Better than the Beatles!

I began writing my latest novel Better than the Beatles! in early 2016, but its real beginnings were around the turn of the millennium when I purchased a book called Raw Vision, a large coffee table style tome that was essentially a compendium of articles and photographs from the magazine of the same name, a magazine that was, and is, dedicated to the subject of Outsider Art Welcome to Raw Vision Magazine | Raw Vision Magazine.

There is no fully accepted definition of Outsider Art, but the attempt by the man who first identified it as a distinct entity, the French artist and collector Jean Dubuffet, is perhaps as good as any:  

We understand by this term works produced by persons unscathed by artistic culture, where mimicry plays little or no part... These artists derive everything from their own depths, and not from the conventions of classical or fashionable art.”

 Originally, Dubuffet used the term Art Brut to denote his newly patented genre. It was the English art critic and writer Roger Cardinal who renamed it as Outsider Art in his book of the same name: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Outsider-Art-RogerCardinal/dp/0289701686/

Through my reading of Raw Vision, of Cardinal and other sources, I discovered the collection of loners and misfits who made up the Outsider Art cannon, if there can ever really be such a thing, including such marginal luminaries as Adolf Wolfli, Henry Drager, Madge Gill, and Sabato Rodeo

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outsider_art.

Although Outsider Art would become an enduring interest, it was my discovery that this primarily visual art had spawned the sonic off-shoot of Outsider Music that led me to immerse myself in a whole new world of creative exploration.

It was the American Disc Jockey and writer Irwin Chusid who adopted the phrase ‘Outsider Music’ and publicised it as a distinct genre in his book ‘Songs in the Key of Z’, which was followed by an accompanying two volumes of illustrative C. D’s.

I am not without my criticisms of Chusid. For me, it was a mistake to incorporate into his book and C.D. collection such artists as Syd Barrett, Scott Walker, and Captain Beefhart, artists whom, whilst occupying a space well beyond the musical mainstream, were too well known to be classed as true outsiders. He also included material that I regard as revealing a knowing ‘so bad it’s good’ attitude that I found rather patronising. For instance, a recording of an old man suffering from dementia singing fragments of songs hazily remembered from his youth may be either sad or sweet, but it is not particularly musically interesting, and is therefore not, in my opinion, Outsider Music.

Nevertheless, it is primarily Chusid whom I must thank for my discovery of the work of the likes of Jandek, the Shaggs, and Daniel Johnston, artists who have continued to fascinate and inspire me to the present day. The first and last named of this trio have had great, niche films made about them, both of which are well worth checking out https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jandek-Corwood-DVD-Byron-Coley/dp/B0006FGHDS/

Although a work of fiction, the movie ‘Frank’, written by Jon Ronson and based (loosely) on a combination of the stories of papier-mâché headed Mancunion outsider Frank Sidebottom and the bizarre story of the making of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s weird classic Trout Mask Replica, also gives a great feel of the nature of Outsider Music  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Frank-DVD-Michael-Fassbender/dp/B00NIPIIQM/

It was however the story of The Shaggs which had the most impact upon me, and which was the catalyst for the writing of Better than the Beatles!

The Shaggs was the family name of the three sisters who initially made up the band, Dot and Betty on guitars and Helen on drums, with a fourth sister, Rachel later joining them on bass for live performances. The band were founded in 1968 in their hometown of Freemont, New Hampshire, and were set on their musical path by their father Austin Shaggs. He claimed to have done this in response to a premonition by his late mother, who had apparently correctly predicted the hair colour of the woman he would marry, and more interestingly, that the couple would have three daughters who would go on to attain musical stardom.

In response to this prediction, he took the then teenage girls out of school, bought them instruments, paid for singing lessons and encouraged them to write songs. In 1969, he paid privately for recording studio time, and for the pressing of 1000 copies of the resultant album, an album which was named Philosophy of the World after one of its best loved tracks on the album. Allegedly, the man responsible for pressing the album absconded with 900 of the 1000 copies of the album, and it’s been suggested that he, whether as a form of artistic criticism, through shame at his involvement in such a project, or for more prosaic reasons, simply dumped them. This left around 100 copies to be distributed, mostly locally and for free, by Pappa Austin.

The music of The Shaggs is perhaps best described as the sonic equivalent of a naïve-primitive painting. The ten songs on the album are conventional in structure, but are written and performed in a manner that suggests that they have been produced by ‘musicians’ who have only recently been introduced, and in a very quick and basic fashion at that, to the rudiments of melody, harmony and rhythm. In addition, the lyrics, about such topics as fidelity to one’s parents, self-acceptance, the joys of pet ownership and much else besides, have a charming, child-like quality that is a perfect accompaniment to the music.

