Sunday, April 7, 2024

The Layabouts - from the Detroit archives


listen to the Layabouts' 1985 album No Masters -

listen to the Layabouts' 2000 album Workers of the World Relax -

Article originally published in Babyfish (lost its momma) #2, Autumn 1988, long out of print.
After many breakups and reunions, Detroit’s Layabouts played what looks like (could it be?) their final finale, this past summer at the Anarchist Gathering in Toronto. 
[Editor's note: the Layabouts would continue to get back together and break up countless times over the coming decades. The last time I saw them as a full band was at a Fifth Estate 50th anniversary show in Detroit in 2015.] 
In early September [1988], Sunfrog interviewed Layabouts Ralph & Alan Franklin. What follows here is part history and reflection -- and a Babyfist tribute to one of the greatest Detroit bands ever. . . . 
Welcome to Detroit’s Corridor, the concrete domain of the “world’s laziest band” -- the Layabouts. For something like eight years, this group has provided “world beat” boogie and anarchist politics for the thriving radical community that lives in this neighborhood.
It was not always a huge dance party of popularity for this bunch practicing their “principled laziness.” The Layabouts began as a basement cover band, thrashing through songs by the Beatles, Sex Pistols, Clash, David Bowie, and the Tom Robinson Band. The two folks who remained a constant part of the Layabouts through many lineup changes were brothers, Alan and Ralph Franklin. They now laugh about the early basement days, jamming with Stephen Goodfellow, almost proud of how bad they were. The early shows were more of the same.
“‘Anarchy in the UK’ used to be our evening closer and usually by the end of the evening, we and everybody we were playing for were so drunk that it was literal anarchy. If there are any taped versions of that song around, they should be hidden away forever,” Alan recalls.
The Layabouts had their beginnings in a barrage of “loud and not particularly good thrashing rock.”
As the Layabouts were starting up in the early 1980s, Alan and Ralph were part of a group of people in the community who started up the Grinning Duck Club. The Duck Club was an alternative art space where homespun music, theater, and politics could flourish. Ralph remembers the Duck Club as an “explicitly anti-authoritarian” space where “for all its ups and downs and hard times and people arguing, it said, for the community, ‘You can do all this stuff. You don’t need experts. You don’t need stars.’”
The Duck Club was the site of many satirical and political theater pieces, a weekend conference on the nuclear crisis, and shows by bands such Layabouts, DOA, Private Angst, The Sun Messengers, and The Buzzards. As the Duck Club closed, it spun off into other spaces such as the Freezer Theater and the Uncooperative. The Uncooperative was run by Private Angst and the Layabouts and shared by the Fifth Estate
Over the next few years, the Layabouts began to write many of their own songs, some which showed up on the 1986 album No Masters and were in the band’s set all the way up to their last show at the 1988 Anarchist Gathering in Toronto. The oldest of these songs is “Governments Lie,” which started as an instrumental derived from a funk riff the band heard on the funk radio station that Stephen was listening to at the time. 
The lyrics were written around the fall of 1982, when Israel invaded Beirut--which inspired the line, “With Reagan and Begin at Sabra and Shatilla/the State is God and the State is a killer.”  
Alan also remembers other lyrical inspirations.
“‘Fuckalot’ as you can imagine was written after fucking. It was when my partner and I had been going through some strains, and the strains had been having an affect on our sex life. So finally, we got it straightened out, and we made love. I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t we do this all the time?’”
“I’m Tired” was written during a “flurry of creativity” where the first four verses were quite a whine about the misery of everyday life and the last long verse was an angry rant. The rant at the end was inspired by listening to Crass. While Alan found the words of the Crass songs “largely unintelligible,” “the anger really fired me up.”
“I think a lot of people can identify with the complaints in the earlier verses, because a lot of people feel that about their lives. They feel, ‘I’m sick of everything. Even the things that are supposed to give me pleasure, I’m sick of.’ But I think a lot of people feel that without realizing why they feel it. The last verse was an attempt to make connections between why people feel that in their lives and what’s happening to the world around them--this incredible devastation of the world on every level. And the kinds of anxiety and despair it provides in people’s everyday lives. One of the things that always impressed me about the Fifth Estate and Anarchist Print Co-op in years past was that the people who were involved in those projects were heavily influenced by a group of European theoreticians who called themselves the Situationists. One of their big things was the critique of everyday life. They were really down leftism that only saw issues like imperialism and exploitation and didn’t deal with the boredom and frustration of people’s daily lives. I guess for me, a sub-title for ‘I’m Tired’ is ‘The Critique of Everyday Life’--trying to make a linkage between why the world is in such a mess and why our lives are in such a mess.”
