Comedian Stewart Lee is such a big fan of Birmingham band The Nightingales, he’s made a film celebrating their career.
Written by Lee, directed by Michael Cumming (Brass Eye and Toast Of London) and produced by Fire Films (The Ballad of Shirley Collins), entertaining rock-doc King Rocker traces the hitless band’s 40-plus year history, and ponders why frontman Robert Lloyd and his combo have curiously continued to remain outsiders - despite substantial critical acclaim.
The Nightingale’s story begins in the late-1970s with The Prefects, who are often (divisively) cited as Birmingham’s first ever punk band.
“I think that is right, yes, even though there were a couple of other bands at the same time,” confirms Robert of his first combo punk credentials. “There was a band called the Suburban Studs for example — they were, like a lot of other bands around the country, a sort of pub rock band really, who cut their hair and played their songs a bit faster … gatecrashed a new scene. I never thought of them as an authentic thing.
“The only other band I can think of from around that era were a band called Model Mania, [but] they weren’t really punk, they were a bunch of [David] Bowie fans really I s’pose.
“Maybe there are people out there that would dispute it,” continues Robert, of The Prefects. “[But] frankly I don’t care. I think it’s actually one of the true things that were said about us.”
Confirming their punk credentials, The Prefects joined The Clash’s famed White Riot package tour in 1977, sharing a stage with The Slits, The Buzzcocks, The Subway Sect, and The Jam.
Lloyd’s Prefects looked certain to follow their fellow White Riot comrades into the Independent and national charts, but instead collapsed after one single (Going Through the Motions/ Things in General) and two sessions for BBC Radio One.
However, members quickly reassembled as The Nightingales, releasing the urgent lo-fi Idiot Strength in 1981 and their debut album, Pigs On Purpose, a year later.
A firm favourite with Radio One’s John Peel — recording eight sessions for the influential DJ between 1980 and 1986 — The Nightingales almost charted after teaming up with Brum alternative comedian Ted Chippington (another Stewart Lee fave) and We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Going To Use It. As Vindaloo Summer Special their Rockin’ With Rita single made it to №56 in the UK singles chart during July 1986.
After the band dissolved the same year, Robert went solo, enduring a brief skirmish with major label Virgin, before eventually reassembling The Nightingales in 2004. Despite rolling personnel changes, The ’Gales have continued to tour and record ever since, and in 2020 released their tenth album, Four Against Fate.
The record has proved to be something of a landmark for the enduring post-punk quartet. Greeted with uniformly positive reviews, the 12 tracks underline the band’s restlessness, along with their varied influences, which span so-called ‘krautrock’, new wave and, on Devil’s Due, Booker T tinged Stax soul!
Remarkably, Four Against Fate marks the first time the band have released more than one album on the same label (in this case Tiny Global Productions, who picked them up in 2017), and also the first time the same line-up (Robert, plus guitarists Andreas Schmid and James Smith, and drummer/ vocalist Fliss Kitson) has recorded more than one long-player together.
One can’t help but consider that perhaps the label and line-up stability, previously missing from the band’s earlier career, is a key factor in their current unexpected rise in popularity.
“I think both of those things are part of it, yeah,” agrees Robert, who firmly believes that the current line-up represents a new peak for the The Nightingales.
“I know what pop stars are like and they all say their latest record is the best one they’ve ever made, even if they know it’s toilet in their heart — they fool themselves that they keep getting better and better — so I’m aware that goes on. But I genuinely think that the band has got better and better,” he stresses with a knowing smile.
“[Four Against Fate] is probably the first album I’ve made in any incarnation where once it’s completed, and you listen to it, I’ve still liked all the songs! There’s normally one or two where you go — naaaah — but there isn’t any [like that] on this.”
Despite the pandemic stopping them from promoting the album with their traditional annual tour, Robert notes it’s one of their biggest releases to date: “The record sold really well.”
2020 should have been The Nightingales’ year … the year they finally broke through: Four Against Fate was due to be followed by a major cinema release for Stewart Lee’s King Rocker doc’, big tours were booked, and festival appearances scheduled. But the Covid-19 pandemic curtailed the film’s release, touring commitments were rescheduled multiple times then cancelled, and even writing/ recording plans for their 11th LP were trounced, as members found themselves scattered and unable to rehearse.
Nonetheless, Robert remains positive about The Nightingales’ future with Freeview TV channel SkyArts premiering King Rocker (6 February 2021), and previously announced Four Against Hate tour dates shunted into late 2021.
Could 2021 be The Nightingales’ year?
“If I’d had a quid every time I’d heard that!” laughs Robert, understandably. After 45 years playing music, he’s heard it all — the hype, the promises, the too-good-to-be-true deals, the imminent breakthrough that’s just around the corner. For him, it’s all about the music, getting back on stage, and those re-rescheduled autumn Four Against Fate dates.
“We’re really looking forward to playing these songs live, because we haven’t done so yet,” he enthuses.
“We are a great live band too. Come and see us live — we’ll blow your socks off!”
The Nightingales Four Against Fate is out now on Tiny Global Productions. The band’s rescheduled tour is set for autumn 2021. Details: thenightingales.org.uk
For the latest details on where to see King Rocker, see: kingrockerfilm.com
Robert Lloyd was speaking to Birmingham Comedy Festival as part of Birmingham Comedy Festival 2020.
To hear the full chat, check out the Birmingham Comedy Festival Meets The Nightingales podcast, which is available now via Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Podbean, Amazon, Audiable, and other podcast platforms (search for ‘Birmingham Comedy Festival’ on your favourite pod host).
Stream/ download for free via Podbean:
Birmingham Comedy Festival Meets The Nightingales
Prior to the release of King Rocker, comedian Stewart Lee's documentary about The Nightingales, we catch up with front…
For more information on the festival, see: bhamcomfest.co.uk