IF YOU WANT I’LL SELL YOU A LIFE STORY /
ABOUT A MAN WHO’S AT LOGGERHEADS WITH HIS PAST…
Considering the sheer scale of its influence, it’s pretty impressive that The La’s self-titled debut album is the only full length record they ever released.
In fact, if frontman Lee Mavers had his way, it probably never would’ve come out at all. Perfectionist to a fault, he refused to sign off on the album until he was happy with it. Eventually his label got sick of waiting and just released it. Harsh? Maybe. But it had been tinkered with for three years by its release in October 1990.
And, on balance, it’s a good thing that the album came out. It’s a terse, feisty little record, with a snarl and bite that belies the harmlessly jangling guitar pop that draws you in at first. A dark abyss lurking behind an innocent facade, like a candy floss stand at the funfair that turns out to be a front for an organised crime money-laundering operation.
This tension is found at the very heart of the album’s most famous song. It may even be one of the most famous songs on any album. It’s the only song that you’d find your mum humming along to on Magic FM which is probably about shooting heroin: There She Goes.
There She Goes undoubtedly owes a lot of its fame to the charming simplicity of its chord progression. The infectious melody that mainlines right into your brain and nestles there for days. It’s addictive.
And it’s pervasive, too. It has almost become a cliche film and TV trope, playing over a seemingly endless loop of sun-drenched soft focus shots in saccharine films of the 1990’s (A trope subverted by the wonderful series This Is England, which set the song to newsreel footage depicting social collapse at the end of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure).
The song has been covered countless times, too, by artists like the Wombats, Robbie Williams, and the Boo Radleys (remember this one, it’ll be important later.) Perhaps the most egregious of all is Sixpence None The Richer’s version, which captured all of the jangle and none of the menace, and which has gone on to be used in – horror of horrors – adverts for pharmaceutical products.
So how did The La’s build on the success of this mega-hit?
Record labels have since tried to profit from the band’s fame by releasing demos and live records, but Mavers and the band never released a record again.
Many artists talk about second album syndrome, sometimes known as the sophomore slump, particularly when their debut record was a success. There’s a sense of expectation which limits the freedom of expression they had felt when creating their first record. But I don’t think that’s it in the La’s’ case.
It’s difficult to imagine what might happen if they did, after all these years, decide to release a second album. But I think I have a pretty good idea of how it might go. My inkling is based on the reception of another follow-up piece. A sequel that came about in the looming shadow of its predecessor; an enormously popular and influential entry in the Western canon, catapulted into the mainstream by its relative simplicity and charm, but possessing darker depths beneath the surface. A work by a reclusive maverick, released after decades of silence at the hands of the commercially-motivated distributors.
Released in 2015, the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was heralded as the literary event of the 21st century. An unknown but somehow also long-awaited sequel to the classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird. Whispered concerns about elder abuse and Lee’s capacity to assert her own authorship in her old age aside, the excitement of the reading public to reenter the world of Atticus Finch, plucky young Scout and (here comes the pay-off) Boo Radley was palpable.
And then it came out.
And people were angry. Atticus, the avuncular, articulate lawyer – father figure to an entire nation – went from a figurehead of the civil rights movement to a Jim Crow endorsing segregationist overnight. “How could she do this to us?”
This outcry was fascinating. The backlash was so severe because, I think, when a work gains such huge popularity – when there is hardly a single adult in the western world who does not know and love it – there is a sense that the work no longer belongs to the author or artist. It becomes the property of those who adore it, and to release a sequel is to snatch that ownership away from them. And then to use that ownership to change their relationship with the work… that’s tantamount to an act of violence.
So, if you can, try to imagine the inescapable industry hype were rumours of a new La’s album to surface. The fevered build-up and column inches dedicated to it. And then imagine the release: no matter whether it engaged with the former material or not, there is next to no hope that the new project could capture the same lightning in a bottle. There’s no way it could live up to the hype.
So maybe some stones are best left unturned.
Certainly the very popular stones, in any case.
Sometimes one good record is all it takes.