Lyrics that speak to politics with a lowercase P; passion for—and reflections on—life in the big city; combine this formula with 17 songs featuring melodies that hook you like a boxer’s trained blow. These are just a few reasons why Lowest of the Low’s Shakespeare My Butt still resonates 30 years later. The other is nostalgia. Just like smells bring back memories long lost in the recesses of our minds, so does music. Sometimes it’s a melody. Other times, a lyric. Whatever the trigger, this record has it all in spades.
The band’s debut spoke to us 1990s 20-somethings. I was a freshman at Western University and remember the exact moment a friend in residence blasted this album. I ran into his room demanding to know who this group was emanating from his stereo. I did not live in Toronto, so was unaware of this indie band that, by then, were local celebrities for packing clubs along Queen Street West. No matter, from that first listen, the songs spoke to me; it wasn’t long before I knew the lyrics by heart and sang along to every song whether driving home in the car from Western or seeing them somewhere live. Following one of those bar gigs, at Fed Hall in my hometown of Waterloo, Ontario, one of my best friends glowed when we went backstage; he was so excited to eat “Lowest of the Low sandwiches!”
How many records last longer than weeks these days in a listener’s ear, let alone years or even decades? As the band wrote in their beautiful box set (Shakespeare … My Box!!) that came out a few years back, the record was “an albatross and a gold medal.” Reflecting on that productive period and this seminal batch of songs, band co-founders Ron Hawkins and Stephen Stanley feel fortunate the stars aligned. Today, it’s surpassed Gold status (more than 40,000 units sold) and is one of the best-selling independent records in Canadian history.
Flashback to 1990. Hawkins and Stanley, along with drummer David Alexander were ready to call it quits. Their band, Popular Front—a political-punk outfit that regularly played bygone blue-collar bars such as Larry’s Hideaway and the Turning Point—was going nowhere fast. They agreed to play some stripped-down gigs as an acoustic trio at various Queen Street West clubs but figured the end was near. No one could have imagined what road lay ahead and the meteoric indie success that loomed just around the corner. But, inspiration hit Hawkins. This batch of new songs struck a chord with his bandmates and with Toronto audiences. Thanks to gigging non-stop at places like the Blue Moon Room where they sold copies of Shakespeare My Butt from the stage after each show, combined with a big boost from local radio DJs Dave “Bookie” Bookman and Neil “Brother Bill” Morrison on CFNY The Edge, the trio quickly went from working menial jobs and trying to make ends meet to being a full-time band on the road for 250 days a year.
“We were pretty close to not doing anything anymore,” recalls Stanley, who left Lowest of the Low in 2013. “Popular Front was disillusioning for us … we played a lot and rehearsed a ton, but it wasn’t growing, so we agreed to call it quits. Then one day Ron came to us and said, ‘I have these new songs. Why don’t we get together and record them with acoustic guitars and a snare drum and see what happens?’ There was something about it we all liked; it just grew from there.”
Grow it did. The three amigos added bassist John Arnott and formed a new band. Hawkins switched from bass to guitar (an important change, according to Stanley, that opened up the songwriter’s versatility, especially live) and Lowest of the Low was born. With it came Shakespeare My Butt — an album still talked about today by critics and fans alike as one of the greats in the Canadian rock canon. With songs that explore the Spanish Civil War, name-check various Toronto watering holes and landmarks, and refrains sung thousands of times by a legion of fans going on three decades now, this is a record that lingers long.
ROSY & GREY
Hawkins was 25. The musician had ended a long-term relationship and moved from Riverdale in Toronto’s East End to the West End of the city. These life changes crept into his newfound more personal approach to songwriting—adhering to an old adage he had previously ignored. The bulk of the songs that ended up on the band’s debut were written during an intense six-month period.
“I was finding my feet as a songwriter and trying to figure out what side/size of politics I should deal with in my songs,” Hawkins recalls. “In the summer of 1990, as Popular Front was falling apart, Steve, David and I took it back to the basics and did a bunch of gigs playing as a trio in folk clubs. I also started to write these songs and found that rhythm … the politics were there, but it wasn’t Capital P; it was embedded in the stories of people we knew and very much close to home. It’s the classic story of writing what you know … that is what really resonated with people. The message being given to them in a story they understood.”
