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The Magical Autism of Lee Mavers

[1]3,253 words

Who are the greatest underachievers in music history? A few names come to mind. Of course, you have The Sex Pistols, who became a national cultural phenomenon in Britain and then broke up after one album. The Stone Roses are also strong contenders for the cup. Their earth-shattering 1989 debut album [2] regularly shows up on Greatest Albums Ever lists (in 2000, NME placed it #1). When their sophomore effort finally emerged five years later in an entirely changed musical landscape, The Roses had transformed into banal Led Zeppelin clones before imploding with a most undignified whimper.

But if you ask me, the title for the Greatest Underachievers in the History of Music has to go to Liverpool band The La’s. They only released one album, a handful of singles, and are best remembered today as one-hit-wonders for their 1990 single “There She Goes,” which has been endlessly covered (Sixpence None the Richer, Boo Radleys, Robbie Williams, etc) and has appeared on countless movie and TV soundtracks (The Parent Trap, Fever PitchGilmore GirlsThe Adventures of Pete and Pete).

But to call The La’s a “one-hit-wonder,” while technically true, does them a disservice. When most people hear the term “one-hit-wonder”, the image that comes to mind is of some mediocrity that got lucky once. Creativity is about 1/3 luck. Sometimes, you’re in the right frame of mind, the mood is just so, and inspiration hits just such a way that some magic spontaneity happens and you create something great. Or sometimes it comes as a result of a fluke, like accidentally hitting the wrong chord but realizing it sounds cooler that way. Sometimes inspiration comes from something entirely out of your control, like walking down the street and witnessing something that gets the hamster in your head running around in his little hamster wheel. Anyone, regardless of talent, can write one great song, or one great story, or make one great movie if they get lucky. Hell, Sylvester Stallone once wrote a great screenplay.

Indeed, when I first listened to The La’s self-titled album in 2001, I bought it for “There She Goes,” believing that I was purchasing a CD by a one-hit-wonder. I was shocked to find out that the entire album was actually quite fantastic.

And considering the album was released in 1990, and being a rabid fan of early-90’s British indie, I couldn’t help but notice how against the grain it was for its time. In 1990, the UK indie scene was obsessed with being very modern. To Liverpool’s north was Manchester, where the bands of the baggy scene were experimenting combining dance music, drum machines, and a dash of American hip-hop influence with traditional guitar music in very novel ways. To Liverpool’s south was London, where shoegaze bands were using the latest state-of-the-art effects processors and all manner of studio trickery to create vast abstract musical soundscapes.

But The La’s was the opposite of modern. Large sections of it sounded like some lost album from the 1960s. It had these bouncy Merseybeat rhythms and angelic harmonies with a pinch of tasteful flourishes of acid rock psychedelia.

Ironically, by being retro, The La’s were ahead of their time. By the mid-90s, the Britpop phenomenon had become a global sensation and every British band was trying to revive the spirit of 1960s swinging London. Noel Gallagher of Oasis was a massive La’s fan and patterned his own neo-60s rock band after The La’s, stating that Oasis’ mission was to “finish what the La’s started.”

My first experience listening to The La’s left me wondering: “Why the hell wasn’t this band bigger? Why the hell didn’t put out another album?” Well, that’s an interesting story.

At the center of The La’s was singer, songwriter, and guitarist Lee Mavers. As eccentric as he was talented, Lee Mavers was an autistic savant if there ever was one. Heavy on the autism and heavy on the savant. He has been compared to original Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett as well as novelist J. D. Salinger. He is compared to Barrett because he only completed only one album before his mental volatility rendered him nigh impossible for anyone to work with, and to Salinger for his reclusiveness, ambivalence to notoriety, and the fact that he is reportedly sitting on top of mountains of superb material which he refuses to release for reasons known only to him.

