A familiar name to those who listen to BBC Radio 6, Tom Robinson been on the airwaves for over 30 years, starting with The World Service in 1986. He currently presents his own show on 6 Music on Saturdays, and on Sundays as Now Playing @6Music, a show that plays songs based on a certain theme and listeners’ input. He also has a weekly show which is focussed on music by local bands from BBC Introducing.
In the early 70s, after moving to London, Robinson became involved in the emerging gay scene and embraced the politics of gay liberation, which linked gay rights to the wider issues of social justice. Inspired by an early Sex Pistols gig, he founded the more political Tom Robinson Band in 1976, and went on to enjoy hits such as ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’, ‘Glad To Be Gay’ and ‘War Baby’.
He’s also co-written hits with the likes of Elton John, suffered nervous breakdowns, and suicide attempts, and declared himself a bi-sexual – he subsequently married, and had two children.
Tom Robinson’s debut album, Power in the Darkness, celebrates it’s 40th anniversary this year and, following the release of a live recording of that album recorded in London’s 100 Club, he’s back on the road this autumn. Jeff Hemmings caught up with this influential figure in music, gay rights, and broadcasting.
Are you on the road with the Tom Robinson Band?
No, it’s under my name, but there is a band. Musically, the original Tom Robinson Band was a marriage made in heaven, but socially it was a disaster area. Now there’s Andy Treacey from Faithless on drums, Adam Phillips from the Richard Ashcroft Band on lead guitar, and Jim Simmons on keyboards, a professor of music, and a brilliant player. These are the guys I have been playing with for 20 years.
What can we expect?
We’ll be playing the album in its entirety, along with the hits, which were included on the American release of the album at the time. It was because of the Sex Pistols that the original British release didn’t include the hits. They put their album out (Never Mind the Bollocks), just before ours came out, and at the time everyone was slagging them off because they put four singles, and four B-sides on the album, and then two filler tracks. ‘What a rip off! We’ve already had these tracks!’ So we went, okay, we’ll put ten completely new tracks there to give people value for money. And people went, ‘you’ve ripped us off, you haven’t put any songs we know on it’. You can’t win.
Have you got a training regime to get you in shape for this unusually long tour you’re undertaking!?
At the age of 68, learning to play songs you wrote in your mid-20s, in the rehearsal room, the tempos are killer. Even Andy, who is a most brilliant drummer, is going ‘God sake! How do you do that!?’ It’s completely physically exhausting playing that album, every track, back-to-back. So, we can manage about a 70 minute set, but not more than that.
I’m not a Mick Jagger-type person. It’s quite a gruelling 19-date tour, and still doing my Sunday night radio show at the same time. They have to be live, you see. The Sunday night show is called Now Playing @6Music, which is basically put together on the fly while we are on air, via social media. We pick a theme each week. If somebody famous has just died, or in the case of this week, we just did Sheffield, because 6Music is going to be in Sheffield on Friday. So we pick a theme, and the audience suggests songs, and tells stories. I have an empty computer screen, and we put together the show on the fly. I’ll hand over the Saturday night show while I am touring, to someone like Tom Ravenscroft.
Many of your listeners might not know about your hits…
It was kind of 15 minutes of fame. It’s a typical firework career. One big single, and then another not quite so big single, then an album comes out, and by the time a second album comes out the press are slagging you off, for doing the exactly the same thing they were praising you for a year earlier.
They don’t have that power anymore, because people can hear the music for themselves. If the NME said ‘this sounds awful’ you wouldn’t bother buying it in the record shop. These days if someone says it sound awful, you can click on the link and decide for yourself.
But you were regular cover stars…
Melody Maker had us on the cover 12 times in the course of one year, but they did a round up at the end of ’79 and we weren’t mentioned in it at all. That was the nature of the beast. As you can tell, all these years later, I’m not at all resentful.
But you’ve had a great career…
I’d say my career has been more interesting than great.
