Origin: Sydney, Nova Scotia (Ace Briand); Toronto, Ontario (Krys Val Lewicki); Sudbury, Ontario (Wolf Rene); New Waterford, Nova Scotia (George Cook Jr.)
My friend Kevin Howes somehow found one of less than 10 surviving copies of this single “(We Don’t Need) Rene Levesque” b/w “Oh Canada – Susie Que.” The lyrics of the song intrigued me, and after reading a short blurb on The Nova Scotia Classic Rock website about how it was banned by the RCMP, I managed to get a hold of one of the two surviving members of the 1970’s band Skarecrow, through their manager Mary Brown (Bridgewater, Nova Scotia), (no relation to the deep-fried chicken franchise). Krys Val Lewicki and I talked for about half an hour or so and I jotted down what I could. One thing about Krys, the writer of the song “(We Don’t Need) Rene Levesque”, he is as nationalistic as they come. He is a patriot and is very proud to live in such a great country as Canada, I guess this is why he was so inspired in 1977, at the peak of Quebec nationalism, to write a song which was banned by the Canadian government.
The Skarecrow story starts back in Toronto in the early 70’s. Wolf Rene, who had started in music by backing his fiddle-playing dad, had just finished a stint with J.B. and the Playboys. Ace Briand had been playing with many bands around the St. Catharines area. Krys got his start in the “Grits and Soul” band just after David Wilcox left, so both began their careers with the same band. Having appeared with Ian Tyson, (and even Muddy Waters at the Colonial tavern), Krys met George Cook, Jr., freshly out of the Canadian Army (military police). George had some serious musical genius blood running through his veins. His dad, George Cook, Sr. (aka The Singing Miner), of New Waterford, Nova Scotia, had cut a 78 in 1940 on Melotone 93146.
George Cook, Sr. was the first recording artist to hail from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. He also wrote 60,000 songs and is in the Guiness Book of World Records as the most prolific song writer the world has ever seen. He holds the world record for the longest one breath yodel and had appeared on the “David Letterman Show”. His son and Krys, having played in the groups “Rock Bass Creek” and “Goat”, recorded 2 of George Cook, Sr.’s songs on his Bluenose label around 1972. “Dry Your Tears” b/w “Unloved, Unwanted, Uncared For”… (As listed by) George and Krys (Years later, this release did well in Europe, especially Germany). On the recording session were Wolf and Ace.
George, Krys, Ace and Wolf brought in Sudbury drummer Moe Leblanc and became “Skarecrow” (as they said on a Halifax radio interview, “…to be out–standing in their field”). The first single on their indie record label Goat Records GR 4444 was ….
“Wrong This Time” b/w “4 Minutes After 9”… (As listed by) Skarecrow
After a few western tours, Terry Sept from Leduc, Alberta, replaced Moe as the group’s drummer. (During the 70’s, Ace was out front, singing lead and on percussion.)
In 1977, a year before Skarecrow had gotten around to recording the Rene Levesque single, they headed up to Yellowknife, NWT, to record their first album, on Goat Records MH 7800….
“Blues…Live At the Explorer”. It was a miscommunication which led to the 2LP format. They were supposed to only record an LP of live tracks, but instead, all 20 tracks including demos were pressed. The album was sought out by collectors looking for that raw blues Canadian sound.
Krys wrote the Rene Levesque song as a tribute to Canada. “It’s such a great honour to play in a band and have the opportunity to travel all over this great Country”. They played everywhere, from one end of the country to the other, from Newfoundland to B.C., Whitehorse, Yellowknife and all parts along the way. For Krys, the potential break-up of the Country was gut-wrenching. He goes on to say, “Rene Levesque was a traitor, and as a Canadian citizen, he dishonoured his duty of allegiance to Canada”. When he wrote the song, he tried to be as respectful as possible. Wolf Rene, the band’s lead guitarist, was French Canadian and handled the French verse. They played the song as part of their set, no matter where they were including places like Longueuil, La Sarre and Montreal. The audience would often give the fist-pump when they played the song, especially the lyrics “with a Canadian flag, he should be hung”. “This is what the RCMP had a problem with” along with the use of the Canadian flag on the cover of the picture sleeve. Goat Records GR 4445 “(We Don’t Need) Rene Levesque” b/w “Oh Canada-Susie Que.” … (As listed by) Skarecrow
Krys can’t remember if the RCMP contacted him or if he contacted them, but he does remember the conversation with the RCMP officer. It was in Edmonton, Alberta, just after they had recorded the single at Maple Haze Studios and had finished printing the 1000 copies of the controversial single. The officer advised the band to not release the single. He told Krys that Rene Levesque was a respected leader of his province and the line about the Canadian flag disrespected the Premier and Leader of Quebec, regardless of the fact that Rene Levesque’s main purpose was to promote Quebec sovereignty, and the breakup of our Country. The officer also told Krys that he needed permission from the government to use the image of the Canadian flag. This sounds like B.S. to me. Krys asked the officer if they could stop him from releasing the single, and the officer toed the same rigid line.
