The La’s (album), and the plight of a working class city at the end of history.
I first listened to The La’s’ self-titled (and only) studio album when 18, in 2002, originally surprised to find that the album wasn’t full of ‘sunshine pop’ tracks, as expected due their only chart success ‘There She Goes’ being the only track I’d heard by them until then – at a time of my life still largely under the influence of The Stone Roses’ self-titled (and the arguably only valid) studio album. Yet, since then, the more I listen to The La’s, the more I feel it embodies a crucial and tragic moment in British social history. To generalise in terms of class, I feel it embodies the defeat of the working class, purposely set upon with a neoliberal agenda imposed by Thatcherism, played out here in the desperate and tragic plights of individuals. By the end of this decade (the 1980’s) what was happening in the UK had been part of a larger ‘alteration’ of the world, as capitalism asserted itself as triumphant over all other social systems. A port-city band, The La’s truly sound like shards of once valuable flotsam, washed up on the beach at the end of History.
The album was released in 1990, although the songs were written and recorded throughout the previous 3 years. 1987 to 1990 was a symbolic moment. This was the point when the idea of history as a process towards universal emancipation ended; the crucial point being in November 1989 when the tearing down of the Berlin wall came to symbolise what the American philosopher Francis Fukuyama had termed ‘the end of history’ – that we had reached the zenith of social progress, that we couldn’t move beyond capitalist liberal democracy, as the fall of this wall was a clear indication that the half-century long communist systems in Eastern Europe were crumbling. However, little did Fukuyama know at the time how this soundbite would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Regarding British popular culture, 1989 was also the year when the Stone Roses released their (now) far better know self-titled album – going through a similar process of taking the previous years to formulate and The La’s (album). As with The La’s, their self-titled album is the band, making both albums works of art rather than releases made merely to please managers and fans (even Theodor Adorno may have warmed to them).
Why compare these two albums? Because they were both formulated and released in this historically crucial period; they are both incredibly revered albums; they were both born out of two once world cities, neighbouring cities, that were both suffering severely by this period (Liverpool and Manchester). The Stone Roses’ album has become synominous with so-called British working class culture (especially retroactively, and often crudely so), whilst I feel The La’s’ album embodies the destruction of that very class. That the eventually-obvious desperation in the songs is so relevent to our situation in 2014, when the majority are forced to compete against each other, in this neoliberal race to the bottom.
“Give me some money, as I’m right in a hurry, to find a way out of this” (Way out)
The musical scene that involved The Stone Roses, had a Utopian essence (an essence now seen as naive and now only deployed at retro discos), even (dare I say it? yes I do) a neo-communist impulse in the wake of the collapse of Soviet Communism in Eastern Europe. Yet with The La’s it was a social realism essence, one which they were evidently trying to climb out of. I feel that now, the further we move beyond the late 80’s/early 90’s, the less the Stone Roses (album) seems to embody the real social mood under the haze of then naive feel-good 1990’s optimism, and the more the La’s album seems to relate to the really-existing social reality underneath all that hyperbole, which is why I feel it agrees so much with the present mood, when nobody can believe in the 1990’s vibe anymore.
“If you know what’s good for you, then you know what you can do, just don’t go down, don’t go down” (Doledrum).
Whilst the style of The Stone Roses, and the larger ‘Madchester’ scene (with which they are heavily associated) looked casual in the sense of cool, relaxed and free to do what one pleases, the look of The La’s (in the images in the album’s booklet and the surrounding period) look casual in terms of ‘casual labour force’. They look like a group of young proletarianised young men, who look like they’re waiting around for work at the docks, or whom had just been laid off – having to become accustomed to work becoming less available. It makes one think of the famous social realist 1980’s drama based in Liverpool, boys from the Blackstuff, “a powerful depiction of the despair of unemployment in the early 1980’s” . The La’s, particularly Lee Mavers, look harsh and tired (although probably more directly caused by his then addiction problems), and they seem to be carrying the weight of their troubled city on their shoulders, as if Joy Division’s Ian Curtis’ (near-enough) final lyrics “here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders” were a prophetic vision of the working class man ten years down the line. Liverpool by the end of the 1980’s; battered, suffering mass unemployment, exodus on a scale not seen in any other British city (“Liverpool’s population in 1994 was estimated at 474,000, just 60 percent of the 789,000 in 1951” – View From A Train, Patrick Keiller, 2012) with the Tory government happy to consign it to ‘managed decline’ (god, I mean, they must have hated the city, what with its intelligent, un-shy prole sensations the Beatles, and its massive Irish ancestry, among other things – let’s get rid of it!). For me, even the soap drama Brookside (which began in the 1980’s) belongs to this weight on their shoulders; when the soap was gritty, realist, and unafraid to tackle “difficult issues”, before it died whilst trying to meet teen-targeting soap Hollyoaks half way.
