For Losers Only
Of course, rather than running around like so many Doug Yules, if these guys on the revitalised Rough Trade roster were really so cool they would be dropping references to the lesser spotted punk outsiders, like... well, like Robert Lloyd. For, when the results come in for the greatest unknowns of the punk age, Lloyd looks like being the first past the post. No, that can't be right, for when has Lloyd ever won anything?
Flick through the indices of the punk history books, and Lloyd and his groups the Prefects and Nightingales barely warrant more than a footnote. Even with the flood of reissues and salvage operations, there is little evidence to back up any case for Lloyd as a great lost hero. Yet, listening to a care worn tape of a Prefects performance from 1977 (possibly the same Electric Circus show referred to in Jon Savage's Time Travel), it's clear the group deserve a place alongside Wire, Devoto's Buzzcocks, The Fall and Subway Sect as the great punk adventurers.
The Prefects had the gift of the gab, the wit, the scratchy guitar squall, the pounding drum thing, all down to a fine art, but in terms of organisation, work rate and achievement, they made the immortal Subway Sect seem positively zealous! Apart from two Peel sessions, the Prefects seem to have bequeathed very little in the way of recordings, and even these seem currently unavailable. At the time, only two songs ('Going Through the Motions' / 'Things In General') from the Peel sessions appeared on a joint Rough Trade / Vindaloo single, though their contribution to the Slits/Subway Sect 'Sister Ray' 'No more rock'n'roll for you' performance also appeared on vinyl.
Even now I don't know the reason why the Prefects did not get preserved on record. In fact, I feel a bit afraid writing this as doubtless many people know much more about the Prefects than me, and maybe there are several compilations in several countries, and dedicated websites where you can download files of old Prefects demos. Go on, surprise me!
I guess we are talking about a need to revise again the myths of the punk explosion, so that the Prefects are part of the central contingent of pioneers, with their v-neck jumpers, brutally cut hair, and three button hand me downs, chipping away at the old ideas of what pop could be. Had they released a string of singles, it is still difficult to envisage the Prefects on Top Of The Pops. Even allowing for the presence of the Adverts, Saints, Lurkers, Ruts. Yet, the sessions and surviving live tapes show a group creating a new sound by building on things like the Velvets' rhythmic waves, '60s garage punk and Beefheart's Safe As Milk. In fact, it's long tickled me that at least one song seems to make explicit reference to a track from the astonishing American Revolution LP by David Peel and the Lower East Side. Okay, Peel and his gang may have been nasty, argumentative, stoned freaks, but they, on tracks like 'I Want to Kill You' made a proto-punk racket second to none, and one far more akin to the sound of 1977 UK pioneering pop than anything I have yet to hear from the Stooges or MC5. But what do I know?
Arguably, part of the Prefects' problem was that they came from Birmingham and were therefore not a part of any recognised/recognisable punk scene. I am sure in Birmingham then the Prefects were kings, and I seem to recall Nick Gilbert telling me when I was researching the Felt story that he and Lawrence would go and see the Prefects all the time. He also told me they would go and see the early incarnations of Dexys all the time. Interestingly this was edited out of the sleeve notes for Absolute Classic Masterpieces, but Nick believed the best night of his life was seeing Dexy's and Joy Division on the same bill in a small Birmingham venue. Sounds fair enough!
Perhaps the most compelling thing about the Prefects more than twenty yers on is their 'The Bristol Road Leads to Dachau' which is about the IRA Birmingham pub bombings, and still sounds chilling, particularly when married with the deadpan Brummie introduction on the live tape I mentioned earlier. Lawrence with Denim would make the same points later in 'The Osmonds', with similar dramatic effect.
Somewhere along the line, as the '70s became the '80s, the Prefects evolved into the Nightingales, and with little personnel change, put out a classic debut single in 1981, again on Vindaloo through Rough Trade. Produced by the underground's own Phil Spector / Brian Wilson / King Tubby, Adam Kidron, it's a glorious clattering, trebly racket, matched only by peers Josef K and The Fall.
They switched labels to Cherry Red and released a few classic singles, notably 'use Your Loaf' and 'Paraffin Brain', and a great LP Pigs On Purpose. Through the persistent enthusiasm of Dave McCullogh in Sounds, a picture emerged of Robert Lloyd, like a modern day Misery Kid in Absolute Beginners, slumming it in charity shops threads, with NHS specs, real beer, the odd herbal cigarette and a disdain for anything more sophisticated than dominoes and Sun records. I was uncomfortable with this, seeing myself more as a Dean Swift modernist immaculate conception.
