In 2003, MW Macefield wrote a book called ‘In Search Of The La’s‘. Subtitled A Secret Liverpool, the author donned his best Inspector Clouseau raincoat, popped an oversized magnifying glass into the top pocket and hopped on the train to Lime Street in the hope of tracking down Lee Mavers, the wayward genius responsible for steering the good ship La’s aground. Despite reforming for a short, badly-received tour a couple of years after the book hit the shelves, and an even less successful venture a few years after that, I’ve now come to accept that The La’s are back residing in the ‘where are they now?’ category.
Mavers’ legend continues to grow by the day and in the smallest corners of the internet he’s regarded as our generation’s version of Syd Barrett or Peter Green; the band leader with (way) out there ideas that were too far gone for even the most open and creative of minds in his band.
Lee tuned his guitars to the hum of his fridge.
In order to baptise his recordings with the relevant credentials, he demanded the Abbey Road desks he’d procured remain covered in their original 60s dust.
Despite at least a dozen goes of recording an album, he said nothing came close to the demo they’d recorded themselves of non-album b-side Over. Over, as you may well know, was recorded live. To 4 track. In a stable. There’s a Jesus pun to be had here, but Mavers is not the messiah, he’s just a very haughty boy.
The small but (im)perfect body of work he’s given us rattles and rolls and chimes and chirps with effervescent Scouse enthusiasm and a scrubbed, scuffed, skirl. Alongside the actual album, you’ll find all manner of demos and outtakes if you look hard enough. The La’s album was given the Deluxe treatment about a decade ago and the inclusion of the extra tracks shone a light on just how many producers they worked with in their vain search to nail the perfect version. The 4 CD box set that appeared afterwards only goes to confirm this. Dig deep and you’ll uncover new things in old tracks. My sister a few weeks ago gave me a copy of the BBC Sessions album. Playing the record is much more La’s than sticking on a CD as you go about your business, and I’ve been re-listening with open ears and open mouth. Some of these session tracks knock the released album versions for six.
One of the oldest La’s songs, the version of Doledrum from the band’s 1987 Janice Long session is the perfect example;
The La’s – Doledrum (Janice Long session, 2.9.87)
Those percussive Magic Bus off-beats are magic! Maver’s vocal is strong, his rhythm playing an excellent counterpoint to the skifflish back-beat. Paul Hemmings sprightly solo in the middle is mightily whistleable. but it’s John Power’s high falsetto backing vocal that’s the song’s secret weapon, carrying the whole thing to the perfect multi-vocalled end. Like so much of The La’s material, there’s so much going on in such a simple song. Listen to it. Listen again. And again. I guarantee you’ll spot something new each time.
Possibly even more upbeat is the long-shelved version recorded with John Leckie;
The La’s – Doledrum (John Leckie version)
Faster and with less emphasis on the percussive off-beats, the Leckie version features elongated Mavers’ harmonies and a lovely, subtle Power aah-aah-aah sigh where the solo should be. Mavers would probably tell you that this version is unfinished, or is lacking the requisite magic or doesn’t have enough 60s dust sprinkled atop. For what it’s worth, it would have been a worthy addition to that one and only album. The version that made the final cut is positively lethargic by comparison. Indeed, visit the forum on thelas.org and you’ll find plenty of discussion around the tracklist of the perfect La’s album; the Leckie mix here, the Bob Harris mix there, the Mike Hedges mix for this, the John Porter take for that. It’s a happy minefield when you get going.
I’m off to Liverpool this coming week with an itinerary packed full of Beatle-ish activities, Tate visits and a trip to Anfield. While I’ll forever be in search of The La’s, or at least Mavers, I’ll most definitely not find the proud Evertonian anywhere near the home of Liverpool FC, and I can’t imagine he’ll be propping up the bar in the darkest corner of The Cavern Club, but, y’know, y’never know. I like to think that I’ll pass him on Matthew Street, that he’ll recognise me (we were holiday pals for a week in 1993) and he’ll punch me playfully on the arm before we step into the nearest pub for a chinwag and a gin pomade, “kiddo.”
13 thoughts on “In Search Of The La’s”
Terrific instalment as always Craig. Your music tastes are a virtual mirror of my own! I’m a masssive La’s fan, I hunted down that MW Macefield book when it came out in 2003, couldn’t find it in any store so had to buy it online, also got the mammoth box set and the Beeb sessions you mention. Doledrum is a particular favourite of mine, I love the way Mavers sings of porridge and how he spookily predicts his own future in the lyrics (“I’ll see ’95 in doledrum” – he did too!) And it’s such a brilliant song. That debut album, for all the stick it got (not least from the band members themselves) is to my ears a great record, and I love Steve Lillywhite’s production (although imo it was short enough to warrant the inclusion of two of their best songs, I Am the Key and Knock Me Down, both of which were in the live set in the run-up to the album, and making it a 14-tracker would’ve been an appropriate nod to the Fabs imho). I personally suspect Lee was talking bollocks when he said he deliberately sang badly on the vocal takes that ended up on the album, I’ve listened to countless versions of those songs and his vocals on the LP tracks are every bit as good as on any other takes. I just think he wanted to find any excuse not to put an album out, or to lambast any version of the album that did see the light of day, I think he has a strong self-sabotage streak, but then I love that as well, the way he never took the easy route and the way he was at war with Go! Discs from pretty much the get-go. A fascinating guy, and an unbelievable talent. You’re so right to highlight John Power’s contribution, his melodic bass-playing, his natural Scouse mischievousness, the blend of his and Lee’s voice, were all perfect for the band.
