The Shaggs reunite at Solid Sound
When Kurt Cobain listed his favorite albums of all-time, number five went to an obscure 1969 record by an all-sisters band from Fremont, N.H., called The Shaggs. Frank Zappa proclaimed the Shaggs to be "better than the Beatles."
As the Shaggs, the Wiggin sisters — Dot, Betty, Helen and Rachel — etched out a unique place in modern music history and their efforts are getting the celebration they deserve when Dot and Betty reunite onstage for the Solid Sound Festival on Saturday, June 24, in front of possibly the biggest audience they have ever played for.
The Shaggs' is legendary to collectors of unusual music. It began in 1968 when Austin Wiggin informed his daughters, without any precedent, that, inspired by his mother's prophecy that the girls would become a superstar rock band, he was pulling them out of school in order to make that prediction a reality.
The sisters were home-schooled and took music lessons to get them into shape to record an album. Their unusual style was captured at a recording studio in Revere in 1969. Of the pressed copies of the resulting album, "Philosophy Of The World" only 100 made it to the band. The remaining 900 went on their own mysterious journey, with at least one copy surfacing in a record store in New York City where, in 1980, two members of the band NRBQ bought a copy. Enthralled by what they heard, they tracked the Wiggin sisters down and engineered not only the re-release of the original record, but a new release from a second recording session in 1975.
"We don't even remember going to the second session," said the band's guitarist, lead singer and songwriter Dot Wiggin (whose last name is Semprini, but goes by Wiggin for band purposes). "We remember going to the first and I know there was a second one because it's all on the tapes, but we don't remember going a second time."
Dot remembers the rest of the story extremely well, though. The band regularly played dances at the Fremont Town Hall every Saturday night for several years starting in 1968, and that was the most consistent exposure the world had to the band.
"There was not much else going on in Fremont for entertainment, so it gave them something to do, to get out, and it gave their parents a break, they would just drop them off," she said. "It was fun watching the kids having fun dancing."
The band performed a mix of originals with covers of Marie Osmond, Herman's Hermits and others.
"The kids liked to dance fast and they liked polkas," said Dot. "They didn't really do polkas, but they probably thought it was polkas. We did the `Wheelbarrow Polka' and one of Johnny Cash's and did it fast so they could dance to it."
Sometimes their father would get into the act. He and his son Austin Jr. performed a vocal version of Dot's instrumental composition "Shaggs' Own Thing" at the dances, where the two pretended to spar over a girl. The performance was captured in the second recording session that Dot doesn't remember.
"My father decided to do it at a dance with my brother and he added his own words," Dot said. "At the time I was upset with him because I wanted it as an instrumental. I didn't care if he wrote the lyrics or not because I had no intention of writing the lyrics for that."
It was their father who decided it was time to record the album, though Dot and Betty did not think the band was ready for that step, but it's the band's lack of prowess that spawned their appeal. Wiggin acknowledges that it's an honest sound. The band continued with their live shows in Fremont until 1974, following their father's death.
"We kind of just ended," said Dot. "We got jobs. My sister was dating a guy that didn't want her playing, and I started working full time. Life took over and we just disbanded."
The sisters have reunited over the years to appear at special events and have become the kind of quirky cultural icon that gets mentioned in The Gilmore Girls and inspires an off-Broadway musical and tribute album. Dot appreciates the enthusiasm of the fans for keeping the band alive. Drummer Helen died in 2008.
Dot never gave up writing lyrics and continued singing through the years in her church choir. In 2013, she recorded with collaborators Jesse Krakow, Brittany Anjou and others as the Dot Wiggin Band, which included unrecorded Shaggs compositions and new songs written by her. The band opened for Neutral Milk Hotel at Mass MoCA a couple years ago. Dot sees her songwriting partnership with Krakow as a perfect extension of her Shaggs work.
"When I first started writing the lyrics and giving them to Jesse and he wrote the music and put them all together, it was like he got in my head and wrote the music to the lyrics the way that I would have if I had done it, " she said.
Arthritis prevents both Dot and Betty from playing instruments, so the Dot Wiggin Band will handle that for Solid Sound, but they work hard to master the sisters' very unique style. It's a style that has confused a number of ears but invigorated many more, bolstered by the music's purity, and the story of the girls behind it.
"I always say that was part of our life, that was then, this is now, and they've come together full circle," said Wiggin.
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