Archive marvels from the Great Lost Godfathers of Britpop
Somewhere in Liverpool, The La’s sit on a stack of songs that may one day comprise the follow-up to their 1990 debut album. Lee Mavers, now 44, remains their silent spokesman, their inconspicuous focal point, their inactive driving force. Mavers, a Merseybeat aficionado with vinegar for charisma, was always a contradiction in terms. Most paradoxically, his effortless songwriting talent co-existed with a crippling perfectionism, meaning his two-minute tunes took three years – and five producers – to record onto tape. Endlessly dissatisfied, Mavers shocked his fans by disowning the resulting album. (Some of us liked it.)
If Steve Lillywhite’s production of that album toned down their rainbow, the 17 tracks on BBC In Session present The La’s in unflinchingly vivid light. The lads who recorded these Radio 1 sessions (1987-90) did not prevaricate or second-guess themselves in the BBC’s Maida Vale complex. They rolled up for a day’s work, lit a cigarette and plugged in. And how ideally those prosaic Beeb schedules suited Mavers’s pared-down, cock-a-hoop songs and his bandmates’ gutsy playing. BBC In Session, give or take a few overdubs, sounds as ‘live’ as if The La’s were performing on a small platform ten feet in front of us. It’s oncoming. It’s revelatory.
Broadcast across four Radio 1 evening shows, the sessions document four different La’s line-ups, each with distinct characteristics. For Bob Harris in 1990, they were super-abrasive (“Callin’ All”), squealing with feedback (“Feelin’”), almost Who-like (“I Can’t Sleep”). For Nicky Campbell in 1989, they were raggedy-arsed and bronchial (Mavers straining for his high notes), yet rhythmically subtle thanks to connoisseur drummer Chris Sharrock. What’s really striking is how good the first session is. Recorded for Janice Long in August 1987, shortly before Go! Discs released their debut 45 “Way Out”, these are the muscle-flexings of a group with the confidence to ignore every trend the ‘80s have to offer, preferring to endorse 1950s primitivism (skiffle-esque acoustic guitars), 1960s songcraft (nods to Beatles and Kinks) and pride in their origins (Scouse accents that could strip wallpaper). You would go and see this band live. You might even run.
It’s hard, admittedly, to discern any staggering musical development over the four years. Nevertheless, The La’s did tinker with their methodology from time to time. Recording for Liz Kershaw as a trio in 1988, they frustratingly botch “I Can’t Sleep”, a shadow of the locomotive Mod riot they’ll nail for Harris 28 months later. Another Kershaw disappointment is Mavers’ heavy-handed intro to “There She Goes”, an affront to the glittering carillons we know and love from the 1990 hit single.
Generally, however, the songs on BBC In Session far exceed the Lillywhite-produced models (not least “Timeless Melody”, “Doledrum” and “Son Of A Gun”), and inevitably, when the 1990 album is played for comparison, it sounds muffled, distant and annoyingly slow. BBC In Session should therefore become your household’s La’s album of choice.