In the opening moments of King Rocker, a new documentary about the English post-punk musician Robert Lloyd, the comedian Stewart Lee stands at the entrance to a large shopping center in Birmingham and speaks about a work of art that used to be there and now isn’t. The dreary commercial space, we learn, once contained a striking piece of public sculpture by the pop artist Nicholas Monro: a gigantic fiberglass effigy of King Kong, his eyes incandescent, his arms raised in fury. The sculpture, Lee says, was installed there for a short time in the early 1970s, as part of a scheme whereby British cities were offered works of public art for six months and then given the opportunity to buy them if they proved popular. Monro’s King Kong, however, was spurned by the people of Birmingham—a city, Lee tells us, with “a great history of rejecting its culture.”
He then delivers what amounts to the film’s thesis: “We live in a culture where mediocrity is rewarded, and originality and integrity are punished.” As he says these words, there is no indication that he is aware of what is playing on the video billboard directly behind him—an ad for a Comedy Central show called Roast Battle, in which a celebrity panel decides which of two comics is the best at insulting the other—or that he might want to direct our attention to it.
But of course he wants to direct our attention to it. One of the preoccupations of Lee’s remarkable standup career has been the casting of pearls before swine. His shows often revolve around a comic conceit, in both senses of the word, in which he presents himself as endlessly beleaguered by the incapacity of a significant portion of his audience—often people he suspects have been dragged along by friends and would rather be at home watching something like Roast Battle—to appreciate the cleverness and subtlety of his material.
While never anything close to a household name, Lee has been a fairly significant fixture of the British comedy scene since the mid-1990s, when he costarred in the BBC sketch series Fist of Fun. It was really only in the mid-2000s, though, that he hit his idiosyncratic stride, and the various elements of his standup persona—coruscating irony, intellectual egomania, perverse self-indulgence—coalesced into something uniquely sophisticated. One of his most memorable riffs is from Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, his BBC show that ran for four seasons between 2009 and 2016. What begins as a standard leftist mockery of anti-immigrant rhetoric (“Bloody Indians…coming over here, inventing us a national cuisine”) quickly builds toward something more virtuosically strange.
He works his way back through Britain’s history, applying a Brexit-style logic to the deep past of a culture largely formed by centuries of migrations and invasions. When he gets to the fifth century—to the “bloody Anglo-Saxons…with their inlaid jewelry, and their ship-burial traditions, and their miserable epic poetry”—he recites several lines, in the original Old English, of the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Wanderer” before snapping back into the pub-racist persona: “If you come over here, Anglo-Saxons, learn to speak the fucking language!” By means of dizzying infinite regress, he eventually arrives at the dawn of creation, at which point the bit dissolves into a distinctively English whinging. “Reality is too full,” he laments, Englishly. “I liked it when there was nothing…. Remember the old nothing? The old times of nothing?” In its obsessive repetitiveness, its meticulous construction, and its bitterly ironic presentation of a stark political point, Lee is reminiscent here of no one so much as Thomas Bernhard.
Even without the recitation of Old English poetry, there aren’t many standup comics who would try this sort of thing, let alone pull it off. Lee habitually amplifies his own cultural elitism for comic effect, subjecting it to a vertiginous layering of self-reflexive jokes. He, or the persona he sometimes refers to as “the comedian Stewart Lee,” is always implicating his audience in a complex arrangement of toxic codependency.
In Content Provider, his 2018 standup special, he does a taunting impression of exactly the kind of self-satisfied fan he has spent much of his career cultivating. “You know, I think when you’ve seen him,” he drones in an Oxbridge monotone, “you can’t really watch other comedians? It’s more like art, really…” The stage he occupies is scattered with hundreds of the plastic DVD cases of other comedians’ standup specials he claims to have bought for a penny online. “It’s very depressing to think of them just becoming a pile of worthless landfill,” he says (insincerely), stomping about the stage on the scattered debris of a culture devoted to mediocrity.
Notwithstanding that bit of subliminal messaging with the Roast Battle ad, it’s disarming, then, in those early moments of King Rocker, to see Lee deliver his cultural diagnosis—the rewarding of mediocrity and so on—in such a straightforward manner. One of the many pleasures of the film, in fact, is seeing him unburdened of the elaborate ironic vestments of his standup persona. I have over the years been a fairly eager consumer of his content; I received that fan impression with an ambivalent wince of recognition. (It’s uncomfortably easy to imagine my own comparison of him to Bernhard being delivered in that Oxbridge drone.) But watching the documentary, it struck me that I had never really seen him laugh before; the most “the comedian Stewart Lee” ever permits himself is a smirk or a knowing chuckle. King Rocker, on the other hand, is filled with scenes of Lee doubled over with simple, unironic mirth. The reason for his laughter is nearly always the documentary’s subject, Robert Lloyd, who takes palpable pleasure in causing his friend and (for the purposes of the film) confessor to absolutely lose it.
