On Radio 4: Jon Ronson On …

Jon Ronson On coming late to the party. Jon Ronson On not listening to the programme for years for no particular reason. Jon Ronson On catching an episode a few weeks ago about hearing voices and suddenly realising that this was perfect radio – where a soft voice and pleasant demeanour was used to reveal uncomfortable truths and challenge assumptions. And so a few weeks later we come to The Shaggs.

This wasn’t called Jon Ronson On The Shaggs although they occupied about 99% of the programme. This was On … the fine line between good and bad. The other major story was a man who covered a designer store bed in hundreds of red candles and was brought low by the hissed put-down, “Does Satan sleep here?” A step away from magnificence he had instead created a sleeping place for Beelzebub. Mind you, meeting the Prince of Darkness in his lair seemed a lot more pleasant than either listening to The Shaggs or hearing about the poor Wiggin sisters and their overbearing father Austin who forced them to leave school and become an all-girl rock group. They rehearsed in the basement for five years, didn’t go to school and heard no other music aside from their own.

The genius of the programme was in delaying the time we first heard they music by which time the sound engineer who recorded their only album had had time to say that it was a session like no other. Austin barking orders, the girls playing with sad determination and a sound that … well, it’s unique in that it appears to obey no known rules of music and yet what comes out is an approximation of rock n roll as created by people who haven’t heard it. The album bombed and the girls were told to carry on performing at the Town Hall in their New Hampshire town – all the while enduring taunts and abuse, and hating the music they were performing. When Austin Wiggin dropped dead in 1975 the band immediately broke up.

However they have now crossed the line from bad into … not good but appreciated. Their music was refound in the 80s and re-released in the 90s, assuming something of an underground appeal. Lester Bangs, Frank Zappa and other people who maybe didn’t value singing in tune as much as raw appeal proclaimed themselves fans. The sisters still seem to regard their music as awful and cannot look back on Austin and their time of forced rehearsals with anything approaching fondness.

Ronson’s interjections added depth and poignancy to what was already a bizarre and compelling narrative. He also managed to avoid smirking at the name The Shaggs (Brit humour alert) or belittling anybody involved with the project. Like I say, it was superb radio and I do wonder what else I’ve managed to miss by giving Ronson that inexplicable wide berth over the years.

There’s more Shaggs at wikipedia here.


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