Notes From the Underground: Part one The Shaggs

Every artist fancies themselves as an outsider. After all, you have to be kind of crazy to want to make a living making art. From the low success rate, low pay, constant rejection, and constant scammers who promise you the world–it’s not a easy road to walk. There’s a reason why most people don’t aspire to become an actor, musician, filmmaker, or whatever. Automatically it’s an aspiration that separates you from 99.9999% of the population. Regardless as to whether you like it or not, you’re already an outsider.

Yet there are those of us, even in our community of outsiders, that are even more of outsiders than we are. I won’t even spoil, who I’ll be looking into, every artist that I will review will be on the album Songs in the Key of Z. I implore you to look into each of these artists on your own, and do your own research. Because in this album there are school teachers, bisexual cowboys, a proto-punk band comprised of all sisters, a divorced janitor, a man spoke gibberish, a geriatric experimental electronic musician and poet,  and last of all Daniel Johnston. A man whose story in and of itself, is as uplifting as it is tragic.

To begin with, let’s go straight to the Shaggs. An all sister quartet, that somehow in the 60’s, sounded more punk than punk. The story is kind of like the Jackson 5 (without the abuse). A strict disciplinarian Dad who finds out his kid’s passion for performance, and does all he can to make them realize their dream. Actually scratch that. A strict disciplinarian dad who forces his kids to play instruments and form a band, because his Mom did a palm reading and foretold that he’d marry a strawberry blond woman, and that his daughters would form a popular band.

So imagine being in these girls shoes, their Mom and Dad WERE NOT musically inclined. Even though it was the 60’s they weren’t even hippies. They were just normal blue collar people who were incredibly superstitious. Just imagine your Dad coming home one day, bringing home a bunch of instruments, and telling you that you need to form a band. It’s so strange and bizarre that I am almost 100% positive that there is at least one Simpsons episode based on this premise.

Yet, remember when I said that their music is more punk than punk? Well the thing about punk rock is, it’s stripped down rock n’ roll. It’s simplified Chuck Berry chords, it’s simplified Led Zeppelin, it’s a response to all the excess of late 70’s rock. Everybody said that punk rock was all about learning four chords, and forming a band. Yet everybody got better with their instruments. The synthesizer came along. Then we got post-punk, and new wave. It was a natural progression, because the goal wasn’t to transform music, it was to transform rock n’ roll.

So again let me reiterate, group of sisters are forced to form a band, with NO musical training, NO innate desire to make music, hell they weren’t even in A MUSIC SCENE. Even No-wave the movement that tried to do everything in it’s power to rebel against punk, and go back to it’s experimental side–still had a scene. And if there is a scene, there is some cross pollination of ideas, which leads to some cohesion.

Yet the Shaggs were all alone. It’s such a bizarre circumstance for any artist to be in, where they are completely out of their element, essentially swimming in the deep end, and trying to learn how to swim. This struggle though has created some of the most unique and compelling music ever to listen to.

To begin with, nearly everything is off kilter, whether it’s the drum beat, the chords being played, the vocals, nearly everything is off. Even the vocal melody which is the easiest part to nail down, because let’s face it, everybody can sing a song. Ask anybody off the street to make up a melody, and nearly everybody can do it. You could probably even go as far as figuring out what band/music they listen to. Yet with the Shaggs that is so off kilter, so bizarre, and so strange that you wonder, “What music DID THEY LISTEN TO?”

It’s due to this aspect of their music that I think what makes them so endearing. It’s kind of like when you try to find out how somebody came up with the idea to drink milk from a cow. Like what kind of person goes up to a cow’s titty, starts squeezing it, and then begins to drink the liquid that comes out? Reading that seems so strange and so foreign. Yet we all drink milk. So when we think about the fundamental rules about music, melody, harmony, chords, scales, etc. Imagine if we didn’t know the history behind it, it would seem incredibly strange how all of these rules, and structures came into place.

As artists we’re all influenced by somebody, and as a result you can hear the residual influences in all of our sounds. You can hear Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, and go, “Oh that’s just a Pixies rip off.” Yet it doesn’t discredit Smells Like Teen Spirit because it’s still an amazing song. It’s just that we all stand on the shoulders of giants.

This makes it all the more impressive that this was all created in a vacuum. It’s like in the ending of Fight Club. You see there are two endings, in the movie Tyler Durden succeeds in destroying major financial institutions. He doesn’t outright want to destroy society, he just wants to change it. Where in the book, Tyler Durden wants some form of anarcho-primitivism where a busboy and CEO are on equal footing, hunting some elk with spears, wearing loincloths. Tyler Durden in the book wants to destroy all of history, starting with the nearby history museum. Rewrite everything, and do it all over, starting from the stone age.

Now the Shaggs are by no means nihilists. Yet everybody who has tried to accomplish what they accomplished, by wiping the slate clean, doing it all over again, have almost always failed. Because eventually, they get good at their instruments, they form a scene, certain motifs are used over and over, and innovation simply becomes a new music genre. Yet the Shaggs rose above that, and accomplished something, that I firmly believe cannot ever be accomplished or replicated.

Or that’s what should be the case. The Shaggs were lightning in a bottle, how can anybody ever replicate that? Well as we go down deeper into the underground, we’ll find how deep this rabbit hole goes.