It may have all started with a prophecy read on Austin Wiggin Jr.’s hand. First, he’ll marry a blonde woman and have two sons after the death of his mother; then, he will have daughters who will become international music stars. The prophecy was frighteningly turning real when the first two predictions came true; he had the four predicted daughters afterwards.
Thus, the Shaggs are born from their father’s surreal beliefs and oppressive behaviours. Austin W will sell family heirlooms, spend his savings to buy two guitars and drums, and pay for singing and music lessons for their daughters. He assigned the instruments according to unknown criteria, forced his daughters to play and rehearse almost all the time, and performed the weekly concert every Saturday night. Being very strict and disturbed, he prohibited them from going out, having social relations and having an ordinary youth of the late 60s. Because of that Dot, Betty and Helen Wiggin are not really into rhythm, melody and music.
Nevertheless, they released in 1969 their first and last album. It is a mixture of awkward sung voices, chaotic drums, out-of-tune guitars, random drum breaks, simply silly lyrics and a lack of sense of rhythm. The sound engineer will say that they look miserable, to which the father will reply, “I want to get them while they’re hot.” That says a lot about the topic. Their ordeal ended in 1975 when Austin died of a heart attack leaving behind the psychological and physical abuse at the origin of one of the most iconic rock albums. We will have to wait for posterity for this album to go from anecdotal error to iconic status among great musicians like Frank Zappa or Kurt Cobain and a particular audience.
The sincerity and the spontaneity make this album an authentic artistic work, they had no aim to realise anything correctly, and one could even wonder if it is not a direct response to their father’s physical and psychological abuse. Also, this work takes the opposite of commercial music, which wants to be as smooth as possible, accessible as possible by intelligible chords. Given the lack of interest in music, they had very little awareness of the value of their work. The result is a work that is unique and non-reproducible.
The need to create something independently of the musical standards shown in Philosophy of The World lays one of the foundations of outsider music. This need to create or express something will mark the career of many artists like Weasley Willis, who, like the Wiggins sisters, did not have the happiest youth.
After a childhood marked by physical abuse and neglect from his parents, in 1989, he was diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia. Later he began an underground career as a singer-songwriter. He used to sing in an off-key voice and, most of the time, over his synthesiser’s musical loops. Although, at first sight, the titles of his discography (which amounts to more than 50 albums) make you laugh, it’s normal; the guy sings loud and “nonsense” but also funny. He built a loyal fan base in the mid-90s because the character was funny and endearing; he used to be very close to his fans and greet them with a head bump. The topics of his songs used to criticise in slammed music, the issues of mental illness and the consumerist society, as in his biggest hit Rock N Roll McDonalds (a song that I particularly like), which gave him a certain punk status. Weasley Willis died of chronic myeloid leukaemia in 2002 and confessed that his music helped him fight the demons of his illness.
Outsider music artists don’t feel like they’re making outsider music, like the well-known Tiny Tim singing an astonishingly high falsetto accompanied by a ukulele making him very recognisable. But also like the lesser-known Bj Snowdens. She was a rather mediocre music teacher in her voice and piano playing. She wrote strange songs about Canada and its provinces, imitating the pop hits of the 90s. What her fans remember about Bj Snowdens is that she was a great person and made her music with a lot of passion. When journalist Irwin Chusid was preparing his book “Songs in the key of Z”, which compiled several outsider music artists, he asked BJ Snowdens if he could include it, she replied in disgust, judging the other artists too mediocre. Still, later realised that it was a chance to achieve success, and she accepted.
Shooby Taylor had dreams of jazz and began learning the saxophone, then realised that his need to express the sounds that appeared in his head could be satisfied by his voice. So Taylor made his voice his instrument and appeared on American TV in 1983 during the Amateur Night at the Apollo, he was booed after 20 seconds of performing and declared later in 2002.
I was hurt, very hurt because I got booed off… And then I figured, “Oh, I did it wrong.” But after months and months of thinking about it, I said, “I did it the way how I wanted to do it!”