Lloyd is clearly a witty and clever man who is quite a lot of fun to be around. Given how little fame he has accrued over the decades of his career—as frontman of the 1970s Birmingham punk band the Prefects, then of the Nightingales, which he formed in 1979—he may seem an odd choice as the focus of a documentary. Rock docs are often about mercurial jerks living lives of ravishing dissolution, leaving scattered trails of embittered sexual partners and drummers. Or they’re about charismatic geniuses who died early and tragically. Lloyd, shambling toward his sixtieth birthday in comfortable footwear and with a generally sensible attitude toward life, fits neither profile.
The closest thing to rock ’n’ roll excess the film provides is a moment when Lee and Lloyd pay a visit to a Birmingham car dealership where the latter spent some nights during a brief period of homelessness after finishing school; he shows Lee a faucet that he jokes about washing his penis in “if I’d had a particularly messy wank.” The schoolboy humor might not in itself be particularly charming, but I couldn’t help but laugh along at the joyful sight of these two middle-aged Englishmen stumbling about a car dealership, wheezing with laughter at a humble dick joke.
Though it’s often very funny, King Rocker is not a comic rockumentary in the mode of, say, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Sacha Gervasi’s 2008 film about a Canadian hair metal band’s decades-long resilience in the face of commercial failure and critical indifference. There’s a scene early on in which Lee accompanies Lloyd’s band the Nightingales as a guest on a BBC Radio show, and they tell the presenter about the genesis of the film they are making, and which we’re now watching. Lee had been a fan of Lloyd’s music since his teens, and the two eventually became friends. Some years ago, Lloyd suggested they do an Anvil-style film about his band, but Lee’s response, according to Lloyd, was “You’re too good for it to be a joke.”
King Rocker, which Lee made with the television comedy director Michael Cumming (best known for his work on Chris Morris’s groundbreaking 1990s current affairs satire Brass Eye), is admiring of, and even zealous about, Lloyd’s music and his inventive approach to writing pop songs. But while it makes a strong and straightforward case for his work as deserving of wider attention, it’s at least as interested in exploring the reasons why it hasn’t received that attention in the first place. (In a promotional interview for the film, Lee has described Lloyd as “the Jarvis Cocker that never happened,” referring to the dapper frontman of the Britpop band Pulp. This is not an entirely outrageous comparison, in that both singers share a certain demotic literary flair, but it does somewhat slink around the fact that Lloyd has never written anything like as timelessly irrefutable an anthem as Pulp’s “Common People.”)
Part of Lloyd’s predicament is that he seems constitutionally resistant to mythologization. Unlike many of his better-known punk rock contemporaries, he comes across as a person you would actually want to hang out with: a cool—but, crucially, not too cool—uncle. “People could not idolize me,” says the young Lloyd in a clip from a 1980s television interview, lounging around on a bed in a comfortable bottle-green wool sweater. “It is that simple, I reckon. There’s absolutely no image in what I do whatsoever. People could think I was a genius or something…[but] what could they copy about me?” Lee and Cumming’s film isn’t so much arguing that people should be idolizing this man as asking what it means for a musician to keep going, decade after decade, making interesting and evolving work without any kind of sustained mainstream recognition—or even, for that matter, cult success, as it would ordinarily be defined.
The most striking example of the Nightingales’ music in the film comes at the end credits, with a song called “Gales Doc.” The tune (chunky bass-line, driving 2/4 drumbeat, serpentine guitar riff) is fairly meat-and-two-veg, but the lyrics are clever and funny. In a rich, mordant monotone, Lloyd delivers the voiceover for an imagined television arts show segment about the Nightingales and their creation of the very song we are listening to. “I met the band in their rehearsal space,” he intones, “and was told by group leader Robert Lloyd that they normally write three or four modest guitar riffs and force them together with a single drum pattern to begin with.” It’s the song’s straight-faced commitment to its own banality, deconstructing itself as it goes along, that makes it such fun.
Although it wouldn’t be fair or accurate to say that King Rocker is covertly a film about Stewart Lee, there is an obvious sense in which it expands, in its loose and conversational way, on some of the perennial concerns of his standup. There is also the stubborn reality of Lee’s success, which he can’t help reminding us of even as he complains about his hopelessly unappreciative audience.
One of the most memorable lines in King Rocker is delivered by the comedian and light-entertainment TV host Frank Skinner. Skinner has been a household name in the UK since the 1990s; in 1976, before Lloyd joined the Prefects, Skinner auditioned to sing for the band. When Lee asks him if he ever wishes he’d stayed with them and taken an entirely different career path, he says he does: “I think everybody who has mainstream success wishes they were a cult hero, and every cult hero wishes they had mainstream success.” What makes the line particularly memorable is the way it seems to resonate with Lee’s own peculiar predicament—hovering somewhere between mainstream success and cult hero, and beset by both kinds of regret.
