"Real, pure, unaffected by outside influences." So the Shaggs were described in the liner notes to their legendary 1969 album, Philosophy of the World. In this rare case, jacket hype disguised
truth: Dot, Betty, and Helen Wiggin of Fremont, New Hampshire, had a sound that seemed innocent indeed of any other music then being made, any stylistic dictates outside those of their own sisterly collective. Their sound -- two guitars, two voices, and a minimal drum kit -- was inimitable, inexplicable, and indefensible, a heedless clatter of misaligned rhythms and clueless vocals. Even their enunciations were
outrageous: They delivered their pixilated lyrics about motor cars, parents, and pets like recent immigrants from some undiscovered country off the coast of Maine. It was spooky how removed the Shaggs were from polite musical stricture. Cream, the other major power trio of the day, were tea-sipping fuds in comparison.
All of which means the Shaggs were equally unaffected by "inside" influences; that is, inside the music business, the marketplace, the common sense of commonly abled musicians -- those inner circles where professional art is mutated and manufactured for distribution to professional consumers. Professional art, be it avant-garde or market-oriented, stunningly profound or really stupid, almost always has an essential normalness to it -- a clean finish, a logical form, a discernable goal. The Shaggs remain freakish and singular because they so blithely violated all that, thrashing through waves of incompetence and uncool to reach a shore that never existed in the normal world, and still doesn't. Locked outside one fortress (the normal), stuck inside another (their own heads), they would be given just one chance to declare their existence, and that was Philosophy of the World: still haunting, still stupefying, an original.
In "Troubled," the one album by a three-piece Vancouver band called the New Creation, there is much of that same frisson, that same displacement experienced by us normals when other supposed normals have created something, if not abnormal, at least un-normal. A shared amateurishness, a common stance of anti-hip, a serene commitment to the oddest contours of the private talent -- the Shaggs went farther down this road than anyone, perhaps, but the New Creation were definitely their fellow travelers.
None of them could have known this, since the two groups created their music at roughly the same time but thousands of miles apart. The New Creation was teenage guitarist Chris Towers, his mother, Lorna, and their neighbor Janet Tiessen on drums; "Troubled" was recorded and released, in a privately financed run of 100 copies, in 1970. Now rediscovered and refurbished by Companion Records of Berkeley, California, it is a do-it-yourself curiosity from the years when psychedelia was morphing into crypto-Christianity and apocalypse was on everyone's frazzled mind. The New Creation saw itself as part of the Jesus People movement, a grass-roots alternative to the established church
which incorporated a countercultural mind-set and aesthetics, extolled an appealingly practical and tolerant faith, and produced, it must be said, some appalling music -- mostly barnyard soul for commune dwellers, mobs of white kids with Afros banging tambourines and braying about Judgment Day.
But the New Creation didn't sound anything like Stoneground or Jesus Christ Superstar. The photos in Companion Records' first-rate CD reissue show group members dressed in the late-'60s style of middle-class mod, rehearsing in a paneled rec room; they weren't hippies, or even wannabes. They were, as demonstrated by the opening track, "Countdown to Revolution!" (a montage of voices, song snatches, and battlefield sound effects), pragmatic Christian anarchists:
apocalyptic, but with a sense of humor; suspicious of smug scientism, but equally so of churchly superstition. As much as anything, they were agitators for a simple creed of human uniqueness, and nothing lends their stance greater weight than the fact that they created a musical document this cryptic, unsettling, and, in the simplest sense, extraordinary.
Listening to the Shaggs and the New Creation in tandem, it's easy to wonder if both groups were partaking of the same outside influences, sharing some essential outsider mentality. Though as separate physically and culturally as lower-class New England and middle-class British Columbia, the New Creation and the Shaggs share an uncannily similar
sound: garage rock, but a garage composed of alien metals and filtrated with something other than pure oxygen. Key to the sound are shallow guitar strums and closely miked vocals that politely, modestly skim their host melodies -- the half-committed singing of people who feel deep down that they have no right to sing, but have decided to do it anyway. And those incredible rhythms: Janet Tiessen is less radical a stylist than Helen Wiggin, but she owns the same smacking snares and clashing cymbals, and likewise invents beats that stumble and stutter just off the count but somehow retain a precarious formality -- like Dustin Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo jauntily swinging his dead leg through the city streets in Midnight Cowboy.
The New Creation's low-fi production, again like that of the Shaggs, is marked by a tendency to push the tuneless vocals up front and hold the instruments far back, as if behind a thin partition; somewhere between substance and suggestion, we are experiencing not "real" pop songs but a series of aural shadow plays. Though Lorna Towers' lyrics are often dreadfully overexplicit (as lyrics on a mission will tend to be), the satire and social commentary are not notably less sophisticated than, say, the soundtrack to Hair -- or, for that matter, early Frank Zappa. And some of Chris Towers' melodies are quite lovely. At least two songs, "Wind" and "No Excuse," are instant classics of genreless pop, the first a desolate, mystical ballad, the second a generation-gap broadside with martial tempo and eerie whistling refrain.
Where the Shaggs could never have been anything but the Shaggs, it's possible that some canny producer might have forged something commercially viable from the New Creation's peculiar mix of half-talents and almost-theres: They might have been a Christian Cowsills, and done by a real garage band, "Wind" might have been a regional hit and wound up on the first Nuggets anthology. In some ways, these outsiders were just that close to making it inside. But such observations miss, of course, the whole point of outsider music. The eccentricities of "Troubled," its too-close voices and distant guitars, are exactly the sort of jagged edges professionals would have rounded off. They're also the very things that enable the album to work its weird bit of private magic. Music like this exists somewhere in the spaces; to hear it, we have to listen there, too.
Which is not what we normally do, because normal music doesn't require it of us. Even the greatest music usually only augments the world as we already know it: Bleak or bountiful, comforting or terrifying, our personal musical favorites do not shatter our world but confirm that world as we prefer to see or imagine it from day to day, song to song. Like a drug, most music intensifies feelings we already have or want to have. Music like that of the Shaggs or the New Creation turns that world upside down, truly changes its sound and its feel. Do I share biology with these people? you ask. Are humans capable of sounding this privately attuned, this unconcerned with common sense, this unabashedly strange? Well, we know that they are, because we're not any different. We're that way, too, in our thoughts, our dreams, our rooms. The difference is that we usually have the sense -- i.e., the timidity
-- not to open our mouths about it.
That timidity spares us much banality, no doubt, but how many Philosophy of the Worldss and "Troubled"s have been lost to it? The charm and the chill of this music is that it is so thoroughly itself, so apart from the precepts of normalness, that it can leave any moderately receptive listener with the lingering sense that this oddity is the way things truly are, that normalness is the cover-up. And if most of us are eager to resume the necessary lie of normalcy after a session with the Shaggs or the New Creation, that may be only a measure of their power to ruffle the cover and undermine the rational. You need a little Shagginess in your life, you need to be Newly Created every now and then. Don't be scared: The normal, for better or worse, always takes care of itself.
Or to put that another way (again quoting the Shaggs' liner notes, which were evidently written by Gertrude Stein), "You should appreciate this because you know they are pure what more can you ask?"
Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Harvard), now out in paperback. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.