Lowest of the Low

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Lowest of the Low

Alternative rock group

Although the Canadian folk-punk-rock outfit Lowest of the Low produced only three studio albums during a 17-year run that included a breakup lasting six years, the band has remained a cult icon among devotees of the indie-rock scene. During the early 1990s, Lowest of the Low toured Toronto and Buffalo incessantly, building a loyal fan base with its unpretentious rock and fun-loving party songs, although the band never broke through to the mainstream. Chart magazine called the band's 1991 debut album, Shakespeare My Butt, one of the greatest Canadian albums of all time. In 2008 the band was inducted into the Canadian Indies Hall of Fame in recognition of its contributions to the indie-rock world.

Lowest of the Low formed in Toronto, Canada, in 1991. The band's core members had played together in an act called Popular Front, which enjoyed its heyday during the late 1980s, and was a finalist on Canadian radio station CFNY's Great Ontario Talent Search of 1986. However, the group saw a high turnover rate of keyboard players and backup singers, and folded in 1990. The band's former guitarist and vocalist, Steve Stanley, told Peter Howell of the Toronto Star, "Popular Front just fizzled out for us. At the beginning, we had eight members and it worked really well for about six months." Popular Front released a single and a tape but the band never really gelled.

After Popular Front folded, Stanley, along with singer and bass player Ron Hawkins and drummer David Alexander, continued playing gigs together on the open circuit. The group performed as a threesome, with two acoustic guitars and a snare drum, and this enabled the musicians to narrow in on their music. Their sound got richer. They eventually met bassist John Arnott, who had formerly played with Pale Criminal and Orphan Lake. Soon enough, Arnott joined the threesome on bass and Hawkins moved to guitar. In February of 1991 the foursome took the stage for the first time under the moniker Lowest of the Low. By the year's end, the band had played more than 100 gigs, boosted by a new repertoire of songs mostly written by Hawkins. The band performed mostly at small saloon-type gigs for university audiences.

Lowest of the Low rolled out its independent debut album, Shakespeare My Butt, in the fall of 1991. When no record labels came calling, the band members decided to promote the work themselves, selling the album from the stage at performances. The band's near nonstop touring, mostly in Toronto and Buffalo, beefed up its fan base, and within two years the band had peddled some 17,000 copies of the album. For a brief period of time, Shakespeare My Butt held the honor of being the best-selling Canadian independent album of all time, until it was bested by sales of The Yellow Tape by the Barenaked Ladies.

During the group's halcyon days in the early 1990s, Lowest of the Low was known for its edgy, energetic sets and uncanny ability to connect with fans. Writing in the Buffalo News, music critic Robbie Ann McPherson described the band this way: "Their sound combines several styles of established alternative bands. …But Lowest of the Low can hold their own for now, not having been jaded by huge paychecks and superstardom just yet. They still seem to have the connection to their audience that Nirvana seems to have lost seven million albums ago."

Hawkins wrote all but one of the 17 tracks on Shakespeare My Butt, which has an overall warm acoustic feel and well-crafted lyrics. Many of the songs reflect experiences or people in Hawkins's life. "Henry Needs a New Pair of Shoes" is about a homeless man who always asks for handouts of 33 cents—no more, no less. "Letter From Bilbao" recalls a trip Hawkins made to Spain and his study of the Spanish Civil War. "Eternal Fatalist" is about a beer-drinking dreamer of a friend. "Salesmen, Cheats and Liars" became a fan favorite and enjoyed heavy rotation on Canada's CFNY-FM, a station that promoted indie rock.

In 1994 Lowest of the Low released Hallucigenia, a darker, edgier disc that failed to match the success of its debut, although one single, "Motel 30," garnered a fair amount of air time on alt-rock stations. Within months of the disc's release, the band broke up amid rumors of substance abuse and inner quarrelling. After the split, Hawkins released a solo album, The Secret of my Excess, and then went on to form another band, Rusty Nails.