Lee’s work is often driven by an obsessive scrutiny of the formal conventions of standup. It flirts, as such, with a kind of anticomedy in its central conceit of a performer passive-aggressively berating his audience for the failure of his jokes to land. (The jokes in such cases are, of course, always finely calibrated to not quite land, in order to set up the real material, which is the comic analysis of the joke’s not quite landing.) Lee and Cumming take a related approach to the form of the rockumentary with King Rocker, which casually interrogates, as it goes along, its own shaping of the story of a life. The King Kong sculpture provides a kind of narrative frame; in the story of its rejection and disappearance, there is an obvious parallel to Lloyd’s story.
The filmmakers are always playfully self-aware about their own intentions here. There’s a lovely moment near the end of the film in which Lee interviews the drummer and singer Fliss Kitson, whose joining the Nightingales in 2011 kickstarted a period of renewed professionalism and creative vigor for the band. Lee points out that the room in Kitson’s house they are sitting in is filled with examples of her work as a taxidermist. Casually holding a stuffed weasel in one hand, he asks her whether she has a “particular interest in preserving things that might otherwise have rotted away.” When she laughs at his heavy-handedness, he jokes, “I mean, I can tell you what I want you to say if you like.”
Lloyd himself deftly flits between resisting and facilitating the film’s interpretations of his work and life, rarely passing up an opportunity to laugh at Lee’s obsessive over-analysis of the significance of various details. In the closing section, the two men take a trip to visit Monro’s King Kong in its new location, on the front lawn of someone’s house in the country. Staring up at the giant ape, Lee talks about how the piece went from being rejected to being obscure, and finally to being respected and recognized by the cultural establishment. “Everyone loves it now,” says Lloyd. “But isn’t that so often the case with stuff? Maybe that’ll be the case with the Nightingales one of these days.” Lee looks up at the sculpture—appreciative, thoughtful, a little too satisfied. “Is that the kind of thing,” says Lloyd, “that you’re trying to pull in?”
Lee agrees that it is very much the kind of thing he’s trying to pull in, and they both descend into delighted laughter at the absurdity of the whole enterprise. What makes all this self-awareness fun, rather than irritatingly arch, is that it seems to proceed from the ground up, as a natural result of both men’s personalities and sensibilities, and from their relationship with each other, which is clearly one of genuine affection and mutual amusement. It never feels imposed from a conceptual height, as is so often the case with Lee’s meticulously constructed standup.
The film’s structure has an elegant perversity, too, in the frequency with which it moves from conversations with Lloyd into talking-head interviews that directly undercut those conversations. The best, and most absurd, example of this comes in that same climactic sequence, in which the two men take contemplative stock of the sculpture and of Lloyd’s career. Despite the moments of jocular irony, there is real emotion in the scene. Lloyd casually mentions that he once “shared a shower” at a West London gym with the English actor Robin Askwith. The film then unexpectedly cuts to Askwith himself, luxuriantly tanned in fluorescent green shorts, “categorically” denying ever having had a shower with Robert Lloyd, and then listing, at extraordinary length, people he has had showers with—Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, David Gilmour, Madonna, Princess Margaret, Charlotte Rampling, Bill Wyman, Sir Tim Rice, and so on, at truly gratuitous length—all of them a good deal more famous than Lloyd, a man you have to assume he has never even heard of.
This would be a powerfully strange scene at the best of times, and a reminder of the Borgesian comic potential of brute enumeration. But coming when it does, right as the film is building toward a touching emotional resolution that most filmmakers would not wish to spoil by cutting to a half-forgotten film actor who has nothing whatever to do the film’s subject, it seems like an act of wayward genius.
There is a sadness at the center of King Rocker, which has to do less with its immediate subject than with its wider setting. Lee sees Lloyd as belonging to “a distinctive strain of postwar working-class bohemians who have been legislated out of existence by successive Tory governments, never to be seen again.”
Lloyd’s career, like those of so many postwar British artists and writers and musicians, would likely not have been possible without the support of social welfare. The austerity ideology that has taken hold of British politics since the Thatcher years has ensured that capital-C Culture is produced almost exclusively by the sons and daughters of privilege, for the simple reason that no one else can afford the time and freedom necessary for a creative life. That socioeconomic reality, formed around a neoliberal ideology, is a wellspring of the culture of mediocrity that Lee invokes in the film’s opening moments.
Watching the performances in the film and, later, going a little deeper into the Nightingales’ discography, I never found myself wondering where this guy had been all my life. Lloyd’s music is lyrically inventive and often catchy. There are a lot of good songs, though perhaps no truly great ones. The music is at times a little reminiscent of the Fall, at times of the Slits, and at other times of Gang of Four. Although it didn’t feel quite as singular to me as the film seemed to promise, I never felt this detracted from the potency of King Rocker’s argument or the experience of watching it. I didn’t feel I needed to approach Lloyd in an attitude of reverence, in other words, or to internalize the shame of a culture that had failed to give him his due, in order to see what was interesting about him.
That Lloyd isn’t easy to idolize paradoxically gives him and his work a power not granted to the idols—a resistance to the trivial force of commodification. King Rocker is effective and, in the end, moving because it functions as an impassioned, if oblique, defense of minor figures in the cultural landscape. It’s Lloyd’s smallness, in this way, that makes him sort of great.