Spring is in the air, and with it the distant promise of a return to live music across the UK. But you’ll forgive Robert Lloyd for being a little guarded about the prospects right now.
The legendary Nightingales frontman lit up the small screen recently in the terrestrial TV premiere – via freeview channel Sky Arts – of highly entertaining cult documentary film King Rocker, appearing alongside comedian and indie champion Stewart Lee.
Inspirational and quirky by turns, Lee and Michael Cumming’s inspired ‘anti-rockumentary’ film tells the story of a musical outsider who’s somehow ‘survived under the radar for over four decades’, weaving the story of Birmingham’s ‘undervalued underdog autodidact’ into that of the city’s forgotten public sculpture of King Kong, with cameos from the likes of Frank Skinner (who said of The Prefects, for whom he sat in on a few rehearsals before Robert got the nod, ‘I don’t know if I’m their Pete Best, or they’re mine’), Nigel Slater, Robin Askwith, Duran Duran’s John Taylor, and Samira Ahmed.
But for all the film’s acclaim, and subsequent swift sales for a planned Autumn tour, Robert’s not quite counting his blessings yet.
“To be honest, this is the fourth time this tour’s been rearranged. And in Birmingham, London and Manchester we kind of expect to sell out anyway. For reasons too boring to go into, this is our fifth attempt to play Hebden Bridge. That sold out probably a year or two ago.”
You’ll enjoy that. It’s a lovely venue.
“I haven’t been there yet … but all I’ve heard is glowing reports, and the people who run it are really nice. Yeah, I’m looking forward to it very much.”
From my point of view, I’m looking forward to The Nightingales’ late summer return to The Continental in Preston, set to precede that tour, lined up to be one of their first post-pandemic outings, and my main excuse for tracking him down. Last time, I missed out. I was away. And I believe that wasn’t so well supported.
“I can’t remember the last time, in truth. We’ve been quite a few years. It’s been a while now, but at one stage we seemed to be there at least once a year.”
The visit prior to that was in 2016, for one of Tuff Life Boogie’s celebrated John Peel tributes, and that was certainly a winner. I recall a fair packed main room for you.
“Well, I like the Conti and obviously Rico (la Rocca, promoter) has been a great supporter … so fingers crossed it will be a hit this time.”
Only The Fall and The Wedding Present recorded more Peel sessions – 16 between 1978 and 1991 – than Robert, half of those recordings made with The Nightingales, two with his breakthrough punk band The Prefects, and the rest as a solo artist.
Since reforming The Nightingales – of whom John Robb, whose Louder Than War label put out 2015 LP, Mind Over Matter, described in definitive post-punk biography Death to Trad Rock as the ‘misfits’ misfits’ – in 2004, Robert’s band have put out more albums than first time around, with numerous live shows in the UK, mainland Europe and the US.
What’s more, as UK music magazine Uncut put it, ‘They genuinely sound more vital than ever’, while The Independent reckoned, ‘Lloyd is the most underestimated songwriter of his generation’.
Only in recent years settling on their current, classic four-piece, this year’s seen an upsurge in interest via King Rocker, which I’d just seen for the second time when I spoke to Robert, these days based in Telford, barely 20 miles west of his Cannock roots and 35 miles from where his music journey started in Birmingham.
There’s a lovely piece from Stewart Lee early on which seems to sum up the premise behind the film with regard to his subject, proclaiming, ‘We live in a culture where mediocrity is rewarded and originality and integrity are punished, and John Peel said of The Nightingales that years after all the others of their era have been revealed as charlatans and chancers, someone would finally recognise that they were one of the greatest bands. Whether that will happen or not I don’t know, but what I do understand is how Rob Lloyd kept that group going for over four decades in the face of commercial and critical indifference’.
But what about those early days? Does Robert ever go back to listen to the songs he wrote and performed with the first band he made headlines with, Peel favourites The Prefects, whose claims to fame included a short spell as a support act on The Clash’s White Riot tour in 1977?
“No, far from it, and if you’d have asked me this question six months ago it would have been a long, long time since I’s heard any of those songs. But Fire Records released all the Prefects records that exist on an album within the last year, and one night – I think I’d had a few drinks – I put it on. That’s probably the first time in a decade or two.”
