Photography: Michael Cumming

Using the motif of a King Kong sculpture which sat in the centre of Birmingham in the 1970s, only to be sold off and forgotten about, Stewart Lee’s documentary King Rocker charts the story of post punk survivor Rob Lloyd. Lloyd’s bands THE PREFECTS and THE NIGHTINGALES were lauded by John Peel and were forever on the precipice of success. In the film, Lee and co-creator Michael Cumming uncover the story behind a career which intersected with comedy writing, pop music, the postal service and food criticism. Lee and Cumming visit the Everyman Cinema on Thursday 11th November for a screening followed by Q and A. Sam Turner spoke to Lee over Zoom and began by asking about the origins of his relationship with enigmatic Lloyd.

How did your friendship with Rob Lloyd come about?
I really liked that band as a kid and I think, on some level, that sensibility informed me, certainly the sensibility of that sort of culture they came from. But I didn’t meet Rob until about 2005, I think I was on tour. And he turned up in Telford near where he lives and introduced himself and I was really pleased to meet him. Rob’s always on the lookout for ways of funding The Nightingales because it’s never really made any money. And he turned up with that sitcom [pilot co-written with Steven Wells] that he’d written 20 years ago, wondering, was there anything I could do with it. I don’t think he was really interested in the sitcom, just any way of paying for The Nightingales. The Nightingales has never ever turned a profit.
I opened for them sometimes, which I wouldn’t normally do. It doesn’t tend to work now, comedians opening for bands, but he’s very easy to get on with. And he’s much loved in his community. He’s the opposite of what a lot of comedians are like now on the panel shows, he’s a generous conversationalist. He doesn’t try to dominate it. As long as there’s laughs, he doesn’t mind where they’re coming from, you know, he’s happy to set them up, or be the fall guy, or all sorts of things, which is sort of why I don’t like doing those kind of competitive comedy shows, I don’t really like that aspect of it. And so it was very easy to be around with him without knowing him particularly well, and to get good results out of him because he’s sort of egoless, in some ways.

I’ve just watched another rockumentary that is yet to come out where the people in it are clearly very self consciously trying to give an impression of themselves as these particular people. Rob obviously decided early on that, like Oliver Cromwell, he was going to do it warts and all. We wasted a lot of footage because he wasn’t prepared to sort of play the game, you know, wasn’t going to do that. And what you get is his personality sort of driving the story along.

His personally does come across. The last rock documentary I watched before this one was Jim Jarmusch’s Stooges one, Gimme Danger. It’s a great historical document of the Stooges, but in terms of anything more away about Iggy Pop’s personality. I don’t think it does.
I mean, Iggy Pop is obviously a character that James Osterberg has created. And James Osterberg has quite bad hip problems and he can’t walk very well. And if you watch that, that pain seems to disappear as he gets to the wings of the stage, and he becomes Iggy Pop this kind of feral creature that is a rock and roll animal. Now, Rob isn’t that [laughs].
I think what a lot of people liked about [King Rocker] was it showed this rather delightful man, sort of wandering around loads of pubs and things, having a laugh with people and eating curry and stuff. I think people thought, I wish I had a friend like this. [In lockdown] it showed you the world we’ve missed and that how we have to value it and not take it for granted. You know, friendship and, culture. And not the kind of culture that Nadine Dorries understands either, not culture that’s necessarily run for a profit, not justified because of what it adds to the GDP. Culture that adds to the heart and soul of people and defines the character of the nation.

"It's about uncertainty and the failure of memory. And there's so many stories that are contradictory."

What was hard to gauge from the film was what Rob’s ambitions are. At some points, it seems that he’s quite happy to be a kind of cult figure and shun mainstream culture, and then you feel like he’s quite sad not to have got the credit he deserves.
That’s absolutely at the core of the film. Frank Skinner, who did a brilliant interview for us, said this sentence: “all cult figures wish they had mainstream success and all mainstream figures wish they had the status of cult figures.” And that’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it?

