters to wear short skirts and wouldn't allow them to date until they reached 18.
|But Austin Wiggin, Jr. did have a superstitious side. When he was young, his mother, who dappled in fortune telling, read his palm and revealed a strange and amazing future: he would marry a strawberry blonde and have two sons that his mother would not live to see. What's more, Mama Fortune went on to say, he would have daughters who would play in a band.
After he married a strawberry blonde, his mother died before his two sons were born, and apparently he felt obligated to make good on the last prediction. When his daughters were old enough, they were required to take on the task of putting together the long-awaited band.
They cut their teeth in the Fremont, New Hampshire Town Hall playing for their neighbors, and before too long, Austin felt like it was time to get his daughters' sound down on record. Once the sessions were completed, he paid a man for a thousand albums which were to be released and distributed. However, once the man was paid, he disappeared, leaving Austin and The Shaggs with a total of one box of albums.
|Most of the records ended up in the hands of friends and relatives; the balance ended up in the dumpster, or in some cases, used record stores. The girls continued to play, however, until their father's death in 1975.
Here's where the story takes its weird twist. At some point in the late '70s, Terry Adams, lead singer for the band NRBQ, stumbled across a copy of "Philosophy of the World" in a used record store. He was fascinated with the album and somehow managed to convince his parent record company, Rounder to release it on NRBQ's Red Rooster label. The rights to the album were bought, and the record was re-released on Red Rooster in 1980 with its original album art and liner notes intact.
Like every album released by Rounder, promotional copies of "Philosophy of the World" made their way to the major music publications including Record World (which is how my roommate happened on to it). The response was almost immediate. One critic called it "the first punk album," and Rolling Stone named The Shaggs "Comeback Band of the Year." More important, the album started selling in record stores.
Of all the people amazed at the success of the record, none were more surprised than the Wiggin sisters themselves. After their father died in 1975, the girls had put away their instruments and moved on with their respective lives. Dorothy got married, had two sons and made a living working at a daycare center and as a house cleaner. Betty went to work as a school janitor, and later at a kitchen equipment warehouse. And Helen eloped with a boy she met at one of the town hall gigs, but because of their father's strictness, they kept the marriage a secret for several months, and she continued to live at home. When their father found out, he was predictably furious, and he kicked Helen out of the band, but allowed her to rejoin a short time later.
After the album began making waves, the girls--at that point, middle-aged housewives--began receiving fan mail from all over the world. Frank Zappa even weighed in saying The Shaggs were "better than the Beatles."
In 1999, the boys from NRBQ talked The Shaggs into playing a reunion concert in New York City, their first concert in a quarter of a century as well as their first one outside of New Hampshire. And, in early 2000, actor Tom Cruise secured the movie rights to an article about The Shaggs. Their music has spawned dozens (if not hundreds) of websites, complete with Shaggs paraphernalia and CDs, plus links to The Shaggs' email addresses. As for my own experience in playing the record for the uninitiated, I was always fascinated with the reactions I observed.
The responses were a mixture of incredulity, laughter, annoyance, anger and always curiosity. (In the early '80s I would typically play the Kate Bushs "Wuthering Heights," the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" and The Shaggs' "My Pal Foot Foot" in rapid succession to confuse and amaze my friends from the South visiting me in New York for the first time.)
The Shaggs can best be summed up by a comment made by a fan posting to one of the websites dedicated to the band. "They are either mentally-challenged or geniuses," he wrote. "I've been a musician for 30 years and I still can't tell which."
©Copyright 2003 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.