In 1987, The La’s were the hottest band on the Liverpool music scene. After signing to Go! Discs, the UK music press was predicting that they would be the second coming of The Smiths. However, The La’s would take three years and cost £1,000,0000 to record, an extraordinary sum for an indie record. For comparison, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, another album that took three years to make and one that nearly bankrupted Creation Records, only cost £250,000.

The main stumbling block was Lee Mavers’ maniacally autistic devotion to perfectionism, which has become the thing of myth and legend. Mavers had a particular sound in his head that he strove to capture on tape that remained forever elusive. He wanted his record to sound exactly like the rock albums from the 1960s, which he felt could not be achieved with modern recording technology that made everything sound artificial.

One famous anecdote about The La’s is that Mavers once demanded that the studio get a vintage 1960s soundboard. When one was acquired and Mavers was still unable to achieve the sound he heard in his head, he demanded that the studio find a vintage 1960s soundboard with authentic 1960s dust still on it. There were constant demands to try different guitars, different amps, and other equipment in a quixotic quest to capture the sound Mavers could hear in his mind. Former La’s guitarist John “Boo” Byrne recalled: “I’d try a guitar part 20 different times with 20 different guitars” in hopes of finally getting a take that would meet Mavers’ expectations.

[3]Mavers’ nitpicking would often veer into the absurdly trivial. At one point, he complained that a guitar cable was unacceptable because it was the wrong color. Mavers’ methods could be unorthodox. There are rumors that he would tune his guitar to the hum of a refrigerator.

The La’s guitarist Paul Hemming explained what it was like working with Mavers: 

There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Even a simple matter of listening to the demos: Lee would say, “that’s the wrong demo tape.” Well, it’s actually the master demo tape. “Yeah, but I prefer this version.” OK, so you use that version. “But it’s being played through the wrong cassette deck.” OK, we’ll get this cassette deck. “Yeah, but it’s being recorded through the wrong mic.” OK, you get this mic. “But that’s the wrong coloured lead.” OK, you get this coloured lead. . . You go on and on and on ’til nothing happens.

The La’s made 12 attempts to make the album in three different studios. By the time the album finally hit the shelves, they had burned through 7 different producers, 9 drummers, and 13 guitarists who were all either summarily dismissed or who walked out in frazzled frustration. Aside from Mavers himself, his lieutenant, bassist John Power, remained the only other constant presence.

Among the producers whose work Mavers deemed unsatisfactory were John Porter, who produced the first few albums for The Smiths, and John Leckie, who would later produce The Stone Roses’ masterpiece. A version of The La’s was recorded in its entirety with Mike Hedges (The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees), but at the last minute, Mavers decided that it too was unacceptable and demanded that he be allowed to re-record the album again. The version of the album that was finally released was produced by Steve Lillywhite, who had also produced hit records for U2 and Simple Minds.

“We’d record six songs that were fantastic,” Lillywhite recalled of his time working with The La’s, “but if there was one thing wrong on the seventh, he would be convinced everything else was terrible and we’d have to start everything again.”

So what was the sound that Mavers going for? Only he knows for sure, but we have a clue. Mavers has stated the demo for the La’s b-side “Over” was the best sounding recording The La’s ever did. The demo in question was recorded live in a horse stable into a four-track tape recorder.

Mavers has stated that he prefers the Mike Hedges version [4] of The La’s to the Steve Lillywhite version, which was officially released. To my ears, the Hedges version does sound rawer and “authentically” 1960s-sounding in production.

After three years and a million quid, Go! Discs stepped in and released the Steve Lillywhite-produced album without the band’s consent. Lee Mavers was furious and insisted that the album was not finished yet. Despite Mavers’ protestations, the album sold mildly well and was met with enthusiastic reviews by critics who forecast a bright future for The La’s.

However, in interviews to “promote” the album, Mavers told every journalist who would listen that his album sucked and that he considered it an embarrassment. Of the album, Mavers told NME [5]: “I hate it. It’s the worst, a pile of shit. There is not one good thing I can find to say about it,” and that it sounded like “a snake with a broken back.” This would often lead to very odd interviews where Mavers would be trashing his own album while the interviewer would be disagreeing with him and telling him that it was actually really good.