“Well, I know how the songs go! it’s a bit of a mixed bag really. There’s a bunch of stuff I think is kind of pretty shitty, basic punk rock. Then there were some things I’m quite proud of. I did actually enjoy it more than I imagined I was going to.
“I’m not really a nostalgia type of person, and in my head, I think we were more at the shitty punk rock end, but there is actually some quite decent inventive material.”
Praise indeed. But I get the impression you went your separate ways as some were happy with that punk rock aspect while you and those who followed you wanted to move on. And I suppose that’s been your approach throughout your music career.
“Yeah, I mean I do like rock’n’roll music, but realistically I was more interested in slightly more off-kilter stuff than 1-2-3-4, and I’d done my time really.”
Seeing as you mentioned 1-2-3-4, there were some great photos shown of you with the Ramones, outside the Roundhouse at the time of their first London visit in the Summer of ’76, long before many were aware of the band.
“Yeah, there were a lot of people there, but the Flamin’ Groovies where the headline act, and I’m not sure how many were there for the Ramones. Also, they played their own headline show at Dingwalls the following night.
“Actually, when I got sent the final cut of the film by Michael (Cumming, director) and Stewart (Lee), I genuinely didn’t know they’d spoken to (Ramones manager) Danny Fields, so when he appeared I was really chuffed – that was a bit of a highlight for me.”
Were you back up to Birmingham the next day, or did you make it to that headline show the following night?
“Well, we were due to hitchhike back home. We weren’t interested in the Flamin’ Groovies, so when they were on, we went to the bar, and Danny and the Ramones were the only people in there. To cut a very long story short, they couldn’t get the hats on that three people had actually gone to see them, let alone hitch-hiked down.
“Danny said, ‘Are you coming to the gig tomorrow?’ We said no, we’ve got to be back at school, but he paid for us to stay at the same hotel as them. So we went to Dingwalls as well, and before the gig Sire Records took them out for a big posh slap-up meal, so we went to that – we were just part of the crew for a couple of days.”
The audience on the second night famously – at least in punklore circles – included The Stranglers and The Clash, JJ Burnel and Paul Simonon supposedly involved in a punch-up outside. And within a year, The Prefects got to spend a few days on the road with the latter outfit on their seminal White Riot tour, a spell which sped up Robert’s disillusion with the punk movement – not so much the spirit but its stage-managed elements, with regard to those pulling the strings, like Clash manager Bernie Rhodes (who apparently said to the band, ‘I am a patron of the arts , and you’re just a bunch of amateur wankers’, hence the name of the band’s retrospective compilation album, released 25 years after they split).
“That’s a pretty accurate way of putting it. There were some good bands, but also some not so good ones. I think what happened in general, in every small town around the country there were people who liked The Stooges, MC5, all that kind of stuff, and didn’t like Yes, ELP, and so on. The Sex Pistols and bands that followed in their wake were catalysts that brought all those lone figures from these towns together. That’s the way I see it.”
It’s a generalisation, but with bands like Genesis and Yes, there was a feeling you could never achieve that level of musicianship, whereas some of those punk bands gave you the impression you could follow in their wake, pick up a guitar or whatever.
“Yeah, I’ve never had a downer on anyone who can play an instrument though, and when Mark Perry and Sniffin’ Glue printed their three chords and ‘now form a band’ cover, I wish most of them hadn’t! I’m not a champion of punk rock and down on other music.
“But I was a teenager, I wanted to be in a band, and that was the kind of catalyst to actually get it together and stop daydreaming.”
Another band whom John Peel loved were The Fall, who featured on the same bills a few times. Mark E. Smith didn’t follow the rules and went his own way. How was your relationship with Mark and his band?
“Pretty good. Yvonne Pawlett, their keyboard player on the first couple of albums, was my girlfriend at the time, so I spent quite a lot of time in the company of Mark, Martin (Bramagh) and Kay (Carroll) in that sort of period.