Words like the ones for “I’m Tired” represented a certain period of lyric writing for Alan. “One of the things that I tried to do then that I try not to do so much now, is when I wrote songs then, I usually tried to include a complete critique of the modern world. The problem with that is songs ended up very wordy.”
Ralph stressed that while some people in the band would come forth with a lyrical or musical idea to start the songwriting process, writing a Layabouts song was always a collective and collaborative process. Songs rarely ended up the way that they began. And Ralph feels strongly that what made the Layabouts good was the diversity in the band, which allowed for always changing music.
The song “7 Minutes” evolved from an end of a practice jam, like many of the Layabouts’ songs.
Whether the issue [was] how to do songs or what gigs to play, if any one member had a strong objection to doing something, it was not done.  This aspect of the collective process meant that things were not “all roses.”
The band was once offered a chance to play at the annual Unity In The Community festival on Detroit’s southwest side, a big event in the Latino community. There was one stipulation in the offer and that was that the band not play “Fuckalot” for that [particular] show. After a long discussion, the band decided not to engage  in self-censorship and they never did the show.
One of the most memorable Layabout shows was when they played in the street before the October 4th, 1987 rally to: “Stop U.S. Intervention in Central America & End Apartheid in Southern Africa.” We got down in the street to the sound of freedom’s beat like never before.  It was an incredible high, but the Layabouts show that day was laden with controversy. 
The band was originally scheduled to play at the post-march rally, but because of their anarchist bent were moved to the pre-march rally. They were told not to “make any unauthorized speeches,” but as Ralph remembers, “We said ‘fuck it’ and we did make an unauthorized speech. And they (the march organizers) were very upset about it.” The ‘speech’ came during the song “Governments Lie.” The band referred to the city government officials who voted for the trash incinerator. “These people are going to lie to you.” The politicians are going to say they support freedom in South Africa while the companies and banks involved in building and financing the world’s largest trash incinerator also finance apartheid. Governments Lie. And I’m not talking about some of them. I mean every single one of them. 
But there is hope yet.
The Layabouts represent the hope coming from this community. They represent countless benefits to stop the incinerator, fight against slumlords, support nuclear disarmament, create anarchy, and celebrate community in the [Cxxx] Corridor. Those benefits at the Survival Gatherings, Dallys in the Alley, and the Michigan Peace March Festival are among the band’s favorite shows.
The band in its members represents the hope of breaking down barriers of race, age, gender, and background. The last incarnation of the Layabouts ranged in age from 19 to 40 plus. The band has represented Latin, African, and European heritage--a diversity which carries over into the Layabouts sound.
The Layabouts are the hope that unlike the prevailing idea that success as a band is defined by profits and major label exposure, a band can be immensely popular while engaging in intentional resistance to commercial principles. These “Lazy”-bouts never wanted the band to become “a job.”
They were always fortunate to have friends like Greg Gordon (of Private Angst) who worked in the studio where the band recorded their self-made anti-authoritarian classic No Masters. And friends who put up the bucks to make the album a reality.
Now, after all these years, it seems the Layabouts as a band are over. But the words, songs, and endless hours of sweat-soaked frantic dancing will always be with us. Alan says it was always 50% audience anyhow, so those of us who were the audience must carry on: Resist apartheid, war, and the cops--and keep fucking......
We can be sure that the people who sang those songs will continue in their lives to do the same. - Sunfrog
Detroit, Babyfish #2, Autumn 1988

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