Better Than The Beatles
A Tribute to The Shaggs
Did The Shaggs know what they were doing? No. Does it matter? Not really. Critics raved about them. Irwin Chusid called them the “godmothers of outsider music.” Frank Zappa, with hyperbole up to eleven, described them as “Better than The Beatles” (hence, the title of this tribute). And even though it’s been over thirty years since the Wiggins sisters (Dot, Helen, and Betty) recorded their magnum opus, “Philosophy of the World,” their legacy is stronger than ever. Today they stand alongside Captain Beefheart, Os Mutantes, Destroy All Monsters, and The Residents in the inderatis’ sacred obscuro pantheon. Upon first listen, the uninitiated hears only three unmusicians playing seemingly different songs simultaneously. But scratch the surface of The Shaggs’ primitive, childlike tunes, and there’s idiot savant gold in them songs.
Time for a tribute? Animal World Recordings thinks so. Interestingly enough, there could hardly be a more worthy group to pay homage to. Since The Shaggs’ songs were so extremely weird and incredibly out of time and place, cover artists have much room to play with the originals. Some of the tracks on Better Than The Beatles sound surprisingly unlike the songs being covered. Yet, herein lies the beauty of this disc. For example, both Thinking Fellers Union Local 242 and Danielson Famile cover “Who Are Parents.” Neither sounds like The Shaggs’ version. Both are, nonetheless, marvelous. Thinking Fellers’ adaptation evokes a morphine drenched hymn, as scary as it is bizarre. Danileson Famile’s rendition is cozy and twee, somewhat like The Shaggs’. Still, the Danielson kids sound like virtuosos when compared to The Shaggs. Because The Shaggs were so wrong that they were right, it’s hard to imagine how a Shaggs cover could run amok. (Perhaps it would be too well produced or arranged. Conversely, an artist might rightly feel some real fear and trembling over being included on a Beatles, Kinks, or Zombies tribute album. Because these bands executed their songs with such precision, it might be asked what could be gained from cover versions?)
Is it possible to improve on The Shaggs? Maybe it’s heresy to say this, but yes. Bauer’s version of “We Have a Savior” is far better than the original! It’s actually fun to listen to. Something you want to hear over and over again. It wonderfully employs The Association and The Left Banke to sweeten up the Shaggs’s original. Other great renditions on Better Than The Beatles include Optiganally Yours’ dingy, lo-fi “You’re Something Special to Me,” and impressively true-to-form cuts from Mongrell (“My Cutie”), R. Stevie Moore (“My Companion”) and The Double U (“Philosphy of the World”). Also noteworthy are Plastic Mastery’s Jonathan Richman-esque “Shaggs’ Own Thing” and The Furtip’s classic indie reading of “You’re Something Special to Me.” None of the songs feel out of place. This is truly a brilliant tribute album.