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Best albums of 1991: #1 Lowest of the Low “Shakespeare my butt”

So I started this series counting down my favourite albums of 1991 back near the end of January and we’ve finally reached the number one spot. And the album at the top is likely one that nobody would have guessed. In fact, some of you might be thinking this a gag, given the day. But I assure you, this is no April fool’s day joke.

My favourite album from 1991 is “Shakespeare my butt…” by Lowest of the Low.

In fact, this album is likely one of favourite albums ever. You know the type of album I’m talking about – one of those that you listened to so often, the lettering on the side of the cassette was worn off, one that never left your CD player, whose songs made it on to almost every mixed tape/CD/mp3 playlist you made over the years, one of those albums that you can still, even now, listen to over and over again and love every song. For me, this is one of those albums.

For the majority of you who I’m sure don’t know about Lowest of the Low, they were an independent, alternative rock four-piece from Toronto who made a name on the Queen street circuit in the early 1990s, by splendidly fusing folk and punk music. They were championed heavily by alternative radio station CFNY (now Edge 102) and became so popular around Toronto that they were featured on a short-lived CBC series (“Ear to the ground”) and their debut album (yes, this one) became the best-selling independent release of all time in Canada in 1991, until it was unseated, later that very year, by the Barenaked Ladies’ “Yellow tape”.

Their second album “Hallucigenia” was released in 1994 but it received poor reviews from critics and fans due to the change in sound towards a harder edge. They broke up a few months later at the Cafe Diplimatico, or so the rumour goes. Six or so years later, they reunited for a set of concerts that quickly sold out and led to a string of shows that culminated in a headlining gig at the Molson amphitheater in 2001 with British folk-rock icon, Billy Bragg and the Canadian alt-rock newcomers, The Weakerthans. It seemed that they had become even more popular after they had broken up. They released a live album and an album of new material called “Sordid fiction” before breaking up again in 2007. Frontman Ron Hawkins has since re-formed the band with pretty much a whole new lineup (only drummer David Alexander remains from the early days) and released a couple of very decent records. Indeed, I like most of their music but their debut is still by far my favourite of their albums.

I first heard “Shakespeare my butt…” in 1993, my hiatus year between high school and university. Heather, a co-worker at my 7-Eleven job with whom I have long ago lost touch, loaned me a copy of the album on cassette tape after I mentioned I had heard a few of their songs on CFNY. I made a copy for myself after liking what I heard and it truly became the soundtrack to that summer. I bought a copy of album on compact disc the following year, which I still have but haven’t played in a long time, choosing instead to spin it on vinyl.

“Shakespeare my butt…” has a great mix of upbeat rockers and acoustic ballads. It was rumoured that many of the songs on the album were only meant to be demos but the label liked them as they were and they stuck. I have no proof of said rumour but I think if this were true and they had meant for the debut to sound like their sophomore album, I might never have gotten into them as much as I did.

I liked that they weren’t just a rock band (if you know what I mean), like the rest of Canadian music at that time. Also, the more acoustic guitar feel to their songs allowed me to hear and enjoy the lyrics. Really, it’s Ron Hawkins’ (and to some extent, Steven Stanley’s) lyrics that sold me on this album. I loved the witticisms, the literary references and yes, the references to Toronto people and places. They wrote about serial killers (“So long Bernie“), homeless people (“Henry needs a new pair of shoes“), gossips (“Gossip talkin’ blues“), and their favourite Toronto bars (“Just about ‘The Only’ blues”). It was just universally excellent.

“Shakespeare my butt…” is solid from beginning to end, with different songs becoming my favourites at different times over the years, but for the purposes of my three picks for you, I’ve settled on these.


”Subversives”: I feel like this first track is Ron Hawkins doing Billy Bragg. You can almost picture him standing on a street corner in Toronto, perhaps in front Sneaky Dee’s at College and Bathurst, electric guitar plugged into a portable amp at his feet and his friend Lawrence Nichols at his side with his harmonica at the ready. It’s a mellow busker, just the guitar and mouth organ and Hawkins’ rough-hewn and romantic vocals, almost right up to the end when he and Nichols turn it into a rocking jam, reminiscent of the end of Billy Bragg’s “Levi Stubbs’ tears”. “Subversives” is a plaintive love song at its very heart, which is why my wife and I chose it out of the many of our favourite Low songs to dance to at our wedding reception. Hawkins has said he wrote it while his girlfriend at the time was away on a trip to New York. He became convinced that something bad was going to happen and started writing these words as litany of all the things for which he hoped and dreamed. A beautiful song filled with compelling and lovely notions such as these: “There’s a place in my soul where no one else can adore you, and like the poet-soldier says, ‘I would spill my blood for you.’”