“I always got on okay if I’m truthful. I’m not a massive fan, but we did a few gigs together in the last few years, and I always got on alright with him. I know people who know him better than I do, and I’ve heard both generous things and things where he come across as a bit of a cunt. But who am I to judge? All I know is that when I’ve been in the same room as him, we always got on okay.”
“Yeah, he’s been great. Since Peel died, to a certain extent, the media has changed considerably, probably for the worst. We’ve been left out in the cold a bit, so it’s pretty much, ‘Thank God for Marc Riley’. Him and Gideon Coe have played a few things, while others you would expect to play us just ignore us. So yeah – hurrah for Mark and being able to do a session every year or so.
“Although I must tell you that back in the old days – and I don’t want to sound an old fart about it – the BBC actually used to pay you, whereas now it’s an absolute joke.”
I suppose funds are tighter and they work off the presumption that you’re getting the publicity so you’re doing well out of any coverage offered.
“I suppose so. The emphasis has shifted … but you just get fuck all now.”
Peel and (producer) John Walters were symbolic of that era when you were better looked after. Did Peel or Waters used to phone you, invite you in for sessions? How did that work?
“In the end, when I’d got four songs at a demo stage I wanted to record – because we never had a steady record company – and in the period when The Nightingales had ceased working and I was doing solo stuff, I’d call Peel, say, ‘Can I come in for a session?’ and he always said yes.
“Before all that, there was that date where they saw us at The Rainbow and got The Prefects in, and once The Nightingales got started, it was pretty much a case every year at some point that Walters would ring us up, and we’d go in.
“I’m glad you mentioned Walters – he was a big part of it, and Peel was just great to us. One thing I’ll always remember – going back to The Prefects era – he used to do his John Peel Roadshow, DJ-ing at gigs, and part of the deal for being booked was that he’d insist he could choose a band or two.
“One time at Huddersfield Poly, as it was then, he chose us and The Mekons. I might be wrong about this, but his figure I think was £1,000, with us bands getting £50 – about our standard rate. But at the end of the night he gave us and The Mekons £500 each, which was money we’d never seen before! That’s just one story to show the kind of bloke he was.”
It’s easy to get nostalgic about these things, but in your early days in Birmingham, many seminal bands passed through, not least at the Barbarella’s venue. Recently I chanced upon a Classic Albums TV documentary featuring the story of Duran Duran, their Rio LP, and the period leading up to it. Then I watched King Rocker again, and there was John Taylor talking about your old band. Birmingham’s a big city, but I guess those with similar interests would have been aware of each other back then. Were you close at one stage?
“Yeah, I knew John when he was Nigel Taylor. I’ve known him since he was a kid with groups before Duran Duran. And when the Durannies got together, we shared rehearsal space. Well, when I say ‘rehearsal space’, we shared a room at the back of someone’s house, with the same equipment!
“There was a band called the Subterranean Hawks, there was Duran Duran, and there was us. I didn’t know Simon le Bon, but they had two singers prior to that, both of whom I knew.”
Was one of those Stephen Duffy, later of The Lilac Time?
“Yes, there was Stephen and Andy Wickett, the bloke who wrote ‘Girls on Film’, although I don’t think he ever got any credit for it. That’s another story. I do know the story but won’t go into it now … but Nigel, Stephen, Andy and Roger (Taylor) were all decent blokes.
“I never really got on with Nick Bates, now known as Nick Rhodes. I think he always thought I was a bit obnoxious, and I always felt he was a bit pretentious. It still gets me to this day that he’s now famous, a rich man, and gets lifetime achievements and stuff … but there you go!”
So when they were in tropical climes filming blockbuster music videos, there was a bit of resentment and needle back home?
“Well, I remember them in Sounds or somewhere, saying when they filmed that ‘Rio’ video in Sri Lanka that they’d paid the extras with biros or something, and seemed to think this was good. As a socialist kind of figure, I find that appalling.
“But yeah, Nigel’s a good bloke and I’m glad he appeared in the film. That was decent of him. Again, I didn’t know he’d done that, but Dave Twist, the drummer in The Prefects towards the end, went to school with John Taylor, and I’m not going to slag them off.”
