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Songs in the Key of Z
The Curious World of Outsider Music
By Irwin Chusid
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2000 Irwin Chusid
All rights reserved.
GROOVE IS IN THE HEART
Fremont, New Hampshire, in the late 1960s was a remote, culturally disconnected backwater. According to one visitor at the time, the town's citizens all looked vaguely related. The burg's main claim to fame was a colonial-era cooperage — that's where barrels are made.
Two centuries after the cooperage was built, a second local phenomenon emerged. Three sisterly hayseeds, Dorothy, Helen, and Betty Wiggin, encouraged by their father, formed a band featuring two guitars and drums. In 1969, these sibs entered a studio and recorded an album entitled Philosophy of the World. This monument of "aboriginal rock" was masterminded by proud papa Austin Wiggin, Jr., and released on the fly-by-night Third World label. Upon its release, the album barely made it beyond the town's borders.
One thousand copies were pressed; 900 disappeared.
Over the ensuing decades, Philosophy was declared by Frank Zappa as one of his all-time favorite records. Rolling Stone's 1996 Alt-Rock-A-Rama ranked it among "The 100 Most Influential Alternative Releases of All Time," "The Greatest Garage Recordings of the 20th Century," and "The 50 Most Significant Indie Records."
Yet many people hearing the Shaggs' legendary Philosophy album for the first time have a common, understandable reaction: this could be the "worst album ever recorded."
The Shaggs are a touchstone of unpretentiousness. Given half an ear, what they're playing sounds like ... a mess — as if the girls were recorded in separate chambers and had no idea what each other was playing. Hacked-at chords, missed downbeats, out-of-socket transitions, blown accents, and accidental convergences abound. Yet the Shaggs existed a decade before punk-inflected irony made DIY incompetence cute and fashionable. This wasn't an attempt at free jazz or expanding the boundaries of the avant-garde. As a major influence, the Shaggs cited cuddly 1960s Brit-rockers Herman's Hermits.
Despite its apparent qualification for federal disaster relief, Philosophy has great charm. It's 100 percent authentic and refreshingly guileless. Its backward innocence is not a product of major label fetishism, or self-conscious indie-rock trendiness. The Shaggs didn't hail from Athens, Seattle, or any MTV flashpoint. Philosophy of the World is outré classique, crowning these gals as the legendary — if unwitting — godmothers of outsider music.
A savage magic permeates the album's spastic grooves. Singer Dorothy's backwoods New England phrasing is endearing, as she earnestly waxes about young-girl-in-a-small-town concerns: parents, listening to the radio, a lost cat, spiritual salvation. The album's lost-chord wonderland transcends the traditional relationship between ability, technique, and originality.
And like most outsiders, the Wiggin sisters would have no idea what we're talking about.
When Zappa raved about Philosophy in a 1976 Playboy poll, practically no one outside the Wiggin clan and their neighborly circle had heard of it. As rare copies of the LP were discovered and cassettes began to circulate, other self-proclaimed fans came to include Bonnie Raitt ("They're like castaways on their own musical island"), Jonathan Richman ("They're the real thing"), and Carla Bley ("They bring my mind to a complete halt").
The band NRBQ reissued Philosophy on a Rounder Records LP in 1980. The 'Q's keyboardist, Terry Adams, compared the Shaggs to early Ornette Coleman; their music, he attested, "has its own structure, its own inner logic." Commemorating the reissue, Rolling Stone proclaimed the Shaggs "Comeback Band of the Year" — doubtless to the befuddlement of its Springsteen-geared readership. Creem magazine called Philosophy "uncivilized." Byron Coley, in New York Rocker, detected in the Shaggs "a new rock 'n' roll language, using the sophistication of Appalachian folk music and Dot Wiggin's brand of teen angst as ground zero." Bruce D. Rhodewalt in LA Weekly observed, "If we can judge music on the basis of its honesty, originality, and impact, then the Shaggs' Philosophy of the World is the greatest record ever recorded in the history of the universe." On a more picturesque note, Lester Bangs, in the Village Voice, asserted that Dorothy's guitar playing was "sorta like 14 pocket combs being run through a moose's dorsal," and that Helen's drumming sounded "like a peg-leg stumbling through a field of bald Uniroyals."
The group formed around 1967, originally with the three (of four) Wiggin sisters. (Rachel, the youngest, later played bass onstage. There are also two brothers, Robert and Austin III.) Dorothy (Dot) Wiggin, 21 when the album was recorded, wrote the group's songs, played lead guitar, and sang; drummer Helen was 22; rhythm guitarist and vocalist Betty was 18.
Dot now lives in Epping, New Hampshire, with her husband, Fred Semprini, and their two sons, William and Matthew. In a 1998 interview, Dot was asked a question that's doubtless occurred to many who have been flabbergasted and delighted by the mayhem on Philosophy — namely, "What were you thinking?"
