Listen to this track by musical chameleon, vocal titan and otherwise folk-jazz-whatever singer-songwriter Tim Buckley. It’s “Song Of The Siren”, the version which appeared on his 1970 album Starsailor.
The song had been around for a while, featuring in particular on his 1968 musical guest appearance on the very last episode of The Monkees TV series, of all things. In that appearance, the song is decidedly folkier and more vocally polite than the one you’re hearing here. Buckley was a restless artist, constantly on the move and seemingly driven to push his own artistic boundaries, sometimes to a fault when considering his commercial footholds, or lack thereof. During his particular era, changing tracks musically, or in fact building one’s own track from scratch, was a trickier thing than it is today. The template for that kind of career wasn’t quite set across the board.
Regardless of all of that, Buckley’s “Song Of The Siren” is one of his best known songs, even if it appeared on an ablum that wasn’t exactly mainstream-friendly. So, was Buckley trying to accomplish by retooling it? Read more
Listen to this track from Avant garde tenor player with a soft side Pharaoh Sanders. It’s “Astral Traveling”, a track as taken off of his 1971 LP Thembi. This record catches Sanders during what many consider to be his prime period. But, instead of stretching out for side-long excursions into tempestuous and ferocious whirlwinds of sound, this record is more varied, and with more bite-sized track lengths, not to mention moments of serenity and lyricism. Maybe it was because the record was named after Sanders’ wife. But, it largely deals in subtlety and sonic variation, as opposed to the crashing assault for which much of his work is generally known.
This album is actually the product of two different sessions. Like many jazz records toward the end of the sixties and into the seventies, these sessions were edited into a whole at the production stage instead of being recorded right off of the floor as is. This doesn’t mean that the record was without spontaneity or the spirit of experimentation. In fact, this very track can certainly be considered experimental, even if it is pastoral in equal measure. Read more
Listen to this track by avant-garde-minimalist-ambient-folk-jazz-chamber-whatever collective Penguin Cafe Orchestra. It’s “Music For A Found Harmonium”, the opening track as taken from the 1984 album Broadcasting From Home. The track was initially inspired in just the way you might think; by PCO founder Simon Jeffes actually finding a harmonium in an alley in Japan while on tour there, and then building a piece of music around it.
It’s this kind of out of the box thinking that set him upon this road to start with. The music of Penguin Cafe Orchestra is driven by all kinds of sources, from classical music, to jazz, to folk music of all kinds, referencing traditional pop structure and melody using a variety of stringed instruments, piano, and brass. But, another source used to create the music is from “found sounds”, and in found objects too, from rubber bands to discarded harmoniums.
So, how did Simon Jeffes establish this musical approach, and what can be found in this tune that exemplifies it?
Listen to this track from ambient music pioneer and minimalist composer Steve Reich. It’s a brief section from his 1976 composition Music For 18 Musicians; “section IIIA” to be exact. Where much of pop music, and even some classical and jazz relies very heavily on musical “events”, this brief section of a larger, organic piece proves that music doesn’t have to move all that much to be moving, if you see what I mean.
Where experiments with phasing, which is a specialty on which Reich has built a reputation, can be viewed as coldly mathematical, the exact opposite appears to be true here. This is warm, and even inviting, appealing to the avant garde listener and to the casual listener too, although maybe in different ways.
Perhaps it’s the warm multi-tracked instrumentation – marimbas, clarinets, strings, female voices – that does it. Or maybe there is something innately comforting in the repetitive pulse that this music delivers. Read more
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.
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.
[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.]