Were there bands you saw at Barbarella’s and decided this was what you were going to do with your life?
“I saw some good bands that there’s a good chance you won’t have heard of, but that was after I was first in a band. The bands I saw the inspired me were the Ramones first and foremost, then the Sex Pistols, by which time I was sort of getting there myself.
“But I loved Patti Smith, and when The Clash started out and had three guitar players – with Keith Levene involved – I saw them a couple of times and they were good, and I liked the Buzzcocks with Howard Devoto. But it was the Ramones and the Sex Pistols – they were the two. The Clash and the Buzzcocks jumped on that bandwagon.”
Talking of top entertainment, I always had a soft spot for Ted Chippington, catching him headlining a couple of times in 1986 and 1987, no doubt first aware of him via Peel. ‘Rocking with Rita’ and ‘She Loves You’ still get regular spins to this day. That said, I’m not sure I realised that Vindaloo Records was your label at the time, and the manner of the interconnectivity between Ted, The Nightingales and We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It. Are you still in touch with Ted?
“I am in touch. We shared a flat around the time of the Vindaloo days, and while he lives in Torquay now, he’s doing a couple of the gigs on our tour, and we talk on a regular basis. Yeah, he’s doing okay – he’s in good nick.”
I thought it was Totnes actually, but maybe Ted’s since moved. Anyway, while Robert’s in Telford these days, two of his bandmates are not far off – Fliss Kitson (drums) having relocated from Norwich to Wolverhampton, and Jim Smith (guitar) in Birmingham. However, Andreas Schmid (bass) remains in Germany. Is that creating a potential problem in this post-Brexit nightmare?
“It’s a big problem for sure, and we don’t even know the size of that problem as yet.”
I take it you mean you haven’t been tested yet, pandemic travel restrictions the main obstacle until now.
“Well, March 13th a year ago was the last time we rehearsed as a band. We are due to make a new album in September this year though, and we’ve got these gigs lined up, including the Rebellion Festival (Winter Gardens, Blackpool, August 5th/8th), so we hope we’ll be able to do them. We don’t know if Andy’s even being allowed in the country, so Brexit probably affects us more than most bands.
“In terms of the coronavirus thing, all bands have suffered, but we have that additional aggravation as one of our members is a foreigner in a foreign country. And while it’s not the sort of thing I’d have done anyway, we can’t just do a Zoom gig and all that malarkey.”
You mentioned new material, and there was a lovely reaction to the last album, Four Against Fate, while the feedback from King Rocker has been amazing. I get the impression you’re in a good place right now, and Fliss seems to have you well organised.
“Well, we’ve never had a manager or booking agent, and all that kind of assistance. I suppose I used to do most of it, but when Fliss joined the band, she started helping out and proved far more enthusiastic and better at it, so she’s kind of taken over that side of things, booking gigs and what-have-you and tons of incidental stuff. Like she knows how to draw, so if you want a T-shirt designed she can do that.”
She also did the artwork for the last album, didn’t she?
“Yes, we’d used an artist in Scarborough, David Yates, but he was unavailable, so Fliss stepped in. We’ve a couple of new records coming out this year too, and I’ve done the cover for one, having done a lot of the ‘80s covers. But yeah, as well as being a really nice and fun person and an excellent drummer, she’s also turned out to be a right grafter. There are things like social media that we wouldn’t have otherwise – there was no way that me, Jim or Andy would be bothered to do it!”
And how long have you known Stewart Lee?
“It transpires that it’s longer than I thought, going back to about 2004, when I got a new version of The Nightingales back together. An American record company wanted to put a Prefects CD out, but I wasn’t very keen. Frankly, I was fucking fed up of The Prefects, and told them the only way I’d do it is if they paid for The Nightingales to make a single. They gave me the money, and I put it out on my own label. Then I had this ridiculous idea – which more or less bankrupted me – being like Slade and putting out a new single every six weeks or so. We did four before we realised it was just a mental idea and was haemorrhaging cash.”
Fellow Peel favourites The Wedding Present managed 12 in one year in the early ‘90s, but that was with the backing of RCA, so that’s a little different.
