Widely feted by the critics and highly rated by influential musicians such as Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, The La’s’ lone, self-titled album remains a thing of wonder. A unique amalgam of gritty Merseybeat, Byrds-esque chime’n’jangle, and punky attitude, the record’s execution feels effortless, yet its labor pains lasted for years and frontman Lee Mavers’ quest for perfection drove his band, his record company, and several producers close to distraction.
The La’s was officially released on October 1, 1990, yet its genesis can be traced back to 1984, when budding singer-songwriter Mike Badger first coined the band’s name (pronounced as in “la la la” and deriving from the Liverpudlian term for “Lad”) in his hometown of Liverpool. Shortly after, Badger formed the band with fellow singer/guitarist Lee Mavers, with the embryonic outfit’s spiky early sound informed by the duo’s love of Captain Beefheart and The Fall.
Badger and Mavers both swiftly progressed as songwriters, however, and by 1986, The La’s emerged as serious contenders. With new songs flowing like water, the band recruited full-time bassist John Power and drummer John Timson, and, by the year’s end, they were performing sold-out residencies in several Liverpool venues and fast becoming the biggest news on Merseyside since The Beatles.
A classic debut album
Attracting attention from major labels, The La’s signed with Go! Discs during 1987. By this time, Badger had left, leaving Mavers in sole charge center-stage, but with a pool of fantastic songs to draw upon – most of which had already been demoed to his satisfaction in local four-track studios during the latter half of 1986.
Over the next couple of years, The La’s cemented their reputation as one of the UK’s best live bands. They also released a couple of appetite-whetting singles, with the infectious, folk-flavored “Way Out” followed by the sublime jangly-pop classicism of “There She Goes.” Though only minor hits, both releases hinted at the quality of Lee Mavers’ songcraft and offered glimpses of a classic debut album that would surely arrive imminently.
Behind the scenes, however, Mavers’ attitude to his art meant that capturing The La’s’ album proved elusive and time-consuming. His obsessive desire to improve upon the magic of his band’s earliest demos resulted in the group limping away from aborted sessions with renowned producers such as John Leckie, Bob Andrews, and Mike Hedges between 1987 and ’89. To the frustration of all concerned, the Hedges-helmed sessions had even garnered well over an album’s worth of material, apparently to everyone’s satisfaction – until Mavers decided otherwise.
“The songs were absolute diamonds”
This ongoing uncertainty also affected the band’s personnel, with a string of lead guitarists and drummers (the latter including future Oasis sticksman Chris Sharrock) joining and then departing. The La’s’ line-up finally steadied in 1989, with Mavers and Power joined by guitarist Peter “Cammy” Camell and Mavers’ brother Neil on drums when they convened with Steve Lillywhite for the final attempt to record their album.
Lillywhite – whose production credits also include U2, The Pogues, and Siouxsie And The Banshees – teamed up with The La’s at London’s Eden Studios in late 1989. Looking back at these lengthy sessions which finally resulted in The La’s’ album, he now has mixed feelings.
“I knew the songs were absolute diamonds, but getting them on tape wasn’t so easy,” he told MusicRadar in 2011. “We’d record six songs that were fantastic, but if there was one thing wrong on the seventh song, [Lee] would be convinced that everything else was terrible and we’d have to start everything all over again.
“But that said,” he continued, “I would put Lee right up there with any of the singer-songwriters I’ve ever worked with. He’s an amazing talent, and the album we made is sort of timeless.”
Listening to The La’s now, one can only agree. Finally cracking the UK Top 20 on reissue, the band’s shimmering signature hit, “There She Goes,” is largely singled out as the album’s high point, but really it’s just one of the record’s many glistening pop gems. The La’s kicks off with an almighty hat trick courtesy of the wistful “Son Of A Gun,” the pile-driving rocker “I Can’t Sleep” and the aptly-titled “Timeless Melody,” and simply never looks back. Indeed, those with any lingering doubts in relation to Lee Mavers’ talent need just one listen to the audacious, Bertolt Brecht-esque “Freedom Song” or the record’s epic, psychedelic torch song, “Looking Glass,” to hear what really might have been.
Perplexingly, though, The La’s’ frontman was his own most hostile critic when the album was finally released, even famously describing it as “like a snake with a broken back” in a 1990 NME interview. Mavers’ negative reaction seems all the more mystifying as most critics heard nothing but genius when weighing up the album’s contents.
In a contemporary review, The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau wrote, “Once in a blue moon, somebody with the gift comes along, and [La’s] frontman Lee Mavers is that somebody,” while confirmed fan Noel Gallagher told The Quietus in 2011, “Even though [The La’s] is a standard form of guitar rhythm’n’blues, it’s totally unique – nobody has done it as good as him since.”
How do you measure perfection?
Yet, while the critics raved and the band embarked on an extensive tour that took The La’s into the UK Top 30, the group’s time in the spotlight was tragically brief. Seemingly obsessed with re-recording the album rather than prepare a follow-up, Mavers split the band in 1992. While there have since been sporadic reunion gigs, and Mavers’ notoriously loyal fans still live in hope, the chances of The La’s’ reclusive frontman ever returning from his self-imposed exile now seem slim.
“His standards were so high that you’re never going to reach them,” producer Mike Hedges said when The La’s received its deluxe CD reissue in 2008. “At some point you have to say, ‘That’s it, I’m finished!’ and move on to something else. I’ve never been 100 percent on anything I’ve ever done. I don’t think you ever can be, because how do you measure perfection?”