It’s been 30 years since legendary Liverpool group The La’s released their first record, the thunderous single Way Out. To mark this occasion, the Viper record label has released a new collection of demos and live tracks, titled simply 1987. An accompanying exhibition is being held in Liverpool and then Harrogate, showcasing a cache of long-thought-lost photographs as well as an array of gig posters and song lyrics.
Celebrating The La’s is most definitely a good thing, and it’s also quite refreshing. Their story is a difficult, often unhappy one, and from a certain angle it can resemble a tragedy. In 1987, the band began work on their debut album, but it didn’t actually emerge until late 1990. Even then, it was mired in controversy. Their record company, Go! Discs, weary of endless recording sessions with different studios and producers, released a bolted-together LP which the band themselves had abandoned and weren’t remotely happy with. During interviews meant to promote it, The La’s simply advised their fans not to buy it. To this day, it’s the only original album they have ever released.
The key to all this is the figure of Lee Mavers, the group’s masterly singer and songwriter. Then in his late 20s, Mavers’ musical gifts were matched only by his fathomless, baffling perfectionism. He’d record versions of his songs which he’d declare that he loved, only to then change his mind and insist that they be scrapped. Over the years since, he’s emerged to say that a new album could happen – but only once he’d recorded the first album all over again and this time got it right. This has yet to happen. Frustration is the lot of a La’s fan.
The Viper label, meanwhile, is run by Mike Badger and Paul Hemmings, two Liverpool musicians who are also ex-La’s members. Speaking to Northern Soul, Hemmings says: “1987 was a time when it was still fresh. Those songs had just been written, the guitar sound was great and I think Lee’s voice sounds magical. He was on a real creative roll then.”
The band had first been formed around Badger in 1983, with Mavers joining as rhythm guitarist the following year. By late 1986, Mavers had become a formidable creative force in his own right, and personal tensions between the pair caused Badger to quit. Hemmings was brought in as a guitarist to fill the void Badger left behind, on the recommendation of bass player John Power (who later led his own very successful band, Cast). The reassembled La’s took to rehearsing in a stables outbuilding courtesy of Hemmings’ mother, to whom the new collection is dedicated. Hemmings says: “Obviously, Mike took all his songs with him. It was a wonderful time to be in the band, because Lee actually had to write material and we had to finish it. There was no deliberating. Every single day there was me, John and Lee in the stables, working on stuff.”
There, they developed the magnificent songs that would go on to form their legacy. “That was where There She Goes was written, Timeless Melody, Way Out, all these fantastic songs we formulated there. I think it was just one of those times where all the stars aligned and everything felt quite right.”
A subsequent La’s b-side, Over, was in fact a totally low-fi live recording made in the stables. “Lee loved Over,” Hemmings says. “My mum had bought me this ghetto-blaster tape deck and I used to record everything on that, just to remember things basically, little fragments of ideas. Over came together incredibly quickly. It was a lovely hot summer’s day. We turned it on and it just happened. The whole thing just flowed. That’s one of those moments which you could never recapture. You record it the first time and you never get it again.”
Over became symptomatic of the La’s problem, though. Within the music industry, the late 80s was a time of slick studio sophistication. The La’s straight-ahead, almost acoustic sound, centred on a group of well-drilled musicians playing together live, stuck out like a sore thumb. Hemmings says: “I think it was actually the wrong time to record a band like that. Everything was being done quite separately, with a gated drum sound. It wasn’t an organic time to record that type of band. I’ve heard Lee himself say that the happiest times for him were probably before the band was signed. I just think Lee and the music industry didn’t quite get on.”
Nevertheless, having secured their record deal, The La’s released two singles – Way Out in 1987 and the utterly peerless There She Goes in 1988. A third, Timeless Melody, was on the starting blocks the following year, but at the eleventh hour Mavers declared that he wasn’t happy with the recording and had it pulled. Things started to unravel. A whole string of recording sessions were being held to try and capture the magic of Mavers’ songs for an album, but he kept rejecting the results. The La’s line-up changed repeatedly, too. Hemmings himself left at the end of 1987, during an ill-fated period when the band relocated from Liverpool to London. Of the finished 1990 album, Hemmings says: “I actually can’t listen to it. I know how the whole process went. Lee would have gone, ‘here’s the demos, I want it to sound like these’. I know, because he did it every single time. I think [credited producer] Steve Lillywhite probably did the best he possibly could under the circumstances. But I just think if you’ve tried to record those same songs that many times…when you first write a song and you play it, it sounds quite fresh. By four years later, I’m not sure that it’s quite as fresh. The whole myth of The La’s, the whole story of Lee – I mean, it’s crazy really. It’s sad in a way that the whole legacy of The La’s is only one album. I wish there was more, because there could have been.”
The new 1987 collection does an excellent job of documenting the quicksilver majesty of The La’s, and illustrating the fact that their songs could indeed feel entirely different depending on the circumstances under which they were recorded. It wasn’t simply devilment on Mavers’ part. Something about their sound was hard to capture properly in a satisfying way. Among the album’s treasures are a couple of songs from the homemade tapes made at the Hemmings’ family stables, several recordings from the fabled Liverpool rehearsal space The Flying Picket and some exuberant, reverb-heavy sessions made at Echo and the Bunnymen’s private studio, overseen by the band’s drummer, the now much-missed Pete de Freitas. The variety on offer here is illuminating in itself, but together the whole thing works well as a document of a time when the band were still fired-up and inspired. The album conjures up the genuinely spirited sound that Mavers and co would spent a fruitless few years desperately trying to recapture for posterity.