”Bleed a little while tonight”: This song was number five on my list of top tunes of 1991 and when I wrote that post, I foresaw then that when I got around to doing a best albums list for the year, “Shakespeare my butt…” would rank somewhere up near the top. (It’s like I knew.) “Bleed a little while tonight” is a five minute beauty of love and loss. Hawkins sings wistfully while strumming his guitar while his musical foil, Stephen Stanley, flits around his vocals with his electric guitar and adds his own voice in harmony and in response. It seems like a new love (or is it lust) because Hawkins only knows about as a much as a “smile or two can say” but yet, the lack of her has him not “feelin’ all too right”. And he’s bleeding. He’s remembering the time that she nearly kissed him blind on Bathurst street, a street that I myself remember all too well. It’s a song for carousing with mates or for listening to while you’re crying in you beer, either way it’s universal in its pain and sorrow. “But you’ve got someone and it ain’t me. I’ve got myself again but I just can’t let this be.”

”Rosy and grey”: My last pick for you is another song that appeared (at number eleven) on my Best tunes of 1991 list. “Rosy and grey” is a fan favourite. In fact, I remember a certain night sitting in a now defunct pub in Toronto called The James Joyce with my friend Zed, a marathon night, a night we drank in there so long that we needed a second dinner. There was a musician there that night, just a guy and his guitar, and there were a few Lowest of the Low songs that appeared in his sets. When he played this, almost as many people sang along as did when he covered Oasis’s “Don’t turn back in anger”, another crowd pleaser. And why not? “Rosy and grey” is a harmonica and mandolin-laden song about finding the cheer in the dreary, finding the “smell of snow” warming, and the joy of drinking a beer bought with your recent unemployment cheque. It is here that Hawkins shows an understanding for the improvements that can be made by the love of the right woman and the need for hope when you’re up against it. “Well, they’re picking up trash and they’re putting down roads, and they’re brokering stocks, the class-struggle explodes, and I’ll play this guitar just the best that I can.” Because everything is rosy and grey. And it just feels that much rosier with this song (and this album) in the world.


Thanks, as always, for tuning in. If you missed any of these posts, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin “Godfodder”
9. Spirit Of The West “Go figure”
8. Chapterhouse  “Whirlpool”
7. Blur “Leisure”
6. Levellers “Levelling the land”
5. The Wonder Stuff “Never loved Elvis”
4. R.E.M. “Out of time”
3. Primal Scream “Screamadelica”
2. Teenage Fanclub “Bandwagonesque”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

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Albums

Best albums of 1991: #2 Teenage Fanclub “Bandwagonesque”

Teenage Fanclub is yet another band that I have MuchMusic’s “CityLimits” to thank for the introduction. And I know I’ve written about this very subject many times but it’s true. The late Friday night alternative music video show on Canada’s music channel was instrumental in my education, especially once I had set my sights on music from the left-hand side of the dial. The Fannies video for “Star sign” was what first caught my eye, the jangly psychedelics in sound and image had me tangled immediately and irrevocably in its hypnotic snare. Other videos followed, a few of which are below, and they found themselves on the video cassette tape nets in which I was collecting as much music as I could catch. So when MuchMusic started using the introduction from “The concept” as part the show’s opening, I smiled knowingly every time.

I learned much later that the band formed in 1989 in Bellshill, Scotland. Founding members Gerard Love, Norman Blake, and Raymond McGinley were all talented guitarists, songwriters, and vocalists in their own rights and each contributed mightily to the band’s finished products, especially as time wore on. But even in the case of today’s focus, the incredible third album, “Bandwagonesque”, each member listed above and even the drummer at the time, Brendan O’Hare, had their own written song(s) on the card that the writer sang on the recording and would take up the mike when performed live. (For you Canadian music fans out there, this might remind you of a certain homegrown band of east coast origins by the name of Sloan.) And not only did each sing their own songs but they also found voices on all of the tunes, harmonizing in a way that some might compare to The Beach Boys but those in the real know might liken to Big Star*.

“Bandwagonesque” was a huge leap for the quartet. Their two previous outings were practically throwaways, in-jokes and shambolic cacophonies. In fact, their sophomore album, “The king”, was hastily recorded and deleted from circulation the day after it was released. And the though the third album was still comical and taking humorous kicks at the music industry (just take a look at the name and album cover**), it shows hints at the maturity, musicianship, and longevity of group that still releases music to this day.