“Yeah, and this was so different. Here’s a true story. We played SXSW in Austin (Texas) and our merch man at the time had a table with our four 7-inch records on. Now, people forget this now, because it’s all back, but these Yanks were going up to the stall, picking up these records, saying, ‘What is this?’ That’s how unfashionable the 7-inch single was at the time. We had to get them manufactured in the Czech Republic.
“Anyway, having haemorrhaged all the cash that was available putting these records out on my own label, I got a phone call from Stewart – I don’t know how he got my number – and he said, ‘Is there any chance now you’ve got a label again that you’ll be reissuing Ted Chippington’s stuff?’ He was a mad Ted fan.
“I said I wouldn’t have thought so, we’ve no money and Ted’s sort of given up on it – he’s not that interested anymore. But Stewart said, ‘He’s the reason I’m doing stand-up and I know loads of people who love him, so if there’s any help I can give, if he does want to do a record, let me know’.
“I spoke with Ted and we came up with this idea. We didn’t just want to reissue a Ted Chippington record – we thought we’d put out a four-CD boxset of all the recordings we’d got – studio and live stuff.“We wanted to package it like it was a Pavarotti boxset – really slick, with a book in every CD case, and so on. We got back to Stewart and said we want to do this, and – God bless him – he organised a performance at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London, with him, Bridget Christie, Phill Jupitus, Simon Munnery, Simon Amstell, Richard Herring … all these comedians who loved Ted … plus The Nightingales of course, doing this one-off performance which sold out instantly, none of the performers taking any money – they gave us all the takings to manufacture this ridiculous Ted Chippington project!”
“That was the first time I remember meeting Stewart, and I took a shine to him straight away, thinking what a generous but also a maverick thing to do. And it transpired during the course of meeting him that not only did he love Ted, but he was also a fan of The Nightingales.
“And despite what he says in the film – which is not exactly true – later, Phill Jupitus, another big Nightingales fan, said we should do a documentary about the band, maybe the BBC would pay for it. In retrospect, knowing more about the process now, they were never going to go for that, and nothing came of it. But at some stage I was in London, maybe to see Stewart perform somewhere, we ended up in a pub, and I told him about this idea of a documentary.
“I thought nothing of it until about three years ago go when Stewart rang and said, ‘I’ve met this director, Michael Cumming, a fan of The Nightingales, and I’ve just been in a film about folk singer Shirley Collins and was really impressed by the film’s producer (James Nicholls). Michael’s keen to direct the documentary and I’m keen to make it. If this producer comes on board, are you still up for it?’
“I said yes, thinking it was going to be a documentary about The Nightingales. I didn’t realise it was going to be about me. I don’t think Stewart knew either. It was kind of ad-libbed as we went along. But he got back to me and James was willing to produce it, which basically meant putting together the initial finance. That’s really how the film was born … which is a very long-winded answer to your question, ‘how long have you known Stewart?’.
Incidentally, Stewart expresses his love for Ted Chippington in 2010’s splendid How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian.
And if not this amazing life as a performer on the periphery of pop stardom, what do you think you’d have been up to? Could you have gone on to manage a bakery, as your first employer might have envisaged when you joined them straight from Cannock Grammar School (the fact that he’d been to grammar school – despite failing all his exams – seemed enough to suggest he had the potential as far as they were concerned)?
“I wanted to be in a band, and I’ve told this story a few times, but it is true. When I was a boy, I was mad about football – I played before school, in the breaks at school, when I got home, and went and watch football at the weekend.”
Was that to see Wolverhampton Wanderers?
“No, I’m actually named after Bobby Charlton. My Dad was a Manchester United fan and I got to see the Best, Charlton, Law and Stiles era side. Wolves is another story altogether. If you come to the Conti, maybe I’ll talk to you about that. But when I was at Cannock Grammar School, around 11 or 12 I suppose, I realised all the boys liked footballers and all the girls liked pop singers. And I’d got interested in girls at that stage, so I decided pop music was the way to go … so it’s rather ironic that I’ve had one of the most uncommercial musical careers ever!
