Exploring “Empire Records” // The Shaggs

It’s still early in the day when Eddie stops by the store to bring some pizza to a downtrodden Lucas, who has just gotten chewed out, yet again, by Anthony LaPaglia for losing his small stockpile of investment money. Meanwhile, Ethan Embry has gone insane with the store’s PA playlist. Amused, Eddie says:

What’s up, dude? I heard your music playing. That’s pretty scary stuff… I’m glad to say I made you a tape last night, for educational purposes. Here’s the deal. You start off with a little classical music: a little Pookie, a little Puffy (sic). Then you got some Shaggs on there, and Residents…and a little Floyd and Zeppelin.

Though this aloofly-delivered paragraph presents a veritable wealth of obscure music discussion and trivia (I have absolutely no idea who Pookie and Puffy are; if you have any idea, please let me know), it sheds light on one of the strangest bands in the history of rock n’ roll: the Shaggs.

This is the kind of story you simply cannot make up. Sometime before 1960, Austin Wiggin, Jr., a resident of New Hampshire, received a palm reading from his own mother. During this palm reading, Mrs. Wiggin predicted three things: one, that Austin would marry a strawberry blonde woman; two, that he would have two sons after she had died; and three, that his daughters would form a popular music group.

Apparently, the first two came true. Upon realizing this, Austin pulled his four daughters out of grade school, handed them instruments, and said, “Play”. The daughters – Dot, Helen, Betty, and Rachel – tried to fulfill their father’s wishes, even going as far as to record an album – The Philosophy of the World – in 1969. However, the success of the Shaggs, as Austin named them, never came to be; this was due in large part to the fact that they were a gratingly awful band.

Many people have said it’s a stretch to even call their music music. I’d go further; I’d say that it’s a stretch to even call them a band. Though they follow the same “overbearing father” paradigm as sibling-bands like the Jackson 5 and the Beach Boys, the Wiggin sisters, unlike the aforementioned, were seemingly devoid of any musical talent, lacking both the physical dexterity to play their instruments and the simple ability to sing. By their own account, they didn’t really understand what they were doing, why they were playing music, or even for whom they were playing.

The decade that was to follow – a decade of smooth edges, musical professionalism, and traditional song structures – wasn’t welcoming to outsider bands like the Shaggs, who were expected to fit into a niche of politically-radical minimalism. Unfortunately, as rudimentary and reflective as The Philosophy of the World was, this group of young girls came off more wide-eyed than jaded: on songs like the title track, the Shaggs were a closer approximation to a group of amazed children saying “Look at that!” than to a clique of drug-addled, disenfranchised white panthers shouting, “This isn’t how it should be!”

The time since the 1970s has been better to outsider musicians; and, as it often happens, the Shaggs are now revered for the things that once brought them such derision. Where they were seen as inept and awkward in their own time, the compositional style of “Who Are Parents?” is now considered intuitive and its lyrics honest (“Some kids do as they please/They don’t know what life really means/They don’t listen to what the ones who really care have to say/They just go and do things their own way”).

I wholeheartedly support the far-too-late-but-obviously-overdue recognition that the Shaggs have received in the modern day. When I listen to The Philosophy of the World, I hear the type of minimalist, pop-deconstructionist art brut that I, as a never-was musician, always tell myself I’d make if I started a band; and if you daydream about the reductive aspects of Modernism as often as I do, then you know why the Shaggs were great.

Nevertheless, this wave of avant-garde respect for Philosophy of the World has had the ironic consequence of placing the band’s compilational second release, The Shaggs’ Own Thing, in a much less favorable light. Made up of demos from a 1975 recording session, its songs have generally been disregarded as more generic in their approach to music; and by this, I think people really mean it’s listenable.

What those people don’t realize is that Shaggs’ Own Thing is an absolutely killer record. Recorded a good six years after Philosophy of the World, it represents a group of girls half a decade more cultivated. Though in the 1960s they were simply banging on their instruments, picking up on the occasionally brilliant abstract melody, 1975’s “You’re Something Special to Me” remembers that knack for haunting originality while at the same time reeling it all in with a reasonably cohesive rhythm. “Yesterday Once More” finds them looking back at their innocence (“When I was young I’d listen to the radio/Waitin’ for my favorite songs/When they’d play I’d sing along/It made me smile”), and though they reveal almost nothing about the present, the Shaggs are obviously not gauche – their strange melodies, thin harmonies, and minimalist rhythms are not accidental or the product of immaturity – and possibly never were.

Ultimately, it’s easy to understand why so many musical philosophers have come to revere The Philosophy of the World. It’s virtually unlistenable, but in many ways that’s the point. People are incredibly fascinated that none of their predicted heroes made the subversive musical deconstruction of Americana that they always hoped for. Nevertheless, this is one of those albums – just as the Shaggs are one of those bands – that we’re glad exists because without it there would be no symmetry. Eddie from Empire Records sums it up best: “You got to understand something here. This music is the glue of the world. It holds it all together.”

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2 thoughts on “Exploring “Empire Records” // The Shaggs

  1. Yeah, I have no idea who Pookie is, but Puffy?! Come on now…. Puff Daddy. P. Diddy. Diddy Dirt Money. Sean Combs. Puff. LOOOOOOOOOOVE THOS MOVIE!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Danielle. We are well aware of the many aliases of Sean Combs, but we simply assumed that a 1995 pizza delivery guy with avante garde and outsider music leanings, whose statement predates Puff Daddy’s first featured appearance on a recorded song – Lil’ Kim’s “No Time” – by a little over a year, couldn’t possibly have been referring to Sean Combs. Then again, Combs had been producing hit records as early as 1991, and Eddie seems to be hip to a lot of different music, so I guess there is a possibility that the “Puffy” he mentioned was, in fact, Dirty Diddy Money.

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