A casual pre-gig chinwag with Robert Lloyd while loafing around the Nightingales’ merchandising table, (FYI assorted goodies include “Bullet for Gove” t-shirts, copies of Only My Opinion, Volume I of Lloyd’s collected lyrics, a bright orange tote bag and a branded glasses case!), made for an intriguing start to a rare evening in the company of the (still) most underrated band in Britain. A chatty Lloyd confirmed that the forthcoming set would mostly be made up of newer material, including a half- dozen unrecorded numbers (I confess my heart nearly sank to the bottom of the Taff at this point as I was hoping, against hope, for a grand tour of the band’s back catalogue). In truth, that was never likely to happen and Lloyd was quick to elaborate on why he didn’t want to end up fronting his own Nightingales tribute band, citing how he’d once turned down comedian Stewart Lee’s offer of a high-profile festival slot that was conditional on the band playing their debut album Pig’s on Purpose (1982) in its entirety. Lloyd was as good as his word, with “Parrafin Brain” (the combo’s debut single for Cherry Red which reached no 39 in the Independent Chart in April of 1982), the sole classic dusted down for tonight’s show. And, really, given that their latest album Mind over Matter (2015) reveals an inspirational Lloyd still engaged in mortal combat with his muse, who can question his mindset?
For the uninitiated (a.k.a the young), Robert Lloyd is the real deal. As a member of The Prefects, the first punk band in Birmingham, the 17 year old frontman somehow found himself supporting The Clash on their legendary White Riot Tour (payment, four cans of beer!) and then playing alongside seminal punk bands Buzzcocks, The Damned and The Slits throughout 1977/78, delivering a raw-boned set which included their seven second long opus “VD”. The Prefects famously split before releasing a record, although Rough Trade did wangle a posthumous Indie hit with the band’s Peel Session track “Going through the Motions” in 1980. Lloyd, Joe Motivator (guitar) and Paul Apperley (drums) went on to form The Nightingales, and the rest, as they, say is History.
Except, of course, that Robert Lloyd is a central character in an alternative, off the record history of popular music! Even when you allow for the group’s seven Peel Sessions and their unanticipated longevity, the spotlight has barely creased the brummie singer’s brow, let alone lingered there for the full fifteen minutes! Lloyd, despite making a series of wonderfully abrasive post-punk albums and writing a plethora of incendiary pop tunes over a 40 years period, remains completely invisible to the population at large. This is despite the fact that you could make an excellent case for Robert Lloyd being the best British lyricist of his generation. If you were to imagine a spectrum of pop wordsmiths stretching from Lennon and McCartney to Alex Turner and Ben Drew, incorporating the likes of Ray Davies, Kate Bush, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Billy Bragg, Mark E. Smith, Morrissey, and P.J Harvey, then you’d have all the bases covered. Yet none, in my opinion, are the equal of Lloyd.
Discussing the merits of Lloyd as a lyricist in the context of a ‘Gales live performance, where language is often pummeled into Glam gibberish by a thumping rain of Mickey Spillane riffs, may be a case of launching yourself head first down the rabbit hole, but it’s a journey worth pursuing. Lloyd, though capable of writing neat one-liners like this gem from “Bachelor Land”
‘Even Martial Arts Masters must have some washing to do’,
or my all-time favourite pop punch-line, from the queasy noir of “Insurance”,
‘Most words are there in the dictionary, it’s just getting it off the shelf’,
is, more often, than not, as surreal and impenetrable a lyricist as you’ll find anywhere in the art form, as the lyric to “The Bending End” (which, along with “Bachelor Land” and “Insurance”, can be found on the group’s best album Hysterics) makes (un)clear.
‘Reminds me of the TV weatherman, a household face with a forgettable name / he had access to film and camera, he said he had a perverse nature / It said so in the stars the day he read ’em / This could be why he had no inclination to use the medium he had access to, maybe it’s his lack of imagination / Who’s to say, who cares anyway? / Whatever the reason he never worries about the choice, he don’t even consider it / Tomorrow could be colder or warmer, what’s the point in complicating things further?’
The song’s rollicking chorus,
‘Come the day all people agree to get Paul Daniels on the job / Belief in the magician is a futility / Remarkable powers are out of place in democracy’,
is a corker but, somehow, you can’t imagine it was played at the family entertainer’s funeral.
