A casual pre-concert chinwag with Robert Lloyd while lounging around the Nightingales merch table (FYI, assorted freebies 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 sunglasses case). A chatty Lloyd confirmed that the next set would be made up mostly of newer material, including half a dozen unrecorded tracks (I confess my heart nearly sank to the bottom of the Taff at this point, as I had hoped against hope to tour the band’s back catalogue, touring heavily). In truth, that would probably never happen and Lloyd was quick to explain why he didn’t want to end up fronting his own Nightingales tribute band, citing how he had once turned down comedian Stewart Lee’s offer of a high-profile festival slot that was conditional on the band playing his debut album Pig’s on Purpose (1982) in its entirety. Lloyd was as good as his word, with “Parafin Brain” (the combo’s debut single for Cherry Red which peaked at 39 on the Independent Chart in April 1982), the only classic dusted off for tonight’s show. And really, given that his latest album Mind over Matter (2015) reveals an inspiring Lloyd who is still in mortal combat with his muse, who can question his way of thinking?
For the uninitiated (aka 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 (for a fee, four cans of beer!) and then playing alongside seminal punk bands Buzzcocks, The Damned and The Slits throughout 1977/78, delivering a staple set including their seven-second opus “VD”. The Prefects broke up before releasing a record, though Rough Trade scored a posthumous indie hit with the band’s Peel Session song “Going through the Motions” in 1980. Lloyd, Joe Motivator (guitar) and Paul Apperley (drums) formed The Nightingales, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Except, of course, that Robert Lloyd is a central character in an unofficial alternate history of popular music! Even when factoring in the group’s seven Peel Sessions and their unexpected longevity, the spotlight has barely creased the brummie singer’s brow, let alone stayed 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-year period, remains completely invisible to the general population. 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 PJ Harvey, then you’d have all bases covered. However, none, in my opinion, is equal to Lloyd.
Discussing Lloyd’s merits as a lyricist in the context of a live ‘Welsh’ performance, where the language is often rendered into Glam gibberish by a hail of Mickey Spillane riffs, may be a case of diving headfirst down the rabbit hole, but it’s a journey well worth following. Lloyd, though capable of penning witty one-liners like this “Bachelor Land” gem
‘Even martial arts masters must have some laundry to do’,
or my favorite pop punchline of all time, from the giddy noir of “Insurance,”
‘Most of the words are in the dictionary, it’s just taking them off the shelf’,
is, for the most part, as surreal and impenetrable a lyricist as you’ll find anywhere in the art form, as the lyrics to “The Bending End” (which, along with “Bachelor Land” and “Insurance,” can be found on the group’s best album, Hysterics) make (little) clear.
‘Reminds me of the weatherman on TV, a familiar face with a forgettable name / He had access to film and camera, he said I had a wicked nature / He said it to the stars the day he read it / This could be why he had no inclination to use the medium he had access to, maybe it’s his lack of imagination / Who can say, who cares anyway? / Whatever the reason he never cares about the choice, he doesn’t even consider it / Tomorrow could be colder or warmer, what’s the use of making things more complicated?
The billowing chorus of the song,
‘The day comes when all the people agree to put Paul Daniels on the job / Believing in the wizard is a futility / Notable powers are out of place in a democracy’,
it’s 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 mostly 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 proving 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 B BC 6) and the gigantic slab of glam. rock that is “Take Away the Stigma of Free School Dinners,” each of which is as good as anything they made on vinyl in their heyday. “Out of True” also demonstrated that Lloyd hadn’t lost his eye for character assassination, as the devastating ballad “Black Country” highlights.
“He’d borrow cash and weed from his friends / And scratch his rash and he’d ever be a user / Empathic liars on a binge, love a loser / But a friendship that expensive is so expensive and they thank Christ he got drunk to death / It was a boil on the Black Country ass.”
“Out of True” was the start of a prolific period for Lloyd, with four other studio albums and a couple of live albums flowing from his poisonous pen in the past decade, all to widespread critical acclaim and, as usual, general commercial scorn. Every one of those releases in recent days gave evidence to the fact that the old pun was still shooting from the lip, a fact confirmed yet again by tonight’s sizzling set.
Taking the stage, bassist Andreas Schmidt gleefully introduces the band and that’s where all communication ceases, until exactly one hour later, Lloyd, in response to enthusiastic applause from the seventy-something punters present, clarifies his standard position on encores: “Thanks for coming, but no matter how long you clap or yell, we don’t do encores. There are other bands that do, but not us.” Then suddenly he’s gone. I last saw him, upstairs in the Moon Club slumped on the corner sofa, arms outstretched, head thrown back with exhaustion.
However, there was still a lot to like about the Nightingales at night. Lloyd seemed in good spirits, which isn’t always the case (a Festival performance in 2011 sticks in the memory not only for its impressive set, but also for Lloyd’s constant berating and harassing of his audience), while at the Buffalo Bar a few years ago, a maniacal Lloyd prowled the crowd brandishing a microphone, and suddenly I found myself recruited into an army of backing vocalists performing a fearless version of “How to Age”.
Lloyd was content to simply turn the stage tonight, coming in as a punch-drunk Rocky XVIII heavyweight with too many matches under his well-stuffed belt, occasionally unleashing a flurry of aerial punches at an imaginary opponent, before breaking through a series of moves last practiced by King Kong atop the Empire State Building as he brushes aside a squadron of fighter jets. It’s glorious stuff, reminiscent of the half-crouching can-can Lloyd played when I first saw the band at the Poly in Wales thirty years ago.
Lloyd has been quick to praise the star quality of the band’s current line-up (while the bio entry on the Nightingales’ Facebook page is, by contrast, unforgiving with some of their predecessors describing them as ‘part-time starry-eyed swashbucklers, gorgeous fellas and mercenaries’) and they more than live up to their big billing tonight. “Dumb and Drummer,” a modern Nightingales bathtub banger, and one of several songs to showcase a howling duet with ex-Violet Violet drummer Fliss Kitson, is one of the early highlights, closely followed by jackhammer versions of “Thick and Thin” and “Bullet for Gove.” Nameless and unknown songs (a request for a track listing, so far, has gone unanswered) gushed out, giving way to a vitriolic cacophony of rockabilly, post-punk, and glam (the band even burst into “Blockbuster” halfway through “Taffy Come Home”). A giddy “Booze, Broads and Beauty” suddenly subsides, leaving Lloyd to “recite” a piece of stage poetry “Learn to Say Maybe”, sadly, however, omitting his best lines,
“Then he got a job at Eurosport covering dominoes, falconry and kendo / Then he got popular and won awards for innuendo and innuendo.”
The concert comes to a gale-force finale with a gut-wrenching rendition of Mind over Matter’s “Bit of Rough” before the band is honorably retired. Lloyd will do more heavy lifting at Leicester, Manchester, Bradford and Edinburgh before the month is out. Do not miss it!
I suddenly realize I haven’t mentioned Lloyd’s brief stint in disguise as Robert Lloyd and the New Four Seasons in 1987/8, where our hero got a modern haircut, signed to a major label, and wrote a couple of absolute soul classics, the best of which, the irrepressibly catchy “Something Nice,” may be the greatest pop song ever written that you’ve never heard of. Then again, can that honor belong to its companion piece “Anchor Party”? You really should stop reading this now (I’m running out of things to say anyway) and check out the songs for yourself (making sure to check out the Lloyd’s Snub TV performance below for that signature dance) and decide for yourself.