Avant-Garde by Accident: Outsider Music

By Stanley Elvis MacDonald

Is it possible to make creative and intellectually stimulating music by accident? This article looks at the case of The Shaggs, a New Hampshire band formed in the late 1960s, who attempted to make conventional pop music but received notoriety for entirely different reasons.

To begin this article, I’d like to have a quick look at a man who (at least in my opinion) matched many of the points in my Introduction to “Good” Music article: Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart. While the extent to which Beefheart’s music is genuinely “good’ is, as usual, entirely subjective, it is almost unarguably original, creative and intellectually stimulating; I’d make an argument for it being highly passionate and emotive too, but that’s a discussion for another article. To give you an idea of his sound, here’s a clip of one of his more popular numbers, “Ella Guru” on Trout Mask Replica (1969):

Now, I’m not sure how you’ll react to this music, but its influence on other musicians and critical acclaim are quite spectacular. What’s most interesting is that the acts Beefheart has influenced are also most notable for their far-reaching and potent influence; for example, Gang of Four (who owe a great debt to the Captain) had a profound influence on bands such as The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, R.E.M., U2, and many more. Taking into consideration the influence of such Beefheart-inspired acts, many of which are listed in the Wikipedia section “Captain Beefheart Influence,” it’s hard to escape his dominance over modern music.

Yet despite this, a lot of Beefheart albums sound to many people like they are rife with mistakes, written by a man who doesn’t know how to write and performed by people who have barely learnt to play. This sound of unorthodox chaos is something no Beefheart fan is going to deny – it’s all part of what makes the music art. This is what makes Beefheart the perfect example to use when addressing this question: what if someone were to push the boundaries of music in new and exciting ways without even realizing it? I present to you, The Shaggs:

The Shaggs album Philosophy of the World (1969) shares much in common with Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, most notably in its chaotic presentation of ideas that, at their most basic form, are either conventional (at points almost naïve) or downright nonsensical. Where Beefheart toyed with making the instruments go through stages of “fighting” one another, The Shaggs cycle in and out of phase with one another, in a way that some have referenced as being similar to aboriginal polyrhythms, commonly used for entering trances; try focusing on all the separate instruments in the track above to see roughly what I mean.

While Beefheart seems to be going out of his way to gain a loose, improvised feel, The Shaggs double up the sung melody with a guitar line. What’s more interesting is that as the melody shifts against the rhythm guitar and drum parts, there are fairly regular variations and inconsistencies that appear both in the lead guitar and voice. The melody is written, and no doubt simple, but it changes enough to give the song a certain complexity, and keep the listener on their toes, while remaining easy to follow.

So to cut what could have a been a rather lengthy analysis short, The Shaggs have a lot to offer the interested listener, and a great deal of originality to take influence from for the aspiring composer. What separates The Shaggs from Captain Beefheart, though, is intent. We can be fairly sure The Shaggs weren’t really aiming for the sound they got (their music is more of a failed attempt at pop music), whereas Beefheart “had a vision” (so to speak) and went to great lengths to craft the sound, image, concept behind the album he wanted to create.

One question arises from this: do The Shaggs deserve similar recognition for their work, or does the lack of intentional musical qualities separate the music from the artist in this case? Would we be wrong to call The Shaggs original and creative musicians? Would we be wrong to call them talented? More than that, is it possible to be called a genius purely through the mistakes we make?

While this is a rather sticky area to get into, I’d argue that most experimentation in some way relies on chance or accidents. Sometimes musicians have full, clear visions of the project they wish to complete, but more often it makes sense to try many things, and see what works and what fails, and see how accidents made in the process could be something other than just “wrong.” While a more discerning musician will limit their output, only including the experimentations and mistakes that happened to work for them (conveying the thoughts and ideas they were trying to convey), some musicians don’t even realize what they’re doing is experimental or contains accidents. This is often referred to as “outsider music.” The obliviousness of these outsider musicians often puts them in a place usually reserved for the fearless avant-garde artist, holding an important place in the development of music.

For musicians, I say we should take inspiration from both the deliberate and otherwise. I’m sure many of us have heard a great deal about the importance of The Beatles experimentation in their later career (songs like “Strawberry Fields” spring to mind), but how many of us recognize the importance of Wild Man Fischer?

“Circle” (1968)

Accepting mistakes and allowing eccentricity are some of the main components of originality and creativity, and should be encouraged and allowed as often as possible.

And on the subject of whether this is “good” music: there are times when we need to distinguish between the music and the musician. There are often strong cases to be made for a song, but without intention, less to be said for the musician.

What would you say the barrier (if it exists at all) is between creative genius and failure? When something differs from the status quo, who’s to say what’s “doing it wrong” and what’s avant-garde? Is “outsider music” worth defending? Feel free to leave a comment below.

This article was originally posted to The New Musicologist.


About newmusicologist

I'm Stanley Elvis MacDonald, a music student from Brighton aiming to advance my career as a writer, teacher and musician.
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Avant-Garde by Accident: Outsider Music

  1. Vick says:

    Text better than links this week

    • Not a fan of the more ‘out there’ sounds, I take it? Not many people are, but these artists have definitely contributed a great deal to the music we all listen to and love today. The articles I contribute in the future will likely have slightly more conventional styles featured.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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