There’s A Reason George Martin Was The 5th Beatle

May 1, 2008 at 6:02 am (new releases, reviews, rock and roll)

As we head into Derby Week (bummer of a post position, Brownie), tonight’s blog post has me recalling something the ever-astute Marc Attenberg told me years ago about handicapping horse races: the worst guys to ask for ‘capping wisdom are the trainers and jockeys. Why? I could speculate a few reasons, but to me the main one is easy to pick out. I think trainers and jocks are lousy at sizing up a race because perhaps they’re too close to the subject to form objective theses on the subject at hand.

Which brings us to what I want to yammer on about tonight: earlier this month UNI/Polydor re-issued the seminal and only record (to date) released by Liverpool’s legendary The La’s. It arrives as a double-cd package with the original as-released album remastered, and then a variety of different mixes with different producers of the songs on that original album. Of special interest is the inclusion of the “Mike Hedges Album”, allegedly the version of the debut album that La’s frontman and creative force Lee Mavers was happiest with.

Before going forward, I suppose there might be someone out there unfamiliar with the turbulent history of The La’s and their only album. As the story goes, Mavers had a precise and certain La’s “sound” in his head. Signed to the ultra-hip Go! Discs, the label forked out a lot of money to hook the band up with in-demand producer Steve Lillywhite. Mavers was upset with the production and would later claim the band deliberately played poorly in the recording sessions, in hopes that the material would never be released in that state. The La’s subsequently went through a series of producers (including John Leckie) re-recording the album before a frustrated record label had Lillywhite piece together as coherent a record as he could for release from the initial sessions. Mavers was livid with the label and refused to release another album until the debut could be recorded properly with the songs sounding on record the way they did in his head.

Yeah, good luck with that Lee. Allegedly of all the producers who took a stab at The La’s back in the day, the guy who came closest to capturing the sound that Mavers wanted was Mike Hedges (who’d later work with U2 and Radiohead, among others). The inclusion of the Hedges version of the debut on The La’s Deluxe Edition, then, would seem to be a pretty important occurrence for fans of the band…

…and yet, having listened and re-listened to the Hedges versions of the songs…not so much. There are discoveries to be made on this double-disc set to be sure, but the most major of these is that Steve Lillywhite is one hell of a great producer. Lillywhite’s versions of these songs just seem far, far, FAR superior to anyone else’s. Obviously, the bias of having heard only those versions for the last 18 years is part of it. But even trying empirically and objectively to find brilliant bits of the songs as recorded by Hedges, Leckie, or Gary Crowley, it seems clear that Lillywhite was head and shoulders beyond his peers here. The other versions plod with a sort of deliberateness and hesitancy that make the songs sound positively dull. The myriad versions of the hit “There She Goes” are really jarring; the signature guitar riff on the song sounds fluid and loose in the original, but the differnt versions on the re-issue sound like first-year guitar students picking out the riff by sight-reading a tablature chart. Lillywhite’s versions practically leap out of the speakers by comparison; taken side-by-side in this format it ends up being like watching the “Wizard Of Oz”, where everyone else is black and white and the original version is glorious technicolor.

As such, I’m going to express a bit of pop music blasphemy: Lee Mavers was wrong, wrong, wrong. If the Hedges version of his songs were the one closest to what he wanted, then Mavers was a talent lacking in perspective. Which brings us back to the horse racing analogy at the beginning of this post (yeah, I’d almost forgotten it too). When you’re in a band, I think that like horse trainers and races, you’re too close to the subject sometimes to be able to think critically and have accurate notions of what works and what doesn’t. Hey, the guys in Nirvana were sick and tired of playing “that stupid riff” that became “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Eric Clapton fled The Yardbirds partly because he couldn’t stand playing the four-chord strum of “For Your Love”, which sounded boring to him. Hell, take a look at the post-1969 solo careers of The Beatles; on their own it became clear that John, Paul, and George sure seemed to need the critical and editorial ear of George Martin to help them tell the difference between what worked and what didn’t.

Sadly then if over the years you’ve built in your mind a sort of altar to someone really getting The La’s sound “right” in the studio and laid hopes on hearing the same, I’ve got news for you. Seems as if Steve Lillywhite had it right all along, and had a better feel for The La’s sound than the band themselves. Unless you’re a completist or contrarian, there’s no reason to throw over your old La’s CD for this new version.

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