It’s easy to take a cynical view of The La’s singer/songwriter Lee Mavers – especially if your ideal of success in the music industry is chimp-legged Robbie Williams, smarming up to the masses to pick their pockets, hawking out musical flem into the willing faces of the musically illiterate, and your only measurement of musical success is in terms of chart placings, sales and money earned, together with the column inches dedicated to so-called news of the latest actress/model that your reported to be fettling between the sheets of ‘The News of the World’ and ‘Hello’. Lee Mavers: A wasted talent. A spent force. A musical footnote. A mythical charlatan.
But that is, perhaps, to miss the point of what Mavers is about. Music. Fundamentally – music. Not business, not industry. Music.
To the uninitiated: the La’s were a Liverpool group formed in the 1980s, who signed a recording contract in 1986, then through various personnel changes recorded and re-recorded, and recorded again, their first album under three different producers and in several different studios, together with trying out the acoustic potential of the occasional kitchen and cattle shed. Some singles were released, including the now ubiquitous ‘There She Goes’, but mainstream success eluded them. As did a release date for the first album. Still not happy with the results, the eponymous album was released from the final recordings produced by U2 collaborator Steve Lillywhite and against the wishes of the group late in 1990. The La’s – and especially Mavers – were withering in the criticism of the album at the time, a stance that’s never altered. ‘Our album is crap.’
After the album’s release the La’s continued stutteringly. There were some hit and miss live appearances. Thoughts on the future of the band were kept alive by varying stories surrounding their activities – they were recording the next album in their own 8-track studio in Liverpool, they were back in yet another recording studio giving the first album another crack to get it right, new material was being laid down via the Beatles’ mixing desk from Abbey Road. And so on. Curly ginger John Power left the band to form Cast and start his own story after a couple more years and more elaborate tales of Lee Mavers’ perfectionism. Mavers carried on with new and ever varying band members before slipping into obscurity and from there into Syd Barrett-like cult status. No further new releases from the band or Mavers.
You listen to the album not sure what to expect on the back of the stories, but when you get down to it then it’s difficult to see what Mavers was so upset about. Apart from ‘Freedom Song’ – which I’ve never liked – the collection of songs is solid. The obvious set-piece is ‘There she goes’, but ‘Son of a gun’ and ‘Timeless Melody’ are equally statuesque, the rest pull the experience together and absolutely nothing disappoints. In some ways the 60s based music is anachronistic but in so many other ways it is ahead of its time (especially considered in the light of Britpop and beyond). If you’re into the sound of layered harmonies, chiming guitars, rockabilly drums then the album is a classic. Given the music that surrounded it at the time – drum machines and programmed synths, looping lifts from 70s disco and a sampled soul melody – the album today now sounds fresher than ever. The La’s, like the Stone Roses, were part of a renaissance which would later spawn Oasis and Britpop.
So what was Mavers’ problem?
A little more digging into alternative recordings and mixes gives food for thought. Compare the earlier version of ‘I.O.U.’ with the one that appears on the Lillywhite version (both available on the 2001 CD re-issue of the album). There is no comparison. It’s like a recording on vitamin ‘C’, friendly bacteria, and a 12-month fitness regime, lifted, brighter, better. And those granite-like Pete Townsend guitar chords on the end of the verses, Keith Moon (or in this case, Chris Sharrock) cymbals splashing over them like breakers on the shore. The vocals have more impact and the melody hits harder. A seemingly better song, but the same song. And Mavers wasn’t happy with this one either – mixed from the ‘missing’ Mike Hedges  sessions .
This re-evaluation is backed up by other recordings. ‘Over’, with Mavers sounding (intentionally or not) unbelievably like John Lennon (in the same way that Northern Soul legend J.J. Barnes sounds like Marvin Gaye on ‘Sad day coming’). This track was recorded in one take in a barn in Liverpool. A shocking lo-fi production, but the moments shine through. The sound you heard when you listened to songs as a child is there. That magic. And a Mavers approved release. For that reason?
So is it the quality of the songs rather than the production that shines through to make ‘The La’s’ a classic inspite of itself?
Consider this and then maybe you get to thinking that Mavers had a point. But he’s taken this point to an extreme and for nearly twenty years and seems unable to let go.
The refusal of ‘There she goes’ to disappear but continually return in several inferior cover versions, adverts, films and TV programmes, raises the perennial question, ‘Whatever happened to the La’s, and what is the songs writer Lee Mavers doing now?’
The La’s story was revived in 2003 with Matt Macefield’s ‘In Search of the La’s: a secret Liverpool’ (ISBN 1-900924-63-3). The book both gives and takes away from the La’s and the Lee Mavers’ legend. The sense of discovery in the book is palpable – conversations with former La’s band members and associates in various Liverpool pubs, old and half-forgotten articles from music magazines, the elusive search for what Mavers and his music was and is all about. Culminating in the bitter/sweet sight of Mavers – still enthusiastic, with his kids, his guitars, and a home-built, eclectic studio, with the tantalising sight of completed reels of recordings. And then just as you get a glimpse of him and hear his Scouse tones tell the story, Mavers disappears again. Up his own arse or into his own future? Take your pick.
There have been stirrings which gave hope of a second album of new material. Perhaps doubled with a Mavers-sanctioned re-recording of the first album. A series of live show in the summer of 2005 with John Power promised much. I saw them at the Leadmill. Aficionados flooding the place. Big expectations. Mavers looking no different that when he’d last been glimpsed a decade before. The songs faultless. The drummer stood up with the longest cigarette in the world.
But nothing happened.
In 2006 the band’s old BBC sessions were released. They came at the songs from a different angle. A better version of ‘Son of a gun’ than on the original album. In 2008 as many available recordings from labyrinth of sessions from 1986 to 1990 bundled together with Steve Lillywhite’s original offering. The same songs, fresh perspectives. Worth having. But no new tracks.
Recent news has Mavers recording again. This time with Babyshambles bassist Drew McConnell. A second album brooding. We’ll see.
For me, Lee Mavers remains an attractive enigma. Living in a semi in Huyton on Merseyside – the suburb of Liverpool where he was born and grew up – clean from the hard drugs that dogged his mid-1990s, a family, still writing, royalties rolling in (primarily from ‘There She Goes’) meaning that he?s free to walk his own path, no one sure how much is getting recorded, but rumours of new material filtering through. ‘Human Race’, the song that’s better than ‘There she goes’. ‘Raindance’ and others. Perfecting what he wants to do, what he needs to be.
1] The second recording sessions for the debut album, c.1988/89, down in Devon at Hedges’ house, a keynote to the session being the use of a mixing desk from Abbey Road studio 2 in the 1960s, used by the Beatles. Hedges was at the time working for Devon and Cornwall Police. He would, like Mavers, subsequently turn his back on the music industry and become Chief Constable of South Yorkshire. It’s rumoured that he produced tracks for Pulp in Sheffield during 2003.