So when ‘War Baby’ became a big hit, you felt you had been given a second chance…
It wasn’t down to me to think it, it was reality. Nobody was showing up to the shows. That’s not supposition on my part, it was the harsh reality of it. I had debts well into five figures, something like £80, 90,000. I had £500 in my bank account. That’s why I had to flee and go and live in Germany, so that the VAT authorities couldn’t get hold of me. But ‘War Baby’ gave me a return to the charts, and eventually paid off the debts.
So, despite having such a big debut album and the early hits, financially you were struggling?
Then, it used to cost a huge amount of money to make an album. The first album was successful, but we ploughed most of it into making the second album, which was less successful. And I ploughed everything I had left into a third album, with a band called Sector 27, and that didn’t sell at all. It was only then that the taxman came around and said, ‘You know all that money you had on that album? Where’s ours?’ It was mismanagement, really.
‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’ was the first hit, but while it contains a gay lib chant, it’s really about driving through the night after a gig…
I just lifted the chorus from a gay lib demonstration. But the song wasn’t anything to do with gay liberation as such, although I did wear a pink triangle badge on Top of the Pops. So, those in the know, recognised and knew what it was.
And that was followed by the iconic anthem ‘Glad To Be Gay’…
We would never have got to make ‘Glad To Be Gay’ if ‘2-4-6-8…’ hadn’t been a hit.
I understand that the BBC didn’t want it played, although as always John Peel had different ideas…
John Peel defied a directive from the controller’s office. A woman called Doreen Davies issued the directive that the song was not to be played, and put a sticker on it in the gramophone library, saying you need permission from the Director to play it. Peel played it anyway, but nobody else did. She made sure we didn’t get playlisted for another five years after that. It was only with ‘War Baby’ that I got back on Radio One. However, ‘Glad To Be Gay’ was number one on the Capital Hitline for six weeks. Capital Radio had this hitline where listeners could call up and ask for the song they wanted. In ’78 we were Best London Band, and Best New band from Capital Radio listeners. It was a really nice reflection on the fan loyalty, I think.
Tell me more about those times, what the situation was like for those who were gay…
It was a political awakening. Once I came to London in my early 20s, and discovered I wasn’t the only one, I started going to gay venues and reading Gay News. You discovered what was going on around the country, and a lot of it was quite ugly, particularly from the point of view of the police. Although theoretically, homosexuality and homosexual behaviour was legalised in 1967, the number of arrests went up, at least 150 to 200 percent after that Act was passed, because the police had a set of guidelines that they could use to bust people. You used to get arrested for two men kissing in the street. At the time that song came out, that was actually the case. And if one of the partners in a relationship was, say, 19 years old, rather than 21 years old, the older one went to prison. It was pretty horrendous.
How did the song ‘Glad To Be Gay’ come about?
Singing ‘Glad to be Gay’ was an absolutely sarcastic commentary. I wrote it for a Pride march, and it was a commentary on the apathy of our own community. That people weren’t doing what the Americans had done at the time of Stonewall, in the late 60s, and had fought back. We were kind of hiding.
There weren’t many, if any, role models?
That was the problem for gay kids, and for youngsters like me. There was no role model out there. Of course, there were people like Noel Coward and Joe Orton around, but I never knew anything about it living in rural Essex. I thought I was the only queer kid in Essex. That was because people like Noel Coward couldn’t talk about it openly, because they risked arrest. They might have a very nice, cosseted lifestyle, working in a tolerant area of the entertainment industry, but the reality on the street was that they would still get their teeth kicked in by queer bashers if they were caught.
I wrote ‘Glad To Be Gay’ for a Pride march, and in those days we didn’t have 200,000 people swarming through Oxford Street. We had 2,000 people walking down Oxford Street, outnumbered by police, and it was quite a scary thing. I sang it for the first time on a stage in Hyde Park, surrounded by police officers, to a quite small crowd. They all looked quite impassive. But I went to see the Sex Pistols. I was in a vocal harmony trio at the time, called Cafe Society, and when I saw the Sex Pistols, I realised that a vocal harmony trio wasn’t going to be the next big thing. I figured that whatever I did had to be reasonably basic, and loud. But also it gave me confidence. I wasn’t much of a singer in the vocal department. I had a voice like a corn crake. Watching Johnny Rotten, I thought ‘well, I can do that’. It also gave the idea that you had to be passionate about what you did. You had to lay your heart on your sleeve, and it didn’t matter if you were confronted, if people didn’t like what you did, or said, or were. The Pistols were definitely trying to get up people’s noses, and provoke them. Now, I couldn’t get away with that, the age I was (mid-20s) and the background I came from, so I thought about what could provoke them. ‘Oh, I know, sing ‘Glad To Be Gay’. So, I dug out that song I had written for the Pride march, and started performing it with the modestly named Tom Robinson Band, which I formed shortly afterwards.