The album actually did just as well in North America as it did in Europe and Britain, a feat they were never able to repeat. Many of its singles hit it big on college radio and some even managed to latch on to the newly established Billboard modern rock chart. Indeed, “Bandwagonesque” placed highly on a great many music magazines’ end of year lists, famous placing number one on Spin Magazine’s list over “Nevermind”, “Out of time”, and “Loveless”. I can’t say I disagree with Spin’s assessment (though I am sure in hindsight their pick would be changed), as wouldn’t a bunch of artists that were influenced by the group, like Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, who released a cover of this complete album back in 2017.

My three picks for you from “Bandwagonesque” are all songs with which I fell in love through repeated plays of their videos but really, each of the eleven tracks on the album are pure noise rock perfection. If you’ve seen the cover and heard the name but never taken the plunge, get on it. You won’t be sorry.


”What you do to me”: “What you do to me… I know, I can’t believe. There’s something about you, got me down on my knees.” Those are the lyrics. That’s it. Granted, these are repeated throughout, some of the lines more than others. But these four lines really tell the story and evoke exactly the passion felt by one Norman Blake. The track is just a shade over two minutes with lots of rip roaring and crunchy guitars, hair hanging long over the face, masking the angst there, while the whole band gets involved with harmonies. And then, if listening to the version in the video below (which of course, was my introduction to this song), the band leads right into instrumental track, “Satan”, which is just an explosion and mess of instruments letting loose the passion previously restrained.

”Star sign”: As I mentioned above, Teenage Fanclub were jokesters, not taking themselves, nor anything, really, too seriously. Here, they poke fun at superstitions and good luck charms and astrology. “Hey there’s a horseshoe on my door; big deal. And say there’s a black cat on the floor, big deal.” But bassist Gerard Love does so with such verve and panache, you can’t feel beaten at, even if you might swear by these things. “Star sign” was the first track to be released off the album and was my intro to the group. The video reflected a retro 60s vibe but the sound was of its true time and space, reverb and feedback gives way to thumping drum fills and driving guitars and of course, plenty of harmonies. Powerful vibes throughout, man. Yeah, it stuck.

”The concept”: This very track, the six minute opener of the album, appeared at number seven when I counted down my favourite tunes of 1991 a few years ago. You can go back and re-read that post if you’d like, but I’m going to plagiarize a good part of it here: “[The song] starts off the album with a scream of feedback and that iconic first line: “She wears denim wherever she goes, says she’s gonna get some records by the Status Quo.” Its first two minutes set the stage for the rest of the band’s career, mellow rocker with jangly guitars just this side of fuzz and Blake’s gentle rock star vocals with the three part harmonies the band would become known for at the chorus. Between the verses, the guitars become just that much more raunchy and then, at the three minute mark, the song becomes completely instrumental and the guitars follow the drums into a loose jam, at one point, a violin bow is even brandished to further accentuate their point.”

*That’s a subject for a whole other post maybe…

**The album cover was designed by one Sharon Fitzgerald but once Gene Simmons caught wind of the moneybag motif, a cheque had to be written to acquiesce the Kiss frontman’s trademark.


Check back two Thursdays from today for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin “Godfodder”
9. Spirit Of The West “Go figure”
8. Chapterhouse  “Whirlpool”
7. Blur “Leisure”
6. Levellers “Levelling the land”
5. The Wonder Stuff “Never loved Elvis”
4. R.E.M. “Out of time”
3. Primal Scream “Screamadelica”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Categories
Albums

Best albums of 1991: #3 Primal Scream “Screamadelica”

I’m not sure if it was 1997 or 1998. I know it was one of the two because I was walking to class at York University from my apartment in the student slums just south of campus on Sentinel road. I remember being accosted while just strolling past the old Schulich school of business building on the way to my shortcut through Vari Hall. He was a long-haired grad student wearing retro framed glasses, the kind that were considered nerdy before becoming hipster cool again. He wanted me to know that he liked my t-shirt and that the band name printed on the back was probably influenced by some radical psychology therapy from the 60s (I think he said) but I wasn’t really listening as he droned on about it. Not only was I already late for class but I also got the impression that the t-shirt lead in was just an excuse to show off his esoteric knowledge. So I nodded politely several times and as soon as was humanly possible, interrupted him with thanks and a brief explanation about my destination. I promised him that I’d check out whatever was he was speaking of but as of yet, still haven’t gotten around to it.

I had bought that very t-shirt a few years before when I saw Primal Scream open for Depeche Mode at the Kingswood Music Theatre at Canada’s Wonderland. I went to the merch stand hoping to find the t-shirt I had seen a cute girl wearing earlier that summer at an alternative music bar in Waterloo called Phil’s Grandson’s Place. And wouldn’t you know, there it was, tucked in the corner reserved for the support acts, greatly outnumbered by the Mode concert tees (of which, I bought one too). It was bright red with the telltale sun, the one that appeared to be drawn by a child*, the same one from the “Screamadelica” album cover shown above, and the band’s name, Primal Scream, in yellow script on the back. I wore that t-shirt everywhere and had it for years, finally getting rid of it sometime in the 2000s when my wife convinced me to rid my wardrobe of all the “holey and ratty” concert shirts. Sigh.

