Pissed & Potless
On May 9, 1977, at London’s Rainbow Theatre, a band called the Prefects opened for the Clash, kicking off a short set and a long night (the Buzzcocks and the Jam were also on the bill) with a seven-second, two-chord song called “VD.” Singer Robert Lloyd broke it down like this: “Help me please help me I’m so weedy I’ve got VD please help me I’m so weedy I’ve got VD.” UK tastemaker John Peel took an instant loving to the band and presented two Prefects sessions on his weekly radio show before they checked out in 1979. Among the tunes recorded there, I’m partial to “Faults,” a catchy and pragmatic take on punk aesthetics that sums up the condition of being understated at an overstated moment in 1:30: “We’ve got faults, we’ve got fau-au-aults.” Peel has never let the torch go out; he was recently quoted saying, “It was the Prefects, not the Clash, who stood out.” Alan McGee, the man who brought the world My Bloody Valentine and Oasis, went further, judging the Prefects “better than the Sex Pistols and Oasis.” None of this is strictly true, but someone does need to get on the stick with a Prefects CD. Other than a posthumous single on Rough Trade, the Peel sessions are the Prefects’ only recordings, and they are no longer available.
Luckily this is not the case with the Nightingales, the “proper” band Lloyd and drummer Paul Apperley formed after the Prefects split. Punk hard-liners pledge allegiance to the Prefects because of their borderline chops and party-line barking but, as heard in the Peel sessions, issued in 1987, the Prefects were not a horsepower band and didn’t need to stay stoopid. The Nightingales simply improved on the Prefects’ merits: Lloyd himself, self-proclaimed “proud plebe,” singer, and writer; and a shambling band sound that could appeal to fans of both the football anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and Captain Beefheart’s “Zig Zag Wanderer.”
Pissed & Potless is the second CD compilation of the Nightingales’ jolie laide music. (Can you believe you missed the first?) This is news of some sort to an American record consumer. The Nightingales ran in a herd of great 80s English bands whose records seemed allergic to America: the Nightingales, the Shrubs, Big Flame, A Witness, Jackdaw With Crowbar, Rip Rig & Panic, and 23 Skidoo were bands you generally couldn’t hear unless somebody made you a tape or lent you a record. It felt at the time like these guys were doing a UK version of the Minutemen’s fire dance: releasing seemingly weekly singles held together with rubber cement and caffeine, running political bile through the music like a foil stripe in a pound note, and having faith that somebody somewhere would sit through it all. But in 1985, college radio stations had added the Fall to their rotations and there was no more room for un-American clanking. There was no Kurt to cover their songs, and Thurston wasn’t in name-checking position when these bands went looking for American distribution. If you were lucky, you could find some poor band’s entire discography in the used bins for $3.99 a pop. McGee courted the Nightingales for Creation (funny, since they’d need a branding consultant to see the inside of his office today), but Lloyd says in the Pissed & Potless liner notes that the band “never liked the Creation roster, certainly not pre-Mary Chain, and I reckon we thought ourselves above it all, in true Nightingales spirit.” Hello used bin, my old friend.
I learned about the Nightingales from English bandmates and a friend in Leeds who sent me tapes of John Peel’s weekly radio show. Peel’s ideological project–promoting warts, brains, adrenaline, and local flavor–has lasted more than 30 years, long enough for him to drag acts like Beefheart and Mark E. Smith kicking and screaming into semipopularity and then, years later, promote the bands who grew up listening to him do it. Contemporaries of the Fall, Lloyd and company regularly shrugged off any similarities to Manchester’s finest in zines of the day as functions of proximity and chronology, but the Nightingales and the Fall share a class-specific vision of Englishness not built for export and a taste for everyday words broken up to catch the ear. Lloyd doesn’t sing or write like Beefheart (who ever has?) but the Nightingales’ atomized instruments and loose time are definitely Magic like the Band. The guitars are stripped of Yankee chrome like distortion, because when everybody’s playing different songs all at once, big is just muddy.