Many of these songs sprung from the mind of a young, hopeless romantic. “I was broke and felt like I was part of this romantic gang that was going to take over the world … it was like walking around in a movie of my own life,” Hawkins adds.
“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 …” – excerpt from the song “Rosy and Grey”
“Let’s take a walk down to the Only/And drink until our kidneys fail/And you can tell me that you want me/And I can think about betrayal/You can leave me thinking, drinking all night/ ‘Cause that’s the sharpest nail.” – excerpt from the song “Just About the Only Blues”
The Only Café was a touchstone. It’s where Hawkins found a home during these wanderlust days in the early ’90s. The bar on Danforth Avenue in Toronto’s East End (which unfortunately just announced it was up for sale) was a place the musician felt comfortable. The songs were not written there, per se, but within these walls is where words and phrases were born: jotted down in a notebook while sipping pints of Guinness, popping a few pills, and observing other artists, misfits, and members of Hawkins’s lost generation.
“The Only Café was a real anchor for me at that time,” the songwriter explains. “I grew up in the East End of Toronto in a working-class neighbourhood filled with a lot of bars you might call ‘kick and stabs,’ where brawls regularly break out. I never liked those. One day I went to The Only and immediately felt home. I looked around and saw people reading Dostoevsky and bell hooks; others were playing chess. These were my people and where I went on to have many drunken philosophical debates.”
SAKESPEARE MY BUTT? WHAT!
Shakespeare My Butt is an odd title indeed for a debut record; it’s also part of the story that illustrates the band’s raison dêtre. Hawkins recalls the origins of this moniker. “As best as I can remember, we were sitting around trying to come up with a title and I looked across the room at a framed poster John [Arnott] had on the wall and said: ‘Does that say Shakespeare’s brain?’ Someone replied, ‘No, it says Shakespeare’s butt!’ Someone else added: ‘Shakespeare … my butt,’ and it was a slam dunk from there. We thought it was sort of off-sounding, and we were very much in a place where we downplayed the idea that our lyrics were art. We thought of them more like journalism. The poster actually had said Shakespeare’s Britain.”
Three decades since coming up with this name, Hawkins and Stanley are each filled with gratitude for the gift this album’s success gave them and one that keeps on giving. Despite leaving the band more than eight years ago to focus on other projects, Stanley still loves the songs and cannot believe it’s been 30 years since Shakespeare My Butt propelled Lowest of the Low from kings of the Toronto indie-rock scene to national stardom.
“They were always fun songs to play live,” he says. “We played within our means and with a lot of heart. I remember as a kid thinking if there was a band that was cool I would love to be in, it was U2. I realized about three years into Lowest of the Low that I was playing in that band I wanted to be in.
“What musician who has played rock music wouldn’t love to say they have a gold record and one that people still listen to 30 years since its release,” Stanley adds. “I’m left with an incredible sense of pride and wonderment on what Shakespeare My Butt meant––and still means––to so many people.”
Hawkins realizes the role nostalgia plays in this record and it’s the reason why Lowest of the Low’s core audience wants to hear these songs every time the band (which now features Lawrence Nichols, Alexander, Greg Smith and Michael McKenzie) plays live rather than new material. As an artist, he, too, is grateful for the timelessness of these tunes. “For Shakespeare My Butt to have had legs for 30 years is a real blessing,” Hawkins concludes. “I sometimes can’t believe I’ve created something that people care this much about 30 years on. When you hear those songs, it’s a time capsule for all your senses.”
RECORD FAST FACTS:
Title: Shakespeare My Butt
Released: December 10, 1991
Members: Ron Hawkins (guitars/vocals); Stephen Stanley (guitars/vocals); David Alexander (drums); John Arnott (bass)
Producer: Andy Koyama
1. 4 O’Clock Stop
2. So Long Bernie
3. Just About ‘The Only’ Blues
4. Salesman, Cheats & Liars
5. Rosy & Grey
6. Kinda the Lonely One
7. Eternal Fatalist
8. For the Hand of Magdelena
10. Bleed a Little While Tonight
12. St. Brendan’s Way
13. Letter from Bilbao
14. Under the Carlaw Bridge
15. The Taming of Carolyn
16. Gossip Talkin’ Blues
17. Henry Needs a new pair of Shoes