With the Tom Robinson Band’s classic debut album Power in the Darkness turning 40, Banjo caught up with the man himself to find out how he feels about it all now he’s older and wiser.
Tom Robinson has earned his place in the roll call of British culture.
The Tom Robinson Band hit the big time straight away, with their debut single 2-4-6-8 Motorway taking them into the top 5 and spending a month in an area generally off limits to punk or new wave artists. The band followed this up with their Rising Free live EP, featuring what was to become their anthem, Glad to be Gay.
Astonishingly, when TRB first formed in 1976, homosexuality had been legal for less than ten years. For Robinson to not only be an out and proud gay man, but to be releasing a gay anthem was to raise your head above the parapet in spectacular fashion. If the punk movement promoted acceptance, which certainly seemed to be the case at the time, Tom Robinson was more responsible than most for this shift. His promotion of what has come to be known as LGBT issues has been ceaseless, despite him, in his own words, ‘moving from G to B’.
TRB’s debut album, Power in the Darkness, was a powerful document of how it felt to be living through the end of the ’70s. It offered a snapshot of the political landscape, but reflected through a personal perspective. Robinson’s easy ability to offer a personal, human viewpoint gave their songs a relevance and warmth that was missing from a lot of the new wave.
Removed to some degree from the nihilism and year zero approach of punk, Robinson and his band created one of the decade’s most relatable and honest documents, and not being tied down to a punk thrash made the album more accessible and more popular than a lot of their peers.
Such was their popularity that they promoted their debut with a tour of the country’s larger venues, such as the Liverpool Empire, a the time usually reserved for the likes of Black Sabbath and AC/DC.
As was the case in the punk era, things moved at lightning speed and by the time they recorded their second album, TRB Two, they had fallen out of favour. Tensions within the band came to a head and all was over for TRB; their flame had burned bright but brief.
Robinson’s star was to rise again with the release of War Baby, which reached number 6 in the charts. These days Robinson is a much loved DJ on 6Music and is still a musician, making occasion forays onto stage.
We spoke to the man himself and found an affable and open conversationalist with stories to tell and a point to make. In this line of work, we occasionally speak to musicians whose work we admire and, so far, they have all been lovely and interesting people.
Robinson stands out in this however, due to him still sounding as passionate as ever when talking about the causes and issues that were important parts of his life as a teenager. That his fire still burns is a testament to his commitment and belief and a credit to him in 2018.
So what are his memories of touring his debut album 40 years down the line?
‘Well when we performed at Liverpool Empire, that’s when we had the famous riot. I got banned from all Merseyside venues, the Liverpool Empire in particular, which I never played again. What happened was they were trying to keep people in their seats and I said ‘Oh come on down the front for fuck’s sake’ and they jumped into the orchestra pit.
And the floor of the orchestra pit was weak, but the manager, instead of allowing me get them out of the orchestra pit and explain on the microphone, immediately pulled the plugs on the concert so my microphone went dead and brought the fire curtain down. Without a word of explanation as to why the concert had finished and of course the Liverpool fans rioted. TRB stood for Two Rows Broken.’
It was probably about time someone got the Empire audience on their feet and down the front, it wasn’t an easy thing to do.
‘Well I had played there previously with Barclay James Harvest, in an acoustic trio, in 1975. So it was great to come back three years later and headline.’
And destroy the place!
‘Yes, and destroy it. [laughs] It’s never been the same since!’
TRB made it big quite quickly didn’t they?
‘Yes, that was really down to the fans. We’d built up a direct relationship with the audience and cultivated that rather than trying to break into the music industry. The established way of breaking a band in those days was the way that Queen went, which is that you get a manager who would then tout your demos around and then you’d get a deal and then you’d prepare an album which would then be unleashed on an unsuspecting public with a barrage of publicity.
‘I didn’t have a hope of getting through with that method, but the DIY ethic of punk really liberated musicians of my generation. Even though I was ten years too old to be a punk, people like Graham Parker, Ian Dury and Elvis Costello and myself still managed to surf that wave.
‘What we did was we made newsletters, even though we were only playing pubs and benefits and prisons and those kind of gigs. So we did newsletters that we handed out at these gigs, just typewritten and Xeroxed, with who was in the band, where the upcoming gigs were, what to do if you were arrested, the address for Rock Against Racism, the number for the Gay Switchboard and it had a thing saying ‘if you want to write to us, we would like to hear from you’.
‘And all letters with a stamped addressed envelope were always answered. So that gave us a kind of social media, before there was social media. So people did tend to start coming back to the gigs.’
What are your memories of making your debut album?
