A previously unpublished conversation with studio engineer Jeff Landrock, who recorded the iconic primitivists’ second album.
BY THOMAS ANDERSON
This Shaggs piece was found stuffed in the same envelope as the unpublished Warren Zevon interview that I recently unearthed for BLURT. If I remember right, it was written around the same time (circa 2000), and I bailed out on it after deciding it was a bit lacking in substance. And maybe it is, but it’s not bad.
Near the end of the last millennium an amazing thing happened. The Shaggs, the best worst band in the world, had ended up on the same label as Elvis Presley. Yes, the Wiggin Sisters from Fremont, New Hampshire, who conquered rock’n’roll by not only not knowing how to play it but not even knowing what it was, have taken their rightful place in the pantheon. It was truly the beginning of a new age.
So now, belatedly, in 2016, the time has come to find the people who gave us the Shaggs. Austin Wiggin, their father and prime mover, died years ago; as did Bob Hearn, who recorded their classic 1969 album Philosophy of the World album. Their second—and much lesser known—opus, Shaggs’ Own Thing, was captured on tape by a certain Jeff Landrock at Fleetwood Studios, near Boston, in 1975. Landrock, a young engineer who was typical of sound engineers of the time in having been dazzled by the brilliant studio accomplishments of the Beatles and George Martin, was just starting out and looked forward to an artistically fulfilling career with multi-track fantasies of his own. The Shaggs were a very strange wake-up call from the real world. Below is his story.
Incidentally, Philosophy of the World was reissued a little less than a month ago, on colored vinyl, no less, on the esteemed label Light In The Attic. (To mark the occasion, Dot Wiggin—who was interviewed here at BLURT in 2013—made several public appearances, and there was even a tribute concert in NYC featuring members of the B-52s and the Dresden Dolls.) The album has been reissued several times over the years, including by Rounder and RCA in 1988 and 1999, respectively, but Shaggs’ Own Thing has not been afforded similar archival status, with—as best as can be determined—only a Rounder CD which, like the original 1975 album, quickly went out of print. Perhaps LITA has plans to resurrect SOT in the near future.
THOMAS ANDERSON: You recorded the Shaggs’ second album. How did you get the gig?
JEFF LANDROCK: Basically what happened was I’d been (at Fleetwood) for maybe a year or two, and the studio owner comes up and says, “How’d you like to do an all-girl rock band?” I was single and had this picture of gorgeous women, with a name like the Shaggs–long hair and all that stuff.
So I’m there when I’m supposed to be and there’s a knock at the door and the Shaggs plus Cousin Rachel, a brother–Bob, I think–and Austin come in. I didn’t know if they were just roadies or something. They just came in and set up, they were very quiet. I mostly did the talking with Austin, they wanted to do it just like they did it at the Fremont Town Hall–set up and set the mics around them. So I’m like, “You don’t want to record the drums and bass first?” “Oh no, no.” They didn’t really seem enthusiastic, like they were doin’ something great. It was more like this was their chore, like instead of washing dishes that night they were recording an album, y’know? So I just sort of set ’em up live and it was…quite horrifying (laughs).
Horrifying in what way?
Well, first of all, the studio owner knew about the Shaggs, and the chief engineer didn’t want to do it because HE knew about ’em, so I was sort of conned into it; like, “Yeah, this great rock band, all girls!” Just picture me listening to them. And what do you say? When they’re that far into what they’re doing, it’s not like you can make a suggestion–you just sort of let it happen. I felt really bad.
What was your take on the Shaggs themselves?
I was feelin’ really sorry for them. For example, I walked into the bathroom and the boy–the son–was smokin’ a cigarette. I sort of startled him and he’s like, “Don’t tell my dad! Don’t tell my dad! He’ll kill me!” I’m like, “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna say anything.” I didn’t want anything else to go wrong that night. The girls didn’t talk much except for the youngest cousin Rachel, and she was sort of flirtin’ with me. Y’know when we used to cut tape we had those yellow china markers? I saw her writing on the edge of one of the tape decks with one, and she’d put her hand over it whenever I went over there. After they left I saw she wrote “I love Jeff.”
But they didn’t say hardly ANYTHING. They sort of loosened up towards the end but they were never saying “Wow, this sounds great,” or anything like that; almost like they knew it wasn’t…regular stuff. I don’t know if they did it just to please their dad, but he was saying it was great and all this stuff, and askin’ me, “Don’t you think this is just great,” and “These girls are gonna be stars.” I had been an engineer long enough to know you don’t agree but you don’t disagree.
Are there any unused tracks from the session?
I read that there were but I can’t remember. I thought that was the whole ball of wax, but like I say, it was a long time ago. It was just a one night recording session–a couple of reels of tape, maybe started around 5:00 or 6:00, got over at 11:30 or 12:00, something like that.
So, you didn’t feel like this was a defining moment of your life?
No, I didn’t. I sort of hid the fact that I did that album for a long time. I didn’t want my name associated…I didn’t want people to know I did that (laughs), y’know? It was very competitive back then, and that wasn’t a good thing to come out with and say “Hey, listen to this!”