The La's - Biography
By Eric Brightwell
The La’s were (or are, if you’re hopeful) an English band who took their name from the typical interjection in Scouse dialogue. The lineup has changed so many times over the years (none of the original members remain) that some have joked that every Liverpudlian musician has at some point passed through the band’s ranks. At the center of The La’s is the obsessive, reclusive, erratic perfectionist and genius songwriter, Lee Mavers. In the early ‘90s The La’s looked set to take the baton from The Stone Roses as the best guitar pop band in the land. Instead, they fizzled out, held back by their unappeasable singer. Though they only ever had one massive hit, the oft covered “There She Goes,” the faultless quality of their tiny output inspired a rabid cult following, some of whom still hold out hope that The La’s will someday return with new material.
The La’s formed in 1984 in Liverpool, which at the time was of the most economically depressed cities in England. Original singer Mike Badger claimed that the name for the band came to him in a dream. Shortly after forming they added Lee Mavers on rhythm guitar. The band’s first recorded appearance was “I Don’t Like Hanging Around” on the 1985 compilation, A Secret Liverpool. Later in the year, “My Girl Sits Like a Reindeer” was included on another compilation, Elegance, Charm and Deadly Danger. Although the British airwaves were then dominated by synthpoppers and new romantics, the dole kids in The La’s used the archaic guitar, bass and drums combination to fashion a racket indebted to the pre-psychedelic ’60s and ‘50s.
In 1986, The La’s began playing around town. Most of their repertoire from this period was subsequently collected on Breakloose: Lost La's 1984-1986 (2000 Viper). For La’s fanatics, it’s interesting historically more than musically. “My Girl Sits Like a Reindeer,” with music written by Mavers, foreshadows their later song, “Feelin’.” “Open Your Heart” and “What Do You Do?” are good, with pretty tunes and Mavers’s background vocals are more interesting than Badger’s lead. By and large, however, there’s little that hints at the brilliance to come. After kicking out their bassist, Badger introduced John Power, whom he’d met at a council-run music class, in July. In December, Badger was asked to leave so that Mavers could take the lead. Badger went on to form The Onset, who split in 1995.
The new lineup recorded demos at the Flying Picket Rehearsal studio in 1987, later released as Callin' All: Lost La's 1986-1987 (Viper 2001). Mavers’s unerring sense of songcraft was already undeniable and the band was signed with Go! Discs on the demos’ strength. In October they released the jangly “Way Out.” Although it received high praise from Morrissey and Melody Maker, it barely snuck into the lower reaches of the charts. In 1988, the unfathomably catchy (all chorus and bridge with no verses) “There She Goes” was released. A video was shot with a handheld camera. The grainy, blurry promo clip looked and sounded like it had been filmed in 1963. Despite the song’s obvious, undeniable charm, it also only reached the lower reaches of the charts. In a first sign of Mavers’s obsessive nature, he bemoaned the use of noise reduction in its recording, which he felt sapped the song of its ambiance. Again, despite Mavers’s protestations, critics gushed with praise, with some drawing somewhat lazy comparisons to another Everton supporting foursome.
In 1989, The La’s entered Liverpool’s Pink Museum Studio with producer Jeremy Allom. In May, their new song, the breathless “Timeless Melody” was named Record of the Week in NME and was set to be released as a single. Unfortunately, a frustrating pattern began to emerge when Mavers declared yet again that he was unhappy with the recording and prevented it from being released commercially. The lineup of Lee Mavers, his brother Neil on drums, Peter "Cammy" Camell on lead guitar and Powers on bass began a seemingly endless process of recording and re-recording their tunes with a series of producers including John Porter, John Leckie, and Mike Hedges. Though all were renowned producers, none proved capable of capturing the sounds in Mavers’s head to his liking. Although likely frustrated, Leckie and Hedges were particularly complimentary about Mavers’s talents. Despite his scrapping of their work, they apparently recognized that Mavers’s unhappiness wasn’t a reflection of their work as much as his madness.
