Song of the Week 27: Looking Glass – The La´s

This week´s song of the week is the epic Looking Glass, the closing track from a lost classic album, The La´s (1990), by the Liverpudlian band of the same name. Not enough people know about this album. Aint that a shame.

“There’s only one song writer in this country who scares me and that is Lee Mavers.” Noel Gallagher.

I reckon Noel should be scared of a few others, but I know what he means.

The La´s were formed in 1984 in Liverpool by original lead singer Mike Badger. Mavers joined soon after, and became the main man once his songwriting talent began to surface. According to founder member Mr Badger, the name came to him in a dream. It´s the Scouse (i.e. Liverpudlian) for lads (if you didn´t already know that), also the sixth note on the major scale, and an oft- used backing vocal. You know,” la la la la…”  Bassist John Power, who met Badger at a council run musicianship course, joined them in early 1986. Badger went on to leave the group to form his own band The Onset later that year. The other two fellas in the picture above are guitarist Peter “Cammy” Camell and Lee´s brother, Neil, who would play drums on the album.

Noel again: “Liverpool is an island. It bears no relation to what’s going on musically anywhere else at all.”

All of the songs on the album were written by Lee Mavers between 1986 and 1987 and recorded over the next three years, with revolving band members and a string of acclaimed producers, including John Porter, Gavin MacKillop, John Leckie, Bob Andrews, Jeremy Allom and Mike Hedges. Why so many? Well, our Lee is a bit of a perfectionist, ditching takes, losing patience with one producer after another.

Mavers was painstakingly trying to capture the sound he was hearing in his head. He wanted something akin to the authentic sounding 1960´s records.

“We’ve got our sound and it’s acoustic based but that’s hard to capture in the modern studio which is geared towards synthesisers”.

One of those producers who saw his work scrapped (and/or lost) was Mike Hedges, who had this to say about Lee.

“Lee’s standards were so high that you’re never going to reach them. At some point you have to say, ‘it’s finished,’. I’ve never been 100% on anything I’ve ever done. I don’t think you can be, because how do you measure perfection?”

Well how about a couple more producers? The final sessions were recorded by producers Steve Lillywhite and Mark Wallis from December 1989 to February 1990 at Eden Studios.

The album was pieced together from recordings and released in 1990 on Go! Discs in the UK, and in 1991 on London Records in the States. The record company had grown frustrated with the considerable amount of money they´d been spending for the band to get the right sound and mood on their songs and gave up on the sessions. On its release, however, it was acclaimed by critics, and embraced enthusiastically by fans.

Lee was not happy with the decision to release it, but at least we got to hear the album. If he had gotten his way we might never have heard these songs. In fact he still wants to re-record the album again. He claimed that Lillywhite had used guide vocal tracks on the LP and that the producer didn´t understand their sound. He would later say that the band played poorly deliberately, because they didn´t click with Lillywhite from day one.

The single There She Goes (first released in 1988) was remixed and re-released in 1990 and reached number 13 in the UK Charts and number 57 in the US. Mavers is still receiving the royalty cheques, and lives quite comfortably in the Huyton area of Liverpool with his partner and four children.

“I treasure the whole of The La’s album, but if I have to pick one track, then it’s ‘Looking Glass’. We met Lee in Japan and I was asking if he’d make a new record. He said, ‘yeah, we’re recording the first one’. It’s like, ‘come on man, let it go!’ it’s a seminal record. I don’t give a fuck whether he likes it. It’s an amazing record”. Noel Gallagher. You know what he looks like, no need for another photo.

Bassist and backing vocalist John Power, frustrated by playing the same songs over and over since 1986, and Lee´s overzealous perfectionism, drug use and refusal to play any of Power´s songs, left to start his own band Cast. He had plenty of success in his own right. It´s been suggested that his group were named after the last line of Looking Glass, the repeated “the change is cast”, but Power claims that´s just a coincidence.

And so, on the verge of worldwide fame, in 1992, Mavers disbanded the group and like J.D. Salinger, became a virtual recluse. Every couple of years there would be sporadic reunions, festival appearances, and support slots. Lost sessions and demos appear from time to time, but no new songs.

For years, Mavers didn´t do interviews (even during his later years in The La´s), but ten years after the break-up when asked about Cast, Mavers made this cutting remark:

“John never learned anything from the La’s.”

He went on to say:

“He’s not talented. He never was. He had a bass guitar and a will when he first came along with the La’s… To him it’s all about money and looking good. He’s just like all the other pop stars – a spoilt brat. ”

Bitter, twisted or just painfully honest? It´s sounds a little like John Lennon berating Paul after The Beatles had split.

“I saw Cast on TV last week. It was comical. They never took anything from the La’s. They never understood anything… Powers was standing against the wall, saying, ‘Our records sell’. But look at what else sells, mate. They’re just crap… I haven’t seen Powers since he left the La’s. Enough said.”

I´m not a big fan of Cast either, but steady…

Well, if it´s any conciliation to Power, Lee said the same thing about the La´s stuff.

“It´s really awful… garbled. I don´t like any of The La´s records… A band does not translate into the studio – it took me years to realise this.”

