”Our next guests have made what is one of the most widely praised debut albums in years. It’s right here, and it’s named after the group themselves. It’s called The La’s. Now, kids, making their American TV debut, please welcome…the La’s.”
— DAVID LETTERMAN, LATE NIGHT, OCTOBER 1991
So it was not exactly Ed Sullivan. It was not yet even at the Ed Sullivan Theater. But on that autumn evening almost 14 years ago in New York City, four lads from Liverpool — the lead singer sporting a sandy moptop — chimed out an uncomplicated, irresistibly catchy pop tune. The song, a wistfully optimistic ballad written by La’s frontman Lee Mavers, was ”There She Goes,” and in the years following that night it has become ubiquitous — a soundtrack standard and a favorite to cover (by Robbie Williams, among others), it even provided the background for a recent birth-control-pill ad.
”I think it’s one of the greatest pop tunes ever,” says Mike Myers, who snuck out of a Saturday Night Live rehearsal to watch the La’s play that night on Letterman. ”Paul Shaffer saw me listening and loving the song, so for many years that’s what he would play whenever I came out on Letterman.” (Myers would later include two different versions of ”There She Goes” on the soundtrack of his 1993 film So I Married an Axe Murderer.) ”It’s an unbelievable song,” says Leigh Nash, former lead singer of Sixpence None the Richer, who scored a hit with their version in 1999. ”Just a perfect pop song. The perfect pop song.”
The La’s, meanwhile, vanished. After the release of their self-titled debut album — a widely praised ’60s garage-pop homage that recalled the Who and the Beatles — something went wrong. A long-promised follow-up was never recorded, and the nucleus of the band, Mavers and bassist John Power, stopped performing together soon after the 1991 Letterman appearance. As the song has grown ever more famous and beloved, Mavers has become increasingly reclusive, coveting privacy as avidly as the Beatles once courted fame. Call it the British Evasion.
Then, this past June, the La’s resurfaced suddenly and without explanation, playing three concerts in Ireland and then three more in as many evenings in the English cities of Sheffield, Manchester, and London. (Mavers and Power have refused to talk to the press since announcing the reunion.) In August the La’s appeared at Japan’s Summer Sonic Festival on the same bill as Oasis, whose own songsmith, Noel Gallagher, once said that their mission was ”to finish what the La’s started.” (And you thought Oasis was a Beatles tribute band.)
How did one of pop’s most promising songwriters devolve into one of its most enduring enigmas? And in the wake of the band’s recent reunion — and with long-standing rumors that Mavers possesses an arsenal of astonishing new songs — are the La’s at last ready to reclaim their rep as one of England’s best bands?
Outside the leadmill in blue-collar Sheffield, a small crowd starts queuing up at 5 p.m. for the 9:30 p.m. show. The 400 or so Brits in line are circumspect, unsure as to whether they’re about to enter a concert or a time machine. ”I heard that the set is exactly the same set they were doing in 1990,” says one. ”I don’t care,” comes the reply. ”I was too young to see them back then.” Among the band’s fans, reasons for the La’s protracted hibernation are shared as easily as smokes. Mavers’ stubbornness. Mavers’ impossibly high standards. Mavers’ lethargy. In short, Lee Mavers.