Night Music: The Shaggs, “Philosophy of the World”

The whole idea of art and agency in art is challenged by outsider artists. That is creators who don’t seem to have technical chops but somehow make visuals or sounds that engage anyway.

The Shaggs were a bunch of sisters who formed a band at their father’s direction and made an album in 1969 that went no where, at least partly because it was horribly played.

But, some years later that horrible playing became a virtue, and they were adopted by Frank Zappa and Terry Adams as naifs, making brilliant music without consciousness.

I spent some time tonight with Laura (last name unregistered by my brain), who plays drums in the modern version of the Shaggs, backing up Dot Wiggins, apparently the last remaining sister on tour. Until tonight I didn’t really know the Shaggs’ album, but Laura told a story about Dot’s musical tastes.

“What do you listen to,” Laura asked.

Dot said, “Herman Hermits.” Her tastes were fixed in the 60s.

Lester Bangs said the Shaggs were better than the Beatles, which is one side of the discussion about interesting naivete versus commercial calculation. I didn’t grow up with the Shaggs and didn’t invest myself in their story when Terry Adams and Frank Zappa revived them. For me this is outsider art, if art is what you want to call it.

I’m glad to hear it, I find it hard to give it much credit but enthusiasm.

5 thoughts on “Night Music: The Shaggs, “Philosophy of the World”

  1. Oh my God, finally. The Shaggs have come to Rock Remnants! Discovered “Philosophy Of The World” back in my Follow Fashion Monkeys days and it became a Moyer family favorite when the Moyers were still a family. I got stuck with the cat named Foot Foot when they moved away. And we’d play “Halloween” every Halloween.

  2. The musical equivalent of Horror at Party Beach, only that movie had a much better bad band. It’s one thing to be kind to fat, ugly girls in high school, it’s another to pretend they are Catherine Zita-Jones. That is cruelty to put it mildly. I suppose this is the logical extension of the phony punk formulation “anybody can do it,” a line of bullshit perpetuated by those who never tried. Lester Bangs was a prime mover in this school of “thought,” but then later he did try and so must have known how hard it is and how full of shit he was. I daresay he never would have hired a critic who couldn’t construct a sentence, so for him to embrace musical incompetence is to show contempt for himself, and of course his audience. Now, if you want to hear something bad that is actually funny and catchy, try this:

    I don’t even have anything against incompetence per se, as in this hit from the early 60’s in which the drummer loses the beat in the middle. This is heartfelt, or it SOUNDS heartfelt anyway, so the incompetence adds to the poignancy. John Lennon liked this and covered it (way too competently) on his covers album:

    • I’m not sure it’s that cut and dried Gene. Clearly they’re not great players, but the arrangement on Philosophy of the World is weirdly catchy (the way the drum figures lead to the guitar figures, a kind of pan-instrument syncopation), and the lyrics are truthful and, as good lyrics should be, are pretty darn specific. So, it isn’t a train wreck.

      Instead, I think it is the embodiment of some sort of familial neurosis or broader social dysfunction, which compels these sisters and their dad to imagine that this music they are creating is somehow of this world. When the real appeal, as the man who named his kids Dweezil and Moon Unit saw it, is that it seems to be out of this world. That mismatch could be terribly condescending, which would be bad, but Steve and his family seem to have found it to be amusing and catchy. Which is good, right?

      Because I didn’t know the album I didn’t ask my new friend Laura, who plays drums in the current Shaggs, whether they slavishly reproduce the original arrangements. Or whether the last remaining Shagg ever writes new songs, or if the total output is their one album.

      I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the canonization of naive and outsider art, not because such work isn’t deserving of respect, but because the regular pathways to respect often disrespect the naive/outsider artist’s goals and motivations. Once you get art dealers and other leeches in the market trying to create value out of the art, it is transformed into something other than what it was originally intended to be. The spiritual, the therapeutic, the offhanded, becomes fodder for mammon. I’m in favor of people getting paid, and totally not in favor of the people who insert themselves into the process.

      The Shaggs had some aspiration for stardom. That’s the nature of pop music. Is their enduring legacy one of mockery? Or is it a recognition that sometimes the usual values don’t measure up to the creation? That is, an accidental not-terribly-talented creation can have enduring value. I don’t know enough about the Shaggs yet to figure that out in re them. But I’ll post tonight about a guy I’ve listened to a lot, who provokes similar questions.

      • I can’t get past the fact that they aren’t even playing together. I LIKE it when bands are BARELY playing together, like they can blow up at any time, but any catchiness in the melody or good lyrics is ruined by the…wooden is too good, warped wooden – attempt at music. I dunno, Oh Ya Ya makes me laugh but the Shaggs make me want to flee.

        I WISH someone would insert themselves into my process for getting paid. Yes, I think the Shaggs legacy is mockery. You can’t tell me that Steve or Lester Bangs actually get in the car and say “I gotta blast me some Shaggs! Kick out the jammies!”

        They should play this song to children:

        • Shonen Knife! Good one! I saw them open for Sonic Youth many years ago. Great fun!

          I think Steve and Lester in the car alone play Supershitty to the Max. With kids in the car, it’s the Shaggs, or else pop Peewee’s Playhouse in the in dash DVD player.

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