After leaving The La’s, Hemmings played with Badger’s new band The Onset for several years before becoming a member of chart regulars The Lightning Seeds. Around ten years since he’d last seen Mavers, the pair had a suitably bizarre reunion.
“I remember at the height of The Lightning Seeds’ success, I got the train from London. It was winter, it was freezing cold, and the train caught fire. We had to stop at Milton Keynes and who got off the carriage that was on fire but Lee! It was lovely to see him, it’d been a long time. The train used to take ages then, so I spent the next three and a half hours with him. It turned out he was still re-recording the original album at [The Damned drummer] Rat Scabies’ studio. Ten years later, he was still doing exactly the same thing. And I was thinking, how can you possibly do this without being burnt out? Obviously, he had that passion and drive to do it, but then, it was never finished.”
After a few years of being absent from the scene completely, then, Mavers resurfaced to play occasional shows, with a masterplan to record a version of his debut album that he could be happy with before finally moving on to making an all-new second album. In fact, Hemmings soon found himself getting embroiled with this plan. Once he’d left The Lightning Seeds, he started setting up the Viper label in Liverpool with Badger, and around 1999 the pair of them spent around eight months in the studio with Mavers, attempting to correct the mistakes of the past before forging ahead into the future.
“It was going to be a very grass-roots thing. Of the two people who’d set up the label, I’d worked with Lee before and I was trusted to use the desk. I knew his desk back to front. And Mike was very close to Lee. He’d started the band with him and they’d written songs together. And yet it’s still just nothing. It’s bizarre isn’t it? You just don’t know what else you can possibly do.”
Aside from the assorted recordings of older tracks, Hemmings listened to the demos of Mavers’ new, unreleased songs, titles spoken of with hushed reverence by the La’s faithful: Human Race, Raindance, Robberman, Minefield… “I’ve heard all the new stuff,” Hemmings says. “I’ve heard demos of them and they’re fantastic songs. They’re really memorable, amazing songs. But then it’s structuring them, finishing them and recording them.”
These sessions ran aground as Mavers fell into his established cycle of nitpicking, frustrating behaviour. “There’s no rhyme or reason to it. I mean, even a simple matter of listening to the demos: Lee would say ‘that’s the wrong demo tape’. Well, it’s actually the master demo tape. ‘Yeah, but I prefer this version’. OK, so you use that version. ‘But it’s being played through the wrong cassette deck’. OK, we’ll get this cassette deck. ‘Yeah, but it’s being recorded through the wrong mic’. OK, you get this mic. ‘But that’s the wrong coloured lead’. OK, you get this coloured lead. You go on and on and on ’til nothing happens.”
True to form, the project capsized, but Mavers emerged again in 2011 playing a number of slightly ramshackle live shows with a new line-up of The La’s. This in turn fuelled rumours of new material being in the pipeline, of course, but nothing came of it. Mavers is now 55, a family man living quietly in a Liverpool suburb.
“I mean, Lee’s a perfectly functioning human being,” says Hemmings. “Everyone paints him as being like this Syd Barrett character, which he’s not. He’s just not like that in the slightest. He lives a very normal life. He’s got four kids who are growing up now. But I have no idea what Lee actually does all day, I haven’t got a clue. Lee’s probably just being Lee.”
As for the odds of a new La’s album proper, Hemmings is far from optimistic. “Who knows. But I would probably say don’t hold your breath. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. Sorry, I just don’t think it will. Personally, I think that’s your lot.” After they’d gone their seperate ways in 1999, Hemmings and Badger sent Mavers CDs of material from the abandoned sessions they’d worked on together. “Later, Mike bumped into Lee on Lark Lane in Liverpool, and Lee goes, ‘they sound fantastic!’. You just can’t win.”
The new exhibition accompanying the 1987 release consists of largely unseen photographs of the band from that time. They were taken by Jake Summerton, whose son Adam was an avid La’s fan. Known about but thought lost for many years, they resurfaced in the attic of Adam’s Welsh home, and are now on public display for the first time. They show the members of the band beaming and happy, delivering their songs on stage with vim and vigour. With any future activity looking unlikely, then, this is probably how we should remember The La’s. Their recording career may have been cursed, but those songs are imperishable. Few bands are so evidently touched by genius.
For Hemmings, both the exhibition and the album summon up memories of a very happy period in his life.
“Oh, absolutely. It was a really magical time. In Liverpool, the band had built up quite a following, but you could feel it moving to the next level. You could feel a real buzz about it all. It was just exciting, and also musically, we were writing stuff, working on stuff. So it was a really special time. A mate of mine described it as – I mean, it’s a little bit of an exaggerated comparison – but he said it’s how he imagined it felt seeing The Beatles at The Cavern. You know, just as it was growing and you could feel the excitement, with the audiences getting bigger and bigger. And that’s exactly what it felt like.”
Images: copyright Jake Summerton
The La’s 1987 is available now on CD, download and vinyl from the Viper label. Click here.