“The Philosophy of the World,” according to The Shaggs

Jared Hemming

To thumb through record sleeves and discover the Shaggs’ music is like walking through a lush forest and discovering an artificial mini-golf pond. It exists, but it almost isn’t real.

On “Philosophy of the World,” their 1969 debut LP, sisters Dot, Helen, and Betty Wiggin create music that confounds the average listener with a jarring incomprehension of the Shaggs’ unique rhythms and harmonies. To any basic musician or music fan, the Shaggs’ resembles an amalgamation of puzzle pieces that stick together without forming a clear image.

The Wiggin Sisters’ grandmother foretold of her future granddaughters forming a popular music group and making it big. The Shaggs’ legacy, however, flips the notions of ‘popular,’ ‘music,’ and ‘group,’ upside down.

As legend goes, Freemont, N.J. native Austin Wiggin, Jr.’s mother predicted that her son would marry a woman who would die, and that he would go on to have additional children. After these visions proved true, Wiggin set out to fulfill the final prophecy and removed his daughters from school to begin performing as the Shaggs. The Shaggs began playing gigs while simultaneously learning to play their instruments.

The lack of prowess is clear, but the combustible spontaneity in each performance, complete with 22-note melodies and illogical drum solos, creates a feeling in the Shaggs sound, as if the band play and record each song backwards, then re-spool the tape forwards again.

This backwards, motion sickness sound transfers to Dot’s vocal rhythms. As opposed to chords, Dot adds a new note to the melody with each syllable she sings. At times, this writing style begs the listener to wonder if Dot actually speaks English, or simply decides to write songs in it.

Dot’s and Betty’s guitars crash throughout the album, with Dot’s lead, major-key melodies scratching against Betty’s haunting minor chord jangles, in the best way possible.

Not only do the Shaggs not know what they are doing, they don’t even realize that they don’t know what they’re doing. This purely random experimentation breeds a unique sound that has garnered fans as diverse in range from Frank Zappa to NRBQ.

Forced into music, a hobby completely unsuitable given their technical ability, the introspective, kaleidoscope-esque noise they create together declares the Shaggs to be the suburban precursor to Sonic Youth.

The Shaggs’ first album sparks confusion in a listener, derisive laughs, and even deeper examination into the utter weirdness of the band’s flashbulb spark.