Friday, June 22, 2012

Meet the Shaggs!

The Shaggs were three New Hampshire sisters who were forced by their  father to form a band in the mid-sixties. They had no musical training but he bought them instruments and forced them to practice for hours a day in the basement. Determined to make a record, he ignored the recording engineer who suggested they needed more practice, and cut tracks for their album, “Philosophy of the World.”

The comments I’ve cut and pasted below from Amazon reviews and YouTube express my own reaction to their music. Stupefied at first listen, appalled---(the drummer is playing a completely different tempo!)---but then weirdly, wanting to hear them again. If this was merely bad music it would only be interesting the first time. There is a spark of life and an inner sisterly logic in this music that makes me happy. I like the Shaggs.

The third song I’ve posted, “My Cutie,” is actually a pretty little tune, and was recorded a few years later, after they had improved some. The song has a wistful sweetness that haunts me. The drum track is turned way down and is faintly audible on the right channel.

They have a cult following and their story has been documented, (see New Yorker article) and  even made into a play. The sisters, now grown, live modest lives not far from where they grew up. In interviews they seem both bewildered and tickled by their fans, but the extra money from CD sales helps.

Listen to "My Pal Foot Foot" and prepare to have your brain cells re-arranged:

Welcome to the alternate universe of The Shaggs! A band that goes against every concept of music.

It's like they have a whole different musical language and we don't speak it.

I can tell you exactly why these three women are a total musical abomination. _ If only I could tell you why I like them...

Listen once and you hear the craziest most backward beginner racket you could ever imagine repleat with flat harmonies, a propensity for playing the melody on guitar along with the vocal line itself and in the midst of rythmic stumbling like youve never heard (i think lester bangs said "a pegleg stumbling through a field of bald uniroyals")...

Forget the out-of-tune guitars, the drunkenly meandering tempo, and the nonsensical lyrics. Listen to the naïve, adolescent earnestness, unrestrained by self-doubt or the straightjacket of musical convention.

You do not so much listen to them as endure their total assault upon the concepts of melody, harmony, rhythm, and logic. Your first play-through will be a cathartic experience of sorts - disbelief turns into incredulity, incredulity mutates into speechlessness, speechlessness transforms into a deeply-rooted hatred of the life force within you, and before you know it your lower intestine is snaking up through your neck trying to strangle you. This is the music your dogs would make if they could strum guitars and speak English. And this is the beauty of The Shaggs - they are so mind-bendingly, death-defyingly horrible in every conceivable way that they grab your viscera, shove them through a turbocharged garbage disposal, and put them back inside of you in random order.

Still, there is something so compelling about the album. Hearing these girls attempt to play their individual instruments is mesmerizing. If you were to put three other musical novices in a room together and ask them to play their instruments, you'd get nothing more than bad noise. The Shaggs, however, managed to hit that magic point where their racket actually combined to create a unique and haunting sound.

The singing is appalling, the guitar work execrable, and the drumming laughable. Truly, truly rudimentary musicmaking. Yet...the stuff is strangely beguiling. As much as this is a CD to be endured as opposed to enjoyed, there are moments when these three musical hominoids actually manage to make some sort of sense, when the din of their music suddenly and surprisingly, for a few seconds, gives way to a strangely beautiful form of musical expression.

One listen to the song "My Pal Foot Foot" will no doubt send you clamoring for the stop button on your CD player. A second listen will have you hunting for a hammer to smash the CD into as many pieces as you can. A third listen will have you strangely desiring a fourth listen, and that fourth listen will have you fascinated as to how you have managed to make it this far.


  1. Why must these sounds come to my ears?

  2. Very impressive. The ability to overcome their disabilities and be able to perform at the level they do is very inspiring.

    (they are deaf...right?)

  3. dang! i always thought i was a bad-to-mediocre clarinetist....but i think i coulda had a career!

  4. I really like the Shaggs! I would have them on right now but Lilah asked me to turn them off. What does she know? Listening to their music is sheer pleasure.