The Nightingales galumphed, always, even when their peers started beautifying. On their 1981 debut single, “Idiot Strength,” Apperley tries to keep up on the kick drum while Lloyd launches headlong into the pub chant he’ll keep up for almost ten years. His voice is chummy and unafraid and if his mates can’t settle on a key, well, what’s your rush? On the incredible “It’s a Cracker,” the musicians can’t make up their mind what kind of funeral they’re playing or even if they like the idea of anyone dying, ever. Surf reverb, incantation, pawn shop guitar ostinatos, march beats, silvery runs, and a cosmic connect-the-dots white paper that begins over and over.
Describing a divorcee’s barstool monologue in “Comfort and Joy,” Lloyd also aptly describes his own lyrics: “Love and change, heartaches and courage / Depressions and dreams / In a basic and colorful language.” With the bad jokes (“When is a bus not a bus? When it turns into a street,” from “Give ‘Em Time”) and domestic scenarios (“It seems that checkbook journalism is all the rage / Save a few quid on your grocery bill with a front page,” from “How to Age”), Lloyd distanced himself from the narrow-bore concerns of teens, who were probably hoping for a catchphrase somewhere in all the versifying. The verses don’t repeat and Lloyd rarely drops the title because he needs all the real estate a rock song affords to tell you many things: “Turned 16, offered the key / To middle age, a job at the bakery / Where flunkies dated packers / The bosses got to date creamers / And the jokes were handed down like diseases / I learned all three, threw them away / But I remember them even today / I only work here for the bread / I need the dough / Use your loaf,” from “Use Your Loaf.” Aging, jobs, reality–right. They couldn’t have caught the teens with Mariah naked on a pogo stick.
But the Nightingales moped for no one, not even for themselves. Though he almost played in a band with future Joy Division front man Ian Curtis, Lloyd was never a candidate for the depressive canon. Well, there you go–the ever-popular English melancholy might have pulled the kids. But the Nightingales’ self-contained jubilation didn’t support first person agita or a plan for a brave new world. It was a different sound track for a different sitcom, where spanner wielders and girls in bedsits speechify, without rancor, about what goes on, just like the la la la kids. And if the Nightingales were not the kind of bubblegum Kurt would have championed back into print ten years ago, that doesn’t mean they weren’t catchy–good luck trying to get “Paraffin Brain” or “Crafty Fag” out of your head.
So the Nightingales were most like another SST band from the 80s, Slovenly, who let three guitars get tangled up in red and played catch-up with a very expressive, unrock singer who liked to talk about babies. And I reckon you don’t have as many Slovenly albums as Minutemen on hand, if any. There’s your lesson–don’t talk about everyday life if you’re looking to escape it.
A happy postscript: Lloyd hung it up for a while after producing his proteges We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It! for Geffen in 1986 and dropping a 1990 “pop” LP, Me and My Mouth!?, for Virgin that’s still below even eBay’s radar. Lloyd did a stint as a postman, Paul Apperley became a fireman, and the various other Nightingales scattered into the breeze. But in late September of this year, Prefects guitarist Alan Apperley, now a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Wolverhampton, organized No Future? Punk 2001, an international conference marking the 25th anniversary of the summer of ’76. The Prefects played their first gig in 22 years with an almost original lineup, revisiting material by the Nightingales and Lloyd as well. Last week, the band played again, at the Wolverhampton Little Civic. Via E-mail, Lloyd explained: “This will be the final Prefects show for 22 years. It is to be a party and anyone who attends and keeps their ticket stub will be admitted to the next reunion show, in 22 years time, free of charge. The day after this gig, the Nightingales are reforming, i.e., Lloyd, [Eamon] Duffy, the Apperley bros plus Peter ‘The Tank’ Byrchmore. Anyway, enough is, sometimes, enough. Luv, RL.”