Meanwhile, Lee Mavers still writes songs, still lives with his family in Liverpool, and tours with the reunited La´s on and off, but still no new material has materialised. (Material materialising, I like that) He says he doesn´t record them, because he “can´t trust anyone” in the business.

The version of the album recorded by Mike Hedges (of U2, Manic Street Preachers and The Cure fame) was lost and then found on a cassette, digitally remastered and released for the first time in 2008 as part of The La´s Deluxe Edition. There are also versions of tracks recorded by some of the other producers.

There´s a story one of the producers told about Lee in the studio playing him one of the greatest songs he´d ever heard. The producer said this has to go on the album. Mavers replied that he was saving it for the second album. Hopefully, like Jack Black, he hasn´t forgotten it.

If you ever wonder what a second album might have sounded like, you can check out the bootlegged “kitchen tapes”, which are available on youtube. It probably wouldn´t have sounded anything like that, but have a listen anyway. It´s just the La´s in the kitchen messing about with ideas, Lee demoing songs for the others and working through them. You can hear the new songs coming together. They´re missing lyrics, they´re still unfinished, but there´s some more of that La´s magic in there. Here´s the otherwise unreleased I Am The Key from those home sessions.

Die hard fans laud the Kitchen Tapes as some of the best material the band released. Here´s what Mavers had to say about the recordings: “A load of fucking garbage.”

I feel you´re getting a sense of his personality now.

Here´s Noel´s take on why Lee´s never got his act together to make that second record.

“People say Lee Mavers is mad or a tortured artist but he isn’t. He’s just lazy. Well, either that or he doesn’t want to tarnish the reputation of what he knows he’s already achieved.”

Or maybe he just doesn´t like the limelight and has tired of what fame has to offer. In earlier interviews, Mavers was usually enthusiastic, witty, driven and well informed, with a real sense of what his music should sound like. But after dropping out of the public eye, he reportedly became more withdrawn and caustic (see above comments about John Powers for confirmation of that).

For balance, here´s Mavers on Noel, who copied the introduction of The La´s Clean Prophet for Oasis´s The Importance of Being Idle:

“Noel needs to realise the importance of being honest.”

He´s got a way with words so he does. 🙂

In late 2003, the book In Search of The La´s: A Secret Liverpool was released by M.W. Macefield. It contained an interview from 2000 where Mavers discussed the band and what he intended to do with his music, but although it provided some insight into his state of mind at the time, it ended on an ambiguous note re: his return to music.

In 2005, The La´s played Glastonbury (with John Power on bass, no hard feelings Lee). As usual, Mavers didn´t make much effort with his image wearing a white sweat-shirt, scraggly hair, unshaven and with jeans and trainers. Just an honest authentic band, with a bunch of great songs. Who cares about image? In gigs he rarely utters a word to the audience. As you may have gathered, he doesn´t have much time for bullshit.

In 2006, Power said that Mavers was “tinkering with something that’s majestic” and when asked about the release date, “I can’t tell you where and when…’ cos whatever he does, whether it’s in this lifetime or the next, it can’t be rushed”.

New songs that would have, or will be, featured on the 2nd album include I Am The Key, Fishing Net (or Something I Said), Raindance and The Human Race.

Maybe one day we´ll get to hear a second album, but I wouldn´t hold my breath. In 2009 when asked about reforming the bad to record a second album, he said he “doesn´t see the point.”  Since that, his brother and fellow band member, drummer Neil, has been taunting him to release something.

Anyone who´s heard their debut, except for Mavers of course, can´t get enough of it, me included. It´s the closest we´ll get to hearing the sound that Lee heard in his head.  There are some timeless melodies on there. The album doesn´t get old.

In the meantime, enjoy the wonderful closing track from The La´s, Looking Glass.

Lyrics:

Tell me where I’m going…
Tell me where I’m bound…
Turn the pages over
Turn the world around
Open up the broken door for all lost will be found
Walk into the empty room but never make a sound
Oh tell me where I’m going
Tell me why I’m bound to tear the pages open
Turn the world around…
I’ve seen everybody
Everybody’s seen me
In the looking glass
I’m in everybody
Everybody’s in me
In the stone is cast –
The glass is smashed

The past – it never says it
It never makes a sound

Whispered ways were chosen
Echoes will be found
Mirrors that were broken
Lay there on the ground
Though the way lies open
Will the way be found
Oh tell me where I’m going and
Tell me why I’m bound to tear the pages open
Turn the world around…
So the story goes it
Everybody knows it
Look into the past
We can’t live without it
We can’t live within it
Everything must pass
The change is cast…
I’ve seen everybody
Everybody’s seen me
In the looking glass
I’m in everybody
Everybody’s in me
In the stone is cast –
The glass is smashed

6 thoughts on “Song of the Week 27: Looking Glass – The La´s

  1. Thanks for that fine piece on the very frustrating genius Lee Mavers. Hadn’t as yet seen that live Looking Glass vid so cheers especially for that! ‘Genius’ obviously a devalued word but how else could teh man behind Looking Glass be described?

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