The film is a quite an interesting depiction of the music industry. There’s four or five decades of the music industry, and Rob trying his hand not just at creating music, but as an A&R man, running a record label, making videos. It’s an interesting insight into various facets of the industry.
There was more stuff during the video-making period that we just couldn’t really use because of the legal implications. The corruption in the business at that point, people jumping out of moving cars with envelopes of cash. There was one more video that they made, which is what finished it off, and we just couldn’t really get it in because we didn’t have the money. We couldn’t afford the clips. The most expensive thing was archives. But because of such good will towards the group, we paid the crew that we used for about 10 days while everyone else was just keen to help out on it, to get it over the line. But you can’t really get around the costs of archive. The Getty Foundation have bought it all. Even the BBC stuff, which once you would have been able to cut some kind of deal with someone. But that meant that we were lucky in a way because there isn’t much footage of The Nightingales. There’s a film of them on an [BBC] Arena documentary, and there’s a film of them on a German television programme. And that’s it, that’s all. There’s an Australian documentary about The Saints, which I assume must have been publicly funded, because they’re sort of a national treasure now. And there’s one about Radio Birdman which has just incredible amounts of archives in it.

But that demonstrates the risk of The Nightingales been forgotten about I guess. That fact there’s only that amount of footage available.
People didn’t have camera phones, either. I was remembering a gig I went to in Australia in 2004 in a little club the other day, and I thought, I wonder if there’s any footage of that online. And not only was there footage of it, but the footage was taken by the woman who was standing next to me. [laughs] I could literally step back into that moment. And that happens a lot now, doesn’t it? But for us, it was this, you know, all that stuff was lost, you know.

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There’s definitely something special about about that though. Talking about [King Rocker director] Michael Cumming’s film, Oxide Ghosts, I remember him saying at the time that he didn’t want to put that on a streaming service. He wanted it to be all about those events, those screening events, there and then.
He doesn’t really see it as a film show does he? He sees it as a kind of evening and everyone knows they can only see that film in that place. When we did screenings [of King Rocker] it was really great hearing that film get big laughs in cinemas and it was like when you see Airplane or the Zucker Brothers’ films or something as a kid at the cinema. It’d be full of people laughing. And that really helped us cut our film.
I really hope we can fill up these rooms because I showed it to a full room at the Laugharne Festival in South Wales, about a month ago, and it was like being in a big comedy film with really big laughs. He’s edited it really well, that’s another reason we were able to bring it in so cheap. Michael has not edited anything since he made student films, but he diligently sat in his shed for about six months. He worked out what the software does now and he did it, he’s really pleased that he got really good at editing. The laughs are there in the places that they should be, you know, and there’s some great cuts that I really love. Like when Rob sort of denies that Frank Skinner was ever in the group, and then he just cut to him remembering it with real clarity. That’s another note I like about it is that it’s about uncertainty and the failure of memory. And there’s so many stories that are contradictory.

You’ve done a lot of this kind of thing, championing people who are at the risk of being forgotten. Shirley Collins and Ted Chippington are two other examples. Is it something that you seek out?
Shirley Collins was really down to two people, David Tibet from Current 93 and David Suff from Fledg’ling Records. They both sort of protected her legacy between the period where she’d given up and when she started to be talked about again. I get attached to certain things. There’s a few people that I like, and if a radio producer or someone is Googling them, I’m about the best known person that’s heard of them. I’m embarrassed about it really. I sometimes get to talk about it at the expense of better qualified people. I’ve just been asked to do an introduction to a republishing of a novel by Rosemary Tonks, who’s writer that I really like that is out of print. And there’s people that know more about Rosemary Tonks than me, but I’m the League Division Five micro celebrity that’s asked instead of them.
With The Nightingales, it was different. Me and Michael completely drove this, we didn’t displace anyone else from it because we were better known. There just was no one else [laughs]. And it took me about six years to find someone to collaborate on with it. Because no one would fund it. No one was going to show it. Netflix rejected the finished film without even watching it. They said it just didn’t suit their algorithms. Hannah Gadsby’s just described them as an amoral algorithmic death cult. They just want to know what will land with audiences. It’s shareholder-driven, you know?
As luck would have it, I was talking to one of the Apperley brothers, Paul Apperley, who used to be in The Prefects, who now works at Wolverhampton University. He said, we had this director here the other day, showing his film. And he turned out he was a big Nightingales fan, he didn’t even know I’d been in it. And it was Michael Cumming.
We just worked out that we kind of could [do it], as long as we weren’t accountable to anyone. There’s things in the film that people likely would never have got through finances and proper producers. Like we just take that detour in the closing five minutes to talk to Robin Asquith in Malta. It breaks all the conventions of story structure, and it did completely derail the momentum in some ways at the end. But it’s unmissably funny, isn’t it? I mean, it’s just amazing.

