You Can’t Never Please Anybody in this World: The Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World
If you simulated reality an infinite number of times through an infinite number of iterations, you’d still never wind up with a single reality in which the Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World was reproduced. The album is a work of weirdness so profound, so beautiful, so irreplaceably unique, that it could only ever have come about one single time, in one single space, throughout the whole of the space-time continuum.
Luckily for us, dear friends, we inhabit that strange, once-in-an-infinity reality in which the Shaggs were, and are.
The seed of the Shaggs was planted when the mother of Austin Wiggins predicted that her son would marry a strawberry blonde, have two sons after she died, and see his daughters form a successful band. Stunningly, all three of those things came true….sort of.
After the strawberry blonde and the two sons happened on their own, Austin became convinced that his duty was to make the third premonition happen. With this quest in mind, he pulled his three daughters Helen, Betty, and Dorothy, out of school in 1968. He gave the girls guitars and drums and unleashed them on some microphones.
From there, the Shaggs were born.
The band’s name came from the shag haircut, which was popular at the time. The girls had no music training. They had no talent (arguably). They had no connections in the music industry. Like Old World sailors, they simply set off into unknown waters with little more than a dream (well, a dream forced upon them by their dad), determined to find a new and better home.
Philosophy of the World
The Shaggs played some shows around their hometown of Freemont, New Hampshire, but their real claim to immortality came in the form of an album titled Philosophy of the World.
To say that the album features still-developing musicians is to be euphemistic—and that’s putting it euphemistically. Rolling Stone described the album as “lobotomized Trapp Family singers,” if that gives you some idea.
After Austin paid to have 1,000 records printed up, the fellow who made the albums promptly took Austin’s money and 900 of the products. Those 900 have never been found.
The 100 records left were sent to radio stations, but they led nowhere, as anyone with clear thinking could have guessed would happen. Austin eventually wised up to the fact that Philosophy of the World was going nowhere. He never quite let go of the dream, and the girls continued to play small shows in their area. They didn’t end the band until Austin died.
Their story should have died right there in 1968. Fate would have no such thing, however, and with good reason.
Nothing this bizarre should ever be allowed to die forever.
Don’t Call it a Comeback (Okay, Call it a Comeback)
The thing about Philosophy of the World is that it’s bad, like really bad, yet indescribably fascinating. It’s not simply that it’s “so bad it’s good.” No, that’s too easy a way to write this album’s longevity off. The continued appeal goes beyond camp or novelty.
Philosophy of the World just has a strange magic about it. A magic that will never let it die.
It’s not the sort of magic that everyone can feel, but enough people have felt it distinctly that the album is more popular today than ever. It’s attained bona-fide cult status.
In the end, the most mystical thing about the whole Shaggs story is that the premonitions of Austin Wiggins’ mother all came true. The third and last one wasn’t realized until after Austin died, but still, it was realized.
The album never made Austin or his girls rich, but it did make them famous. Hell, it made them downright immortal.
One of the people who keenly felt the magic of Philosophy of the World was Frank Zappa. For those who don’t know this name—Zappa was an influential musician whose heyday was in 1960s to 1970s. He teased at mainstream radio multiple times, but his music was always too strange for popular consumption.
Zappa, who was a shrewd businessman as well as a talented artist, sold enough to get rich. He also cemented his status as a cultural icon of individuality and originality. Zappa was one of the key driving forces in creating the L.A. psychedelic scene that spawned so many legendary bands.
In the early 1970s, Zappa was on the Dr. Demento radio show. He played some songs from Philosophy of the World and reawakened the world to one of music’s truly strange works.
Things really took a turn for the Shaggs, though, in 1980, when Rounder Records re-released Philosophy of the World. This time, the album got a lot more media coverage.
That coverage was all vicious, of course, but still, the album had found new life. From there, the album continually popped up in the strangest of places. Kurt Cobain publicly ranked it among his favorite albums.
In 2017, the surviving Wiggins sisters performed at the Solid Sound Festival, which was curated by Bigtime-band Wilco.
Yes, in 2017. How many bands from 1968 are still playing today? Not many. The Shaggs are, though.
Shaggs never die.
Unintended Psychedelia and Unfathomable Depth
To those without ears to hear, the Shaggs’ cult status probably seems like a bunch of hipster nonsense, but it’s not. At least, not entirely.
There really is something strangely compelling about the Philosophy of the World. It comes across at first glance as a revolutionary psychedelic work, mystery wrapped in simplicity wrapped in psychosis, all twisted up into a weird bundle that seems to hint at some kind of deep understanding.
It wasn’t actually any of those things, of course. The Wiggins sisters weren’t hippies or psychonauts. They weren’t even making the album because they wanted to. Their father forced them do it.
Perhaps, as with so many great works of Art, the artists were simply channeling some higher power. If so, this puts the Shaggs firmly in the company of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Van Morrison, and there’s absolutely nothing absurd about that statement!
I may be physically assaulted for saying this (bring it), but lyrically Philosophy of the World reminds me of early Pink Floyd. Songs like Floyd’s “See Emily Play” seem absurdly simple, but throw in some psychedelic weirdness and there’s just this feeling that that simplicity conceals the answers to all the mysterious of the universe.
Like Zen koans. That’s how I’d describe the appeal (deserved or not) of songs “See Emily Play,” and of the Shaggs. They’re like Zen koans.
I Think I Kind of Like It
I played the album for a coworker a couple years ago. I stood in his office watching him with his headphones on and a confused expression on his face.
After listening for a few minutes he turned and said, “Yea, there’s something really weird about it. I think I kind of like it.”
The warped appeal of the album is expressed nowhere better than in the title track.
Oh, the rich people want what the poor people’s got
And the poor people want what the rich people’s got
And the skinny people want what the fat people’s got
And the fat people want what the skinny people’s got
You can never please anybody in this world
It doesn’t matter what you say
There will always be
One who wants things the opposite way
It doesn’t matter where you go
It doesn’t matter who you see
There will always be
Someone who disagrees
We do our best
We try to please
But we’re like the rest
We are never at ease
Now, you tell me that that song doesn’t sum up the entirety of the human condition in a way that everyone, at any age, can understand. So simple it’s profound.
Sung by kids backed by clattering, off-key, out-of-tune instruments, the entirely unsophisticated sound embodies the status-obsession and compulsive need to build hierarchies that haunts so much of our lives. It’s straight up punk rock.
Notice, though, that the song’s philosophical conclusion isn’t to complain about these facts, or even to resist them. The song’s advice is simply to acknowledge that you’ll never be able to please everyone, perhaps even anyone, so just do your own thing, baby. That’s the philosophy espoused in Philosophy of the World, and it’s a damn good one, I’d say.
So, maybe the Shaggs really did create a work of channeled art. The question, then, becomes, what were they challening? Angels or demons? We may never know.
It’s just as easy to imagine this album being looped forever on loud speakers in Hell as it is to imagine it being played in Heaven. What is not imaginable, however, is a reality without the Shaggs.
Book it, baby.