After 50 years, The Shaggs’ unique sound still resonates

It’s been 50 years since 1968, the year that “shattered America.” While the Vietnam War raged on, racial tensions reached new highs with assassinations of major public figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and Cold War anxieties loomed, music nonetheless undertook its own innovations. The Beatles went to Rishikesh and Jimi Hendrix released “Electric Ladyland.” In the midst of the dramatic upheaval of American ideals and institutions through radical and often violent action, 1968 saw other changes perhaps less immediately evident by history textbooks.

Under the direction of family patriarch Austin Wiggin, rock sister-trio “The Shaggs” formed in 1968 in Fremont, N.H. Heeding the prophecy of his palm-reading mother, Wiggin pulled his daughters Dorothy, Betty and Helen out of traditional schooling and enrolled them in intensive music lessons, according to a 1999 profile in the New Yorker. 

To the casual listener, the latter fact might appear untrue. But for a group once described by Rolling Stone magazine as soundinglike a lobotomized Trapp Family Singers,” their untrained but radically innovative sound is perhaps best captured on the track, “My Pal Foot Foot,” a tale of a lost pet named Foot Foot, on their first and only album, “Philosophy of the World” (1969).

“My Pal Foot Foot” opens with a stutter of snare and intermittent clasp of the hi-hat. A lackadaisical ride cymbal soon follows. To the casual listener, it might seem that Helen Wiggin is just randomly hitting the drum kit with no sense of time; perhaps this is true. But through a different lens, this drum intro section is kind of genius. Its lack of a sense of concrete time signature lends itself to an irreplicable style. The complex polyrhythms capture a moment embodying innocence, chaos and rage.

And then the guitar comes in. The growling department store electric guitar gnaws itself into the mix, taking the listener back. “Why don’t they tune their guitars?” the listener might ask. But why should they? The messy microtonality of the untuned guitar provides a dissonance and tension that never resolves.

But the narrative conflict of “My Pal Foot Foot” is not limited to the track’s instrumentation. The simplistic but biting lyrics are a lament of loss, grief and longing. The track closes with the verse, “Foot Foot, please come to me / Foot Foot, now that you’re here / Won’t you come home / Foot Foot, promise me this / That you will never again roam.” Just like the harmonic and rhythmic tension of the instrumentation, the lyrical ambiguity does not resolve. The listener never knows if Foot Foot ever makes it home. Past its rough exterior, “My Pal Foot Foot” speaks to the heart with bare honesty.

Influential rock critic for Rolling Stone Lester Bangs would write to these merits in a 1981 “Village Voice” article titled “Better Than the Beatles (and DNA, Too)”: “How do they sound? Perfect! They can’t play a lick! But mainly they got the right attitude, which is all rock’n’roll’s ever been about from day one.”

The Shaggs broke new ground in 1968, a historically unprecedented year in American politics, war, technology and culture. In 2018, The Shaggs’ honest and radical sound permeates. The group’s work has been cited by rock innovators like Kurt Cobain as his “fifth favorite album” and by Frank Zappa as “better than the Beatles.” After their debut was reissued in 1980, The Shaggs enjoyed a resurgence of popularity that would even spawn a stage musical. But beyond their influence on rock musicians and the theatre world in the latter half of the century, The Shaggs’ musical spirit lives on.

While the term “rock’n’roll” might have lost some of its original vitality since the age of Lester Bangs, artists like The Shaggs “got the right attitude”; they constantly test the boundaries of their medium. Listen to The Shaggs in 2018 and immerse yourself not in 1968, but a timeless energy that pushes against what was thought wrong or impossible. Listen to The Shaggs in 2018, and one will still struggle to find the vocabulary to describe them.

As listeners leave behind what The New Yorker’s Matthew Trammell calls “Obama pop” for heavy beats and often unintelligible lyrics, popular tastes head into directions often not comprehensible to skeptical music consumers. But despite whatever criticism one may have of today’s evolving tastes, it is innovators like The Shaggs who will receive vindication through retrospection.

Facing many of the perennial issues that plagued 1968, testing the country politically and musically, it is the right attitude of The Shaggs, of today’s energetic creators and do-ers, that will radically expand what is possible in 2018. With upcoming releases by stalwart innovators like Migos and David Byrne to look forward to in 2018, Foot Foot might finally come home.