A lot has already been written online about The Shaggs, a band of sisters who released one album, Philosophy of the World, in 1969 that has gained a cult following over the years. Their story gets told frequently because it’s a compelling outsider narrative: their overbearing father, believing they were destined for stardom, put them in a band when they had no knowledge of music, and the resulting album sounded bizarre and alien. Yet, thanks to artists like Frank Zappa who allegedly proclaimed them to be “better than The Beatles,” their music has endured.
Many suspected Zappa was trolling when he praised The Shaggs — that nobody could possibly like music that is so obviously bad. It is easy to assume anyone who likes them only does so in that “so bad it’s good” way, like people who watch Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, where most of the enjoyment comes from pointing and laughing at it. I argue that The Shaggs made actual good music, or at least music that raises interesting questions about what art is and who can make it.
I’d be lying if I said I really loved The Shaggs and listened to them regularly — the truth is, it’s hard for me to really enjoy music that is so lacking in basic rhythm, melody, etc. There is plenty of weird, avant-garde music that consciously rejects those elements, but most of the time it’s by artists who know music very well and are interested in pushing its limits — they know the rules, and thus know how to break them effectively.
The Shaggs are different: they seem entirely oblivious to what music even is, much less the rules that govern it. The result is music that is unique not just in how bizarre and off-kilter it sounds, but in how unguarded it is emotionally. To listen to The Shaggs is to hear music that is entirely free of calculation or pretension. At times, they are painfully innocent, particularly on songs like “My Pal Foot Foot” or “Who Are Parents?” where they earnestly clatter in their unusual way about imaginary friends and the importance of their family. They are so sheltered and naive that it even has a darkness to it, a twisted beauty that makes their music worthwhile and memorable instead of being random noise.
It is hard for human ears to adjust to The Shaggs, which is something that fascinates me in and of itself. When I listen to them, I always end up going very deep into this existential dorm-room logic, where I begin to question everything I thought I knew about music. Because the story that is told is how The Shaggs “couldn’t play music,” but like… what makes music music, man? Why do our brains like to hear rhythm and melodies done in the way that most music is, and not in the way The Shaggs did? Aren’t these all just like… random sounds existing in space and time that we arbitrarily give meaning to? Sometimes after thinking stuff like this long enough, I begin to wonder if The Shaggs are the only band that has ever played music correctly — maybe everyone else has been doing it wrong.
I’m usually able to talk myself off that ledge eventually, but I do think The Shaggs unintentionally predicted a lot of common indie trends that I still hear today. In particular, they’re the most extreme example of a crucial indie idea: that sometimes it’s good for music to have imperfections and flaws. Tons of indie music intentionally sounds rougher and dirtier than major label products as a calculated reaction to the slickness of mainstream music. Sometimes this comes across as a cheap gimmick, especially when it’s only done because a band is trying to sound “authentic,” but it’s something I really like when it’s done naturally. Limitations can often result in more memorable music than all of the studio magic and technical ability in the world.
In that regard, this year’s band that really reminds me of The Shaggs is Girlpool, a duo of teenagers from L.A. who play music that is defined by simplicity. They only have an electric guitar and bass (no drums), and sing interlocking vocal harmonies with each other over basic chords. The title of their album, Before the World Was Big, even sounds a bit Shaggsy, and their lyrics naturally reflect a youthful (yet smart) view of the world. Before the World Was Big doesn’t reach the subversive insanity of Philosophy of the World, but it’s similarly powerful because of how restricted it is — it’s interesting to listen to music that is so boiled down to its basic parts.
To give Girlpool credit, they have real technical ability, which The Shaggs did not. But I hear a lot of the same themes in their music, especially the tension between youthful innocence and encountering the darkness of the real world. The limitations in Girlpool’s music feel vital and genuine because it supports those ideas — a lot of what makes their music special would be lost if it was slickly produced with a full band set-up. It’s a delicate act to pull off because it can so easily sound contrived, yet Before the World Was Big never does. In fact, it’s hard to imagine it being presented in any other way — just like it’s hard to imagine highly trained musicians making an album like Philosophy of the World.
I think that is the essence of the “better than the Beatles” thing. The traditional view on this as that The Beatles were immensely talented and The Shaggs could never hope to approximate their music in any way — which is true. But this can also be flipped: The Beatles were too good, knew music too well, to ever in a million years make an album like Philosophy of the World, even with infinite resources. If that doesn’t take talent, I don’t know what does.