Whilst recording their album, the producer of Philosophy of the World is said to have suggested that Austin allow his daughters more time to hone their musical and vocal skills before letting them loose in a recording studio. Austin’s response, which has gone on to become a part of Shaggs folk-lore, was to say that he wanted to catch them ‘whilst they are hot.’

Philosophy of the World would have disappeared without trace had a copy not somehow found its way into the hands of legendary muso Frank Zappa who played a couple of tracks, and professed his love for the album, whilst appearing as a guest on a radio show presented by a DJ by the name of Dr Demento in the early ‘70’s. From there, its reputation grew by word of mouth amongst lovers of left-field music, until it was eventually re-released by Rounder Records in 1980.

It should be noted here that it is Zappa who is often erroneously credited with ironically describing The Shaggs as ‘Better than the Beatles,’ the phrase that I used as the title of my novel. In fact, the phrase originally came from the headline for a Rolling Stone magazine review of the re-released album by iconic music journalist Lester Bangs.

The album was given a further boost in the 1990’s when Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain placed it no. 5 in his list of his all-time favourite albums. This helped it to gain a CD release by RCA Victor in 1999. Its popularity/notoriety was also greatly aided by the growth of the Internet.

Initially, and until quite late on in the writing process, my novel was called triplets, which is also the name of the Shaggs-like band in the book, as well as of their sole recorded album. In addition, when I began writing the novel, I took the decision to transfer the action from small town America to the North West of England, and the time of the band’s slim recorded output from the late ‘60’s to the late ‘70’s. ‘Write what you know’ they say, and this approach also had the advantage of allowing me to work a potted history of British rock music into the narrative, from fifties rock ‘n’ roll, through Merseybeat, psychedelia, and onwards to punk/Mew Wave and the mostly localised Lo Fi ‘cassette culture’ which emerged from it MESSTHETICS: U.K. DIY/postpunk 1977-84, Hyped to Death (hyped2death.com).

Much of this was done through the character of the father Sam Curtis who, in the manner of many 1950’s British rock ‘n’ roll hopefuls, was gifted a new, larger than life name by representatives of noted show business impresario Larry Parnes, in this case Sam Singer (see real-life examples such as Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Duffy Power et al) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Parnes

 In the true story of the Shaggs, the father Austin Shagg was a key player. By all accounts, in particular by the accounts of his children, he appears to have been a driven, pushy and authoritarian figure in the manner of music biz dad’s such as Joe Jackson of the Jackson family and Murray Wilson of the Beach Boys’ Wilson clan. It’s probably no accident that the Shaggs disbanded as a band (despite some latter-day reunions once Philosophy of the World belatedly found its fan-base) in 1975, immediately following the death of their father. In my novel, Sam Curtis/Singer plays an equally key role in the story, although I did try to make him a touch more likeable and sympathetic than his real-world counterpart.

In my previous novel, Special, I drew on my twenty five years of experience as a social care worker in order to tell the story of a fictional woman with a learning disability. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Special-Anthony-C-Green/dp/1788033442/  In writing Better than the Beatles! I again decided to make use of this experience, by incorporating into the narrative the suggestion that the triplets have a form of high functioning autism. Although I have never seen it explicitly stated that this was also the case with the real-life Shagg sisters, my reading and observation of their public comments, their music and lyrics, and the testimony of those who worked with them suggest that this is not entirely out of the question.

Speaking of lyrics, as something of an ‘outsider’ singer/songwriter myself, although I’m not sure that one can be knowingly such, one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing the novel was my writing of excerpts of triplets songs in the naïve style of the Shaggs themselves. At one point I even considered writing these songs in full, and then seeking to find three suitable females to record them with, or perhaps one suitable female to sing each vocal in, to use a phrase that re-occurs throughout the novel, ‘near-unison’. In the end however, I decided that some things are best left to the imagination….

 I won’t give away any more of the plot. In my opinion Better than the Beatles! In my opinion, it is by far my best novel to date, a novel that I enjoyed writing very much, such that I felt a distinct sense of loss when I finally decided that it was finished. It’s a novel that I’m proud to have written, and I only hope it will find a readership. Hopefully, I won’t have to wait as long as the Shaggs for it to do so.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shaggs

Anthony C Green, January 2021  

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