“The theory of the time was when you saw someone like Marc Bolan or even David Cassidy, that was the way … plus I was a talented but limited football player. I was never going to get to the top … like in the music business! Ha!
“So yeah, I wanted to be in a band. I couldn’t play an instrument and didn’t have the wherewithal to learn, so I was always going to be the singer … the one the girls all seem to like.”
In a sense, you became like an alternative Simon Le Bon.
“Well, I had a few bands knocking about in someone’s shed, but never did a gig, and was never anything … then the punk rock thing came along when I was 15 or 16, and it was like, ‘Get a band together rather than talking about it and fucking about!’”
And what do you think was the closest you got to that ultimate pop moment? Was that in your early ‘80s brief major label solo career, or in the mid-‘80s alongside Ted and Fuzzbox with the Vindaloo Summer Special?
“I think the Vindaloo Summer Special. I’m not sure what number it got to in the charts – in my eyes unless it’s in the top-20 or, if you’re really liberal about it, the top-40 – but I don’t consider being No.46 a hit single. And I’ve had a few of those – a No.51 and a No.47.”
Sounds like something you’d order with your vindaloo. But those are the stories I love sometimes – like The Farmer’s Boys reaching No.41 with ‘In the Country’, on the verge of a Top of the Pops appearance only for Alphaville to fly over at the last minute from Germany. And you’ve probably experienced a few similar tales.
“Oh yeah, I could reel a few of those off, but … I don’t want to come over as being bitter and twisted. It’s just the luck of the draw really.”
I should point out – in case it doesn’t come over in print – that Robert is anything but miserable when he says all these things. Watch the documentary and you’ll see that. There’s a lovely quote early on where he confides in Stewart Lee, ‘I always used to think that when I pegged it, all of a sudden people would buy the records and pretend they liked us all along. But I’m beginning to worry that, ‘What if I peg it and they still don’t buy the records?’’, the pair of them then falling about in laughter.
There’s the mark of the man. And to quote Lee in the documentary again, “There’s a distinctive strain of post-war working-class bohemians who have been legislated out of existence by successive Tory governments, never to be seen again. Rob Lloyd has survived decades outside the system, wheeling and dealing in fertile cracks, and continues to produce exceptional work in conjunction with a supporting case of musicians, even after a stroke briefly felled this great oak of a man.”
In King Rocker, I put it to him, he comes over really well. It was a pleasure to watch and the reaction from many others suggest that’s an across-the-board reaction. It’s a great advert for the underground music scene I love. And the fact that you’re still performing and making records to this day suggests you’re still enjoying it, and that has to count for something.
“Yeah, I don’t know. I suppose it’s a mixture of me thinking I’ve got something to say, the band wanting to express themselves, and the quality of the material. I know what pop stars are like – it’s a traditional to say the material you’re working on is the best thing you’ve ever done. If we had a quid for every time we’ve heard that. But I do think this is our best stuff – better than the old Nightingales, and I really like the three people who are in the band. That makes a massive difference.
“All I need now is for us to sell some records and hopefully make a few quid. I don’t want to die a pauper, with everyone saying I was a good bloke!
“There’s a new single out on April 16, a brand-new Nightingales song called ‘10 Bob Each Way’. And on the B-side, Stewart Lee’s doing a version of ‘Use Your Loaf’. And all the ‘80s albums are being reissued as deluxe editions this summer. There will also be the film soundtrack and a DVD somewhere along the line, with a 12” EP available in time for our October dates.
“So there’s quite a bit a lot happening. Of course, I say all this as if this whole COVID thing is going to pan out and everything’s going to be wonderful, and we don’t know about that. But next year there’ll be a new album and we’ll be going back to America …”
Taking some vinyl back with you again?
“Yeah! People can’t get enough of it now. Once we started doing it, everyone wanted to do it.”
Trailblazers. And with that Robert’s away, signing off with a Ted Chippington-like, ‘Alright then, chief. Take care. Goodbye.’ A good bloke and top entertainer to boot.
The Nightingales play The Boatyard venue at The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston, on Friday, August 6, with tickets £12 in advance, and early booking recommended. Then there are those autumn dates. For more details head to the band’s website, and check out their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter links.