It takes a rare band to be afforded a four-disc boxed set retrospective on the back of a solitary album. In 2010 Liverpool’s The La’s achieved just that when ‘Callin’ All’ collected together the band’s eponymous album, singles and b-sides, live performances and a smattering of alternative versions and out-takes from various album recording sessions.
When ‘Callin’ All’ was released cynics might have wondered what made an album so great that it warranted such treatment. For die-hard followers of The La’s an even bigger question remain unanswered: what of the oft-talked about second La’s album?
When ‘The La’s’ was first released in 1990 the band had already been a going concern for well over half a decade. The origins of the band remain shrouded in dispute, or at least differences of opinion, something that has become almost synonymous with the band ever since. What is agreed however is that The La’s formed with Mike Badger and Lee Mavers as its driving force, before the two parted ways with the latter retaining the nucleus of the band and its name. The first recordings under the band’s name were made tentatively in 1984, one – ‘I Don’t Like Hanging’ – appearing on the ‘A Secret Liverpool’ compilation. A year later two further tracks saw light of day: another compilation album ‘Elegance, Charm and Deadly Danger’ brought to the world ‘Sweet 35’ and ‘My Girl Sits Like A Reindeer’. It is this latter song that brings to the world the first clear evidence of potential of the band and its songs. In 1991 a reworked version of the track, now entitled ‘Feelin’’, would give The La’s their second highest placing in the UK singles charts, a handful of places outside the Top 40.
By the end of 1986 Mavers and Badger had gone their separate ways, Badger to form The Onset, Mavers to take advantage of a Go! Discs recording contract along with bass player John Power, drummer John Timson and guitarist Paul Hemmings. By the end of 1987 The La’s had released one single; a year later and only another single had been added to the discography of a band that was supposedly recording an album. 1989 saw a third single slated for release, only to be pulled at the last minute. Band members came and went, rumours began to fly and then, eventually 1990 saw not only one single but two, sandwiching that long-awaited album.
It has gone down as historical fact that when The La’s released their album they hated it and were not afraid to let people know. October 1990 saw the band interviewed by Stuart Maconie for the NME, describing their work as “…the worst. A pile of shit. There is not one good thing I can find to say about it.” A month later and the band were still unforgiving in their perecptions: “It’s not the album we had in our heads,” Mavers told Melody Maker’s Paul Mathur, “it’s an album of parodies of our songs. If I had to say anything about the album I’d say don’t buy it.” Critics thought differently, however; the NME has given the album a score of nine out of ten, Allmusic four and a half out of five. The public too weren’t to be put off, with the album reaching a creditable 30 in the charts, not bad against a backdrop of band criticism and non-co-operation.
Perhaps it is the clear chasm between artist and audience perception that has built up a near reverence around the album. There is no doubt that the songs written and performed by the band are of high quality, and this fact was not lost on the band. Indeed it was partly the problem: “For four years we’ve been recording the same songs, starting off with the same songs, which we already had recorded before we signed up, and we were signed on the strength of the demo versions. And the demos sound better than all the rubbish that we’ve been made to create over the last four years” Mavers told The Big Takeover in 1991.
The problem it would appear arises in the fact that the band – Mavers in particular – hear things in certain recordings which are then impossible to replicate again. This can be frustrating for the musician and it is no coincidence that pop music is littered with re-recordings made by artists and remixes made by producers in an attempt to better a previous version. However, The La’s worked on their songs in no fewer than a dozen different sessions between July 1987 and May 1990, picking up and discarding name producers on the way, a John Leckie here, a Mike Hedges there. And all the time, the same, great songs being recorded. Most of them are commercially available now. There is little to choose between the Bob Andrews-produced and originally released b-side ‘Man I’m Only Human’ and the earlier John Leckie version, for example. Two very different takes on a song, both producing great atmosphere. As for the album tracks, a number of slightly different, all appealing versions of ‘There She Goes’, ‘I Can’t Sleep’, ‘I.O.U.’; all have their own quirks, none have anything wrong with them to the average listener. Mavers, however, clearly was searching for something else, a holy grail. He came close at one stage, with a Mike Hedges-produced collection that saw light of day in 2008 having been originally discarded allegedly on the grounds of a magnetic storm on the sun shifting the particles on the master tape (although this myth is debunked in MW Macefield’s excellent book ‘A Secret Liverpool: In Search Of The La’s’, with the slightly less unreasonable cause being attributed to Mavers discovering the rest of the band had booked holidays without him immediately after the session).
The La’s debut album could quite easily have become the greatest album in the world. Unfortunately, the sound the band wanted wasn’t to be captured the way they wanted it to be captured: “A tape recorder in the middle of the room captures the sound we’re after”, Mavers told Melody Maker’s Bob Stanley, whilst John Power perhaps hit the nail firmest on the head when describing the joy of b-side ‘Over’, recorded in a barn on a tape recorder the “very, very, very, very first time”the band played the song.
