Various Artists – Better Than the Beatles: A Tribute to the Shaggs

Various Artists
Better Than the Beatles: A Tribute to the Shaggs

For those not familiar with the music or the back-story of 60’s cult legends the Shaggs, their continued legacy might be a little hard to comprehend. The oft-repeated tale of a sincerely over-ambitious New Hampshire father toting his three daughters to a Boston recording studio to mine the figurative gold of their cumulative musical talents and create an American rival to the Beatles, all because of a premonition of his dead mother, is beyond understanding when first hearing the actual product of those recording sessions. The sour, half-missed chords, the random and timeless drumming, the bizarrely wandering vocal melodies and guitar leads – this is the stuff you’d expect to hear from a group of 8th graders playing in a parent’s garage. Yet, what remains after all these years is the aura of genuinely naïve enjoyment in creating music, not to mention some penetrating and concisely stated, and probably somewhat unintentional, social commentary. Add it all up, and you have music that Frank Zappa said was, indeed, “better than the Beatles” and an amazingly eclectic parade of musicians eager to offer their own tributes to the ultimate outsider artists.
Realistically, the Shaggs may be the most ideal band to have ever been offered a tribute album, as their style was so entirely their own that the prospect of having other musicians cover their songs is almost guaranteed to offer radically different renditions. In fact, the songs are so elastic as to be made over multiple times, as certain tracks are presented more than once. The alternative, a bunch of groups intentionally botching chords and playing out of time, wouldn’t really make much sense. As such, we get droning, vaguely mystical renditions of “Philosophy of the World” by Ida and seamless rock renditions of “You’re Something Special To Me” by the Furtips. Sure, most renditions aren’t entirely in keeping with the primitive nature of the originals, but generally at least a sliver of the wide-eyed wonderment of the Shaggs does manage to survive.
There is little denying the charm of call and response lyrics like “who are parents? / parents are the ones who really care / who are parents? / parents are the ones who are always there,” (“Who Are Parents”), and there couldn’t be a band better suited to draw out their innocence than the brilliant Danielson Famile, who do their own family-styled remake with little more than xylophone, drums, and fuzz bass. Of course, despite the peculiar appeal of the Shaggs’ music, there was always something more than a little creepy about their songs, an aesthetic perfectly captured by the darkly haunting keyboards and murky processed beats of “You’re Something Special To Me” by Optiganally Yours and the stark voice and keyboard rendition by Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 of “Who Are Parents.” Mongrell’s softly swinging “My Cutie” restores the spirit of cheerful blamelessness with a rendition that makes the song seem like a likely answer to the Beach Boy’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”
Less successful are covers that genuinely try to recapture the musical vision of the Shaggs. Deerhoof’s rather atonal “My Pal Foot Foot,” a touching tribute to a lost cat, and R. Stevie Moore & the Olsiewicz-Chusid Ensemble’s tuneless “My Companion” succeed in presenting the spirit of those seminal Shaggs recordings, yet they offer nothing particularly new for those already familiar with them. More interesting are Slot Racer’s folk rock-ish “Painful Memories/Wheels” and Plastic Mastery’s three-chord dance groove in “Shagg’s Own Thing.” Ultimately, though, it’s obvious that no matter what slant is being taken, a good time is being had by all.
Overall, it’s most important to note that the Shaggs were not creating intentional high-concept art. That they most assuredly didn’t know what they were doing, but still had the audacity to do it, earns them a rightful place in the annals of rock history. Their music intended to make no grandiose statement, yet because – or in spite of – that fact, it ends up making one loud enough that it still resonates over 30 years later. (Loud enough, in fact, that a movie about their life stories is currently in development). So, Better Than the Beatles: A Tribute to the Shaggs is a fun ride for the hardcore Shaggs fan or simply the connoisseur of oddball pop, challenging all of us to listen to the sincerely awkward clattering of these musical ingénues and decide for ourselves if they really were better than the Fab Four.