Published on August 16th, 2019 | by voxx0
The La’s – BBC In Session
A live – and arguably definitive – testament to the Liverpool group’s genius…
Pop mythology loves its lost geniuses. The Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson types: individuals touched by greatness who flew too close to the sun, then disappeared, leaving their talent unfulfilled.
A gifted songwriter who frequently torpedoed the Liverpool group’s career in his quest for sonic authenticity in the face of ’80s production values, The La’s leader Lee Mavers certainly fits the profile. Repeatedly binning entire sessions for their debut album, insisting that concert pitch was “wrong”, refusing to use a guitar cable because it was yellow, rejecting a 1960s mixing desk sourced for him because it didn’t have original ’60s dust on it…tales of Mavers’s studio eccentricities were later joined by rumours of a growing heroin problem.
When the band’s label Go! Discs eventually managed to pull together an album to release in 1990, Mavers disowned it as “shit”. Bassist and long-serving wingman John Power left to form Cast and, bar a few bizarre public appearances in the early ’90s, Mavers disappeared, never released another note of music and thus cemented his status as the JD Salinger of rock.
When you listen to these live sessions, first released in 2007 and now reissued on green vinyl, you can see Mavers’s point though. While no record that contains the chiming perfection of ‘There She Goes’ could ever be considered shit, the versions here – recorded for the BBC between 1987 and 1990 – make their counterparts on The La’s’ self-titled debut sound sluggish and woolly by comparison.
The stripped-back arrangements and same-day-turn-around required by the BBC brought out the best from the band in a way that producers such as John Leckie and Steve Lillywhite simply failed to. Folkier numbers ‘Son Of A Gun’ and ‘Freedom Song’ are rebooted as fleet-footed, skiffle pop– ‘Buddy Holly’ setting sail down the Mersey under a cloud of hash smoke.
Meanwhile the sole appearance here of ‘There She Goes’ has a spiky, garage rock toughness to it without surrendering any of its sublime melody. There are La’s completists’ favourites represented that were left off the debut. ‘Come In Come Out’ is a fantastic potential hit, its polyrhythmic cowbell thwack twisting around corkscrew guitars; the gnarly ‘Calling All’ shows a much darker side to the band, its shards of metallic guitar cutting through snaking, Middle Eastern-flavoured melodies.
It’s fascinating, too, to see how the songs themselves changed over the period. Take ‘I Can’t Sleep’. When recorded for Liz Kershaw in 1988 it was a dive-bombing attack of amphetamined pop-art rock; the best song The Who never made. Just two years later it had let its hair down, mellowing into an elastic Rubber Soul groove, a new bell-ringing guitar line and Power’s pre-emptive backing vocals to the fore.
Hearing these flawlessly composed songs sparkle with fresh life and energy makes the tragedy that their author has yet to share any further music with the world even more keenly felt. The rare few who have crossed paths with Mavers in the intervening three decades all agree that the “new” songs he’s written are amazing, many the equal to ‘There She Goes’. After a short-lived La’s live reunion in 2005, Mavers and Power reportedly decided to record some. When the singer suggested they re-record the debut first, Power walked away and Mavers vanished back into obscurity.
As each year passes, it seems increasingly likely that these recordings are as close as we will ever get to the elusive sound in Lee Mavers’s head, and for that they should be treasured. A work of genius, no less.
- By Jake White