‘Well, EMI turned us down in January ’77, after we did a demo for them and we just carried on our own sweet way. And the next time they saw us, in July that year, they couldn’t get in the gig. All they could do was see us through an open door, over the heads of a crowd who were singing every word of every song. And that sort of changed their minds [laughs].
‘I think we recorded the 2-4-6-8 Motorway three times before we got to the version that was released, so Chris Thomas got called in to produce Power in the Darkness. And it was kind of like having your teeth taken out really, it was a really hard process. Chris Thomas is a brilliant producer and he managed to make the album sound like we sounded live at the time, but through a very artificial process of doing loads of takes until he got a drum track he likes, and then when he got a drum track he liked, replacing every other instrument on it.
‘So there were seven or eight guitars on each track, expertly mixed to sound like one that had the energy, charge and excitement of the live show. He did the same with the Sex Pistols. He did their album immediately before ours, so he had loads of stories of what it was like working with them, like Sid Vicious sitting at the back of the studio, cutting himself with razor blades and then letting the engineer’s dog lick the blood off the wounds.
‘So we had eight or nine weeks of real fucking grind in the studio where we’d do a take and Chris Thomas would go ‘Again!’. It was murder.
And then we made an album with Todd Rungdren, TRB Two, in six days! And people went ‘Aww, it’s too produced, why doesn’t it have the spontaneity of the first album’ [Laughs]’
And how do you feel 40 years on about the anger that you used to sing with? I saw you a few times back then and you’d sometimes sing through gritted teeth.
‘Well there’s plenty to grit your teeth about at the moment. By the nineties and early noughties, people had forgotten what ’77/’78 and the dog days of the Callaghan government were like. And that then made it sound like Power in the Darkness was unnecessarily alarmist. People couldn’t understand that in that period when the album came out, society was genuinely in flux. And just because it didn’t go the way of military repression or fascists taking over the Conservative party, that doesn’t mean to say it couldn’t have done.
‘It’s only now, post Brexit, that people can understand the uncertainty that we faced and the uncertainty that was reflected in those songs. And when we see what is happening in politics, certainly on the right hand side, it seems quite timely to be out there touring this album.’
The more things change the more they stay the same.
‘Well yes. I mean I have to change a few of the words these days, Mary Whitehouse and Rhodes Boyson are no longer the figures of hate they once were.’
How do you crowbar Jacob Rees Mogg into a song though?
‘Rees Mogg and Johnson are out to get your guts, you’d better decide which side you’re on, forget the ifs and buts’
Do you find it frustrating that the same anger still applies today?
‘It’s more delivering that amount of energy on a stage at the age of 68. It’s possible, but it’s fucking exhausting. When we got into the rehearsal room and played the original records and tried to match them for speed and energy, these musicians who are twenty years younger than me, and who I’ve worked with since the mid 90s, were all going ‘Fucking hell, those guys were good!’ And it’s nice forty years on to go ‘I was part of that’. Adam, the guitar player has so inhabited the songs for the last twenty years.’
Well your band has got some big shoes to fill there.
‘They definitely have, no question. It’s more paying tribute rather than trying to fill their shoes. And trying to honour the spirit in which they played. But I’d have to say that socially we were a complete disaster area. Danny [Kustow – TRB guitarist] and I met at a therapeutic community for disturbed adolescents, so that was never going to be the most peaceful relationship ever and we were fighting like ferrets in a sack after eighteen months. So it had the seeds of its own destruction sown within it, but you can’t take away from the musicianship.’
How do you feel about the whole punk nostalgia thing? And did you really align yourself as a punk?
‘We definitely aligned ourselves with punk. Again, people can’t remember this, but at the time the music industry was just split down the middle, absolutely for or against that movement. There was the ‘boring old farts’ who said it was just a noise and they were just recycling 50s rock n roll with spitting, and then there were people like Chris Spedding, who got it and went off to do demos with the Sex Pistols, because he thought it was the most exciting thing he’d heard for fucking ages.
‘And other people like Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello very much got it. And then there were people like Bill Nelson, who I hugely respect, but he was writing opinion pieces in the NME about it, about how it was unnecessarily violent and how it was nothing new.
‘My sleeve notes on Power in the Darkness were from an NME piece that I wrote in response, and what’s important in those sleeve notes is that it says I’ve got no illusions about the political left any more than I’ve got about the political right, but I do have a shrewd idea which of the two is going to stomp on us first. And I still think that’s true, I think I’ve got a lot more to fear from Tommy Robinson than I do from Jeremy Corbyn.’
As we mentioned earlier, TRB played some big gigs around the time of the first album. How did it feel to you looking out at a huge audience, who were all singing the lyrics to Glad to be Gay?