“Screamadelica” was a revelation to me, a masterpiece album right up there with some of my all-time faves. And it was a game-changer for Primal Scream too. Bobby Gillespie had put together the band almost a decade prior to the album’s release, but they were really only a live outfit until the Reid brothers put to him the ultimatum of dropping this “second” band or leaving his post as drummer for The Jesus and Mary Chain. He chose the latter in 1986. Some early Primal Scream singles drew buzz but their first two records were mostly panned by critics. Then, after a few years of being plied and peer pressured by Gillespie’s schoolboy chum, Creation founder Alan McGee, the Primals succumbed to the wiles of the acid house scene.

“Screamadelica” is a direct result of the band’s adventures and misadventures while deeply immersed in club and drug culture. In fact, the album could almost be said to be the story of a trip, riding the arc from dance explosion to psychedelic wonder to ecstatic freakout and finally, to its calm and low deflating denouement. It mixes samples and beats with gospel and soul inflections and oft features the inimitable vocals of Manchester singer Denise Johnson. As I said earlier, the album changed everything for Primal Scream, selling tons of copies, winning them the first ever Mercury Prize in 1992, as well as legions of new fans, and started them off on a long and storied career that continues to this day.

Chances are you’ve heard of Primal Scream or at least would recognize this iconic album cover on sight, but if you’ve never listened to “Screamadelica”’s contents, you should not delay and at the very least, have a taste of my three picks for you below.


”Movin’ on up”: Very recently, Swedish indie folk duo First Aid Kit covered this very track (you can find that version here), which I think highlights what a classic track this is, being covered yet again, 30 years after its original release. It is just shy of four minutes and way too short at that. It’s gospel blended with drugged out psychedelics and Mick Jagger swagger. Yeah, that’s a thing. The guitars wail, the hands clap, the keys shuffle, the bongos get you dancin’, and the choirs get you singin’: hallelujah! It is miraculous and ecstatic and a hell of a good time. How else do you open a brilliant album but with an instant adrenaline punch like this? Sing it, Bobby! “I was blind, now I can see. You made a believer out of me.” We’re all believers now.

”Come together”: This was the second single to be released from the album, and much like the tune to follow, was an advance single. The version of the track that I know and love is eight minutes of funky piano, gospel choirs, bongos mixed with drum machines, roaring guitars, and Bobby Gillespie’s slippery and smooth vocals flitting and flirting with horn flourishes. “It’s beautiful. It’s really beautiful.” This is the Terry Farley mix of the track that appeared on the version of the album that was released in North America and that I bought on CD and listened to ad nauseam. However, the original version of the track (check it out here) was mixed by Andrew Weatherall, was two minutes longer, appeared on the British release of the album, and lacked any of Gillespie’s vocals. I prefer the Farley version. In fact, I almost feel like if my copy of the album had Weatherall’s mix, I might have had an entirely different experience with it. But let’s not go there.

”Loaded”: Track number seven on the album was literally the template from which this album was borne. “Loaded” is in fact a remix by DJ Andrew Weatherall (RIP) of a single from the band’s previous, self-titled record called, “I’m losing more than I’ll ever have”. Weatherall took a wicked riff that finishes off an otherwise mellow track, threw in a bunch of samples, drum loops, vocal rips, and some dialogue from a Peter Fonda flick called “The wild bunch”. And yeah, “we wanna get loaded and we wanna have a good time”. The original single was released in 1990, a full 18 months before “Screamadelica” was released, became a massive club hit, and turned everyone’s previous perceptions of band (including their own) on their heads. This funky, seven minute groove was my introduction to the band and having nothing else from which to judge them, fell for them immediately, and it is still my favourite tune by the band today**. I can still see Gillespie dancing, eyes closed, and hands clapping to this track on the Kingswood Music Theatre stage, in a memory, amongst many that are tied to this tune. And that always brings smiles.

*Legend has it that Paul Cannell’s inspiration for the cover art was a water spot on the walls of Creation Records’ offices that he zoned out on while tripping on acid.

**”Loaded” appeared at number three on my Best tunes of 1991 list.


Check back two Thursdays from today for album #2. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin “Godfodder”
9. Spirit Of The West “Go figure”
8. Chapterhouse  “Whirlpool”
7. Blur “Leisure”
6. Levellers “Levelling the land”
5. The Wonder Stuff “Never loved Elvis”
4. R.E.M. “Out of time”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.