"It's not what we were thinking," she replied, "so much as what our father was thinking. His big dream was to make the records, have us be popular, and eventually go on tour." At the time, Austin worked full-time at the Exeter Cotton Mill, a textile factory two towns from Fremont. The family was dirt-poor — except in the dream department. Austin bought the girls their instruments, and proceeded to play the part of Phil Spector — albeit in a John Waters casting call. Austin told them what to play, when to play it, and how to play it. "He was something of a disciplinarian," Dot concedes. "He was stubborn and he could be temperamental. He directed. We obeyed. Or did our best."
The name "Shaggs," devised by their father, referred to both shaggy dogs and the then-popular shag haircut. The girls' familiarity with pop music consisted entirely of what they heard on radio; they never attended an actual concert. "Our father didn't believe in them," Dot stressed. "Not for us to go to, anyway." Besides Herman's Hermits, their favorites included Ricky Nelson, the Monkees, and flash-in-the-pans Dino, Desi, and Billy.
Each of the sisters took music and voice lessons for two years prior to recording the album. To allow his daughters more rehearsal time, Austin pulled them out of the public education system and enrolled them in correspondence courses with Chicago's American Home School. "Fremont didn't have their own high school," Dot explained, "and my father didn't want us bused out. So he decided to have us do it at home. Then we could study our music at the same time."
Though the sisters could hardly play their instruments, Austin staged their public debut at an Exeter talent show in 1968. Susan Orlean, in a 1999 New Yorker feature on the group, reported: "When they opened with a cover of a loping country song called 'Wheels,' people in the audience threw soda cans at them and jeered. The girls were mortified; Austin told them they just had to go home and practice more."
A short while before they recorded Philosophy, the Shaggs — expanded with Rachel to a quartet — began a "residency" at the Fremont town hall, where they played a weekly Saturday night dance party in the second-floor auditorium. Local teens attended, sometimes 40or 50-strong. And they danced. This continued for several years, until "a lot of trouble brewed up," recalled Dot. What kind of trouble? "Kids saying they were somewhere else when they were at the dance. Teenage fights — that good stuff. And smoking."
Smoking ... what?
Austin, as quality-control chief, was on hand for every performance. He strutted the corridors of the town hall, and surveyed the musical proceedings from the dance floor, wearing a homemade pin that read: "Shagg [sic] Manager."
In March 1969, Austin booked time at Fleetwood Studios, in Revere, Massachusetts. The four sisters climbed in a van with mom, dad, and brother Robert, and drove a few hours south. Dot wasn't certain they were good enough to record. No matter. "Dad was paying for it," she shrugged. Austin later reportedly boasted to one of the recording engineers about his daughters, that he wanted to "get them while they're hot!" Fleetwood did a brisk business recording school marching bands and local rock groups. Engineering for the Wiggin sessions was assigned to Russ Hamm. Another staff engineer named Charlie Dreyer probably spent time in the control room during the Shaggs' visit.
Musician/producer Bobby Herne was yet another Fleetwood staffer who witnessed the ensuing debacle. In an interview (conducted by Erik Lindgren shortly before Herne passed away in 1998), he said that Austin "came into Fleetwood and said he needed to cut some sides because he was the 'proprietor' of this band. The father — he called himself the 'proprietor.' He brought them in and they did this stuff. We shut the control room doors and rolled on the floor laughing. Just rolled! It was horrible. They did not know what they were doing, but they thought it was okay. They were just in another world. And they smelled like cows. Right off the farm. Not a dirty smell — just smelled like cows."
During the sessions, which were supervised by the "proprietor," the girls would occasionally interrupt recording halfway through a song. "Why'd they stop?" the engineers would ask. "Because they made a mistake," snorted Austin, in total seriousness.
The recordings included a song about sleek wheels ("That Little Sports Car") and Dot's gray-striped cat ("My Pal Foot Foot"). Dot didn't have a sports car ("That was like a dream"), and eventually she didn't have a cat ("Even though the song has a happy ending, in real life it went away and never came back"). A paean to mom and dad, "Who Are Parents," included the call-and-response chorus: Who are parents?
Parents are the ones who really care
Who are parents?
Parents are the ones who are always there
Who Are Parents? Austin and Annie Wiggin, mid-1960s.
The song that would become the album's title track addressed the Sisyphean quest for contentment:
Oh the rich people want what the poor peoples [sic] got
And the poor people want what the rich peoples got
And the skinny people want what the fat peoples got
And the fat people want what the skinny peoples got
You can never please any-bo-ho-dy
In this world
When the hothouse phenoms had a dozen titles on tape, Austin, according to one account, paid for the session with small bills, stashed in a coffee can. A now-exceedingly-rare 45-rpm single was released on Fleetwood Records, featuring "My Pal Foot Foot" and "Things I Wonder."
Shortly thereafter, Dreyer and Herne parted ways with Fleetwood and bought a studio called Third World Recording in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Third World was apparently hired to remix the Shaggs master tapes, and during this phase Herne tried to "fix" the performances by having studio pros re-record the rhythm parts. Terry Adams recalled hearing a studio outtake on which a session drummer tried to overdub a "real beat" over Helen's wobbly kit work — and eventually gave up. "Can't do it, Bob," he huffed, throwing down the sticks. Dot confirmed that she heard "real musicians" tried to "improve" the tapes.