His opinion of the album did not soften with time. In 1995, he told NME [6] that his one album was “the worst LP I’ve ever heard by anyone.”

More than merely trashing his own album, Lee Mavers made a vow which he has kept to this day. He declared that he would not release any new songs until he was allowed to re-record his first album the way he wanted it to sound. To this day, he has not done either.

By the end of 1991, Mavers’ right-hand man John Power had finally had enough and left the band. Power would go on to form the band Cast, which enjoyed considerable success during the Britpop era, including a string of UK top 10 albums. Mavers, on the other hand, began his descent — first into obscurity, and then into legend.

What became of Lee Mavers and what exactly went wrong has been something of a mystery. There are tales that he mentally unraveled or that he got into hard drugs. There has long been speculation that The La’s signature song “There She Goes” was a love letter to heroin, as it includes the lines “There she goes again. . . racing through my brain. . . pulsing through my vein. . . no one else can heal my pain.” Mavers would later confess that while he did begin dabbling in heroin in 1990, “There She Goes” was actually written in 1988.

I think the issue with Mavers was not drugs or that he was “crazy” per se, but just that he was sublimely autistic. There is a video clip of an interview he and John Power did with Canadian music channel Much Music. At this point, John Power was now doing most of the talking in interviews for obvious reasons. Mavers seems to be constantly fidgety, but when it’s time to play, he explodes into song with hyper-focus. Most amusingly, he sings the guitar solo. 

In 1995, NME tracked Mavers down for an interview [7] to try to understand what the hell ever happened to him and what he was up to. Upon meeting Mavers, Paul Moody was bewildered by the bizarre and disorienting “Scouse psychobabble” Mavers was known for communicating in.

When Mavers was asked if he had benefitted from his time away from music, his response was “It gets clearer and it gets vaguer (pause). Before every dawn, there’s a night. Before every calm, there’s a storm. It’s like, the closer you get to perfection, the closer you get to imperfection, simple as. The closer you are to God, then the closer you are to temptation. The La’s is a personal trip for the world!”

Mavers also expressed his belief that his songs do not come from himself and that he is merely a conduit, and that his songs actually come from, I dunno, another dimension or something. “A song is never written by anyone it’s just caught in the net. I don’t write all these songs, I just catch them. I can’t believe no-one’s got them before me. And then people hear the records and then learn from them. It’s such a perfect thing. It’s spirit and matter. Spirit matters. One soul, soul nation!”

More strangely, Mavers said that the name of his band had existed since ancient times and that his band was infused with the spirit of Lazarus. “Lazarus, La’s-arus, La’s. He directed light. And the light comes from the water. It keeps you alive, la. And the pool is where we have to be. The Liver-Pool. The Mississippi, the Mersey-sippi. In history all the maddest scientists were the best ones and they all stayed close to the water.”

What did the new music he’s working on sound like? “I think it sounds like a tank, near the pyramids, in Egypt somewhere. . . A Nazi tank with these weird symbols on the side of it, y’know. . . it’s gonna sound like a tank. . . a panzer division!”

Moody left the interview thunderstruck. 

In five years interviewing musicians I’ve never seen or heard anything like these spellbinding, quasi-religious exhortations to see some inner light. It’s not even the question of his being a pop star: it’s the impression you get that Lee Mavers is somewhere way beyond all that, either a genuine, spell-binding prophet or, potentially, a latter-day Syd Barrett or Brian Jones, squandering his genius on too much acid and too little productivity.

26 years later, we know the answer.

[8]

Lee Mavers in 1995

Mavers did manage to accumulate an impressive collection of celebrity admirers. In a 1991 interview [9] with Rolling Stone, Eric Clapton was asked if there was any new music he liked. “The only thing I’ve really liked is a guy called Lee Mavers, who sings with the La’s. He’s got a stance and a style that I think is tremendous.”

