How does a working class autodidact, with no visible means of support, maintain his role as the leader of a cult British underground band into its fifth decade? Comedian and writer Stewart Lee (Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle) , director Michael Cumming (Brass Eye, Toast of London) and James Nicholls (Fire Records, Fire Films) investigate the mysterious existence of Robert Lloyd (The Prefects, The Nightingales, Robert Lloyd and the New Four Seasons), Britain’s ultimate post-punk survivor.
Robert Lloyd’s Prefects played with The Clash on the White Riot tour in 1977, and their ongoing incarnation, as Birmingham’s Captain Beefheart suffused post-punk poets The Nightingales, recorded more John Peel sessions than any other band. Ever.
Buoyed by endless critical acclaim, but hampered by ongoing commercial indifference, Lloyd has nonetheless continued to tour and record, The Nightingales’ affairs managed by drummer Fliss Kitson, from a Wolverhampton shipping container, and Lloyd himself, from the isolated borderland mountain fastness of Wellington, Shropshire, surrounded by prehistoric remains and industrial archaeology.
Lloyd, a post-punk flaneur, sometime postman, and master snug room raconteur, appears to have maintained a lifestyle outside the system via a succession of hustles, often involving an encyclopaedic knowledge of horse racing and pre-punk musical weirdness.
But what were the social, cultural and economic circumstances that enabled and sustained such outsider artists in the punk and post-punk eras, and how has the world changed to the point where such figures are unlikely to flourish in the same way today? Lloyd’s own odyssey echoes how abstract notions of social mobility, of the value of culture and music, have changed in the last five decades.
In an odd coincidence, Lloyd’s current home, the Shropshire market town of Wellington, in the shadow of the Wrekin, is also where the comedian Stewart Lee was born, though he only spent nine days there before being dispatched to an orphanage, and has not been back since.
Further chance collisions abound. For a brief period the skyline of ‘70s concrete Birmingham was defined by Nicholas Monroe’s unloved, and soon sold off pop art sculpture, of the giant ape, King Kong. Missing and presumed lost for years, this icon of Birmingham was eventually discovered prostrate in a Lake District garden, before being critically rehabilitated in an exhibition of great British public sculpture at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds in 2017.
As a child, Stewart was fascinated by the sculpture, and in a strange piece of synchronicity Lloyd compared his onstage persona to Monroe’s Kong in a triumphant post-gig rant in King’s Cross this year. The parallels make the point of comparison too good to ignore. King Rocker will shadow Lloyd’s story with that of Birmingham’s forgotten, and rediscovered, giant art ape, King Kong.