When the band re-formed in 2004, after a 15 year hiatus, which Lloyd spent mainly working as a Postman, the “comeback” album “Out of True” (2006) saw the band pick up exactly where they left off, with a bellicose Lloyd demonstrating that he still had the stomach for the fight on tracks like “Born Again in Birmingham”, “Let’s Talk about Living” (Single of the Week on BBC 6) and the gigantic slab of glam rock that is “Taking Away the Stigma of Free School Dinners”, each being as good as anything they’d ever committed to vinyl in their heyday. “Out of True” also proved that Lloyd hadn’t lost his eye for toe-curling character assassination either, as the devastating ballad “Black Country” highlights,
‘He’d borrow cash and grass his pals / and scratch his rash and ever shall be a user / The empathetic liars down the boozer, they love a loser / But overpriced is such a friendship and they thank Christ he drank himself to death / He was a boil on the arse of the Black Country’.
“Out of True” was the beginning of a prolific period for Lloyd, with four other studio albums and a couple of live albums flowing from his poison pen in the past decade, all to widespread critical acclaim and, as usual, blanket commercial disdain. Each of those latter day releases evidenced the fact that the old punslinger was still shooting from the lip, a fact borne out once again by tonight’s coruscating set
Upon taking the stage, base player Andreas Schmidt lightheartedly introduces the band and that is where all communication promptly ceases, until exactly one hour later when Lloyd, in response to rapturous applause from the seventy or so punters present, clarifies his standard position on encores “Thanks for coming out, but it doesn’t matter how long you clap or shout we don’t do encores. There are other groups that do, but not us”. Then, suddenly, he’s gone. I last glimpse him, upstairs in the Moon Club slumped on the corner sofa, arms outstretched, head tilted back in exhaustion.
There was, however, still plenty to like about the Nightingales on the night. Lloyd seemed in good humour, which is not always the case (a Festival performance in 2011 sticks in the memory not only for its breathtaking set, but for Lloyd’s constant berating and baiting of his audience), while at the Buffalo Bar some years ago a manic Lloyd prowled through the crowd brandishing a microphone and I suddenly found myself conscripted into an army of backing vocalists on a swashbuckling rendition of “How to Age”.
Lloyd was content to simply circle the stage tonight, coming on like a punch drunk heavyweight from Rocky XVIII with one too many bouts under his well-stuffed belt, occasionally throwing a flurry of airy punches at an imaginary opponent, before busting a set of moves last practiced by King Kong atop the Empire State Building, while swatting aside a squadron of fighter planes. It’s glorious stuff, calling to mind the half-crouched can-can Lloyd executed when I saw the band for the first time in the Poly of Wales thirty years ago.
Lloyd has been quick to heap praise on the star quality of the band’s present line-up (while the bio entry on the Nightingales’ Facebook page is contrarily unforgiving about some of their predecessors describing them as ‘part-time starry-eyed wastrels, precious sorts and mercenaries’) and they more than live up to their big billing tonight. “Dumb and Drummer” a modern day Nightingales tub-thumper, and one of a number of songs to showcase a howling duet with ex Violet Violet drummer Fliss Kitson is an early highlight, closely followed by jackhammer versions of “Thick and Thin” and “Bullet for Gove”. Unnamed and unknown songs (a request for a set-list has, so far, gone unanswered) spurt by, segueing into a vitriolic cacophony of rockabilly, post-punk and Glam, (the band even break into “Blockbuster” mid-way through “Taffy Come Home”). A blistering “Booze, Broads and Beauty” is suddenly becalmed, leaving Lloyd to “recite” a piece of performance poetry “Learn to Say Maybe”, sadly, though, omitting its best lines,
‘Next he got a job on Eurosport covering dominoes, falconry, and kendo / Then went mainstream and won awards for dirty-old-man-isms and innuendo’.
The gig reaches a gale-force finish with a bone-crushing rendition of “Bit of Rough” from Mind over Matter before the band beats an honorable retreat. Lloyd will be doing some more heavy lifting in Leicester, Manchester, Bradford and Edinburgh before the month is out. Don’t miss out!
It suddenly strikes me that I haven’t mentioned Lloyd’s brief stint masquerading as Robert Lloyd and the New Four Seasons in 1987/8, where our hero got himself a trendy haircut, signed with a major label and penned a couple of absolute classic soul stompers, the best of which, the irrepressibly catchy “Something Nice”, may just be the best pop song ever written that you’ve never heard of. Then again, that honour may belong to its companion piece “Part of the Anchor”? You really should stop reading this now (I’m running out of stuff to say, anyway) and check out the songs yourself (making sure to watch Lloyd’s Snub TV performance below for a glimpse of that distinctive dancing) and decide for yourself.