The album is largely overlooked in favour of the most radio/retro-bar/spotify-friendly track ‘There She Goes’, which is to be expected, as this song fits to a picture of ‘care-free fun and sunshine times’ once separated from the album, nor do any of the album songs even satisfy the ‘death drive’ impulse which welcomes Joy Division’s music to the dance floor. Yet it is arguable that Joy Division’s “Nihil Rebound” (Mark Fisher, k-punk) foresaw the desperation that would infect The La’s’ melodies ten years later. Yet anybody can hear that The La’s obviously owe very little musically to the post-punk movement which Joy Division (inspite of their appeal to the eternal-ness of meloncholia) will always be associated. the La’s owe far more to the 1960’s, which arguably, due to The Beatles, and the Mersey Beat, Liverpool dominated.
Arguably the entire new musical culture of the late 80’s, early 90’s looked back to 1960’s. I don’t just mean The Stone Roses, but also the rave scene, because beyond the “fake music VS real (guitar music)” prejudice, rave music shares the same leanings as the 1960’s towards the “peace/love” mantra and psychedelics as a freeing up of the mind.
The ‘looking backwards’ shouldn’t be confused with the ‘retrophillia’ of our (non)times. In the late 80’s it was used to build with (towards a new horizon, now the walls had fallen), whereas now it is used to hide with (from the giant political, environmental and existential issues we now face). However, the motives that make The La’s look back feel very different to those of The Stone Roses and rave, and this is where they hold up the mirror the stark reality. To me the La’s’ stripped back melodies speak of the rising (largely) working class counter-culture, a rising Liverpool looking forward (like many of the industrial cities being regenerated in the post-war era) of the 1960’s, just as they were being systemically finished off by Thatcherism and the self-fullfilling ‘reality-enforcer’ that became the ‘the end of history’ theory.
The last two songs (forgetting the additional bonus tracks on all rereleases) on The La’s, are the climax of this desperation, perhaps suggesting that individual(ised) failure for the majority is rarely escapable. The track Failure takes a simple rock and roll format and takes it to the doors of most desperate accounts of individual proletarian failures in the Joy Division tracks ‘Novelty’ and ‘Isolation’.
“So you open the door with a look on your face, your hands in your pockets and your family to face. And you go downstairs and you sit in your place…”
Tensions in families pushed to their limits by an imposed economic reality that many just couldn’t/cannot ‘climb out of’. For me, these lyrics bring to mind Jarvis Cocker’s assertion that people from the more privileged ‘classes “will never understand” because they will “never fail like common people”. So much weight on the shoulders of those who’s ability to climb out of misery of poverty has so many odds against it; never enough energy to maintain the confidence to ‘succeed’. How can you not hear the above lyrics and think of the past 30 years through ‘The Boys From The Blackstuff’, the rising number of homeless on our streets, and the panic at the back at most of our minds about what the hell we’ll do if this current but precarious job position you hold suddenly becomes ‘surplus to requirements’?
For me, what we lost at this crucial ‘end of history’ point’ is now often found in cultural artifacts that were lost or (I would argue) misread during the hyperbole that lasted out till 2008. The last track Looking Glass is no ‘I am The Resurrection’, ‘Champagne Supernova’; no anthem to a ‘working class revelry’. The Looking Glass’ backing vocals repeat the line “sail away on the airwaves” from a previous album track. As the music speeds, and Mavers begins to sound manic, it is like the crash-landing of all that’s been before, like the life of a collective (a population, a class, a city) flashing before your eyes, smashing into unidentified flotsam on the shoreline at the end of history. They certainly shouldn’t be dismissed as just another ‘lad-culture’ band.
(Additional: If I sound like I’m writing as if I’m a Liverpudlian, when I’m clearly not, it’s because, coming from South Yorkshire, I have long felt there to be some affinity connecting both places. perhaps due to them being places suffering similar degrees of devastation in the wake of Thatcherism. I remember a scenario whilst on holiday in St Ives, Cornwall (not yet in my teens). A liverpudlian (who I think I recall saying was down there working on a boat), sat next to my family in a pub, and who, slightly intoxicated, began asserting how badly Liverpool, and Liverpudlians had been treat by the rest of the country, and that nobody understands what it’s like (for them). My dad, who had been unemployed at the time of the 1984 Miners’ strike (which affected caused major upheaval for our area), but who by the 1990’s had managed to get himself a degree, and then a teaching job, which lifted us out of poverty (and allowed us to take holidays in Cornwall), argued that we knew ‘exactly what it was like’, as our area had been treat in largely the same way).