Still unhappy with their recorded sound, The La’s relocated to London’s Eden Studios with Steve Lillywhite in December. Reports again arose about Mavers’s difficulty, this time suggesting that Mavers’s unhappiness went beyond perfectionism and his mental stability began to be widely questioned. One rumor had him rejecting a vintage mixing desk because the ‘60s dust had been wiped off. Another said he was unhappy that the guitars didn’t sound like the trees they were cut from, and then he freaked out because there were yellow chords in the studio. In frustration and almost broke from the costly recording process (done in seven studios), both the band and their label gave up. Lillywhite, however, pieced together the recordings and The La’s (1990 Go! Discs) was released against the band’s (or at least Mavers’s) wishes. Mavers even went so far as to claim that he’d deliberately played poorly to sabotage the recordings. Few who heard the immaculate album could understand Mavers’s disdain. Completely at odds with the prevailing house and house-influenced albums of the time, The La’s made no concessions to any trends or recent developments in music and instead harkened back to the tightly-constructed, timeless melodies of rock music’s adolescence.
A re-recorded (although nearly identical) version of “There She Goes” (with Chris Sharrock on drums and John Byrne on lead guitar) was released and did considerably better. Although Mavers continued to profess unhappiness with anything having to do with the album, the La’s filmed a new video in Los Angeles with several members rocking track suits in true scally style. “Feelin’” and “Timeless Melody” were released as singles and though every bit as good as “There She Goes,” failed to match its success. The following year, The La’s embarked on a promotional tour, playing on several television programs in the UK, Canada and the US. In interviews, the host generally gushed in admiration about the record only to be assured by Mavers that he hated it, on one occasion memorably describing it as “a snake with a broken back.”
Power, after serving tirelessly as a mood-lightening intermediary between confused interviewers and the acerbic Mavers left in frustration in November. Almost immediately, he returned with a new band, Cast, apparently named after the last word of the last song on The La’s, the epic (and apparent portrait of dissociative identity disorder) “Looking Glass.” Never allowed to feature his La’s compositions on record, with Cast, Power recorded two, “Follow Me Down” and “Alright” for their debut. Meanwhile, Mavers announced his intention of going back to the studio to re-record The La’s debut to his liking and effectively vanished. Hopeful interviewers who successfully tracked him down were turned away. Despite his seclusion, it did become widely known that Mavers’s troubles were exacerbated by his newfound fondness for dope. In 1994 and 1995, The La’s played a shambolic gig (revisiting “There She Goes” three times) at the Adelphi in Hull. After witnessing the performance, Oasis’s promoters (until then planning a La’s comeback) scaled The La’s slots back to one supporting gig in Brighton. That same year, Mavers did his first interview since 1991 and made all kinds of weird associations and earning him further comparisons to another lost genius, Syd Barrett, and confirming for many that, like him, he would never rejoin the ranks of society.
After undergoing rehab, Mavers entered Rat Scabies’s The Arch at Kew recording studio. Scabies effused about Mavers’s brilliant new songs which supposedly sounded like feedback-drenched takes on vintage Captain Beefheart, with Mavers experimentally tuning his guitar to harmonize with feedback. Sadly, nothing came of the sessions and Mavers quit recording, claiming the damp was adversely affecting his voice. In 1998, nine years after entering the studio and with nothing recorded to Mavers’s liking, he was released from his contract with Go! Discs. The following year he again granted an interview in the Daily Star which he mostly spent lashing out at his former bandmate, the more prolific John Power. By this time, “There She Goes” had been covered numerous times, featured in soundtracks and used in several commercials. Mavers claimed the royalties he received were ample and that he was now focused on raising his four children. Hopes that The La’s would return dwindled further as their legend grew. More and more musicians and fans seemed to finally discover the band’s genius and, in 2000, Eddie Vedder inadvertently got some laughs when he introduced a cover of “Timeless Melody” as a “song written by a band from your town” to a bemused audience... in Manchester.
Five years later, in 2005, Mavers came out of hiding. A new lineup of The La’s (including a forgiving Power on bass) played several gigs in England, Ireland, and Japan. Even on tour their lineup proved as unstable as their singer and by the time The La’s played Glastonbury, Mavers’ school friend Jasper was drumming… albeit painfully poorly. The following year, Mavers claimed yet again to be working on new material. At this point, waiting for new La’s is like waiting for Godot. Meanwhile, The La’s has been re-released various times, augmented in different versions with B-sides, live versions and alternate versions recorded in various aborted sessions that, sounding as similar as they do, show just how particular Mavers was about miniscule details, as does BBC In Session (2006 Go! Discs) which also captures the band’s sound well.
So, in the end, the saga of The La’s is one of frustration. Over the years, despite claims to the contrary, it seems unlikely that Mavers’s songwriting talent will ever be up to his own, impossible standards. Almost 20 years later, only a faithful few still hold out that Mavers will return.