by Lee Widener
For the second edition of Bizarro Music, I’m going to talk about Dot Wiggin. But who is Dot Wiggin? You know who she is, you just don’t know you know.
Yes, THAT Dot Wiggin – 1/3 of the Shaggs. Why am I singling her out? We’ll get to that in a bit. First, some background to get everyone up to speed.
The Shaggs released what is probably the most famous bad record in the history of recorded music. Foisted on the public in 1969, Philosophy of the World is spectacularly bad. It’s bad in ways other bad records can only dream of.
The Shaggs were three sisters – Dot, Helen, and Betty Wiggin. The formation of the band was the result of a prophecy, by their paternal grandmother. She fancied herself a psychic and in a palm reading session for her son Austin, she foretold three things. Her son would marry a strawberry blond, he would have two sons after she died, and he would have three daughters that would form a rock band. The first two prophesies came true, so Austin Wiggin set about making sure the last one did too.
He pulled the girls out of high school in their sleepy New Hampshire town of Fremont, enrolled them in a mail-order correspondence course, and signed them up for music lessons. He didn’t ask them if they wanted to play music. It was the prophecy, so it was their destiny. For a few years, this was their life: homeschooling for a few hours a day, and then practice music. They also did calisthenics every day. And then more practicing music.
They took lessons for only a year, and they were left to figure out the mechanics of playing in a band by themselves. Their father had no talent for music. They had no social life. They were not allowed to date until they were 18. One night a week the entire family would go grocery shopping together. That was their life. Practice music, do calisthenics, more practicing music, and again more practicing.
They were growing up inside a cult where they were the only members. Their father, anxious for his daughters to become the stars they were destined to be, arranged for the band to start playing in public. The girls, who had no interest in playing music in the first place, didn’t think they were ready, but Austin’s word was law. They played at a talent show, where they were booed, and had a gig at an old folk’s home on Halloween. This wasn’t enough exposure for Austin, though, and he arranged for the girls to play a weekly show at the town hall.
Again, the girls were a bit embarrassed to be playing in public when they felt they weren’t ready, but disobedience to anything Austin said was forbidden. They played their weekly gig with their out of tune instruments, in their off-key voices, with their strange songs that bore no resemblance to popular music, and a drummer that seemed to have no idea what a rhythm was. Lo and behold: people came. Teenagers came and danced as best they could to these weird songs, because what else is there to do in Fremont, New Hampshire? They also heckled the band, talked, caroused, and generally hung out. It was the social hub of teen activity in Fremont.
Spurred on by this “success,” Austin had his great brainstorm. His girls would cut a record. And so, in 1968, he rented time in a studio, and even though he kept interrupting the session because the girls were “making mistakes,” the entire album was recorded in one afternoon. He paid for a thousand discs, but depending on who you believe, the producer made off with 900 copies, or they were thrown in a dumpster, or they just disappeared. Regardless, only 100 copies of the record survived.
The Shaggs returned to their weekly gigs at the town hall until one day in 1975 Austin Wiggin had a massive heart attack and died. The sisters put down their instruments and never played again. For the most part. They had never wanted to be musicians, and now they were free of Austin’s autocratic rule. This whole story reads like a Bizarro novel, but it doesn’t end there.
Things tend to get out, and somehow a few copies of The Philosophy of the World made their way into the right hands. Frank Zappa got a hold of a copy and played a few songs on the Dr. Demento Show, proclaiming the Shaggs brilliance. A few DJs played them on the radio. Lester Bangs, of the Rolling Stone, said the album was “one of the landmarks of rock’n’roll history.” Terry Adams, singer for the band NRBQ loved them so much he convinced his record label to rerelease the album. Soon there was a full-fledged Shaggs cult. People started comparing the Shaggs’ music to Chinese folk music, free jazz, and Ornette Coleman. They weren’t lousy musicians, they had reinvented music in their own manner. The underground word swelled so great it resulted in RCA releasing the original album on CD. The band even reunited for one more show. In 1999 they played live at the NRBQ 30th anniversary between sets by Sun Ra and NRBQ. If this doesn’t sound like real-life Bizarro, I don’t know what does.
But is all this speculation of musical genius warranted? All along, Dot Wiggin has said and still says, that they just weren’t ready to play when they cut their album, and some evidence appears to back her up. Below is a 15-minute video of one of their dances at the Fremont Town Hall. It was filmed by Austin Wiggin himself in 1972- three years after their album was released. It’s an interesting document. Warning- this is a poorly shot home movie- the sound cuts in an out, things go out of focus, and the crowd noise is quite evident. But we can learn several things by watching it. First is the music itself. The drummer is doing a fine job keeping the beat. The singers, while not great, can carry a tune, and even engage in some simple choreography. Their guitars are in tune, they play enthusiastically and competently. The crowd, at least some of it, seems to be enjoying itself.
It turns out there were unreleased tapes the Shaggs had recorded much later, and when those were released as “Shaggs Own Thing,” they revealed a band that had gained a lot of musical prowess since their initial recordings. The drummer had learned to play along with the band. Dot and Betty now played what can be called conventional pop music. Perhaps what Dot was saying was true, and that first album was just three teenage girls who didn’t know what they were doing. Here’s a selection from “Shaggs Own Thing.” It reveals a band that while not great, certainly weren’t the worst band ever.
But that’s STILL not the end. After the Shaggs broke up, the sisters went their own ways. They all moved short distances from Fremont. Dot and Betty got married, raised families, got jobs. Helen was sickly and suffered from depression. She died in 2006. The underground fame of the Shaggs continued to grow, even though the subjects themselves were clueless. After the 1999 performance, a tribute album was released by musicians who were fans. In 2012, producer and bass player Jesse Krakow staged a tribute to the Shaggs in Fremont. The sisters didn’t play, but in a Q&A session afterward, Betty revealed she had written other songs that were never recorded and had even written a few more recently. Krakow convinced her to let him see them, and the result was the formation of the Dot Wiggin Band.
In her characteristic humble fashion, Dot initially figured she would give Krakow the songs and he would go off and record them. He told her, “Dot fans are going to want to hear Dot sing Dot’s songs.” Reluctantly, she agreed, and Krakow assembled a band, recording the songs in Dot’s living room and the old Fremont Town Hall. What resulted was an album that is kind of like a cross between a traditional pop sound and the Shaggs first record, just as Bizarro fiction often reads like a strange combination of genre fiction and something straight out of nightmares.
Here’s a music video of the song “Banana Bike” from the Dot Wiggin Band album Ready! Get! Go! It’s one of the more recent compositions Dot wrote as a tribute to her sister Helen.
The Dot Wiggin Band, just as the Shaggs did, has continued on past what Dot thought it would. They’ve given public performances, toured as recently as 2015, even played at the Pop Montreal festival.
So, who exactly is Dot Wiggin? Is she a musical genius who reinvented pop music in 1969, or is she just someone who wrote simple songs and couldn’t play or sing very well? What is Bizarro Fiction? Is it a breath of fresh air breathing new life into the tired tropes of genre fiction, or is it just crude, masturbtory crap from people who can’t write very well? Perhaps Dot and Bizarro are alike in that they’re a combination of both the best and worst of the claims made about them.
Lee Widener is a lifelong collector of weird music. For ten years he ran the internet radio station NeverEndingWonder Radio, which specialized in odd, unusual, freaky and bizarre music, and still runs a small Halloween themed radio station, which can be found at Welcome to Weirdsville. He is the author of “David Bowie is Trying to Kill Me!” and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Head Case” published in October 2015 by Eraserhead Press.