All these factors conspire to make what could have been the greatest album in the world to not be. But what if… what if there was a second album, of completely new songs, all recorded exactly how Mavers and his bandmates wanted, maybe on a four-track, maybe on the band’s eight-track, maybe on a tape recorder in the middle of the room? Maybe this then would be the greatest album of all time? The songs are certainly there and have leaked their way into the public domain, some consciously, others less so.
Of those ‘second album’ songs most likely to be have been heard this far, two were written by John Power and appeared in the band’s set list for much of 1990 and beyond. ‘Fly On’ and ‘Follow Me Down’ were to appear as single and b-side by Power’s subsequent band Cast, the former song being retitled ‘All Right’. These were two great songs and, testament to the potential greatness of The La’s second album, much better when performed with Mavers than without. ‘I Am The Key’ meanwhile showed up on a Manchester radio session having been written, according to Powers in the accompanying interview, in the van on the way to the radio station. It also was performed by the band in a televised gig at the Town and Country Club. Short, simple and infectiously catchy, it could have made a brilliant single. A further potential inclusion in the band’s follow-up album is the bluesy instrumental ‘Swashbuckler’, a live favourite that, however, this particular writer would happily see as b-side rather than album track.
There are other, less heard songs too, which have come to light in the form of bootlegs ‘The Kitchen Tapes’ and ‘The Crescent Tapes’. The former stems from the line-up which recorded the Mike Hedges-produced version of the album, and purportedly was recorded in the kitchen of the home of Go! Discs label head Andy McDonald’s parents in Devon. The early promise of such songs was clearly evident even then: another producer, John Leckie, is quoted by Macefield bemoaning time spent seeking perfection in the studio when, later “the band would take the acoustic guitars into the kitchen and just play, and it would sound fantastic”. These songs are clearly works in progress but even in the bare bones of ‘When Will I See You Again’ it is possible to begin to imagine what might be working inside Mavers’ head. It is also possible to understand how Mavers might come to the conclusion that a simple device such as a tape recorder might be sufficient to capture the sound of the band as he envisages. However, whether such a sound would be commercially viable for the general music-buying population must be questioned.
‘The Kitchen Tapes’ provide eight tracks, none of which appear to be the finished article with perhaps the exception of ‘I Am The Key’ and ‘Tears In The Rain’, a rehearsal version of which can be found on the ‘Callin’ All’ Lost La’s album released by Mike Badger’s Viper label. Many of the tracks played in this session have melody, harmony and rhythm aplenty, but words which require a deal of honing and expanding. Take for example the three and a half minutes of ‘She Came Down’ which consist of the sole lyric “she came down in the morning”, or ‘It’s Improbable’ which includes the line “I need words to fit”. The latter does however have a lead guitar part to supplement the familiarly chiming chords.
The recording of ‘The Kitchen Tapes’ predates the later ‘The Crescent Tapes’ by over a decade. This latter of the two bootlegs was the product of a surreptitiously-hidden tape recorder placed strategically during a jamming session held involving Lee Mavers and members of the Liverpool band The Crescent. Of the songs played in the earlier session only three remain in the set, such as it is a set: ‘When Will I See You Again’, ‘Was It Something I Said’ and ‘Tears In The Rain’. The tape is completed by a further seven tracks, still incomplete yet still demonstrating the potential that Leckie saw so many years previous. “There are plenty more where that came from” Mavers promises after the first track ‘Raindance’, and he is unsurprisingly not bluffing. The embryonic ‘Minefield’ could be a song about modern recording or about being in a band with Mavers; there aren’t enough words on this to tell but the music is instant as it is in ‘Human Race’. ‘Let’s Go For A Ride’ meanwhile is as close to an instant pop single as ‘I Am The Key’.
Although there is a span of ten years here there are fifteen songs that could feasibly combine to create a second album by The La’s, and that is excluding the two Powers-written tracks as performed by Cast: ‘When Will I See You Again’, ‘Our Time’, ‘Robberman’, ‘She Came Down’, ‘It’s Improbable’, ‘Was It Something I Said’, ‘Tears In The Rain’, ‘I Am The Key’, ‘Raindance’, ‘Minefield’, ‘Human race’, ‘Open Your Mind’, ‘Let’s Go For A Ride’, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ and ‘Rebound’. Recording techniques aside the quality, structure and melody of these offerings demonstrate what could be a seamless transition to that eponymous debut album. Whether or not Mavers would be able to recruit Powers back into the fold, be able to convince a guitarist and a drummer to supplement the core, and be able to record these songs in a manner that didn’t have him despairing at magic once captured and forever lost on a home-made tape somewhere remains to be seen. If he did manage all of this it is possible that Lee Mavers would find in his hands the greatest album ever made. Whilst he doesn’t we will never know, and as such our imaginations must do the work for us. It is our imaginations that therefore make The La’s’ second album the greatest ever.
By John Hartley @JohnyNocash.