Still Better Than The Beatles: A Tribute To The Shaggs / A Benefit for the Fremont, N.H. Historical Society & 250th Anniversary Committee
The Bell House
Friday, April 13
Better than: The Kraftwerk tribute.
YouTube recently declared a new Worst Band Ever. Whether or not the hapless outfit from Pennsylvania—first seen covering Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” under gloriously bizarre giant letters spelling out MUSIC—is truly deserving of the title remains to be seen. But they and countless other YouTube sensations yet to come have both marginalized and validated the Shaggs, the band of sisters from Fremont, New Hampshire that recorded one privately pressed album in 1969, gigged for a few more years at their local Town Hall, called it quits, and—since their late 1970s rediscovery—have traditionally held rock’s Worst Band Ever title. In a better-indexed society, though, “Worst” is no longer the most accurate word to describe them, if it ever was to begin with.
For starters, the band covering Floyd really does suck. Not only are they playing badly, but they’re playing tentatively, which is also why when you notice that all the dudes are mouthing along with the words the whole tableau becomes more touching than embarrassing. But there was nothing remotely tentative about the Shaggs. Philosophy of the World sounds deeply, deeply weird not because the Shaggs were inept, but because they did play in different time signatures, did sing with carefully worked out Martian harmonies, did write songs with alternate tunings and guitar parts that almost always doubled the vocal melodies exactly. They were all out-of-the-ordinary musical gestures, and all in the service of girl-group pop sung by then-recent teenagers.
Since being rediscovered by NRBQ at Northampton’s Sun Music and having their record reissued, Shaggs-mania has swollen every few years. Lester Bangs declared them “better than the Beatles.” There was a reunion gig at CBGB in 1999 (part of NRBQ’s 30th anniversary) and last year marked the debut of an off-Broadway show, Philosophy of the World. A recent Alarm Will Sound arrangement of “Philosophy of the World” signaled something more formal: the Shaggs’ entry into the repertoire. Still Better Than The Beatles, organized by one-time Shudder to Think bassist Jesse Krakow and starring a rotating cast of world-famous-in-Brooklyn guest stars, presented a restaging of the Shaggs’ entire 22-song catalogue at the Bell House on Friday. The night was a literal Shaggs tribute in every way, from the note-for-idiosyncratic-note arrangements to the three surviving Shaggs themselves watching from a table near the stage and appearing for a Q&A. Questions were collected during the show next to a donations box for the Fremont, New Hampshire Historical Society.
Actually learning how to play Shaggs songs faithfully is a complex task, and the show was less an all-star affair (it might’ve included NRBQ, who were at Brooklyn Bowl on Saturday) and more a party for a bunch of people who decided to learn the music and put on a show. Krakow’s literalist maxmimalism confined the cast to a fairly thorough egg-headedness, which—for egg-headedness—found a decent (though hardly equal) gender balance among the musicians. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the drummers most able to make Helen Wiggin’s most disjointed beats swing were women, including former Cibo Matto drummer Laura Cromwell on “Philosophy of the World” and Christy Davis on “What Should I Do.”
Doing all 22 songs, including the outtakes and later recordings from the compilation Shaggs Own Thing, was a bit exhaustive, but it also served to remind of another point: the Shaggs got good. Not good in any traditional sense, but capable of sounding not only cohesive but nearly polished and still magically strange, especially on covers like the Carpenters’ “Yesterday Once More,” Marie Osmond’s “Paper Roses,” Tom T. Hall’s “I Love,” and others. The performers who got these straws had a beautiful crop of songs to work with, sounding like a continuation of the Chickfactor 20th anniversary festival that had occupied Bell House over the three nights previous (specifically the beautiful baroque-pop of the reunited Aislers Set). Elsewhere, the egg-headedness shined through a bit too thoroughly and one wished more for arrangements like the dreamily imagined girl-group harmonies used in the otherwise tepid Philosophy of the World musical last year. But it was all in good fun, especially the group singalong on “My Pal Foot-Foot,” a song infamously written for the Wiggin girls’ missing cat.
The Shaggs’ story is a complex one; their father Austin Wiggin, was legendarily abusive in forcing the sisters to form the band, practice, and perform—he even pulled them out school, believing them to be the family’s ticket to fame and fortune. A good deal of their story revolves around their alleged strangeness. The appearance of three genuine Wiggin sisters onstage in Brooklyn put the lie to that bit of the story, too. Befuddled still by all the attention, but generally good-natured about it, Dot Semprini, Betty Porter, and Rachel Gould (who played with the band live, but not on Philosophy of the World) answered questions politely, if still underlining the fundamental difference between their deep New Hampshire roots and the intricate series of filters that most go through when listening to and processing the Shaggs’ music.
“Your ambivalence towards Philosophy of the World is well-documented,” came one question. “Over the years, are you significantly closer to reaching some sort of closure regarding the album? Is it possible to accept it under its own terms, apart from the circumstances under which it was created?”
“I’m not sure I understand the question,” Betty said. “I think… when we did the album, it was like another life, and we never thought it’d become what it is now, 35-plus years later. Elsewhere the questions were more productive, as when one inquired about unrecorded Shaggs originals. “‘Speed Limit,'” Betty said, rattling off some titles. “‘Place In My Heart.’ ‘A Christmas Song.’ ‘Your Best Friends,’ which is your pets,” she explained. “Naturally,” added Rachel.
Critical bias: Made girlfriend detour through Fremont, NH on trip to New Hampshire to peer through locked doors of Fremont Town Hall, where the Shaggs played.
Overheard: “The crowd here isn’t as scary as I was imagining. It’s still pretty weird, though.”
Random notebook dump: Behind performers is an illustration based on one of the extant Shaggs photos, the one from Philosophy Of The World album art that emphasizes weird color scheme/creepy matching outfits/haircuts. Other pic. of them, on family trip (?) to beach, makes them look a lot more like normal (even traditionally crushworthy) girl-group. Would legacy be diff. if ppl thought more of that photo instead?