Thursday, 3 January 2008

The Shaggs


I'm surprising myself by wanting to write about pop music again on what is supposed to be a site about my compositional work, but The Shaggs, a truly bizarre and unique band, are having a curious and inescapable effect on my writing that has left me needing to say more about them.


Regularly called - quite wrongly in my view - the worst band of all time, what is most often talked about is their strange and sad story, centered around a small town in rural Massachusetts, and culminating in their only album, 'The Philosophy of the World'. This was retroactively discovered by, amongst others, Frank Zappa, who compared them with Ornette Colman and included it in his 5 greatest records of the century. More about their lives and history can be found in this lovely article by Susan Orlean: Meet The Shaggs .

I'm a bit more interested in talking about the music itself, however. To that end, here is perhaps my favorite song of theirs, "I'm so happy when you are near":



Now, by any rational, objective, standard this is surely astonishingly poor music. The guitars are out of tune, the vocals don't really belong in a key at all, on the rare occasions the drums are in time with the guitars the pulse is wildly unstable (check out the jump at the end of the guitar solo), and the links between the verses sound like an - unsuccessful - attempt to retune the guitars. And that's without even mentioning the lyrics, which sit in a strange grey area between inane and insane. All these things are undeniable, but I think there are aspects of absolutely genuine musical quality and creative originality that far surpass the superficial incompetence.

Firstly, the singing is quite extraordinary. The two girls may be singing out of time and tune in terms of equal temperament and 4-on-the-floor rhythm, but they are consistently together and in tune with each other. The odd intervals that make up the vocals, sitting uncomfortably between a diatonic and a whole-tone scale a lot of the time, seem shared between them; an entirely internalized, if untheoretical, tuning system of their own. There are also nods to more conventional harmonic practice that break out in a wonderfully surreal way - especially the (exquisitely flat) leading tone that's left hanging at the end of the last verse, and whose expected resolution to G is evaded by the unaccompanied E minor chord that follows. I love the way that opening and closing progression - E min, C maj, G maj - is simultaneously obvious and entirely non-functional: does the last chord feel like a tonic? Realistically, those chords are probably there only there because they are amongst the very few she could actually play, but to me they are damaged, broken, pillars, trying to tell us where we are but undermining it at the same time.

I also love the structure and pacing of the song, which is almost a cliche of the 2 minute pop song. But everything seems to happen exactly where I want it to, they know exactly what they want to say and just get on with it, there is no excess or unnecessary complication. The way the guitar solo more or less replicates the vocal melody reinforces this beautifully - give me this material relationship over 3 minutes of screaming irrelevant shredding any day...

What I'm doing here, obviously, is hearing this music with ears that have been conditioned by something quite alien to The Shaggs own experience, and I'm sure my analysis would be as foreign to them as their music is from their own imagined influences - The Monkees, Hermann's Hermits (although they found that a little racy). That's what really fascinates me about the whole issue of 'incompetent' art, though - if they'd 'succeeded' and managed to accurately emulate their late 60s low-brow pop models, it would have been totally uninteresting and formulaic. Instead, through the prism of naivety and lack of technique, comes the fresh and remarkable.

Another question is what does this have to do with my own music? The simple answer to this is that I don't know. However, there are certain things I find in their sound that I've been interested in and drawn to for far longer than I've known their music. The most obvious of these is the distorted unison, both in pitch and rhythm, which is obvious in pieces like Line Study and Broken Frames. Another is the combination of tonal materials with intervals which aren't equal tempered and their 'wrong' usages. In Ficta, for instance, that flat leading tone and the delayed resolution is everywhere! Now, though, I'm perhaps finding ways to engage with this sound world more directly.

So, despite the glaring aesthetic and cultural gulfs between the Wiggin sisters and myself, I really feel this music is both authentically valuable and has much that relates to what I'd like to do as a composer.

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