A Nightingale Sang In Barbarella's: Stewart Lee, Michael Cumming Interviewed

A Nightingale Sang In Barbarella's: Stewart Lee, Michael Cumming Interviewed

The pair on their mission to immortalise the reticent king of Brummie punk...

Have you ever heard of The Nightingales? No?

Well, that situation needs swiftly rectifying, reckons Stewart Lee, the splendid stand-up, sometime Sunday-paper album reviewer and recent number- one-hitmaker (with Asian Dub Foundation).

Now he’s also a rock-documentarian, alongside old colleague Michael Cumming, best known for directing bravura comedies like Brass Eye and Toast of London. Their film, King Rocker, is about Birmingham proto-punks The Nightingales, and particularly frontman Rob Lloyd, previously of the Prefects but hardly your classic grizzled rocker. Sitcom-writer, postman, food critic, label boss, pro- gambler, pop-video producer: he’s packed it in.

Now re-pepped with youthful vigour, The Nightingales are still going strong: alongside the doc there’s also an epic concert film, Perish The Thought, and a single, ‘Ten Bob Each Way’, both also featuring Lee contributions.

King Rocker is the major work though, a wonderfully weird-but-warm film that also delves into Birmingham’s neglected punk history (and its own CBGBs, Barbarella’s). That doc was primed for cinemas, but recently UK-premiered on Sky Arts instead and is still available on-demand, before a DVD release later this year.

Early responses have been rapturous, so Clash Zoomed Lee and Cumming, at their home-office and garden-workshed respectively.

- - -

- - -

Obvious first question then - why a documentary about The Nightingales?

Stewart Lee - Well, we did a documentary about them because Rob asked me to make one! And then Michael had the ability to do it. What's special about them… they're easily as good if not better than lots of groups from the era that have been critically rehabilitated and had the cash-in tour. But it's not a meritocracy.

They're fantastic, The Nightingales, and also they're just interesting, funny, nice people. I watched a documentary about Blondie once, who I quite liked, and after the documentary I hated them so much I gave all the records away. I didn't want those people in my house. Michael Cumming

That's what I was very conscious of. I remember watching a documentary about John Martyn, the folk singer, and I love John Martyn. But after watching the documentary, I just thought Jesus Christ, you know, I didn't want to make that sort of film.

You were a Nightingales fan too, Michael?

MC - It’s something about Rob’s words, he's got a unique outlook. I don't know anybody else who writes those kinds of songs, really. About ospreys in your garden. They were always the band that you told people about, and I suppose this is just us saying, ‘listen to this, you might not know about this one.’

SL – What, you mean it's like you've made a tape for someone?

MC - It's like a big mixtape, isn't it? With pictures.

The concert film is great - was that gig just recorded for the main film originally?

MC - Yeah, they were on really good form that night, at [London’s] Moth Club. There isn't really any other sort of properly done footage of them live.

SL – We both think of the Nightingales as special, but to most people they're one of thousands of groups that operate at that sort of level, who don't normally get filmed. Normally they're shot – if at all - on someone's camera phone. - Michael really caught the feel of what it's like to be in one of those rooms, so it's a really good bit of social and cultural history. The film itself landed during the pandemic, and I think loads of people who’ve seen it have gone ‘ah, I’d just like some normal…’ It’s comforting. MC - We thought the film was looking back at the late 70s, but it's actually looking back on the 2019s, when everything was so free and easy.

It’s good watching that concert film and feeling like being in a proper sweaty gig again.

SL – I know what you mean. They're charming some of these [lockdown] shows, I saw one live thing from the second songwriter in the Drive by Truckers who I like, he did it on an acoustic guitar in his bathroom using the shower curtain as a kind of baffler. And It was delightful. But this is a proper gig.

MC – And Stewart is on good form, opening for them. When we originally talked about King Rocker, we thought it might be more based around Stewart touring with the band.

SL – But we had to find a through line for it, and that was Rob’s story.

- - -

- - -

There’s a great bit where the new bass player, Andreas, basically says ‘the bass player stormed off and I stepped in’ - lots of docs would have gone big on that bust-up. But you didn’t go down the Anvil route, laughing at them?

SL - That's sort of what Rob's initial idea for the film was, like Anvil, but I went ‘you can't do that, because you're not a joke. You've just been unlucky.’

He's not a tragic figure. In fact in lots of scenes he’s dressed smarter than you, Stewart...

SL - I mean, Rob wouldn't look a mess because that would be what someone in a punk band would do. So he tries to dress really smartly. And in fact they always coordinate, like a show band. Did you notice that, Michael?

MC - There's planning to it for sure. No scruffy clothes. No beards in The Nightingales.

It was interesting hearing about West Midlands music generally. A lot of their bands have been co- opted into other scenes - people think The Charlatans are from Manchester, and The Streets are from London.