STEWART LEE Image 2

He seemed to have such an amazing archive of people he’d showered with, which was lucky.
He did all that himself, because we couldn’t afford to go to Malta. I said, ‘can you just film yourself remembering people you’ve showered with and get some shots of Malta?’ and his friend did it for him. I don’t know if [Asquith] wrote that or improvised it. But again, the beats, the pacing, of it is so funny, when he goes [quotes from film] ‘I swam in a fish tank with Oliver Reed…’ and the shots the guy got of Malta are so beautiful and the way Michael’s dropped them in to that sequence. It’s absolutely delightful.
[But] if you’d done it with funding people and producers… My other regret about the film is that Rob was talking about when he was a postman, he used to deliver the mail to Julie Christie, the actress from Dr. Zhivago and all these 60s films. And he used to have a little chat with her and he could hear her playing the piano. I wrote to her agent and the agent went, ‘Oh, she lives in France, and she can’t possibly do it.’ And at the Laugharne Festival, I saw Julie Christie. I said, ‘I actually wrote to your agent about you appearing in [the film] because it’s about a man who used to be your postman, he used to talk to you and hear you playing the piano’, she said ‘it wasn’t me playing the piano, that was my friend’. I said, ‘Anway I wish you could have done it but you live in France, of course, so it wouldn’t be impossible.’ She said ‘I don’t, I live in East London and I’ve got a cottage in Wales.’ [laughs] So the agent, who was Curtis Brown, who, weirdly are my agents as well, which is depressing, obviously thought I was just a loony and just threw it in the bin. But it would have been a brilliant story because there was she denying what Rob had said about her, which would have made another great little bit. But, you know, the story of the fact that she was clearly never even contacted is so perfect for the film. It’s kind of better, really that people would be asked about it and would assume it was some kind of hoax or prank.
The chef was brilliant, Nigel Slater. He again, like Robin Asquith, he totally got it. How it wasn’t a joke about him. Yeah, he played along and rose above it brilliantly, was slightly indignant about having been replaced as a food critic. It’s really funny.

Nigel Slater, John Taylor from Duran Duran, Frank Skinner… There’s still quite a roll call of celebrities in there.
[It] makes you realise that we’re all sort of Zelig-like figures, aren’t we? We drift through life and there are different roads you could take at different points that would have changed everything. But you are what you are. And I suppose that the film catalogues the fork in the road of the life of a man that most people have never heard of, but then you realise there’s a point where he could have become Jarvis Cocker, where he could have become Graham Linehan. He could have become an Anthony Wilson sort of figure. There’s a point where he could have become a horse racing tipster, food writer, but he ends up back where he started.
He must be 62 now, and before the gig the other night he thought about reviving two of the old songs, Urban Ospreys and The Crunch, and then he didn’t because they just didn’t sound that good compared to the new stuff. And, as an older man, you have a nostalgia for the early stuff, but he was absolutely right. Watching it on Wednesday night, they would have just not been a patch on [the rest of the set]. It’s weird for them, with rock music most things get worse because often the best rock music is a result of naivety and enthusiasm. And then proficiency sometimes gets in the way you have to kind of get through proficiency. But then, this line-up’s been together 10 years when he’s 60 odd, and it’s better than ever. Better than ever. Watching it with James Nichols who produced [the film] on Wednesday, I felt an undeserved element of pride by association. And I feel like I’ve done something useful for the first time in my career. That wasn’t about me, you know?

