Prepare yourself – here’s a clip of sixties underground curiosity, and arguably the most original group from the little known Freemont, New Hampshire scene – all-girl group the Shaggs performing their song “My Pal Foot Foot” from the legendary Philosophy of the World LP.

Making the Ramones look like Emerson, Lake and Palmer... A stage play about the Shaggs called Philosophy of the World has been performed, along with rumours of a screenplay in development about the life of the Wiggin sisters.
The Shaggs: Making the Ramones look like Emerson, Lake and Palmer… A stage play about the Shaggs called ‘Philosophy of the World’ was performed in 2005, along with rumours of a screenplay in development for a film about the life of the Wiggin sisters.

Now, after you’ve heard the music, pick up your jaw from off of the ground and listen to the true story of the Shaggs, a tale that makes Murry Wilson’s alleged parental bullying of sons Brian, Carl, and Dennis look like a motivational speech by Atticus Finch.  The Shaggs were the result of a parent’s belief in his kids, although not in the way you’d like to think.  The daughters of Austin Wiggin – Dot, Betty, and Helen – never really wanted to form a band.  But, their Dad sure wanted them to; it was foretold, you see.

His mother had been a palm reader who  told him while he was still a child that a few things that would happen to him, and some of them came true. He would have two sons, for instance.  And he would marry a girl with strawberry blonde hair – which he did.  Yet one of those things which he’d been told had not yet come to pass; his daughters had not yet formed a world-conquering pop band.

So, he made them do it.

It must be underlined that girls had no interest in playing music to begin with, and Austin Wiggin and his wife Annie were in no way musical either.  They didn’t approve of countercultural values or in the rebellion of rock’n’roll.  And yet, the Shaggs were born anyway.  He took them out of school, and forced them into full-time music lessons.  Dot and Betty had guitars thrust into their hands.  And Helen was the drummer.  Later, a fourth sister Rachel would be brought in on bass.   He also arranged a regular gig for them – Saturday nights at the Freemont town hall.  This gig lasted until 1973 – five years.  While he was at it, Austin arranged studio time, and the band, named after a hairstyle, recorded their sole studio album Philosophy of the World, with a limited release in 1969.

The record was not the smash hit Austin believed it would be, due to how (shall we say) idiosyncratic it is, not to mention its lack of proper distribution even if the material had been more traditional in approach. They never made a follow-up album, at least in any traditional sense, and the band went on until Austin’s death from a heart attack in 1975.  Still, in the meantime, they certainly caught the attention of some of the right people, including Frank Zappa who (perhaps apocryphally) proclaimed the Shaggs to be ‘better than the Beatles’.  And this was the enigma behind the Shaggs; when does ‘badly played’ become ‘avant garde’?

The question might be simple, if there were not so many consistencies in the songs, all written by the Wiggin sisters.  Any kind of steady rhythm is, on first impression, entirely absent, as is tuneful melody in the expected pop sense.  Yet there is a definite approach, a method, which seemed to have gone into their creation.  The girls confused the sound engineers on the sessions a few times during recording after they’d “made a mistake” and needed to start again.  The question for the engineers  was not how to fix the errors, but rather how to discern them from all of the other sounds the girls were making.  It can be concluded from this that they had something in mind for their music, to which only they were in tune, even if the engineers and (the instruments the girls were playing) were not.  And then there is the matter of their cult following afterwards.  Whatever they’d done in the studio garnered attention.  And eventually, it garnered airplay and tribute from other artists too.

Philosophy of the World was championed by underground radio in the seventies and by other artists who thought of the band either as unique visionaries, or a puzzling novelty act. The record was eventually re-released in the 80s, becoming a Holy Grail of what is commonly referred to as ‘Outsider Music‘.  A compilation of unreleased tracks was also issued under the name Shaggs’ Own Thing. And perhaps most curiously, there was a tribute album named after Zappa’s quote; Better Than The Beatles, which featured cover versions of the Shaggs’ material.

This is an odd tale to be sure, which raises a lot of questions.  Is this the sound of innocents playing music untouched by the taint of traditional pop structures?  Or is it a product of what many would consider to be child exploitation and abuse from an obsessive, controlling father?  Perhaps it’s both.

For more information about the Shaggs and their story, read this article about the Shaggs by Susan Orlean.

And if you want more Shaggs right from the source, check out Dot Wiggin’s website too.

Enjoy.

[UPDATE: October 3, 2016: The Shaggs’ Philosophy Of The World is being re-issued by Light In The Attic records. You can learn more about that right here. In the meantime, here’s an interview with Dot Wiggin recently published in Rolling Stone.]

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6 thoughts on “The Shaggs Play “My Pal Foot Foot” From Their LP Philosophy of the World

  1. Oh. My. God. It sounds like a soundcheck gone horribly wrong… It’s the sort of music (and story) that would not be out of place in a comedy troupe like the League of Gentlemen.

    This is what would be called in art circles as “outsider art”:

    Their song “Philosophy of the World” is brilliant– perhaps not for the reasons I would cite Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band as being brilliant, but brilliant nonetheless.

  2. This is what would be called in art circles as “outsider art”:

    Which is presumably why you said it was defined as “Outsider music”. d’oh!

  3. Hey Graeme,

    Apparently, their Dad was never pleased with any rendition of the title track ‘Philosophy of the World’ that they’d ever played live. He demanded that they perform it again and again until they got it ‘right’, which they evidently did just before he died – but, just that once. Presumably, he had no qualms about the other songs.

    In terms of the songs, lyrically they follow the same path as any Dylan song. That is, they’re about whatever the writers were interested in, following no preset agenda as to what subject it’s appropriate to sing about. And call them what you will, the lyrics aren’t clichés by any stretch. Having said that, it’s hard to really be entertained by them, unless you kind of adjust your brain to them, rather than expected them to meet your expectations.

    Cheers for comments!

  4. I get into arguments about this band all the time. A lot of people still think they’re a fraud. But if you look into their songs, there’s something there that can’t be faked… they’re very well-constructed and insightful. Thanks for the clip.

  5. Hey Feeb – welcome.

    For me, their story is so compelling. Everything about them is unexpected. Most kids would jump at the chance at cutting school and spending their time forming a band. These girls did it because it was like taking out the garbage or making their beds – their Dad made them. Yet, I think that there is something there. They were commited to what they were creating, even if it defied traditional expectations of what a song is supposed to sound like.

    Thanks for comments!

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