Updated: Mar 4, 2021
By Stephen Pennell
As a keen advocate of Birmingham’s astonishingly rich and diverse culture, I was a bit embarrassed at my ignorance regarding the contribution to said culture of original punks The Prefects and The Nightingales. But in my defence, while they were ripping it up at the legendary Star Club in the late seventies (above the communist bookshop where by contrast I often visited), I was immersed in the busy local Mod scene, doing my best to avoid the punks from The Crown who were perhaps their more natural constituents, and who hated and often hunted us down with violent intent. So I was really looking forward to getting clued up on Robert Lloyd and his bands by watching King Rocker, written by my favourite stand-up comic Stewart Lee and directed by Brass Eye's Michael Cumming.
Cleverly dovetailing the Nightingales head-honcho's tale with that of another unappreciated Brummie icon, the King Kong statue that stood briefly in the Bull Ring, King Rocker takes the viewer on a fascinating journey through the life and career of one of music’s great outsiders, while reflecting on the annoying Birmingham habit of rejecting it’s own culture. They all obviously had a ball making the film and as one might expect from a documentary about a midlander, brilliantly narrated by another one, it is soaked in self-deprecation, with gallons of gallows humour and oodles of understated charm, particularly when Lee and Lloyd share the screen as a naturally funny double-act, unaffected and unhindered by anything contrived, like a script. When the pair go to view an ancient stone circle to explore the concept of people wanting to be remembered and valued after they’re dead and gone, Lloyd’s response is customarily blunt - “they need to get over it”.
It reminded me of a passage in Mike Skinner’s documentary The Unstoppable Rise of Birmingham Rap, in which The Streets star asked Small Heath’s Jaykae to explain the appeal of Brummie MCs. “It’s because none of us talk s**t” replied Jaykae, and there’s a refreshing absence of hyperbole from the cast of characters in King Rocker too. With Vix and Magz from Fuzzbox and legions of past and present Nightingales displaying typical West Midlands humility, and Ted Chippington so hungry for fame he didn’t even turn up for his interview, it’s noticeable that Lee has to turn to non-Brummies when a bit of pretentious waffle is required.
Lloyd is shown as a maverick in a city of mavericks, refusing to compromise like a kind of less-celebrated Kevin Rowland, and upholding Birmingham’s tradition of non-conformity and individuality, in stark contrast to the uniform (and therefore more marketable) music scenes of other English cities like, I dunno, Manchester for instance. The documentary is entertaining, informative, and ultimately life affirming as Lloyd’s band sound better than ever, forty years deep in their story. The film will hopefully stir interest in their back catalogue and legacy, and stands as a worthy tribute to a man who, whether by accident or design, remained an outsider in a cultural phenomenon, punk rock, that itself purported to be especially for outsiders. As such, and I suspect to Rob’s approval, it’s miles better than a stone circle.
By Stephen Pennell ©