One-Album Wonders: The La’s

It should go without saying, but no music career lasts forever.

It was once the industry standard for a band or artist to release a new studio album every year, sometimes as many as two a year with a live album or compilation every few years as well. While it is standard to release more than one album during one’s music career, some only get the opportunity to put one out. There’s endless reasons why this could be the case, such as a band being short-lived or a musician that simply chooses to never record again.

One-Album Wonders has an alternate meaning, that is of those that released multiple albums and only one was popular. For the sake of what I hope to make a series, my One-Album Wonders will be only for those with one fully fleshed-out studio album in the artist’s entire existence. For example, The Sex Pistols would be the sort of group that would qualify. The band is so legendary that it’s a shocking surprise to many that Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols was their only proper studio album. There are thousands of artist that fall into this category, so subject matter will not be difficult to come by.

The first of these artists to cross my mind was the English band The La’s, so that’s where I’ll begin.

 

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You may not think that you know The La’s, particularly if you are under 40 and/or not from the United Kingdom, but I guarantee that you do know them. “There She Goes” was a heavily-played song in the 90’s, but you may recognize it best from Sixpence None The Richer since their rendition actually charted higher than the original in many markets. It’s been recorded by other artists as well, and who can blame anyone for wanting to take a stab at it. This is a well-crafted bit of pop that is hard to get out of your head, but in a good way. Simplistic but rather rich-sounding. I’m not sure if it qualifies as a ballad or not, but if it does it stands as one of the best in my book. It was twice released as a single, once in 1988 and again in 1990 once the album was released.

For all who have heard their self-titled album, it’s more than just the one song. It’s laced with several gems that warrant attention.

“Son of a Gun” is such an infectious head-bobber, top-tapper of a tune, and a great way to kick off a record. “I Can’t Sleep” cranks up the energy, with Lee Mavers and John Power’s vocals complimenting each other in a way here that (to me at least) sounds like sheep calls in their trade-off vocals in the chorus, a bit ironic given the title. That may sound like an insult, but I like it! “Timeless Melody” is aptly named, with a sound that transcends eras. Slightly psychedelic, a bit contemporary alt-rock. Another one of the better-known songs on the album. It may even sound better as an purely acoustic piece if some of the frills were removed, but they add to the album’s variety. “Liberty Ship” could have been a single in certain markets, albeit the sound leans a bit on the more old-fashioned, traditional folk of centuries past. “Doledrum” I’d also put in a folk/bluegrass categorization, but they give it a modern twist in both cases. “Feelin’” and “Way Out” made for the final and premier singles respectively from this record. Both are fine tracks despite not being among my favourites here, but you could have thrown a dart at a list of songs to pick among these ear-worms of songs. You really can’t go wrong in this selection. “I.O.U.” acts as a good showcase of Mavers’ great strumming technique. It may contain the greatest use of “porridge” I’ve heard in a lyric. “Freedom Song” is the one with the least appeal to me. Is it a fake political song? A genuine political expression? Difficult to tell based on how it is sung. I will say that given a significant portion of the track is instrumental, it does serve well to highlight some of lead guitarist Peter “Cammy” Cammell’s playing. “Failure” is anything but one. Great drumming by Lee’s brother Neil Mavers helps push it along, and the effective use of twang and effects on the guitar makes one of the exceptions where some notable distortion creeps it’s way into the proceedings predominantly in a song. Closer “Looking Glass” is a heartfelt epic that could have been reduced to half the length for easy public consumption if desired. It has the feeling of a live favourite, where I can envision arms swaying in the crowd with lighters ablaze. The picking up of tempo as the song progresses gets a bit hard on the ears, contributing to the overall experimental vibe as they crash and burn out at the end.

