The Shaggs, Skip Spence, Sonic Youth, and Stereolab.
Shaggs: Three sisters from rural New Hampshire, the Shaggs were just this side of collapse when they strapped their instruments. The Wiggin family was, by all accounts, a study in Pepperidge Farm country gothic. Daddy Austin Wiggin Jr. worked in the cotton mill and applied every coffee- canful of cash he could earn toward his dream: that his three eldest daughters--Betty, Helen and Dot--would one day become international pop stars. Just one problem: Despite years of music lessons, none of the Wiggin girls could play or sing in a way that you would call "good." But to Austin, and succeeding generations of astute listeners, it was beeyootiful music when his daughters picked up their guitars and beat on the drums, together in the same room, if not always the same song. Named after the girls' thick, horsetail-length hairstyle, the Shaggs were born in 1967, taking miscues from the Monkees and Herman's Hermits songs they heard on the radio. They pretty much had to make it up as they went along, as their father would not allow them to attend rock concerts and insisted on home-schooling to allow more time to work on their music. Recorded in 1969, Philosophy of the World is as much an intriguing anthropological find as it is a timeless, albeit unintentional, statement of outsider art--Frank Zappa hailed it as his third favorite recording of all time.
Skip Spence: Like Syd Barrett, Spence was a crazy diamond who reached for the secret too soon. After wandering in and out of grace in the late '60s, he spent the next 30 years howling at the moon in a trailer park oblivion of welfare and disease, until his death in the spring of 1999 at age 53. The original drummer in Jefferson Airplane, Spence went on to sing, compose and play guitar with Moby Grape, a powerhouse San Francisco psych-pop group that seemed destined for a commercial glory that would never come. In 1968, while in New York recording the Grape's second album, Spence disappeared for a few acid-flashed days with a woman known to be a practicing witch. When he returned, Spence was one crispy duck. Convinced that Grape drummer Don Stevenson was Satan, Spence chopped his way through the door to the drummer's hotel room with a fire ax. Not finding him inside, he took a taxi over to the studio, ax still in hand, where he was arrested and eventually committed to Bellevue Hospital for six months. During his incarceration, he would write the songs that comprise Oar, his lone solo album. Upon his release from Bellevue, Spence bought a motorcycle and, still wearing his prison blue uniform, drove straight to Nashville to record this material--singing, playing and arranging every fractured note. Four days later, he pointed his bike toward the heart of the sun, disappearing into the '70s and beyond, more or less never to be heard from again. He was 22 years old.
Sonic Youth: In the '80s, Sonic Youth played their guitars like people wore their bluejeans: fringed, distressed, maybe a little ripped. So it was no real surprise that in the '90s they sometimes sounded a little, well, baggy. Still, they've managed to maintain their image as envoys of the experimental jet set in the mind of the bourgeois reader for going on 20 years. And any band that can put their daily bread on the table by detonating mushroom clouds of hiss or meditating on the Zen implications of the sound of one guitar clanging deserves a medal or a monument.
Stereolab: It may be hard to remember now, but there was a time when "synthesizer" was a very bad word. Over the course of 14 albums and countless EPs and hard-to-find singles, Stereolab has caused a total re-think of what could be done with electronic music. The British band's fascination with the retro moderne--'50s lounge records, swinging '60s easy listening, Moog demonstration records--has spurred an entire subculture built around these musty thrift store finds. Not content to merely dust off these exotic relics and declare them cool, Stereolab enmeshes them in obscure reference points: '70s Krautrock, French pop, Brazilian psychedelia and Sun Ra's space-age jazz. When these disparate elements manage to coalesce, the results are nothing short of mesmerizing. The new Sound-Dust continues in the new direction the band has been moving in since 1996's Emperor Tomato Ketchup--increasingly less rockist, more florid, fluid and inspired by Brazilian '60s pop eccentrics such as Os Mutantes and Caetano Veloso. But beginners are advised to start with Switched on Stereolab and move forward.