Music documentaries have a familiar form: archive clips interspersed with interviewees fished up from the seabed of the recent past, generally prompting few thoughts beyond “gosh, how old they all look”. In Stewart Lee’s hands, a film about Midlands punk band The Prefects, later The Nightingales and still going strong, is something entirely different. Even if it does feature a lot of archive clips and talking heads.
He has found a governing metaphor in the colossal statue of King Kong that once stood near Birmingham New Street, a municipally unloved piece of public sculpture which left a lasting impression on Lee’s imagination as a child. Tracing what happened to the goliath and its stubborn survival, battered, uprooted, discarded, reduced, forms a parallel narrative to that of the band’s lead singer and lyricist, Robert Lloyd. According to Lee, Lloyd is “one of our great unsung rock poets”. What keeps someone at it for 40 years when the returns have been so paltry? Perhaps Kong and the rocker are both primed for rehabilitation and recognition at last.
Gosh, everybody does look old, but that’s the point as with magnificent resilience, they rage against the dying of the limelight. There’s no nostalgia for the old Birmingham, which seems largely to have been razed in recent years. Lloyd and Lee wander around Birmingham city centre, consciously befuddled in their attempt to pinpoint the location of prime punk hang-out Barbarella’s, finally located in a skip.
Lack of success had a particular cachet in punk circles, where “selling out” was the ultimate sin. Beloved of John Peel, The Prefects rose to the heights of supporting The Clash on tour, but the punk heroes turned out to be prima donnas. “The disillusionment that I got in those five days saved me a lot of time,” sniffs Lloyd. Dubbed “amateur wankers” by Clash manager Bernie Rhodes, the band naturally took this as the title of their next album.
“I’m a liar, and Stewart’s a liar as well,” states Lloyd as Lee attempts to nail down some of the myths around the band. Did comedian Frank Skinner really once audition? Skinner himself provides corroborating evidence, but it didn’t work out: “He wouldn’t have his fucking hair cut.” Skinner sported the sort of ginger curls that later only Mick Hucknall was to make acceptable. Perhaps not even then.
Joining Skinner is a glorious array of interviewees, some barely pertinent, all hilarious, including John Taylor of Duran Duran, music journalist Paul Morley (“It’s like a hallucination, but it happened”, he reflects of his interaction with the band) and, bizarrely, ’70s sex-romp actor Robin Askwith. The actual music seems beside the point, but since you ask, it ranges from the ear-achingly terrible to the surprisingly tuneful.
On Sky Arts from February 6 at 9pm
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