Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Vortex of Incompetence, or Cleverness Beyond Measure?

I’m writing about female artists every other Wednesday, and you may well imagine that not every singer in my collection is a flawless songbird. Since I am now writing when it’s still Women’s History Month in the USA and April Fools’ Day to points east of here, it seems the perfect time to bring up women who have become part of the historical record while becoming the butt of its jokes.

In recent years, such people as William Hung have made a fortune off their lousy singing voices. Our appetite for artistic train wrecks isn’t as new as “reality” TV, however. I offer you a couple of 1960s artists, as well as one who is still cranking ’em out, but in the oddest way of them all.

The first artist is a sister act, and many of you know their work. I’m sure, though, that even some thorough music fans will have managed to miss the Shaggs.

Begun as a trio of Dot, Helen and Betty Wiggin, later adding sister Rachel, the Shaggs were put onto the musical treadmill by their father, Austin, while they were schoolgirls. It had been predicted by Austin’s mother that his daughters would form a band, and he went for it with the single-minded fervor that only those who believe they are fulfilling prophecy can achieve. He even took his girls out of school so they could spend all of their time working on their music.

And what music it was. When their album, Philosophy of the World, was released in 1969, the few people who heard it thought it was a joke, or at least really awful. One hundred copies seem to have survived of the thousand LPs pressed. One copy belonged to Tom Ardolino of NRBQ, and the band used its pull to get Rounder Records, of all people, to reissue the album in 1980. Then, it received critical notice, but not acclaim.

At first listen, the music sounds like some little kids beating on pots and pans and screeching. But I, having heard the songs before and revisiting them for this essay, have come to agree with Cub Koda, the erstwhile Brownsville Station front man who went on to become a stunningly cogent music critic (primarily for All Music Guide). He says:

“The guilelessness that permeates these performances is simply amazing, making a virtue out of artlessness. There’s an innocence to these songs and their performances that’s both charming and unsettling. Hacked-at drumbeats, whacked-around chords, songs that seem to have little or no meter to them (“My Pal Foot Foot,” “Who Are Parents,” “That Little Sports Car,” “I'm So Happy When You're Near” are must-hears) being played on out-of-tune, pawn-shop-quality guitars all converge, creating dissonance and beauty, chaos and tranquility, causing any listener coming to this music to rearrange any pre-existing notions about the relationships between talent, originality, and ability. There is no album you might own that sounds remotely like this one.”

I listened to the songs carefully, and I now note that Helen’s drumming is not as random as it seems, and the guitar parts are rehearsed, if not good. Thus, the songs are reproducible in their recorded form, which means the girls intended to do what they did. They even stopped the recording and told the producer when one of them had messed up. Mind-boggling, but true. That leads me to ask: were these recordings signs that a higher form of life had arrived on Earth, dealing out tunes that mere humans could not appreciate? What if the collapse of the music industry means that all music will eventually sound like these songs?

You will love the broad Boston accents, which rival those of the Jamies (“Summertime, Summertime”) and, in a similar vein, the Jersey non-rhotic vocalizations of the Royal Teens (“Short Shorts).

If you have an open-minded ear (?), you will eventually learn to appreciate the messages and the arrangements of the songs I have brought to the blog. For contrast, I am also including a 1975 recording of a song not composed by Dot Wiggin (the first album was all her work), “Wheels,” which shows the girls in a far better light technically. At the end of that one, nevertheless, you catch a glimpse of the original Shaggs chaos coming through. The contrast makes me think they really did know what they were doing on their original compositions. If you do enjoy their work, you are in good company: Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain ranked their LP as one of their favorites.

Love ’em or not, you will have to admit that their original songs are not the same type of train wreck that “Photograph” by Ray Conniff is. He should have known better, whereas the Shaggs clearly did not. (Thanks to whiteray for this timely musical revelation.)

The next joke was perpetrated on the suspecting American public in 1966. Mrs. Miller, whose first name was Elva and whose actual last name may have been Connes, rather than Miller, warbled her way into a Capitol Records contract as a bit of comic relief from her stablemates, the Beach Boys and the Beatles. According to Wikipedia, she became offended when she realized that Capitol was actually making fun of her, but she got over it. Her album sold 250,000 copies in three weeks, far more than almost all of us have sold of our own work.

Mrs. Miller said that her production team chose the worst, rather than the best, takes of the songs she sang. And perhaps you know what became of her album, Mrs. Miller’s Greatest Hits: It spawned two Hot 100 singles (links below) and is a cherished collector’s item. Mrs. Miller died in 1997 at age 89.

But the real oddity in my collection is an enterprising woman named Mik Tap, who, perhaps to hide a voice as odd as those of the previous artists, releases all of her recordings backwards. Her website claims that there is an “ethereal beauty to the backward masking of the songwriters’ original intent.” I don’t know about that, but when I listened, I know I did not hear anything as sinister as the mutterings alleged to emerge from playing “Stairway to Heaven” backwards. But then, the reverse of a stairway to heaven is a descent into hell, while the Mik Tap songs can’t possibly be an attempt to mess with the inner workings of our minds. Can they?

For Saturday, we’re up to Week Fourteen of the 1950s charts. See you then!

The Shaggs, Philosophy of the World

The Shaggs, Who Are Parents

The Shaggs, My Pal Foot Foot

The Shaggs, Wheels

Mrs. Miller, Downtown

Mrs. Miller, A Lover’s Concerto

Mik Tap, Im Er Od

Mik Tap, BHOTR


Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas said...

A friend who had attended Berkeley went back to Boston one summer to visit. He decided to venture to New Hampshire and the hometown of the Wiggins sisters.

He said that he inquired about them with the locals, but no one would talk.

whiteray said...

O turn me on deadman, this is marvelously demented stuff! (Thanks for the props; I think that there will now be a regular feature at my place called "Train Wreck Jukebox"!)

Yah Shure said...

I was introduced to The Shaggs in 1981 by a fellow DJ in Oklahoma City. "Where is foot foot?" became a running off-air gag amongst us for months.

Cub Koda's assessment was absolutely brilliant.