The pop statue of the ape, which had provisional residence in the West Midlands for six months in 1972 before being decisively rejected by Birmingham folk and sent on its way, is one of the seemingly-disparate threads that tie together an engaging and heartfelt new film by Lee about his friend, enigmatic, ever-present West Midlands punk rocker Robert Lloyd.
Lloyd now lives in Telford with his old teenage sweetheart Julie (they met at Cannock Grammar School decades ago, reconnected more recently and have been married for more than 15 years), and in recent years he has collaborated with Lee on his new film King Rocker: A Film About Robert Lloyd and The Nightingales.
It tells the tumultuous life story of 61-year-old Lloyd, a "great oak" of a man who has fought for more than 40 years to keep his musical vision alive, through cult group The Prefects and their successors The Nightingales.
The film was released on Sky Arts to positive reviews earlier this month.
In the opening minutes Lee summarises the concept of the film and its connection to the King Kong statue: "Birmingham seems to have a great history of rejecting its culture – and when I started thinking about a way of telling the story of The Nightingales and Rob Lloyd and The Prefects, this seemed like the entry point to me.
"We live in a culture where mediocrity is rewarded and originality and integrity are punished... what I do want to understand is how Rob Lloyd kept that group going for over four decades in the face of commercial and critical indifference."
The film features reams of archive footage of various performances from the 1980s right up to the 2010s, with the towering presence of Robert Lloyd impossible to miss throughout – as well as hilarious interviews with his many musical contemporaries and those he has inspired over the years.
Chief among them is Lee himself, who shares some anecdotes of his own youth growing up orphaned in Birmingham and being inspired by the punk scene and underground comedy.
Lloyd, who hails from Cannock, has remained the only ever-present member of The Nightingales, and his belief in their staying power remains strong.
"The Nightingales is my band, it’s what I do. Fortunately, over many years and a lot of band members (good and bad) passing through, I now have a rock solid, dedicated line-up and I genuinely think it’s the best batch yet. For better or worse, it’s a fairly democratic set-up, though we do each have jobs within the group, beyond writing and playing the music.
"My thing is writing the lyrics and I tend to deal with record company types. Andi [Andreas Schmid, bass] and Jim [James Smith, guitar] have their roles but Fliss [Felicity Kitson, drums] is the real grafter. We do not have a manager or agent or whatever and Fliss books our gigs, does the social media stuff, designs our merch and generally runs the operation."
He explained how he first met Lee, who remains a good friend.
"I used to have a small record label (Vindaloo Records) back in the 80s and, among other stuff, I released a few records by ‘top comedian’, and my flatmate, Ted Chippington. Like myself, Ted is hardly known to the general public but is a bit of a legend and quite an influence to a lot of the more famous alternative comedians.
"Anyway, Stew is a major Ted fan and he tracked me down to see if I intended to reissue Ted’s records. One thing led to another and Stew organised a gig at the Bloomsbury theatre in that London, with Phill Jupitus, Bridget Christie, Simon Amstell and loads of others, plus The Nightingales, and he gave us all of the proceeds to release a four-CD box set of everything Ted had recorded. Obviously, it’s easy to become chums with someone who is as lovely and generous as that!
"I was obviously chuffed that Stew and Michael [Michael Cumming, director] were interested in making a film and I presumed it would be more about the band rather than about me – but they kind of made it up as they went along really and I just decided to go along with however they wanted to do it. I suppose I thought, if it’s a hit I will bathe in the glory, and if it flops I can blame them!
"Either way, my main thought was trying to get The Nightingales' name out there, with the hope of selling more records and tickets.
"It’s not exactly depressing but it is definitely disappointing that we are still a cult-type band that most people have never heard of. The group is too good for its current position on the showbiz ladder."
The film features footage from near Lloyd's home in Telford, where he has lived for 17 years. In a coincidence or twist of fate, it was Wellington just down the road where Lee himself was born before being adopted and moving to Solihull.
On Telford, Lloyd said: "I was not mad on the area when I first moved, probably because I was more used to big cities – having lived for over a decade in London and Brum – but I liked people saying 'good morning', the fact that from our house you could pretend you were in the countryside within a few minutes and I made a couple of friends, found a few decent pubs, et cetera, so I am happy enough."
Happy he may be, but Lloyd is determined to keep fighting for The Nightingales to be recognised despite the problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
"Our 2020 album, Four Against Fate, is our best yet, but unfortunately we have been unable to play it live yet. We now have a UK tour booked for October in to November, but that is the fourth time it has been rearranged and it also means that proposed shows in mainland Europe and USA are now not going to happen until 2022.
"Meanwhile, we have the London concert from our last tour and directed by Michael Cumming (and with a support set by Stewart Lee) being streamed worldwide by a US online company called Noon Chorus on March 11 [visit noonchorus.com/the-nightingales/ to learn more]."
Learn more about The Nightingales at thenightingales.org.uk/. King Rocker: A Film About Robert Lloyd and The Nightingales is available on demand on Sky Arts.