The Nightingales: ‘It was never an intention to be purposefully obscure’

The NightingalesThe Nightingales
The Nightingales
Having soldiered on in the margins of the music industry for four and a half decades, Robert Lloyd looks slightly bemused at the idea that, aged 62, he’s now regarded as something of an alternative national treasure.

Yet, thanks to the success of the documentary film King Rocker, made by comedian Stewart Lee and director Michael Cumming, that’s exactly where the long-time leader of Birmingham band The Nightingales finds himself.

“It’s a queer thing, really, because on the one hand you think I could have done with this happening a few decades ago, but by the same token, I guess it wouldn’t have happened,” the singer says over Zoom. “It’s the very nature that I’ve persevered that made it interesting to Stewart and Michael in the first place, so I can’t whinge and go, if only they’d have made the film when I was 30 because I probably wasn’t interested in old fellas, but who is?”

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First shown on Sky Arts, the film has now been released on DVD with an accompanying soundtrack album. Its basic premise is an investigation into how “Birmingham’s undervalued underdog autodidact” has survived under the radar for more than 40 years.

“I always had this idea that if people got to hear The Nightingales’ music they would like it, the problem was it wasn’t getting to the masses, so that’s how (the film) was born,” says Lloyd. “Originally I thought it was going to be a documentary about The Nightingales but it’s kind of a film that’s more about me than the band itself, which I wasn’t that comfortable about when it was unfolding, but John Henderson at my record label (Tiny Global) said to me, ‘Stewart and Michael have never done anything half a***ed, so just trust them and go with it’, so that’s what I decided to do.

“Sometimes I was out of my comfort zone but I thought they’re good blokes and I’d just trust that they’re going to do a good job. And I also thought if it’s a big hit then I’ll take the plaudits and if it’s rubbish I could go, ‘It’s them two, not me’.”

Back in 1976 when Lloyd formed a punk group called The Prefects his aspirations had been modest. “In every small town around the country there appeared to be one or two kids that liked Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground, rather than Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, and I was one of those in Cannock in Staffordshire, and I just had ambitions of being in a group,” he recalls. “I couldn’t play any instruments, I was always going to be the singer, but all the kids at school that could play the guitar were into Eric Clapton or Jethro Tull, which just wasn’t my bag at all.

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“Then the Sex Pistols came along and all these kids that liked the Velvet Underground and more obscure music as it was then started forming bands inspired by the Sex Pistols, and that’s what I did, but because we were just teenagers and a bit thick really we just wanted to be like the Sex Pistols. We were snotty and played a bit fast. As I say in the film, I was very lucky because my fourth or fifth gig ever was supporting The Clash at The Rainbow, then we went on that White Riot tour and I realised it’s just the same old cabbage. What I thought was a new movement that we were attached to was just another bunch of blokes who wanted to be rock stars. I’m really glad that I discovered this early because I didn’t waste time chasing some kind of punk rock dream that wasn’t there. So then I thought as this scene that I thought existed was kind of bull****, I might as well do what I wanted to do, which was more in the Krautrock, slightly avant-garde kind of vein, rather than ‘1-2-3-4, here we go’ kind of stuff.”

The Nightingales. Picture: Peter TainshThe Nightingales. Picture: Peter Tainsh
The Nightingales. Picture: Peter Tainsh

After The Prefects broke up in 1979, Lloyd formed The Nightingales, a band dubbed by the music journalist John Robb ‘the misfits’ misfits’. “I wouldn’t have used that description myself,” Lloyd chuckles, “but we certainly didn’t and still don’t hang around with other groups. With The Membranes, there was all those bands like Bogshed and Big Flame and that was like a little scene, then there was all these jingly-jangly bands like Alan McGee’s early Creation stuff, as I was just determined not be (part of it).

“It was going back to the punk rock thing. Once I’d got wise that punk rock was kind of c**p, I was determined not to be associated with any of the other bands, whether it’s the Birmingham scene or a certain record label or anything like that. Maybe that’s what makes me look like a misfit, I don’t know. It was never an intention to be in any way purposefully obscure but it was intentional not to be part of a clump of bands.”

The Nightingales dissolved for a period in the 80s while Lloyd ran his own label, Vindaloo, best known for signing We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Going To Use It; he also launched a solo career. For a short time he was signed to Virgin as they promised to stand by him even if he didn’t have a hit single. “They told me, ‘we’re in it for the long term, we don’t just pick people and if they don’t hit the bull’s eye straight away we dump them’ which is of course exactly what they did. It just felt like I was given a chance and it never happened, but it didn’t make much difference to my way of thinking, though I was given an advance so I actually had some money from making music for the first time – not a lot but more than none,” he says.

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The Nightingales re-formed in 2004 and have been touring ever since. Their present line-up is the most settled in their career and they’ve found a home at the Budapest-based label Tiny Global whose American founder John Henderson told them he was determined to be “the first label to do two Nightingales albums”.

“We’re on about our third or fourth with him now, with more in the pipeline,” says Lloyd. “And he’s a real good guy. It’s a bit like I say with the band, having the belief is good for me. Having John Henderson supporting us and allowing us to do what we want to do as and when we want to do it, not interfering at all creatively but backing us with studio time or any promotion, whatever we need, it makes me feel like I’m in a proper group.”

The Nightingales play at The Key Club, Leeds on Sunday April 24.

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