Over the years, there would be a few high-profile musicians who tried to help Lee Mavers stage a comeback. The first was ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. Marr was impressed with The La’s and was keen to work with him on creating a follow-up. Marr connected with Mavers through a mutual friend and spent some time working together in the studio only to discover to his horror that Mavers had no intention of working on new material. He was still singularly focused on re-recording his first album.

The next big name who tried to help Mavers make a comeback was Noel Gallagher of Oasis. Gallagher allowed Mavers and a hastily-assembled new version of The La’s open for Oasis during the height of their 90s popularity. However, not only did Mavers not have any intention of debuting any new music, he didn’t even play any old La’s material. On the Oasis tour, Mavers’ setlist consisted mostly of The Who covers and improvisational jams. At the time, Mavers said that he only agreed to do the shows because he needed to pay off some debts from 1991 that he still owed to his old record label. 

In a 2017 interview, Noel Gallagher was asked about Mavers. “When I see him I say, ‘Hey Lee, when are you going to release your second album?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll do it when I’ve finished the first one. . .’ He’s still trying to nail his first set of songs right after 27 years.”

That last person to seriously attempt to revive Mavers’ career was former Libertines guitarist Pete Doherty in 2009. The plan was for Doherty’s new band Babyshambles to be Lee Mavers’ backing band for a new La’s album. Mavers even temporarily moved in with Babyshambles’ bass player to work on new material. Considering that celebrity junkie Pete Doherty was nearly as dysfunctional as Mavers, you might think he would have had a better chance of getting something out of Mavers in a “so crazy it just might work” sort of way. Alas, it wasn’t to be, and the plan fell apart for ambiguous reasons.

Lee Mavers is no Syd Barrett, but part of me thinks he would be kinder if he were. Syd Barrett left music and never looked back. Mavers will re-emerge once or twice a decade. He’s played a total of 20 shows since 1991, some at small clubs, some in stadiums, and one at Glastonbury. But he never stays for long. Just long enough to get everyone’s hopes up before slipping back into the dark.

After 20 years of being a La’s fan, I have long since made peace with the fact that I will die with ever hearing a new La’s album. For one, Lee Mavers apparently doesn’t need the money. He reportedly makes tens of thousands of pounds a month off the royalties from “There She Goes” alone. 

Noel Gallagher has said, “So I’ve come to the conclusion he’s either shit-scared of ruining his legacy or he’s just a lazy cunt.” 

One might view the life and career of Lee Mavers to be a tragedy. I don’t think so. Back in my musician days, I knew a couple of guys like him: otherworldly talented dudes who just could not get their shit together. Some of the most gifted musicians I have ever known were guys who never made it out of their bedroom.

It’s very annoying to encounter people like that. There are people who if you took their talent and gave it to any other person, he would go out and conquer the world with it, but this complete screwup has it and it’s completely useless to him. You want to say: “Look, if you’re not going to use that talent, could you give it to me? I’ll go out, get rich and famous with your talent, and give you half profits.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. It’s a cliché to talk about the link between genius and madness, but I think there are cases where it is undoubtedly true. There are people whose brains have faulty wiring which allows them to be creative in ways other people can’t be, but that same faulty wiring hinders them in every other aspect of life.

Lee Mavers at least gave us one album, and for that, the world should be thankful. That’s one album more than most people like him ever make.

In his 2016 NPI speech, Richard Spencer said “To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer, and a conqueror.” That is true. But it is also true that to be white is to be a weirdo. No race produces weirdos quite like the white race. Caesar conquered Gaul, which is a very white thing to do. However, Caligula made his horse a senator, which you have to admit is also a pretty white thing to do. I’m not saying that every white person would do that. I’m just saying that only a white person would do that.

The Julius Caesars and the Napoleons are symbols of what makes the white race great. But I would argue that the weirdos, your Lee Mavers and Lord Byrons, are what make the white race interesting. 

In this sense, Lee Mavers is a white original.

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