Live: The Shaggs' Philosophy Of The World Gets Honored At The Bell House
Still Better Than The Beatles: A Tribute To The Shaggs / A Benefit for the Fremont, N.H. Historical Society & 250th Anniversary Committee
The Bell House
Friday, April 13
Better than: The Kraftwerk tribute.
YouTube recently declared a new Worst Band Ever. Whether or not the hapless outfit from Pennsylvaniafirst seen covering Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" under gloriously bizarre giant letters spelling out MUSICis truly deserving of the title remains to be seen. But they and countless other YouTube sensations yet to come have both marginalized and validated the Shaggs, the band of sisters from Fremont, New Hampshire that recorded one privately pressed album in 1969, gigged for a few more years at their local Town Hall, called it quits, andsince their late 1970s rediscoveryhave traditionally held rock's Worst Band Ever title. In a better-indexed society, though, "Worst" is no longer the most accurate word to describe them, if it ever was to begin with.
For starters, the band covering Floyd really does suck. Not only are they playing badly, but they're playing tentatively, which is also why when you notice that all the dudes are mouthing along with the words the whole tableau becomes more touching than embarrassing. But there was nothing remotely tentative about the Shaggs. Philosophy of the World sounds deeply, deeply weird not because the Shaggs were inept, but because they did play in different time signatures, did sing with carefully worked out Martian harmonies, did write songs with alternate tunings and guitar parts that almost always doubled the vocal melodies exactly. They were all out-of-the-ordinary musical gestures, and all in the service of girl-group pop sung by then-recent teenagers.
Since being rediscovered by NRBQ at Northampton's Sun Music and having their record reissued, Shaggs-mania has swollen every few years. Lester Bangs declared them "better than the Beatles." There was a reunion gig at CBGB in 1999 (part of NRBQ's 30th anniversary) and last year marked the debut of an off-Broadway show, Philosophy of the World. A recent Alarm Will Sound arrangement of "Philosophy of the World" signaled something more formal: the Shaggs' entry into the repertoire. Still Better Than The Beatles, organized by one-time Shudder to Think bassist Jesse Krakow and starring a rotating cast of world-famous-in-Brooklyn guest stars, presented a restaging of the Shaggs' entire 22-song catalogue at the Bell House on Friday. The night was a literal Shaggs tribute in every way, from the note-for-idiosyncratic-note arrangements to the three surviving Shaggs themselves watching from a table near the stage and appearing for a Q&A. Questions were collected during the show next to a donations box for the Fremont, New Hampshire Historical Society.
Actually learning how to play Shaggs songs faithfully is a complex task, and the show was less an all-star affair (it might've included NRBQ, who were at Brooklyn Bowl on Saturday) and more a party for a bunch of people who decided to learn the music and put on a show. Krakow's literalist maxmimalism confined the cast to a fairly thorough egg-headedness, whichfor egg-headednessfound a decent (though hardly equal) gender balance among the musicians. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the drummers most able to make Helen Wiggin's most disjointed beats swing were women, including former Cibo Matto drummer Laura Cromwell on "Philosophy of the World" and Christy Davis on "What Should I Do."