Fortunately for history, they failed.
Dreyer, sensing a business opportunity, offered to press and distribute the Shaggs album — no doubt with Austin's money — on the studio's in-house Third World label. The gawky LP cover photo depicts guitarists Dot and Betty in paisley tunics over pleated, tablecloth-plaid, knee-length skirts; Helen, in a pantsuit that includes a Nehru-jacket knockoff, sits behind an unplayably arranged half drum kit. The trio poses unpresumptuously before a dusty green curtain on what could be an American Legion Hall stage.
The liner notes — whoever wrote them — were remarkably prescient. (The tone of quasi-defiance hints at the handiwork of the "proprietor.")
The Shaggs are real, pure, unaffected by outside influences. Their music is different, it is theirs alone. ... Of all contemporary acts in the world today, perhaps only the Shaggs do what others would like to do, and that is perform only what they believe in, what they feel, not what others think the Shaggs should feel.
The Shaggs love you, and love to perform for you. You may love their music or you may not, but whatever you feel, at last you know you can listen to artists who are real. They will not change their music or style to meet the whims of a frustrated world.
Three names are conspicuously absent from the LP credits: Dreyer, Herne, and Hamm. Possibly they were so embarrassed by the record, they didn't want their names on it.
Dreyer was a strange character, an engineer and producer of considerable talent who may have felt justified in attempting to protect his reputation. Wayne Terminello, who worked as a shipper at Fleetwood late in Dreyer's tenure, recalled, "He was an oddball that no one knew much about. He wore a black suit every day — in fact, it was the same black suit. Remember, this was the hippie era — in those days, no one wore suits. He even slept in it. He kept a sleeping bag at the studio and crashed there for a while. He bought beer for me and my underage friends and we smoked grass together. He tried to turn on the sales act with folks like the Wiggins, but he was really as spaced-out as the rest of us. He was unstable and not very trustworthy. My boss, Ray Samora, finally got rid of him."
Veteran major-label executive Harry Palmer, while conceding Dreyer's eccentricities, admired his studio touch. "In those days," recalled Palmer, "engineers often were producers, in that they worked the board. Charlie could capture amazing layered recordings with a 4-track machine. He produced a lot of very good records at Fleetwood." Palmer's late-1960s Boston-based band, Ford Theatre, recorded a live, album-length demo at Fleetwood with Dreyer at the controls. (That demo, with later overdubs, was released on ABC Records in summer 1968 as the band's debut LP, Trilogy for the Masses.) From that encounter, Palmer and Dreyer became friends and worked on subsequent projects together.
At this point in the tale, some historical correction is required. An often-repeated legend about Philosophy of the World's fate is that a thousand copies were pressed, nine-tenths of which "disappeared" — along with Dreyer. Dot Wiggin herself attested, "He left the face of the earth. He took my father's money, gave us one box of albums, and ran. My father couldn't get in touch with him. He tried telephone calls, but no one knew where he was. I have no idea if he's even alive." This account of Dreyer's "theft" of 900 albums has been repeated in journalistic accounts of the Shaggs' history.
Dreyer's eventual fugitive status may be factual — Dot said she "heard that there were two or three other people looking for him" — but his absconding with the Philosophy LPs probably isn't.
Palmer and his then-girlfriend (now wife), Dawn Coffman, visited the engineer at Third World in late 1969 or early 1970. "I went to do some work with him," Palmer recollected, "and that's when we first saw and heard the Shaggs' record." Palmer and Coffman noticed several 25-count boxes of Philosophy stacked in a corner of the studio waiting room, and asked what they were. Dreyer described in macabre detail the now-fabled sessions, illustrating his story with random needle-drops on the vinyl.
"I heard 'My Pal Foot Foot' and fell off my chair," explained Palmer. "I was fascinated." Coffman said Dreyer beheld the tower of Philosophy LPs and muttered, "Austin refuses to sell these, because he's afraid someone will copy their music."
Dreyer gestured at the stack: "Take a box."
Perhaps most of the copies "disappeared" this way. But for Dreyer to "steal" them makes no sense. Palmer noted that Dreyer went deeply in debt after borrowing tens of thousands of dollars for various recording projects, but there's no way hundreds of Philosophy LPs would've helped pay his creditors — the album was unknown and worthless. (It was also considered an artistic abomination.) The only reason Dreyer had possession was because Austin never bothered to claim the goods. The eventual disposition of those boxes remains a mystery. It's conceivable that at some point, since they were taking up valuable space, they were simply tossed in a dumpster.
Dot says that after Philosophy was pressed, there were "no reviews that I know of." Their shot at stardom having fizzled, the sisters continued entertaining at town hall dances, the Rockingham Nursing Home, local talent shows, and Fourth of July celebrations. Besides their originals, the girls covered such hits as "House of the Rising Sun," "Paper Roses," the Carpenters' "Yesterday Once More," and the Pipkins' "Gimme Dat Ding."
Excerpted from Songs in the Key of Z by Irwin Chusid. Copyright © 2000 Irwin Chusid. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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