Anyway, McCullough for a time was so enthusiastic about the Nightingales, he would absurdly throw their name into each and every review and article, from having Duran Duran's John Taylor cite them as his favourite group (perhaps not so daft as it sounds: one Prefects' favourite was 'Barbarella's', about a Birmingham club, and we all know where the name Duran Duran comes from) to convincing us the Smiths were going to blow up a gale of 'Gales like frenzied noise, only to discover that 'Hand In Glove' was straight solid rock! Though then again perhaps we just misinterpreted Div Mac, for Morrissey and Robert Lloyd both had a way with words and funny glasses.
One other huge supporter of the Nightingales was Alan Mchee, as he evolved from being an all-round pop agitator to being whatever he became. In fact 'Participate!' the finest moment of one his early groups, the Laughing Apple, was pure Nightingales, and in his fanzine Communication Blur he had the Nightingales and the TV Personalities leading the pop underground resistance. This was 1983, and I may have opted for Hurrah! and Felt, but I knew what he meant.
I was reminded of this recently when on this site ET, in his Joey Ramone tribute mentioned McGee's feud with Cherry Red. We all have irrational hatreds (David O'Leary! Mark Thomas! Nigella Lawson! Nick Hornby!), but the thing against Cherry Red was weird. I mean, Mike Always's a queer fish, but harmless enough, and Cherry Red were after all putting out stuff by the Marine Girls, felt, The Nightingales, and there were plenty of other targets to scream at.
I kind of lost track of what the Nightingales were up to. Like with Joyce Carol Oates, here books can tear your guts out (try Foxfire, A Garden of Earthly Delights, Broke Heart Blues) but at other times, the word leave you cold and it all seems not worth the effort. I suppose with the benefit of hindsight, the influence of the Nightingales could be heard in some of the best mid-'80s groups like the June Brides and the Wolfhounds. At the time though, the Nightingales seemed to be claimed by the cabal of fanzine writers like ET or the Legend!, James brown at Attack on Bzag, and the preposterous John Robb of the Membranes and god only knows what his fanzine was. Bizarrely, these scruffy, badly written things were the work of desperately ambitious souls, who were keen to get on!
I was only recently reminded that I did in fact use a Nightingales song in 1989 when putting together the flyer for what would be the Manic Street Preachers' first London show. In those final days before computers took over, I would scratch around for ideas for advertising my Esurient 'nights of action', and hit on the notion of typing out sets of my favourite song words, and there amongst the more obvious names were the Nightingales all cut up.
I can't for the life of me remember the song title, but I hope it's on the compilation I've seen listed. I haven't been able to get hold of a copy, but I do know it's called Pissed and Potless, which is touchingly self-deprecating but also (for the gricers) a reference to the sleeve of 'Idiot Strength', their first Rough Trade single.
Hopefully, the compilation will present Robert Lloyd in a new and appealing light. I mean, if Phil Collins can get away with coaxing the r'n'b community into putting together a reverential tribute collection, then there's hope for Robert Lloyd. Funny thing with Phil Collins. No mater how much antipathy you may feel towards him for his heinous artistic crimes, you try to equate that with the idea of someone who has loved the Action passionately for so long and who chose David Ackles' 'Down River' as one of his Desert Island Discs on Radio Four. I wonder if anyone will ever choose the Prefects or the Nightingales?
Anyway, having just heard Squarepusher on the radio, I think we can sell the Nightingales on the idea of being a de-digitised Squarepusher with words flying around all over the place like the beats. Well, you've got to try. I would love to see the Prefects and Nightingales capture the imagination of teenage romantics in the way the Chocolate Watchband, Standells, Seeds, Elevators did when I was searching for something to kick-start my very own revolution.
© Kevin Pearce
Editors notes: the Nightingales song used on the Esurient flyer was 'The Crunch' from a 1984 EP on Vindaloo Records. The song is indeed included on the Pissed and Potless compilation.
To see a very large (1000 x 720 pixel) version of the flyer Kevin put together for that first London Manic's show, click here. It will probably take at least a minute over a 56K connection to download.
For a comprehensive Robert Lloyd discography go here.