Deluxe versions and Japanese versions contain even more material, with the former having a complete disc devoted to versions produced under Mike Hedges supervision, where some songs were omitted (“Liberty Ship”, “Freedom Song”) and replaced (“Knock Me Down”, “Clean Prophet”, “Come In Come Out”). The bonus tracks on my UK release of the album are “All By Myself”, “Clean Prophet”, “Knock Me Down” and a live rendition (recorded in, of all locations, a stable!) of non-album track “Over”. It also features an alternate take of “I.O.U.” where the vocals are more out front in the mix. Recordings of songs were spread over various sessions, with some tracks making it to singles, and many unreleased tracks from the sessions were aborted, but the final two sessions are what makes up the album. I believe that’s the case, at least, as the full recordings list on the album’s Wikipedia page is quite a bit to sort through. It would be an interesting exercise to make your own cut of an album with all the alternate takes that are available. In fact, I may have inadvertently grabbed a few of these alternate takes by mistake when linking to the songs!

The concise running time of the tracks and the album plays into the mentality of chasing the single, while that was likely not the primary aim by lead songwriter Lee Mavers. Only the closer “Looking Glass” would stray from the format at just shy of eight minutes in length. It is somewhat of a callback to music from twenty or thirty years earlier in the ‘50s and ‘60s when the industry was largely singles-driven. Or very much a punk thing to do, in a way. Look at a group like Bad Religion as a comparison. While not a pop-punk band in most people’s minds, they write memorable tunes that rarely have more than two choruses in any of them. The lyrics on The La’s are rather minimalist too (definitely NOT like Bad Religion in that regard), and this might explain why they would occasionally brag lightheartedly in interviews about how easily they could write songs. A strong sense of melody is what makes their songs shine, and this collection of songs has that in spades.

 

The La's

 

How precisely can this music be classified if you were to limit it to a genre? You could call it rock to be broad with it. Pop could apply structurally, but not in presentation in terms of what was considered pop in the late ‘80’s or early ‘90’s. Jangle pop seems like an unusual term, but I do see this album tagged as on different websites. It’s like the term djent, describing a particular instrumental tone trying to take an existing form of music (pop, rock, metal, etc.) and using it to brand a new genre. Indie? Is that a sound or a classification of an artist’s status? Who knows! Categories I find to be largely headaches. I like the old axiom that there are two types of music (good and bad), and The La’s aren’t remotely close to bad.

Steve Lillywhite handled the production and mixing duties, with Mark Wallis and Bob Hodgson assisting on some tracks. Dave Charles and Donal Mavers each gain engineering credits in spots as well. The Lillywhite name in particular should ring strongly with rock fans as the man who was behind the dials for the first three U2 albums. He did some fine work beyond that, of course, such as with XTC on Drums and Wires and Simple Minds’ Sparkle in the Rain. He has The La’s sounding very organic here. As the liner notes that Jona Cox wrote in the 2001 reissue version indicate, this was a goal of Lee Mavers. They somehow also have the musical swagger of a hard rock band in spite of the tunes favoring strumming acoustics for the most part over blaring out of stacks of Marshall cabinets, and the production team I feel did a good job of capturing that. That particular aspect, however, may have been a band-driven initiative. According to an interview that Absolute Radio conducted with John Power in 2014, the band looked to electronic frequencies to open their mind to sound, tuning guitars to things like the hum of a fridge.

They a got decent push across the pond, and here’s why I say you may need to be a certain age to know who they are. If you were a teenager or young adult during The La’s run, you may have caught them in a TV performance or two. Canadians who were a bit older than I am may have caught them in this Much Music appearance. They made it as far as Japan too, as evident in this interview from 1991. Thank goodness people recorded these things and put them online because their day in the sun seemed like one of those blink and you’ll miss it moments. Praise came from several sources in the music world, such as from rock legend Eric Clapton.

With all this hype going for band and the record, why just the one album? There was supposedly enough unused material that could have made another album’s worth of songs. There are a few reasons that contribute to their one-and-done existence.

1) The recording sessions

The amount of sessions this album took place over is rather notable. From the listener’s perspective it seems hard to notice, and I may be wrong in my accuracy, but most of the recordings are from two or three of what look to have been twelve sessions in total. The starts and stops of the album making process would have to be quite mentally draining on an artist, going over the tracks over, and over, and over. The performances might not suffer for it, at least not in a noticeable way, but to determine that might require visiting every recording variation including the demos. They seemed hesitant to discuss Steve Lilywhite in the interview I shared from Much Music, but they may simply have been relieved at that point that the recording was over and done with and wished to put it behind them. It wouldn’t surprise me if headaches around the recording process contributed to my next point.