I love the way they exist in a unique space of their own, outside of time and beyond the shifting sands of fickle fads. They’ve had such an odd career, a mere one album (that Mavers didn’t even want released!) in the space of 35 years, and with an eccentric mode of operation, and yet that’s a big part of their charm.
I have to see though, despite the mixed reviews the 2005 tour received that you refer to above, their Dublin date on that tour is to this day the greatest gig I’ve ever seen in my life. The story of that night ought to be part of The La’s legend… They were two hours late going onstage (they were holed up in a bar up the road!) which led to the audience booing before they’d even started, something I’ve never witnessed at any other gig ever. During the two-hour delay, the roadies constantly came out to tune and re-tune the guitars, apparently at Mavers’ insistence. Yet another thing which didn’t bode well was that the backline looked an absolute joke – they played through the shittiest-looking tiny cube amps I’ve ever seen in my life and a load of old mics covered in cobwebs (presumably just the way Mavers likes ’em). When they eventually clambered down the stairs towards the stage (I could see them making their way down the stairs hilariously slowly from where I was positioned near the front) they strolled onstage with not a word of apology, and Mavers said not one syllable all night (John Power said “Ta-ra” after the last song – that was the only ‘word’ any member uttered all night!) Not only that but they played exactly the same set they’d been doing since 1986! Sixteen songs played at breakneck speed in the space of an hour, and without either of the new songs they’d played in Cork the night before and at Glasto. And as if that weren’t enough, Mavers had sacked the drummer the night before, and had a guy with the hilarious name of something like ‘Nick the Pig’ who was playing with them for the first time ever, and who had to play the whole set standing up banging only the toms like Mo Tucker!
And yet, as I said, it was the greatest gig I have ever been at.
Argh, I just realised its I.O.U he sings about porridge in, not Doledrum! Sorry, my bad as they say. I also meant “I have to say though” instead of “I have to see though”. Need an edit button on these comments lol
“…..and the winner of the Most Passionate Reply On A Blog Post goes to……Keeley Moss!”
That reply must be longer than what I originally wrote, Keeley! Thanks a million for taking the time to do that.
Your prize is in the post.
Oh, and you’re write about that Mavers self-destructive gene. That’s spot on.
I need to dig that BBC sessions CD out and pay it again, from memory, as you say, superior versions to the album.
Funny thing with the album at the time was that we all bought it and loved it- the band’s criticisms seemed bizarre when you put the needle on the disc and those songs tumbled out. And having seen them live there wasn’t what seemed like an appreciable difference between the album’s songs and the live versions. The B-sides on the 12s, especially Over, showed what Mavers was after but even then it did seem like splitting hairs.
That version of Over on the BBC album is terrific.
Haha, thank you Craig! You’re so welcome.
You can probably imagine how long my book about Inga is!
Ah the old on holiday with Lee story, always one of my favourites unfortunately it’s caused a flashback to the Stack-o-Vocals disc 3 day. The quickest i’ve ever cashed up and the reason i cannot listen to The Beach Boys. If it was back in the 90’s Lee will certainly remember you…. as that dick that would not stop wittering on about the fucking Beach Boys.
Great post! Have to agree with other comments though… the reunion gigs were ramshackle but definitely not bad! Also I think that’s Mavers’ double tracked backing vocals on the Janice Long version of Doledrum?!
The double tracked vocals – I think you’re maybe right there. Although Lee and John have very distinct voices they tend to blend into one. It’s hard to know exactly who’s who sometimes.
Ach, come on now, Bart. Lee loves the Beach Boys. He identifies with that flawed leader/search for perfection thing that Brian Wilson had.
Those stack-o-vocals are magic!
Ach put yer knitting away. My opinion on other peoples favourite music is irrelevant, remember i’m the person that actually likes Metal Machine Music and gets great enjoyment from listening to it once or twice a decade. At least we both agree that “Safe As Milk” and “Clear Spot” are the 2 LPs to start any Captain Beefheart collection, which is my unsubtle way of prompting you to do another Beefheart post.
Mister Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long lunar note and let it flooooaaaatttt.
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