It is this casual and spontaneous expressiveness that characterises outsider music, it is these people who decide to make music seriously without really knowing how to do it but with a genuine intention to produce something expressive and personal. It results in authentic pieces where the purpose is pure.
Although most musicians who represented the genre did not shine by their musical technique, some were musically educated and excellent composers. We can consider the composer Louis Hardin, known as Moondog, and musician Syd Barret (founder of Pink Floyd), especially with his first album The Madcap Laugh, as representatives of the genre.
You could write whole books about Louis Hardin. He had a musical genius despite his blindness. He was an extremely prolific composer and wrote over 300 vocal and musical works and 80 symphonies. If he is considered an outsider, it is because he has created a musical style of his own, drawing on various influences, including jazz, Native American music, African-American rhythms, and more complex writing techniques, classic methods and genres such as counterpoint and ragtime. He has led a lifestyle rejecting the conventions of a classical composer, performing and living on the streets of New York, dressed in handmade Viking clothes and playing instruments from his creation.
Syd Barret, co-founded Pink Floyd with Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason, and produced a few singles and an album with the band before being ousted. The character was naturally unstable and got worse with increasing LSD use. He was partially replaced by David Gilmour when, during concerts, he played only one note over and over or wandered lost on the stage. Until his mental health was at the critical point of no longer being able to perform the concerts fully, his artistic genius was still there, but he showed it in more and more erratic way. In January 1970, he released The Madcap Laughs, his first album, five people are credited as producers, and the recording was spread over more than a year, given the instability of Syd Barret. It is in great mental confusion, malaise and a social eccentricity on the part of Syd Barret that The Madcap Laughs was composed and recorded. The recording and production quality show a raw work arousing a desire for the most spontaneous expressiveness. The songs are intimate and reflect the mental struggle of the former member of Pink Floyd, whose majority of the lyrics are sung in a tired and wistful voice accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar. The errors in the recording and interpretation of the songs reinforce this feeling; in “She took a long Cold Look” we hear him stop to turn what could be the pages of a notebook to resume his singing suddenly. Dark Globe is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever listened to because of its expressiveness, the nervousness in the voice singing melancholic lyrics on desperate chords, and Syd Barrett hurling himself on his guitar.
To finish on the outsider music, I must mention one of its most prolific direct representatives who brings together many of the genre’s characteristics. Daniel Johnston was a whole artist; at the dawn of the 80s, he composed and recorded his songs on cassettes, of which he made copies to distribute and glued a drawing to it as a cover. But Daniel Johnston struggled with severe mental problems, and in the late 80s, he was diagnosed with manic depression. Like Syd Barret, his compositions are thin-skinned, and his musical qualities stand out. He writes about his life, personifying his mental struggles, but he also composes more humorous songs revealing themselves as real outlets. The themes are varied, talking about the bitterness of his life but also love, the devil, death, funerals, King Kong, the Beatles, Captain America and even Casper the Friendly Ghost. He goes from vigorously hitting the keys of his piano, singing in a very childlike voice on “Speedy Motorcycle”, to singing in a melodious and sad voice on “Life in vain”, playing his guitar, strings accompany him. Because of the talent emanating from his lo-fi compositions was spotted by big names like Mike Watt, Butthole Surfers and even Sonic Youth, which allowed him to professionalise his recordings. The complexity of his personal sphere will make him a recognised artist, also providing a large amount of graphic work in addition to his music like Weasley Willis.
This very sentimental spontaneity specific to Daniel Johnston has allowed the appropriation of his music by the general public, and this sincerity has allowed these artists to create a loyal and passionate audience. It is a fascinating art form that takes the opposite view of creative norms; it is based on the sentimental, spontaneous, innocent, unconscious, expressive or desperate aspect of a musical work and allows the sincere appreciation of the listener. “I want to get them while they’re hot.” Austin Wiggins already defined the genre and made possible the spontaneity of the recording that would later become Philosophy of the World by fulfilling the prophecy in a certain way.