2) The band’s lineup instability

For a band with only one album, they sure had a ton of different members, with Wikipedia listing a whopping twenty-six people! I’d like to think that this was somewhat of a problem. The longest tenured were vocalist/guitarist Lee Mavers and bassist/vocalist John Power, neither of whom were even around at the band’s inception in 1983. I can only imagine how strenuous it would be to audition new talent into a band at that frequency. At The La’s rate of turnover, that’s around one new member for every six months that the group was active. Some bands don’t change guitar strings that frequently! The biggest of the departures may have been Power’s exit in 1992, after which point the band essentially ended in spite of efforts by Mavers to perform or tour sporadically with other musicians.

3) Mammoth expectations

For those curious on how this album would be marketed, I came across the advertisement below in the September 1991 issue of Musician magazine.

 

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That always drives me crazy, and points to a problem with the industry at large. Sure, there might be some Beatles influence in the mix, and it seems an obvious compliment to be compared to such a massively successful band, but I often view this as a detrimental anchor that deflects from what their music has to offer. The Liverpool connection is played up, but what can be made of that? There were likely a plethora of musicians to come out of Liverpool who don’t even like the Beatles or sound much like them, yet still had that albatross around their necks. Granted, John Power couldn’t have been too reluctant to embrace comparisons given he was later cast as John Lennon in a musical.

4) Lee Mavers

I don’t mention Mavers out of any malevolence towards the dude, but the band’s existence hinged on his desire to keep it going. Lee Mavers was interviewed for the book Isle of Noises: Conversations with Great British Songwriters, in which he apparently decries The La’s album. In one MTV interview, the album was revealed to have been completed and released without the group’s permission (right down to the choice of artwork). The end product he refers to as coming off “as raw as a raw fish”. Not the cleverest metaphor I’ve heard, but his feelings couldn’t get much more blunt than he put across in that snippet. And if that’s not enough evidence of his feelings, perhaps this Tom Graves interview transcription from Rock & Roll Disc (where Mavers calls parts of the record “just crap”) or the manner in which he signed a copy of the album for Isle of Noises author Daniel Rachel might be.

Mavers is undoubtedly a perfectionist in nature, which can be both a blessing and a curse. While he feels he could have made improvements, this could have hampered further writing and recording attempts in his career. For all we know, he could have a shoebox littered with some demos many would be dying to hear and enjoy.

What happened after The La’s?

Despite some brief reunion hopes in 2005, The La’s legacy lives on through the collective work of the musicians that passed through their ranks rather than as a single entity. There are so many potential people to talk about here, who in some form or another touched on the band’s material in the studio, on stage, or in the garage. Former members seemed to be tied up in each other’s various projects like The Onset and The Lightning Seeds. One of the many ex-La’s musician, Paul Hemmings, gave good insight into the group’s inner workings in this Northern Soul article from 2017.

Chris Sharrock is one of the more prolific former La’s members, with an in-demand career of keeping the drum stool warm for Oasis, Robbie Williams, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, and various Oasis-affiliated projects among his work. Noel Gallagher is clearly a La’s fan, and similarities have even been pointed out between Oasis’ “The Importance of Being Idle” and “Clean Prophet”.

John Power’s career had the most success after his time in The La’s. Cast gave Power an outlet as primary songwriter, and his efforts resulted in several high-charting albums in the UK. The highest peak position of these was the Number 3-reaching Mother Nature Calls. He also has three solo albums to date, the most recent being 2008’s Stormbreaker.

Lee Mavers, being the head honcho of the band, should have most wondering of his activities. A 2003 article by The Guardian dubbed Mavers as “the JD Salinger of pop”, if that’s any indication to you. He’s made the odd guest appearance sitting in with other musicians, but has been fairly quiet overall. Most notably he performed with Gary Murphy on The La’s Stripped Back tour, where they played many La’s tracks and some covers.

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