You Don't Know What Bad Is Until You Listen To The Shaggs

(Photo: )
(Photo: )

When Dorothy, Betty and Helen Wiggin, three teenage sisters from Fremont, N.H., went into a recording studio on March 9, 1969, they had no idea that they would be writing a small chapter in rock history, or inspiring a stage musical.

To be fair, even the biggest fans of the sisters -- who are better known as The Shaggs -- would probably admit the album recorded that day, Philosophy Of The World, belongs on a short list for the worst music ever committed to vinyl.

Songs like the title cut, "Who Are Parents" and "My Pal Foot Foot" (a ditty about a lost cat that begins and ends with drum solos) are sloppy and uncoordinated. The whole mess sounds like three people picking up their instruments for the first time and recording in isolated chambers without hearing what the others are playing.

Despite that (or maybe because of it) the group's fan base has included luminaries like Frank Zappa, Kurt Cobain, Bonnie Raitt and Joy Gregory, the playwright for "The Shaggs: Philosophy Of The World," a stage musical based on the life of the Wiggins sisters that premieres June 7 at Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater in New York City.

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The difference between Gregory and the aforementioned musical greats is critical -- at least where the Shaggs are concerned.

"I first found out about their story by reading a profile about them in the New Yorker by Susan Orlean in 1999,” Gregory told AOL Weird News. "It was a compelling, haunting story. I actually didn't hear the music until a while later, but based on the descriptions in the article, I recognized it immediately when I heard it."

For Gregory, there's more to the Shaggs' story than meets the eye. It's not just about a trio of teenage sisters who couldn't really play their instruments but don't let them stop them from recording an album so crappy it's considered one of the worst of all time (and, in the process, attract a small but loyal fan base that likes it because it's so bad).

"There are huge American themes in this story," she said. "You have a domineering father sacrificing his daughters' teenage years for the sake of a prophecy made by their grandmother. This father, Austin, is similar to Arthur Miller’s character. He's an example of the frustrated American dream."

In real life, Austin Wiggin, was the Shaggs' Svengali. His mother predicted that he would have three daughters who would grow up to be famous. He was very strict about the girls practicing and even home schooled them so they could spend more time practicing.

Not that it made any difference to the average listener. Reportedly, the recording engineers at the session turned off the sound in the control booth so Austin and his daughter wouldn't hear the cackling.

At one point, the band stopped mid-song and when the engineers asked why, Austin reportedly snapped, "Because they made a mistake."

The engineers were shocked, considering what they heard sounded like nothing but mistakes.

Gregory has been working on the musical for a better part of a decade, and while the story is basically the truth, there have been some changes made for artistic reasons, such as making drummer Helen, who, in reality was the oldest sister, into the youngest.

"In real life, she's the oldest sister, but she's also the most vulnerable. So, thematically, it just seemed right to make her the youngest,” she said. "She also is mute in much of the play, and part of that is to convey her struggle with depression."

"I didn't have much contact with the sisters -- out of choice -- but I did convey my reasons for doing this and they approved."

Another key detail is to not feature much of the now-legendary recordings in the play. Instead, the songs are originals that are written to reflect how the sisters' music sounds to them.

For example, one love ballad is based on the Association's mid-60s hit "Cherish," while another song has more of a John Lee Hooker vibe.

Actual Shaggs music only appears once in the show, during a climactic moment when the original version of "Philosophy Of The World" plays and the girls finally hear what they really sound like.

Director John Langs, who, like many Shaggs fans, first heard the band while stoned in college, said that decision was based on dramatic reasons as well as sympathy for the audience.

"We know we can't make a musical from their story with their music," he said. "But we can hear what Austin thought they sounded like."

Jamey Hood, who plays the lead guitarist and lyricist, Dorothy -- or "Dot," as she was called by family and friends -- says that during the preview shows, she can always tell who the Shaggs fans are in the audience.

"When we play the actual recording, the real Shaggs fans are practically ready to attack the other members of the audience, saying, 'See, this is the real stuff!,'" Hood said.

Langs says the play has changed his tune about the band. "I crossed over from thinking they were inane drivel to understanding how many hours they spent in rehearsal -- even though they never learned to play their instruments or tune them," the director explained.

That is sort of the reaction music historian Irwin Chusid has seen happen repeatedly in the nearly four decades he's been listening to the band.

"The Shaggs made a very special record; one that sounds like no other record ever made," said Chusid, who produced a 1999 CD reissue and wrote about the band extensively his alternative pop history book, "Songs In The Key Of Z."

"It's rock-based and a girl group, but the sound and the notes and the aura have that certain je ne se quoi." Chusid said.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.