The Shaggs “Philosophy of the World”

Three teenage sisters from New Hampshire, Dot, Betty, and Helen Wiggin, were pushed by their father to form a band and in 1969 they recorded the ultimate outsider album, Philosophy of the World. Both Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain have cited it as a fave.

Immediately it sounds unlistenable, but soon it’s hard to stop – like rubbernecking at a car wreck. The Shaggs’ approach comes from way beyond, seemingly informed by nothing. Their music is profoundly unique, sincere, and captivating.

The “problem” with the music is the drums are plainly out of sync with the guitar and vocal.  But you can’t blame the drummer, Helen, whose oft-recycled, go-to drum fill hits the spot every time.  Dot Wiggin’s guitar and lead vocal melodies have a natural lean to complex and disorganized time signatures; I’d bet even the best free jazz drummers couldn’t keep up.  Ultimately what emerges in my mind is a picture of sibling rivalry: Dot wants Helen to follow her rambling leads, and Helen just wants her sisters to come back to the planet and adhere to some semblance of a 4/4 beat.

The songwriting is strange, but at times poignant, as in “Why Do I Feel” (listen as Betty the rhythm guitarist and Helen the drummer finally sneak in a few bars of beat-matched tempo during the intro) and “Who Are Parents?” a heartbreaking, beautiful mess of a song.  “My Pal Foot Foot” is a bizarre piece, presumably about the family dog. “I’m So Happy When You’re Near” comes to a lyrical crescendo when they loudly proclaim “sometimes I think we are completely insane!”

Philosophy of the World is raw, abrasive, and weird, but absolutely must-hear. Especially recommended in small doses.

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“Who Are Parents”

:D CD Reissue | 1999 | RCA | buy at amzn ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1969 | Third World | search ebay ]


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20 Comments.

  • Len Liechti

    Wow! A Sleater-Kinney or 5-6-7-8 for the sixties. I wonder if they knew what “to shag” meant in English English? About the same thing as why Marc Bolan had to change the title of “Get It On” to “Bang A Gong” to get it released in the States. And if anyone can identify those guitars (I can’t), they’ll get ten extra Brownie Points.

  • Brendan

    Perhaps the Silvertone Avalon? I typed Sears Guitars into google and found that.

    Edit: yeah it’s definitely the avalon. Here’s some more on their preferred axe: The bizarre story of the Shaggs model Avalon Guitar.

  • Despite the pink stockings, I’m convinced the leftmost sister ain’t a sister.

  • Jeff

    You have given me about the zillioneth opportunity to listen to the Shaggs, thinking maybe this time I’ll get it. But not this time either; still sounds totally unlistenable.

  • Who are parents?? Great song. Thanks for posting something other than Foot Foot, which I’ve heard on Songs in the Key of X among other comps over the years.

  • roc

    more like watching a child abused. the music is almost as painful of the very idea of what the man was doing to his children.

  • Len Liechti

    Thanks for the link on theSilvertone Avalon guitar, Brendan. The Mosrite influence is clear – after the Ventures achieved godlike status in Japan every manufacturer there produced something that resembled the Mosrite Ventures models, being just sufficiently different to avoid a lawsuit – indeed, in the early seventies even that reservation went out of the window. And at that time Sears had switched all their sourcing to Japanese product from their earlier arrangements with the Chicago mass-producers. Anyway, a fascinating posting on a wonderfully contentious recording, and great to see some postings coming through on the Storm that aren’t just panegyrics. Comment bait indeed!

  • Len Liechti

    Finally got round to listening to the MP3s, and unusually for me I’m left wordless . . . . There’s an expression “so bad it’s good” which sorta covers this stuff. Reminds me of my daughter’s music O-Level for which she had to compose and perform two songs. (Guess who got to provide backing and operate the Portastudio?) Amazingly the reissue CD is still readily available, and there are several websites dedicated to the Shaggs and to Outsider musicians in general. The Wiki entries are quite good – I’m not convinced that you can validly lump Brian Wilson and these girls together, but that’s apparently the nature of the Outsider category! And I did enjoy the story of how the girls would sometimes stop a recording take, claiming that one of them had made a mistake, and how the recording crew would wonder how they KNEW? Certainly I’ll never look at Trout Mask Replica in the same light again!

  • Len Liechti

    PS: Foot Foot was a cat. How many legs did it have?

  • I really wanted to like this….I can’t!

  • dk

    I’m with Dave on this one. As my buddy Furr once said – “Nice dress mister!”

  • kjohn

    And I thought some of the music written on LSD back then was strange.

  • Len Liechti

    Hey, don’t knock these guys (?) too hard. They wrote their own material and played their own instruments. I don’t recall Elvis doing that.

  • dk

    We’ve traveled a winding road to reach the place where Elvis gets compared to The Shaggs. Just one of the reasons I keep coming back to this blog…

  • thisis

    this reminds me of the first moldy peaches album.. with less swearing

  • fred

    first i just want to say how entertaining this comments section is. cheers to the great comments/jokes/insights. i first heard the shaggs on elvira’s vinyl maccabre halloween album (their song “it’s halloween”) and have been wondering casually about them since. so glad you covered it!

  • Audio Fan

    Yes, some entertaining thoughts have made the comments enjoyable. These girls were either shockingly ahead of there time or shockingly bad. I can’t decide

  • Chauncey

    Great little BBC documentary on the Wiggins’ & company. if you are interested, visit here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00gtsj3

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