October 15, 2021

Stewart Lee talked to Owen Jones

Stewart Lee is currently promoting a documentary he’s just made, about a band called The Nightingales, a little known post-punk band according to ‘Stu’.

Lee’s interest in The Nightingales comes from the fact that:

  • He likes them.
  • They were played a lot by John Peel.
  • Like Lee, they are from the Midlands.
  • They had Ted Chippington open for them, Ted Chippington’s performances inspired Lee to devote himself to comedy.
  • Stewart Lee in turn has opened for the band.

The Nightingales Peel Session, 1980

The documentary, called King Rocker, has been seven years in the making, and something that Lee had been pondering ever since the lead singer of the band, Rob Lloyd, asked Lee if he’d like to make a documentary about them.

It’s an indie production. Lee got together with Mike Cummings, a film director, who worked on Bras Eye and also happened to be a big fan of the band. Lee and Cummings did a number of shows to raise money to do the documentary.

Apparently the documentary is to appear on Sky Arts.

There were, as you’d expect, a couple of references to cultural products and artists that I hadn’t heard of before:

  • The documentary about the heavy metal band Anvil, which focused on the band’s struggle to make it big in the world of heavy metal.
  • Johnny and the Baptists, whose work described in glowing terms.

The conversation moved on to reminiscing about the fact that in the 1980s it was possible for working class people to develop creative cultural skills, whilst living in London. Stewart Lee identified the following factors as being critical:

  • Housing benefit.
  • The presence of squats.
  • University tuition and living costs being paid, which meant that working class students did not leave university in debt.
  • Maggie’s 1980s Enterprise Scheme, which Lee points out was a ruse to massage the employment figures, but which provided funding to working class people to pursue a career in the arts.

Jeff Dyer, said Lee, wrote a piece on ‘how the 80s was a post-graduate course‘, having lived in a squat in Brixton, with creative people, who influenced each other. That’s a neat line. A lot has been said about that. Noel Gallagher said that Oasis wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for Margaret Thatcher.

Lee reckons that the lack of opportunities to play comedy audiences during lockdown meant that poorer people wouldn’t be able to develop their comedy routines and talents, and would be likely to fall out of the comedy scene permanently. He said the situation for poorer musicians was worse. He said, surprisingly to me, that many musicians did teaching on the side, and that because teaching opportunities had dried up, so had the means to keep them in the music industry. He reckoned that the profitability of running a band will have been reduced because accessing the European market, which provided many British bands with part of their earning, was now more expensive with the new regulations introduced after Brexit.

Lee and Jones contrast the 1980s with the 1960s and the current day, where the arts were and are the preserve of the middle and upper classes.

The discussion turned to the fact that Owen Jones was beaten up outside the Lexington bar, in Angel, London, about a year ago.

In the interview Lee looked hairy, grey and curly and therefore, warm and cuddly. Together with his headphones, he was as I imagined Keith Lemon’s Bear would look in the year 2021.

Lee said he worried about the impact of what he called the ‘extreme position’ that his comedic persona takes. He questioned whether it contributed to a polarised culture war, which he implied helped contribute to an unhealthy politics.

Stewart Lee said that the shit he gets for the political commentary he makes is ‘unmanageable’ and he limits the amount he does because of the impact that it might have on his family. He said that it’s a scary time to commentate on the world.