After a six-year hiatus, Lowest of the Low regrouped in 2000 for what was supposed to be a short-lived reunion tour. Band members were surprised to find that a crowd of 8,000 had gathered at Toronto's Molson Amphitheatre to hear them play. It seemed as though their fan base had grown because their songs had remained staples on Toronto and Buffalo area jukeboxes. Inspired, Lowest of the Low prolonged the tour. In 2001 the band released a live album, Nothing Short of a Bullet, which contained recordings from the reunion tour. Anthony Violanti of the Buffalo News reported that the band's drummer, Alexander, called the reunion a healing opportunity. "This is a chance for us to break up properly," he said. "We were going along at full speed, then slammed into a wall like a freight train."

By 2002 the band members realized they needed to either disband or move forward. They did not want to be a perpetual "reunion act," rehashing old songs and old times. In the end, they decided to stay together and produce new music. While most old wounds had been healed, a few tensions remained. Arnott, the bass player, left the group and was replaced by Dylan Parker. Speaking to James Hayashi-Tennant of Ontario, Canada's Hamilton Spectator, Stanley tried to explain why the group felt the need to try again. "We always recognized we had this weird chemistry that really worked, musically. Even when we were at our worst relationship-wise, the gigs were always good."

In 2004 the band released Sordid Fiction, its first studio album in a decade. As far as the songwriting was concerned, Hawkins felt the album showed an immense amount of maturity. Speaking to Mary Dickie of the Toronto Sun, he put it this way: "On the first two Low records I wanted to sing the city—to create a mythology of Toronto and not use a lot of metaphors. … When I did the Rusty Nails, I wanted to branch out and tell other people's stories and make it a bit more poetic. And I think that carried over into Sordid Fiction. When I hear it, I can hear what I learned in the Rusty Nails and the old Low all coming together." Hawkins wrote 11 of the 12 tracks, with the other songwriting credit going to Stanley. The album, however, did not satisfy fans hungry for the energy and sounds of the band's glory days.

Lowest of the Low performed together through the end of 2005, but in 2006 members began concentrating on other musical endeavors. Both Hawkins and Stanley churned out semi-successful solo works. In 2007 the band performed at the Grey Cup, the Canadian Football League's equivalent of the Super Bowl. Lowest of the Low played a few other gigs in 2007, which they called a final farewell. In 2008 the group was honored with an induction into the Canadian Indies Hall of Fame, where they came together to play one last time.

For the Record …

Members include David Alexander , drums; John Arnott (left band in 2002), bass; Ron Hawkins , vocals, guitar; Dylan Parker (replaced Arnott in 2002), bass; Steve Stanley , vocals, guitar.

Group formed in Toronto, Canada, 1991; released self-produced album, Shakespeare My Butt, 1991; toured Toronto and Buffalo indie-rock circuit, 1991-94; released Hallucigenia, A&M Canada, 1994; split up, 1994; regrouped for short reunion tour, 2000; released live compilation of reunion tour, Nothing Short of a Bullet, MapleMusic Recordings, 2001; released new studio album, Sordid Fiction, 2004; announced final breakup, 2007; inducted into Canadian Indies Hall of Fame, 2008.

Awards: Inducted into Canadian Indies Hall of Fame, 2008.

Addresses: iRecord company—MapleMusic Recordings, 230 Richmond St. West, 11th Fl., Toronto, ON, Canada M5V 3E5.

Selected discography

Shakespeare My Butt (self-produced), 1991.

Hallucigenia, A&M Canada, 1994.

Nothing Short of a Bullet (live), MapleMusic Recordings, 2001.

Sordid Fiction, MapleMusic Recordings, 2004.



Buffalo News, March 27, 1993, p. C9; November 10, 2000, p. G14.

Hamilton Spectator (Ontario, Canada), October 21, 2004, p. G13.

Record (Kitchner, Ontario, Canada), October 16, 2002, p. E8.

Toronto Star, December 20, 1991, p. D1; July 1, 1993, p. B8; August 15, 1993, p. C1.

Toronto Sun, September 28, 2004, p. 42; November 28, 2005, p. 68.

Vancouver Province (British Columbia), January 25, 2008, p. B14.

—Lisa Frick