The minimal ingredients to explain the essential physics of layered copper-oxide (cuprates) materials remains heavily debated. Effective low-energy single-band models of the copper–oxygen orbitals are widely used because there exists no strong experimental evidence supporting multi-band structures. Here, we report angle-resolved photoelectron spectroscopy experiments on La-based cuprates that provide direct observation of a two-band structure. This electronic structure, qualitatively consistent with density functional theory, is parametrised by a two-orbital (dx2−y2 and dz2) tight-binding model. We quantify the orbital hybridisation which provides an explanation for the Fermi surface topology and the proximity of the van-Hove singularity to the Fermi level. Our analysis leads to a unification of electronic hopping parameters for single-layer cuprates and we conclude that hybridisation, restraining d-wave pairing, is an important optimisation element for superconductivity.