Vinyl love: The Lowest of the Low “Shakepeare my butt”

(Vinyl Love is a series of posts that quite simply lists, describes, and displays the pieces in my growing vinyl collection. You can bet that each record was given a spin during the drafting of each corresponding post.)

Artist: The Lowest of the Low
Album Title: Shakespeare my butt
Year released: 1991
Year reissued: 2010
Details: Gatefold, double LP

The skinny: Yesterday marked Canada’s 152nd birthday but I kept things low-key around here. In the past, I have acknowledged the day with special Canada-themed posts. And I had thought about posting about this, one of my favourite ever albums by a Canadian artist, yesterday, but I was a bit busy fiddling with my new charcoal BBQ, so instead you’re getting it today, on the morning of my country’s collective hangover. The Lowest of the Low’s folk-rock heavy debut album, “Shakespeare my butt”, for a short time held the sales record for an independent release in Canada (being beaten a few months later by Barenaked Ladies’ yellow tape). It is considered by many, including myself, to be their best, two of its songs appeared on my Best tunes of 1991 (at numbers eleven and five) list but there could’ve easily been more. It is a desert island album for me, which is why the moment I saw this vinyl reissue in one of my locals, I grabbed it up. And wouldn’t you know, it might just be the the album I have spun the most in my collection since its purchase.

(Oh and happy belated to all those out there still partying, I know some of you are.)

Standout track: “Henry needs a new pair of shoes”

Best tunes of 1991: #5 The Lowest of the Low “Bleed a little while tonight”

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If and when I get around to counting down my favourite albums of 1991, you know this album’ll definitely be high up on the list. Indeed, “Shakespeare my butt”, The Lowest of the Low’s debut album, is right up there with my favourite albums of all time. Another great track from it appeared just six songs ago at number eleven (“Rosy and grey”) and if this top thirty was a top one hundred instead, I’d say a good deal more of the album would be on here. Already I’m wishing I’d squeezed on one or two more songs from it. It’s criminal that this Toronto indie band never broke it bigger but in a way, it was their own doing.

“Shakespeare my butt” with its folk punk roots, literate and honest lyrics, great guitar hooks, and melodic harmonies won lots of fans and sold lots of copies for an independent release back then. Some of its songs even found their way on to commercial pop radio. Its infamy only grew after they broke up, but mostly in southern Ontario and just across the US border into Buffalo. It’s an album that didn’t reach far but on those it did touch, it left an indelible mark. And if you asked any LOTL fan to name their favourite song, there’s a good chance that they might point to “Bleed a little while tonight”.

Like many of Ron Hawkins’ tunes, it’s a song that ‘shows’ rather than ‘tells’ its story and it’s a story that feels very real and one with which most of us can identify. Here, it’s a love (or perhaps lust) that is unreturned. A universal subject for sure but Hawkins comes by it honestly.

“And I’d forget about you if I could dare but
I just want to make love to you in some dark, rainy street somewhere.”

Its five minutes is a mix of acoustic strumming and careening electric guitars and uneven and crashing drums, the mood rough and passionate and messy, reflecting that of the song’s protagonist. It might almost fall apart if it weren’t held tightly together by the call and response vocals by Stephen Stanley and Hawkins that appear at the bridge and return to close out the song, lines any of us fans can sing along with and drum up all sorts of memories.

“Well, my heart is aching
Damn Damn the circumstance
And my room is spinning
Damn, damn the circumstance
It’s grey without you in it”

Yup. That’s the one.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1991 list, click here.

Best tunes of 1991: #11 The Lowest of the Low “Rosy and grey”

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“I want to take a streetcar downtown
Read Henry Miller and wander around
And drink some Guinness from a tin
‘Cause my U.I. cheque has just come in”

And so starts The Lowest of the Low classic: “Rosy and grey”.

Oh, how many times have I sung along with those words? And how many times have I done something similar, at many different points in my life – a starving student, university graduate with a low wage job, call centre employee in a brand new city, new home owner in the suburbs, middle aged man revisiting the city of his youth and not recognizing it all? The sentiments are still the same, just heading out without purpose, maybe hitting a record shop, maybe hitting a pub, maybe a cafe, and both forgetting and thinking about everything. And for that one day, everything seems rosy and everything seems grey.

I’ve already mentioned how obsessed I was with this band’s debut album when The Lowest of the Low made an appearance on my Best Tunes of 2001 list with a tune they released after the first of their reunions. And really, their debut, “Shakespeare my butt”, is still my favourite of all their albums, with songs like this amongst their number, though they have written some fine songs since. The Lowest of the Low was formed by Ron Hawkins, Stephen Stanley, and David Alexander as a side project when it appeared their primary band at the time, Popular Front, was on the way out. Many of the songs on “Shakespeare my butt” were written by Hawkins and Stanley while still part of that other group so they were well formed and performed by the time the album was released. It’s no wonder to me at all that there is very little filler on such a long album. For an independent release, it sold very well, for a brief time holding the record for units sold by an indie (beaten shortly thereafter by the “Yellow tape”), and has appeared on a handful of best Canadian album ever lists over the years.

“Rosy and grey” is Ron Hawkins songwriting at its best. Jangle guitar and harmonica folk sound and punk rock angst and sensibilities, both literate and juvenile, juxtaposing references to writers (though Henry Miller has become Dostoevsky in recent years) with sexual double entendres (“I like it much better going down on you”). It’s a song for drinking alone or for clinking glasses with your best mates. It always brings a smile to my face, no matter how grey things may seem.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1991 list, click here.