Over the past four years here at the University, I’ve stumbled (unintentionally) across several local bands at parties, bars, coffee shops and walks through the Diag. Even though you could say each band has its own musical style and persona, I’d lump them all into the “not good” genre.

Jason Pesick

Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but I’ve never been a fan of musical acts that specialize in cover songs (and bad cover songs at that) and general non-rocking. If a local band is actually good (which many alcohol-induced friends of the band might believe) wouldn’t they have a record deal and be touring Japan in a massive arena tour?

Sure there are always those great undiscovered musicians you read about in the back pages of Rolling Stone, but it’s a myth I tell you, a myth.

I have to give some credit to local acts. While Ann Arbor musical misfits are horrendous at best, they still exhibit a certain degree of skill – i.e. some vocalists have decent pitch and some musicians can actually play the first few notes of “Paradise City” on their guitars. Try to imagine, if you will, a band that displays a complete lack of any musical knowledge. It’s hard to imagine, but one such band did exist. That band was the Shaggs.

Who are the Shaggs? The group consisted of three sisters from a dirt poor town in New Hampshire – Dorothy, Betty and Helen Wiggin. The sisters formed the band under the advice of their father Austin, who bought his daughters instruments in 1967. Dorothy took care of lead guitar and vocals, Betty played rhythm guitar and provided some backing vocals while Helen was left with the drum kit.

Later on, the youngest sister Rachel played bass on a few songs for the family. The Shaggs were an avant-garde, indie Patridge Family, minus the aggravatingly catchy tunes and the even more aggravating Danny Bonaduce.

The band name is said to have come from Austin, who wanted to name his daughters’ group after the popular shag hairstyle of the time. The name is ironic in that Dorothy, Betty and Helen are far from shagadelic. Visualize the three ugliest women ever to roam the forests of New England and you have a good idea what the Shaggs look like.

Now that you know a little bit of the history of the Shaggs, it’s time to learn their about their music. To describe the songs of the Wiggin sisters in words is nearly impossible so I’ll just provide you with the original liner notes from their 1969 debut album Philosophy of the Word.

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.

After listening to the title track of the album it’s easy to see what they meant by “unaffected by outside influence.” It would be safe to assume the Shaggs had never heard music before they went into the studio to record their debut (and final) album. Rhythm is painfully absent from Helen’s drumming, Betty’s random playing of “notes” on her guitar break all conventions of musical structure and Dorothy’s vocals mirror Mumbles from “Dick Tracy” singing in a utility closet with a pillow over his mouth.

A lot of the blame can probably be placed on their father Austin, who is quoted as saying “get my girls while they’re hot!” If Philosophy of the World represents the Wiggin sisters in their prime I can’t imagine what they sound like on an off night. Austin Wiggin watched over his daughters’ studio sessions like a hawk and served as producer for their album, much like Brian Wilson did with the Beach Boys from Pet Sounds onward.

But unlike the Beach Boys’ masterpiece, the Shaggs came out of the studio with 12 tracks that were as excruciating as they were unique. “We Have a Savior” and “Sweet Thing” are two of the more touching songs on the album that give an inside look into the Wiggin sisters’ primitive musical minds.

The Shaggs are truly one of the most fascinating musical acts of the 20th century and upon listening to their lone album it’s easy to see why Frank Zappa called Philosophy of the World his third-favorite album of all time. The Shaggs are one of those bands you just have to hear to believe.

Give the Wiggin sisters a listen and you may find yourself less critical of the local garbage music scene in Ann Arbor – although I’ll take the Shaggs any day over some balding grad student singing Dave Matthews b-sides in Espresso Royale.


– If you want to find out more about the Shaggs or where you can pick up a copy of their album e-mail my pal Foot Foot at jsdicker@umich.edu.

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