Do you think that Rob’s happy now with with where he is, how the band’s getting on?
Cautiously. He’s having difficulty working out how to deal with being recognised all the time, which he says happens to him a lot. Now, I suppose quite a lot of people have seen it, you know, it’s been hanging around on Now TV and stuff, but I think he likes the fact that he’s able to pay the band now. I think that that’s nicer for everyone.

"There's the arrogance and cockiness of Manchester and Liverpool. And in the middle, it's a vacuum of a failure of self belief, where to be confident is seen as a sort of sin."

So what’s the format for the for the screenings?
Me and Michael, or a local celebrity provided by the Everyman cinema chain will introduce it, then we’ll show it and then we’ll take a Q and A until people get fed up. And the Q and A is great fun. Because Michael’s a breadth of experience in the field is really interesting and all the different people he’s work with. And obviously, there’s such a lot to say about the film. We just tend to get on with the Q and A because the public questions are always really good springboards for things.
[During the pandemic] The film filled that space and I went on every podcast I could to promote it and I wrote loads about it. And I got a sense of achievement and self-worth from it. It became a real lifeline. And it continues to be a source of great happiness. Most things I’ve done have a degree of regret or shame attached them. But this has been a great thing to be involved in.

The Prefects would have been around at the same time as Eric’s nightclub in Liverpool so I think the screening will resonate here.
Rob says that they were much more welcome in Liverpool and Manchester than they were in London and they think of themselves as sort of honorary Liverpool or Manchester band. But the thing is, Liverpool has a confidence about it. The people have confidence, and it’s comical, but it is a confidence. Liverpool also had champions, you know, had Eric’s and it had people doing fanzines and it had bolshy spokespeople like Pete Wiley, Ian McCulloch and [Julian] Cope, sort of evangelists for its scene. Manchester in the same period had the same thing. Factory and Tony Wilson and it had cocky, witty, funny people. And it had Paul Morley writing about it. All those other big British provincial towns that had a punk scene in that era, had a spokesperson and a centre of gravity and Birmingham just had nothing. It’s not the Birmingham way. It’s not the way of people in the Midlands. There’s the arrogance and cockiness of the Cockneys, then there’s the arrogance and cockiness of Manchester and Liverpool. And in the middle, it’s a vacuum of a failure [laughs] of self belief, where to be confident is seen as a sort of sin. And everyone underplays everything, all the groups from then from that town. He’s a figure of variable talent but Nicky Sutton and The Swell Maps … from any other city, that would register more but there’s some kind of just Birmingham-ness about it. The Au Pairs should be spoken of, in the same way as The Slits or Gang of Four are, but they’re forgotten. And the reggae stuff. I mean, everyone remembers UB40 but Steel Pulse. They were incredible group just sort of became a party band on the US college circuit.

And Rob Lloyd kind of, embodies that. There’s a drive there and motivation to make the money for his family or the band, but he’s very self deprecating.
The closest we got to that was when I took him up to that stone circle. We really tried to trick him into talking about what did he want. I took him to a monument to ask him why he wants to be remembered, if at all. That was the closest he came to to expressing the egotism of wanting to be remembered but even then he said it was the work he wanted to be remembered not him.

STEWART LEE Image 2

Anything else that you’re working on at the moment?
The last tour which was called Snowflake/Tornado went down halfway through because of Covid. That starts again in January, through to July. I think I’m coming back to Liverpool again.
And I’ve got a range of winter hats coming out for Christmas hats. Woollen beanie hats. I’ve got some hats coming out. They’re not on sale yet but you’ll be able to get them from a website called Wax Face. They do me, Warren Ellis and Thee Oh Sees. It’s a very exclusive merchandise company. I never wanted to do merchandise but people started doing merchandise of me without asking me and then I thought I had to do something. So met this guy and he had some funny ideas. So that’s the future. The future is hats.

Stewart Lee and Michael Cummings will be appearing for a Q&A following a screen of King Rocker at Everyman Cinema on Thursday 11th November. Tickets

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