Stewart Lee's Guide to The Nightingales

Ahead of King Rocker's release this Saturday on Sky Arts, the 41st best standup of all time has been so kind as to put together a beginner's guide to the subject of his documentary to get us up to speed.
Posted: 2 February 2021 Words: Tom Curtis-Horsfall

Stewart Lee's adoration for post-punk bands and obscure cult artists has been fairly evident since his unique curation of (the now defunct) All Tomorrow's Parties in 2016, but he's taken his fondness for one musician in particular, Robert Lloyd of The Nightingales, to greater lengths by delving into the life and career of the enigmatic punk. 

King Rocker, the new documentary helmed by the 41st best standup of all time and Brass Eye director Michael Cumming patches together tales of the ill-documented band that may or may not be all entirely accurate. But then again this was never likely to be a run-of-the-mill documentary, especially when you consider that Lloyd's story runs in parallel to the history of a bizarre King Kong statue you'd associate with a dilapidated adventure park, that both outraged and terrified Birmingham locals when it was introduced 1972. 

A premiere at Sheffield Doc Fest and a subsequent theatrical run were curtailed for obvious reasons, so they took a punt with Sky Arts for King Rocker's premiere, scheduled for 21:00 this Saturday. 

Ahead of the weekend, Mr. Lee has been so kind as to put together a beginner's guide to The Nightingales to get us up to speed and champing at the bit, illustrated by a hand-picked playlist and an accompanying intro to his favourite band: 

"Michael Cumming (dir Brass Eye, Toast of London) and I (Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle) have made a film, King Rockerabout Robert Lloyd of Birmingham’s post-punk survivors The Nightingales. It is on Sky Arts, freeview channel 11, on Saturday 6th of Feb at 9pm. You have to watch it, as this playlist proves. 

'Blood For Dirt' opens The Nightingales’ debut, 1982’s Pigs On Purpose, and Amon Duul II’s 'Archangel’s Thunderbird', from 1973, is the kind of thing that formed Lloyd’s tastes in the pre-punk wilderness, courtesy of an esoterically stocked local library. 'Barbarella’s', from a January 1979 Peel session by Robert’s already rule-breaking first band, The Prefects, Birmingham’s punk pioneers, describes the club at the hub of the city’s ‘70s scene. 

When The Prefects dissolved Lloyd launched The Nightingales with the classic 1981 post-punk single 'Idiot Strength'. Cohort Joe Crown immediately left to release his only single 'Compulsion', later covered by Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore, and disappeared. The Nightingales’ next single, 'Use Your Loaf', recalls Robert’s time working in a bakery. 'Well Done Underdog' and 'The Crunch' run together perfectly on The Nightingales debut, and Lloyd performs the former, unaccompanied, in the Balsall Heath snug bar where he wrote it, in King RockerA rejigged line-up recorded 1983’s Hystericswhich opens with 'Big Print', and the 1985 single 'What A Carry On' anticipated the country stylings of 1986’s In The Good Old Country Way.

The neglected Nightingales were to wither as Lloyd became an unlikely svengali, overseeing a 1986 novelty hit for his Vindaloo Summer special package of comedian Ted Chippington and his discoveries the all-female noise combo, We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It. In 1989, the cleaned-up Fuzzbox reach no 11 in the charts with the irresistible 'International Rescue', and in 1990 Lloyd made a shiny solo album for Virgin, Me And My Mouthon which 'Sweet Georgia Black' showcased his innate and impressive country music sensibility. But Virgin dropped Lloyd, and he entered what might be sensitively termed the missing decade, detailed in bewildering depth in King Rocker.

The Nightingales returned to active service in 2004, seventeen years ago, and the next six tracks are drawn from the vast catalogue they have amassed since, starting with 2006’s stomping statement of intent Born Again In Birmingham, and including the In The Night Garden indebted 'Real Gone Daddy', and the archly satirical 'Gales Doc'. On the new album by former Glitter Band guitarist John Rossall, The Last Glam In Town, Rossall deploys the Nightingales, and Lloyd on vocals, on a cover of The Honeycombs’ proto-glam ‘60s hit 'Have I The Right?', and Lloyd is proud that he has been asked to open for both Faust and The Glitter Band. It’s a pop/art dichotomy that sums him up.

In a scene in Lloyd’s Shropshire home in King Rockerthe first two albums out of his record crate are Amon Duul II’s 'Yeti', which we heard from earlier, and a Lee Hazelwood compilation, so here’s the latter’s timeless 'Some Velvet Morning'. I venture that the two artists explain The Nightingales. “Yes,” Lloyd laughs, “It’s like Amon Duul II fronted by Lee Hazelwood.” We close with an example of that hybridised sensibility in action, with drummer Fliss Kitson singing the Nancy role and pounding the Krautrock beat, on the closer of 2018’s Perish The Thoughtthe mighty 'It Is'. 

See you on Friday at 9pm on Channel 11!"

King Rocker premieres on Sky Arts at 21:00 this Saturday, 6th February. 

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