Listen to this track by London-based hit-single generating vocal group All Saints. It’s “Never Ever”, their smash 1997 single as taken from their self-titled album All Saints, their debut full-length. The group had been together since 1993, led by members Melanie Blatt and Shaznay Lewis, along with former member Simone Rainford, after serving as back-up vocalists for ZTT recording studios. With this song, and with then-new members in Canadian sisters Nicole and Natalie Appleton joining them, they managed to score a number one single that would eventually become the second best selling single by a British girl group, just behind The Spice Girls “Wannabe”.
Like their spicy contemporaries, All Saints (named after a road in London) sought to appeal to a pure pop audience with a decidedly R&B flavour. With the kind of hooks their material featured, they were certainly able to get the attention of commercial radio, although perhaps with a bit less cultural impact than The Spice Girls initially. But one thing that All Saints had was an instinct for writing their own material. Shaznay Lewis wrote this song with writers Robert Jazayeri and Sean Mather. “Never Ever” was released in Britain in November of 1997, becoming a smash hit and remaining to be their biggest charting single to date with scores of accolades attached to it.
But like many hit songs, it was based in some very real struggles, specifically on Lewis’ part. Its success and its positive impact on the group struck her as ironic, rooted as it was in the pain of a real break-up. Beyond its undeniable commercial value and appealing pop hooks, there is a lot of darkness swimming below the surface that brings out some pertinent questions about break ups, and how they can very often skew our perceptions of ourselves. 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.]
The rock n’ roll that grabs you most is often the basic, throw-it-up-against-the-wall variety, often fueled by a palpable sexual drive. This is one tune which demonstrates this – and it doesn’t hurt that the band is comprised of four charismatic women in their twenties, usually the objects of lust in this kind of idiom, now doing some lusting (and some serious rocking out) themselves. These women are hot!
The group started off as Ramones disciples, and their early albums were very much in that vein. Even the name of each band member follows the Ramones model – they’ve all got ‘Donna’ stage names. They started the group in Palo Alto, California while still in junior high-school, loving the Ramones, being inspired by them, and starting a group because there was no reason not to.
But at some point, they must have discovered AC/DC. Note Donna R’s (Alison Robertson’s) Angus Young model Gibson SG. And note too the meat-and-potatoes delivery. This band for me flies in the face of what women in pop music are meant to be – demure pop starlets, or contrived sex kittens mugging for the camera. This girls are clearly on a different trajectory altogether. They’re not the first to do it, of course. But, they are the hope that continues to be necessary – examples of the fact that women can be musicians with big balls, kicking ass and taking names.
Their more heavy metal-oriented direction continues on their latest album, Bitchin’.