by Seth Michalak
I’ll never forget the day in 1992 when I first heard the album Shakespeare My Butt by Toronto band the Lowest of the Low. It was one of those existential moments where everything clicked and I thought to myself “Damn! This is what music is supposed to sound like.” As a freshman in high school, I was still forming my opinions about music, and this record would become the measuring stick against which so much other music would be compared.
Originally released independently in 1991, the album took about a year to make its way across the border to me in my home town of Fredonia, New York, a college town just south of Buffalo. Shakespeare briefly held the title of “best selling Canadian independent release,” after the band sold over 10,000 copies out of the back of their tour van at their live shows. Unfortunately, at 14-years of age, I was neither old enough to drive, nor to get into those shows, so the dubbed cassette (from another cassette – and likely a fourth or fifth generation dub) was all I had to go on. But I loved it.
To this day, I still can’t put my finger on what makes me love this album so damn much. The lyrics – mostly written by guitarist and front man Ron Hawkins – are wry and witty, chock full of literary references and dealing with politics, love, drinking and youth. Rather than transporting you to the time and place where you first heard it, the imagery and detail in the lyrics put you smack in the middle of the song’s story, whether that story takes place in Toronto, Bilbao or the steer accommodations on a trans-Atlantic ship.
The music can really only be described as rock, but with hooks that would make any pop artist jealous, and a underlying snarl usually reserved for punk bands. On Shakespeare, the Low at times invoke the Pogues, Billy Bragg, the Clash and even Raindogs era Tom Waits. As a longtime listener, recognizing such influences now becomes a chicken or egg question when tracing my musical fandom. Save Billy Bragg, I was listening to the others before the Low, but I am fairly certain I was not fully appreciating them. It seems to me that an album like Shakespeare made those other artists more accessible to me by demonstrating that just because music is complex and contains a strong message, it doesn’t mean you can’t still dance your ass off to it.
Shakespeare is over an hour of music spread across 17 tracks, ambitious for a debut album (especially in the early ’90s). While there are stories that the Low recorded every song they had in their repertoire for the disc, there’s not a bad tune in the collection. Sure, some tracks like “Rosy and Grey” or “Bleed a Little While Tonight” stand out from the pack, but it’s due to their sheer superiority, not because the others are lacking. The album has also managed to retain relevance for 20 years, which is no small feat. Compare Shakespeare My Butt today to the Barenaked Ladies independent Yellow Tape (incidentally, the recording that surpassed Shakespeare as the best selling Canadian independent release) or even their major-label debut Gordon and it’s hard to imagine they’re from the same era.
The Low turned the success of Shakespeare into a record deal, but the pressure of following up that early success proved too much. After a rocky recording session for the follow-up album Hallucegenia, the wheels came off of the band during the tour and the Low were no more.
But, through Canadian radio play and solo shows on both sides of the border from Low front-man Ron Hawkins, the music lived on. Dubs and legitimate copies of Shakespeare (which I finally got in 1995) continued to circulate among music lovers, and the number of Low fans continued to grow. This growing fan base was treated to a reunion in 2000 that resulted in an outstanding live record featuring the best songs from the two studio albums, as well as two new tracks and some rare gems previously only heard at the live shows. It was during this reunion that I was finally able to hear this music live – multiple times. The reunion, which lasted until 2007, also resulted in another studio album, 20004’s solid Sordid Fiction.
So why bring up a record originally released in 1991 now? To mark the 20th anniversary, the band has reissued a remastered version of Shakespeare. The music not only sounds better, with improved mixes unearthing parts of the songs that weren’t evident on the dubs or even the original CDs. The physical copy also contains a DVD documentary produced by Low drummer Dave Alexander, which documents the highs and lows of the on-again, off-again Low. Oh, and they are currently on-again. In support of the re-release, the Low reunited for two shows in Toronto in December and are planning more dates in 2011.
I’m not typically one for the hard sell, but this case is different. Buy this record. This may not be easy to do, as it’s a Canadian-only release, and it isn’t even available digitally in the States. But the good news is you can order a physical copy online at VictimlessCapitalism.com. The site is legit – it’s actually the online store for Low front man Ron Hawkins. It’s the only place that has the record in stock right now, too. With the US dollar sucking as much as it is, you can get the disc shipped internationally to you for about $20, which works out to $.33/minute to own some of the best music you’ve never heard before.
For the sake of full disclosure, I will admit that I was fortunate enough to become friendly with members of the band during their 2000s reunion. They are great guys, and they even sent me a signed copy of the remastered Shakespeare. But that’s not the reason why I’m writing this. I loved this record before I knew the guys and would have gladly paid for the remastered CD were I not lucky enough to receive one free.
Shakespeare My Butt is truly an outstanding record, one that under different circumstances could have, should have resulted in the band becoming millionaires. Since that never worked out, let’s do what we can to make their re-release efforts worthwhile.
Categories: Music/Popular Culture