The Shaggs: “Better than the Beatles”

by Dylan Looney

The Shaggs' 1969 album "Philosophy of the World" (en.wikipedia.org)

The Shaggs’ 1969 album Philosophy of the World Photo: en.wikipedia.org

In Fremont, New Hampshire in the 1960s, a rock group emerged that consisted of three preteen sisters: Dorothy “Dot” Wiggin on lead vocals and lead guitar, Betty Wiggin on rhythm guitar and vocals, and Helen Wiggin on drums. The band was named The Shaggs after the popular “shag” haircut of the time. They were given this name by their father, Austin Wiggin, who forced his daughters to start the group after his mother read his palm and predicted that the girls would form the world’s most popular music group. Despite their grandmother’s prediction, the girls had little natural musical talent, and did not show any interest in pursuing music whatsoever. Regardless, the girls were ordered to rehearse for hours on end, day after day, playing their original compositions for their father until he was pleased with their performance.

Eventually, Mr. Wiggin decided it was time for his girls to record their first album, titled Philosophy of the World. The album was initially either ignored by the masses or ridiculed by the locals who heard it. It eventually faded into obscurity as The Shaggs disbanded in 1975 following the death of Austin Wiggin. Years later, however, the album was picked up by the underground radio DJ Dr. Demento, who also helped spark the career of “Weird Al” Yankovic. Eventually, the music and legacy of the Wiggin sisters spread to high profile names such as Kurt Cobain and Frank Zappa, who called The Shaggs “better than the Beatles.” Today, The Shaggs have attracted a cult following, especially among fans of the avant-garde. Their late success has led to an off-Broadway musical based on their story. Frontwoman Dot Wiggin has even recently launched a solo career.

Listening to The Shaggs’ music is a surreal experience. The sisters play out of sync, out of tune, and out of touch with any outside musical influences. Dot and Betty sing off key through thick New England accents on topics such as a pet cat (“My Pal Foot Foot”), the wonders of the 31st day of October (“It’s Halloween”), and the general dissatisfaction of society (“Philosophy of the World”). All throughout, it seems the girls are each making up their own song as they play it. At first, their music comes across as merely grating noise, but after a while, I found it began to slowly grow on me. While I still suspect much of their following is ironic, there is a certain charm to The Shaggs’ music. When you were a little kid, did you ever mess around with a musical instrument you didn’t know how to play? Listening to Philosophy of the World is likely to remind you of that feeling. While the band hated every minute of it, there is still a playful feeling to their songs. While I would disagree with Zappa on The Shaggs being superior to the Beatles, I would definitely recommend listening to a few songs to anyone who doesn’t take themselves too seriously.

Listen to the full Philosophy of the World album here.

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