SL – And The Beat ended up as part of Coventry, Two-Tone. Birmingham had an identity for psychedelia and hard rock from about ‘67 to ‘73. You had The Move and Spencer Davis Group, Black Sabbath, some of Led Zeppelin. But it's never really capitalised on that. In the States, a city that all those groups come from would be called The Capital of Rock and would have a museum.

With punk, other cities had either a venue or a personality that was like a flagpole for it; Birmingham just doesn't have that. A lot of Brummies who’ve seen the film have written with great pride about how it captures their inability to promote themselves! ‘We don't go around boasting about things, letting people know what we're good at…’ They seem delighted about that.

MC – It was later maybe, when Duran Duran started, that I remember being aware that they were from a sort of Birmingham scene.

SL - Dexy’s pretended to be Italian initially. And then Irish!

Rob’s back in the Midlands now after ups and downs in London, then a stroke, and seems to be leading quite a normal life. Which is surprising: usually these films are about someone who’s died.

SL – Well I’m really glad he isn't dead. I mean, I’m glad he didn’t die anyway, but it would have been annoying if he’d died between it being finished and it coming out.

When the film first got delayed he sent me a slightly annoyed text about that, thinking he might die before it came out. You know, he eats a lot of vegetables, but he doesn’t really look after himself. He didn't really like going outside very much, for the film.

Rob asked me 10 years ago about making it, but I think he realised pretty quickly that he hadn't thought what it would be like to be asked lots of questions about his life. So that's why the interviews take place in Indian restaurants and pubs: Michael cleverly disguised them as just conversations.

Presumably in normal times the band would now be touring off the back of this film?

SL - I think the film's probably more than compensated for that. You can sort of dip your finger into social media and see that people are going ‘Oh, yeah, I’d forgotten about them,’ or ‘I'd never heard them and I like them.’ That would be really amazing if it made a definable difference, and they've gone from getting 500 streams to 8000. Obviously, that adds up to 6p or something.

- - -

- - -

The film takes some bizarre twists. Rob’s own label takes off, then a major label tries turning him into a pop star, then later it turns out he's amazing at betting.

SL – Yeah, Simon Bazalgette from the Jockey Club was one of the crowdfunders actually, he’s a fan of the band from childhood. He always gets them into these racing meetings, with people like Vic Godard from Subway Sect, this post-punk race meeting thing.

MC - There's a sort of punk rock racing crossover. They get the poshest box, that the Queen would go in if she came to Sandown, free hospitality, a balcony that looks right over the finish line.

SL - Me and Rob went to see Henry Cow, the early 70s art-rock band, at the Barbican. He was sitting in the foyer on a laptop, because he was waiting for the exact moment to place a bet. And the right time was about 10 minutes into some Henry Cow gig.

MC - He's surprising, a man of many parts.

It's not what you’d get in the Eagles documentary, is it?

SL – People go on about success and failure, and he would say the group were failing, but I think they're a success. It's really nice to have documented it. I hope it makes people understand what we’re talking about when we talk about music and live art. We're not necessarily talking about The Who rolling out across Europe, in helicopters like some vast Vietnam War invasion. We're talking about all these little people getting on with stuff.

Rob also co-wrote a sitcom with the legendary music writer Stephen Wells, that got picked up?

MC - The fact that someone said ‘Okay, we'll commission you to make a pilot of this sitcom,’ there's not many people who get that. And then to blow it by falling out, like, within half an hour; it’s classic really. On the DVD extras I've done a little 10-minute thing about Steven Wells; he's obviously a fascinating character.

It seems a good dynamic in the modern Nightingales line-up, the new drummer/singer Fliss Kitson is sort of co-leader now?

MC – I think that’s a relief for Rob as he’s not up to speed with things like social media and computers. But he’s organised, he did run his record label [Vindaloo]. Yes it was from the backroom of a pub, but one of their acts was massively successful, Fuzzbox. He found them when they couldn't really play.

How does Rob feel about the film now?

SL - I think he definitely was nervous about it, but the response has been so positive, I hope that he's proud of it. He must be sort of relieved, the reaction it's had.

Looking ahead, you’re doing some music stuff too, Stewart?

SL - I'm doing some words for a second record with the folk musician Laura Cannell: I now record them in my cellar and email them over. And there's a physical version of the Asian Dub Foundation single I was sampled on coming out in March, the number one single that got no coverage, interestingly, although the sea shanty bloke seemed to be all over the news when he got to number one. We weren’t. I’m not saying that’s racist. But it probably was.

It sounds like you’re busy with DVD extras too, Michael – presumably there’s loads of footage?

MC - Terabytes, terabytes. There's some fantastic things, and we're going to cram it full of everything.

SL - No one asked for any extras! He won’t admit it, but he’s addicted to it.

- - -

- - -

King Rocker can be streamed on-demand on various TV platforms. The concert film Perish the Thought and single ‘Ten Bob Each Way’ are available here: https://noonchorus.com/the-nightingales/

Words: Si Hawkins

Join us on the ad-free creative social network Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks, exclusive content and access to Clash Live events and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.

 

Follow Clash

Buy Clash Magazine