When the box of singles arrived, Krys grabbed a handful of copies, less than 10, gave one to each of the band members, and sent 3 or 4 to local University radio stations. The rest got bundled and sent off by air to Toronto. Krys arrived safely, however the box mysteriously didn’t, and after countless phone calls to the police (unreturned) and several attempts over the next few months by Maple Haze’s Steve Leskiw to trace the box at the airport, they finally gave up. Krys thinks the box was probably confiscated by the RCMP and continues to gather dust in a storage warehouse somewhere. So there are less than 10 known surviving copies.
The patriotic single was well received by the public, getting airplay on a few University stations in Edmonton and Toronto. The only negative feedback, other than the RCMP conversation, was when the idea was pitched for a video to Moses Znaimer, co-founder of CityTV, just before the birth of MTV. In Krys’ eyes, the song fought for Canada, but Moses thought the single was a bit too edgy for public consumption. Perhaps the break-up of our Country was too much to risk, but it is a great song and it got great responses from the crowds, so they played it often.
Over the next 6 to 8 months, the band laid down 10 tracks for a new LP at Maple Haze Studios in Edmonton. Tragically, the studio burned to the ground, and all the master tapes were destroyed, including audience fave, “Play a Canadian Song, Mother”, and two songs that were included in a novelty LP the boys helped with, … “My Synthetic Romance” and an early version of a theremin-backed “Surfing In The Maritimes”. Before leaving the west, they also backed Jimmie Rodgers (of “Honeycomb” fame) on a children’s album being recorded in Regina.
As the 70’s ended and the 80’s began, Skarecrow was shown in the new band section of CIRCUS magazine, (featuring Keith Richards on the cover and introducing KISS). 1981, found Krys working with Art Snider (music director-“The Tommy Hunter Show”) in Toronto. Together they produced a few minor chart dents on Art`s Topaz Records including …“Moose Jaw Breakdown” b/w “Country Wine” … (As listed by) Skarecrow
Between Maritime tours, George’s health began to deteriorate, resulting in heart by-pass surgery. Later in the 80’s, the group recorded… “Teddy Bear Dreams” and “(I’m Not Your) Superhero”, in a studio in Niagara Falls. Though never actually released, “Teddy Bear Dreams” somehow received airplay on Hamilton’s FM 108.
The roller-coaster ride continued through the 90’s. Ready to tour again, they recorded their first CD on Golden Series Recordings GSR 4545 … in 1995 “Skarecrow” … (As listed by) Skarecrow
The Nova Scotia Classic Rock website notes that in 1997, Skarecrow was presented with the Ontario Country Music Association (OCMA) Lifetime Achievement Award, Mary won for Manager of the Year, the boys also picked up awards for Best Live Act, and Krys was named Songwriter of the Year, for the CD’s “Desperately”.
Unfortunately, George’s health problems resurfaced. In preparation for a Maritime tour, the group had recorded their next CD … GSR 4554 …released in 1999 “Surfing In The Maritimes” … (As listed by) Skarecrow
Diabetes had now confined George to a wheelchair… the tour was cancelled.
Piecing together a few songs from the other CD’s, new ones and live performances on Breakfast TV, Toronto’s CITY TV, the boys put a scrapbook recording out as their final CD … GSR 4563… released in 2000 “Cool Wheels” … (As listed by) Skarecrow
George’s lead vocal on the title track was recorded from his bedside. The song has been used as a theme on Disability fund raisers and runs. The song “Bullets and Books (Don’t Mix)” was one of the earliest warnings of the bullying epidemic. It was used as a theme for the first U.S. conference and is still featured (along with a song by Taylor Swift) on www.bullyfree.com
Skarecrow appeared on several compilations. In 2001, “Surfing in the Maritimes” was on the East Coast Music Awards CD HOC 7919, while “Oh!” appeared on the Canadian Music Week CD, HTA 8426. The quirky “Oh!”… (Only 1 second long), was played countless times by AM 740 DJ Jim Paulson, in one day alone.
The final two Skarecrow listed songs were not actual releases. One was … “Raise Them Up (Rebuild the Towers)” GSR-1-91101, for the 9/11 tributes in the U.S. and Canada.
The final, in 2002, was “Go to the Penalty Box”, used during NHL games by the Carolina Hurricanes.
Rene Levesque died, 1987. George passed away in 2002, due to complications arising from diabetes. Wolf Rene passed away suddenly in 2011.
This story can remind Canadians of censorship in Canada… free speech if necessary, but not necessarily free speech. Luckily the internet has saved us from the dark days of Canadian censorship and government intervention in Canadian music.
The flip side on the Rene Levesque single is another wonderful tribute to Canada and should be played and sung on every Canada Day.
The single is hung on my wall.
If anybody buys a track, the money will be donated to the Canadian Diabetes Association.
Ace Briand: lead vocals, drums
George Cook, Jr.: lead vocals, rhythm guitar
Wolf Rene: lead vocals, lead guitar
Krys Val (Lewicki): lead vocals, bass, harmonica