‘It was amazing to see that happening. But… you’ve got to take it all with a pinch of salt, political pop. I think politics in pop music only really works as a tonic for the troops. I don’t think it changes people’s minds much, and I think that you get into dangerous ground if you try to pretend that it does.
‘What it does is, if people believe something but feel like they’re the only ones who do believe it, like anti-racism or LGBT rights, if you’re living your own life and everywhere around you you hear homophobic and racist remarks, from school teachers, your friends, your workmates, you can fee quite ground down.
‘But if you then go to a concert like that, and you hear views expressed from the stage and other people in the audience joining in with it, you can realise that you’re not alone. Then you go back home and you argue with your dad when he talks about ‘queers this’ or ‘queers that’.
‘So I think it works best as I say as a tonic for the troops rather than a converting thing. And I’ll tell you why; when we were on that same tour, we played the Hammersmith Odeon and I saw 4,000 people singing Glad to be Gay, only about a year after getting a very different audience reaction from when we were playing in pubs. And I remember thinking ‘the world hasn’t really changed this quickly has it?’
‘So I stopped the song and I kissed the keyboard player, Ian Parker, on the lips. And this shockwave ran through the audience, and they went ‘eurghhhh’, with a gasp of revulsion. And a friend of mine was at the back of the theatre and he said that there were two beer boys in front of him, waving there arms in the air singing Glad to be Gay. And when this shockwave happened, one of them turned to the other and said ‘’Ere, you know what, I reckon these geezers are bent!’
‘So you can’t really believe in the power of pop music to transform people. It may or may not happen, but that’s not its primary role. But I do think there are people who will want to hear these songs in anger in October, who will want to hear them being sung and being meant. And they will want to sing along and they will want to go out afterwards and fight their corner. I hope.
‘And in terms of LGBT rights, I may have shifted along the spectrum from G to B, now I have a wife and children, but that doesn’t mean I mean the message one word less. It’s still a worthwhile thing, because each new generation of queer kids grows up thinking they’re alone. Yes there are more role models now, but I always think of the 16 year old me every time I sing that song, because somewhere in that audience there may be one person at least for whom that’s going to be a lifeline.’
But perhaps in the same way that The Smiths’ Meat is Murder created a generation of vegetarians, perhaps Glad to be Gay created a generation of people who were more open minded, or at least more tolerant.
‘Well it may have helped support them, but the real change happens at the one to one level, on all of those things. I think Smiths’ fans arguing with their partners or parents about meat is what really changed the world. I think that what really brought better acceptance of lesbians, gays and trans people is people coming out. And living openly. And people realising that a ‘dirty queer’ isn’t some nameless thing that you’ve never met, it’s your Uncle Jim or it’s your sister.
‘I still think the audience is key. It was the audience that gave TRB its early success and I think it’s the audience really that affected those changes.
‘I do seminars for BBC Introducing, for emerging artists, and I always try to remind them that it’s not about getting played, it’s about getting heard. Bands always think how can they get played on the radio instead of how can I build an audience.’
By now our time is running short. I do feel compelled to comment first though that this interview is one that sticks in my mind after the talking is over. A lot of musicians are eager to talk but are more eager to promote their latest tour or album, but Tom Robinson is more focused on the things that still drive him and make him think. This is a man with a point, a man who can report back from the front line of life and this is what drives him and his conversation.
One last question Tom. Who is happier; Tom Robinson the punk activist or Tom Robinson the musician and DJ?
‘Oh, musician and DJ. I had ten years of psychotherapy in my thirties. I’ve had lifelong battles with depression, two suicide attempts, that was not a happy time, not a happy time at all. All of my hopes, all my self worth was pinned on being a successful musician, I hoped that if a large crowd of people loved me, that would validate me and make me an ok person to inhabit my own skin.
‘And when it all came crashing down, after that brief firework career in the late 70s, when the fifteen minutes of fame were up and it was all taken away, and when the press, instead of saying nice things started saying nasty things, that just demolished me. Demolished me completely.
‘So there’s no question about it. I don’t rely on music for validation, I have people who love me and who I love. And that’s the only validation that counts.’
And that seems like the perfect place for our interview to end. After all the tales of bravery, hostility and trying to find a place in the world, it is comforting to and right that Tom Robinson has found himself to be in a good and happy time in his life.
Not that this has diminished his righteous anger; he is aware that personal contentment does not mean that the world is a better place. But if his gigs can again be a spark that fires up a discussion, and if that discussion leads on to understanding or action, then it is easy to see that younger punk firebrand, still singing to us through gritted teeth.