No Matter What Lee Mavers Thinks, The La’s Still Sounds Perfect 30 Years Later
It must feel like a cosmic joke to La’s frontman Lee Mavers that the crown jewel of his catalog — “There She Goes,” a perfect pop song that he drove himself crazy trying to capture in the studio — was experienced by far more people when it was covered by a vanilla Christian-rock band than via one of the many versions his own band recorded. Then again, the entirety of the La’s story reads like a dry British farce, so it’s a small miracle that their one and only album — The La’s, released 30 years ago today — is still rightly revered as a classic. It’s gained a small but fervent cult that includes lots of musicians, most notably a pair of brothers who would take its influence and find much greater fame.
That’d be the Gallaghers of Oasis, whose Noel would say in 2011 of Mavers, “Nobody has done it as good as him since,” and whose Liam would write a song about Mavers called “Eh La” just this year, three decades after the last new La’s music was recorded. Mavers, for his part, would accuse his Oasis friends of ripping off his song “Clean Prophet” for their “Importance Of Being Idle.” (Never mind that both bands were constantly, nakedly nicking from the Who, the Kinks, and the La’s fellow Liverpool forebears the Beatles.) It was just another instance of Mavers getting in his own way, an attribute that seemed to begin well before he’d even found any measure of fame.
The La’s signed a record deal with the respected Go! Discs label in 1987 on the strength of their live show and some demo recordings that would go on to haunt Mavers. They spent the next couple of years recording and then scrapping entire sessions, moving from one producer to the next, in search of the elusive magic that Mavers heard on the demos. He eventually suggested recording the whole thing in a kitchen, but the label wasn’t having that. Various songs were tracked with John Porter (the Smiths, Roxy Music), Gavin MacKillop, John Leckie (Stone Roses, XTC), and Mike Hedges (the Cure, U2), racking up costs — reportedly a million pounds or more — and yielding only a couple of singles.
Finally, during a session with producer Steve Lillywhite — best known for U2’s string of early ’80s albums and, later, the big Dave Matthews records — the La’s apparently just gave up completely, bailing on the recording. Lillywhite finished the album without the band, the label released it, the press and the people loved it, and Mavers vociferously disowned it. Every cantankerous interview he gave included nuggets like, “I’m embarrassed about it. It’s terrible,” or, “It’s a mess,” or even, deliciously, “This album … is largely dull and unentertaining. Don’t buy the album, just give us the money.” It would almost seem like some kind of reverse-psychology sales pitch if it wasn’t so clear that he meant every word.
Mavers was wrong, of course: The La’s sounded great 30 years ago, and it sounds great now. The word “timeless” was and is tossed around to describe it — not just because it includes a fantastic song called “Timeless Melody” — which is accurate insofar as the word has come to mean, when describing pop music, “deeply influenced by the 1960s.” Mavers’ cited influences, like Eddie Cochran and James Brown, were buried deeper than the obvious touchstones like the Kinks and the Hollies. But there’s not a damn thing wrong with the album from a songwriting, performance, or sonic perspective: “There She Goes” still chimes brightly, an instant earworm whether you’ve heard it twice or 2,000 times. “Feelin'” nods directly at the Beatles, nicking the riff from “I Feel Fine” and adding some snarl, while “Timeless Melody” feels more of a piece with the band’s actual contemporaries like the Smiths. With the exception of epic album-closer “Looking Glass,” the songs come in under three minutes each, exercises in songwriting economy. In a 2006 interview on All Songs Considered, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie said of “There She Goes,” “It defines the perfectly written pop song,” a description that actually applies to most of the record.
To say that the band failed to capitalize on the adoration that followed the release of The La’s is an understatement, but it ignores the specialness of a great one-and-done career and the weird circumstances that fueled it. How could a follow-up live up to the high expectations of fans or low expectations of its creator? Mavers obsessed for years afterward, supposedly threatening — and trying — to re-record this same batch of songs until they met his mystical aspirations. He wrote more songs, too, but finished versions never saw the light of day. Rather than deal with the record company that he felt had abused his trust, Mavers ran out the clock on his deal, releasing nothing and only occasionally peeking his head out over the past three decades to play a show or two.
Noel Gallagher, in an interview about his favorite albums of all time with The Quietus, said, “When I see him I say, ‘Hey Lee, when are you going to release your second album?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll do it when I’ve finished the first one …’ He’s still trying to nail his first set of songs right after 27 years. So I’ve come to the conclusion he’s either shit-scared of ruining his legacy or he’s just a lazy cunt.”
It leaves only The La’s to be picked over, and fans have examined it with a Beatles-like microscope, though obviously on a much smaller scale. Various multi-disc collections have appeared over the years that include takes from the aborted album sessions and a few non-album tracks that are as essential as those that made the cut. Mavers himself supposedly favors the version of the album produced by Mike Hedges, which is widely available but was supposedly scrapped — and this may be apocryphal — because Mavers was mad that his bandmates went on vacation without him shortly after the recording. It’s worth a listen, but time has rendered it a curiosity more than anything. The La’s, as released in October of 1990, has earned its place in the canon; everything else feels like bonus material, out of context and less important.
“There She Goes,” the composition rather than the recording, expanded the reach and lifespan of the La’s — and presumably helped Mavers make a living over the years. It’s been covered a ton, most notably by Christian-leaning light-rock outfit Sixpence None The Richer, who made it a worldwide hit — a modest hit, sure, but with far more reach than the La’s themselves ever found. In perhaps the ultimate indignity, the Sixpence version soundtracked a wide-reaching commercial for a birth control pill, Mavers’ lyrics drowned out by claims of “clinically proven effectiveness.” Mavers, uncharacteristically quiet on the issue, hasn’t had anything bad to say about Sixpence’s version. Maybe he thinks they nailed it, but that seems unlikely.
Then again, he’s been quiet about pretty much everything since the heyday of the La’s. His bandmate John Power — the only other real constant in the La’s comically large list of former members — went on to much greater success in the UK with the band Cast. (Their name, depending on who you believe, may be a direct allusion to a La’s song.) But Mavers himself went radio silent, so deeply in fact that there’s an entire book dedicated to tracking him down: 2003’s In Search Of The La’s: A Secret Liverpool.
There’s something both noble and nuts about the whole La’s story, with an excellent record serving as its gravitational center. It’s easy to picture Mavers tinkering away at home these days, still trying to get “Feelin'” or “Doledrum” just right, 30 years on — or writing and then scrapping dozens of new songs that lesser writers would sell their souls for. Given his history, whatever he’s doing will probably remain unheard, leaving The La’s itself as his sole legacy. It’s plenty.