You kind of winged it at gigs at the beginning…
The thing with that band was that I went out and got the gigs first, and then when I got half a dozen gigs I sat down and wrote some songs that could be learned in a soundcheck. Three chords, good; two chords, better. And then I started phoning up members of other bands who I knew, and made sure we had a drummer, and a guitarist for each of the gigs (Robinson played bass, which he still does). Then, when we got to the gigs, I would teach them the set during the soundcheck, and then we would perform, and be the Tom Robinson Band.
With respect to gay liberation, things have moved on considerably since those days?
I never thought we would get as far as we have. I really never thought we would see a Tory Government bringing in gay marriage. But, as we have seen, with the arrival of (Donald) Trump, and the way he has rolled back civil rights and human rights, in months, it shows you how fragile these things are. That same-sex marriage had been brought in, in the States, and suddenly it’s all changed over there. The words LGBT disappeared from the White House website the morning after he was elected. He’s busy rolling back legislation everywhere. So, just because the pendulum happens to have swung into a comfortable place for our community now, that doesn’t mean to say it ain’t going to swing all the way back again.
But I do think using those letters LGBTQI – and all the way down the alphabet – that does leave more space for fluidity; in gender identity, and sexual identity. And certainly in my life, over the course of the last 40 years, I’ve moved along the spectrum from G to B, which in the 80s was quite a hard thing to do. People weren’t very tolerant of that at the time. I got outed by the bloody Sunday People! ‘Shock, horror! Man lives with woman’. I think it was only in the 90s really when things became more easy going, and Pride became known as LGBT Pride. By then there was a bi-sexual stage at the annual Pride rally, and I got invited back to perform there, and was able to assert my own identity.
At the same time, people forget how far we’ve come. Despite all the uncertainties, and the financial insecurity, and the fact that none of us know where we will be in a year from now, that’s nothing new. I’ve lived through the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, the 00s, and there hasn’t been a time when there wasn’t some kind of terrible threat on the horizon, or some reason to be fearful for the future. It’s very easy to get in to ‘the good old days’ attitude. People talk about the good old days of punk. They were fucking awful! It was a time when the National Front was marching through racially sensitive areas. There was a discredited Labour government disintegrating right in front of our eyes, rubbish wasn’t being collected. There was political violence, police violence, a three-day week, bodies not being buried. And when you turned up at a gig you had to wipe the spit off your bass guitar strings. The good old days of punk! It’s just whenever you happen to grow up that you call them the good old days. I really think the good old days are here and now. These are the days that when you look on in decades to come: ‘Bloody hell. It was really great, 2018.’
But, it’s still important to stand up and fight for what you think is right?
I think music, and its role in that, you have to be careful not to claim too big of an achievement. I think it’s the audience that changes things. With Rock Against Racism, I’m so proud to have been part of that, but I have no illusions that any National Front skinheads turned up to one of our gigs and said, ‘Oh god, I see now. I’ve been so stupid’. It was more that people who already believed what we believed, showed up to the shows, sang-along with the songs, and realised they were in a room with 2,000 other people who felt the same way, and went out emboldened, and fought the good fight. Certainly, the reason why queer rights, over the last 40 years, have come on, is because of the courage of individual men and women, who’ve just lived openly, and come out. It’s the coming out that has changed society, not the work of activists, or singer-songwriters.
What about now? I often hear people say music isn’t as good as it was, back in the ‘good old days!’
‘There’s no good music anymore’! Nonsense! There is always good music. There’s a band called Austerity, based in Brighton, who are a brilliant three-piece. I had them on my show, in session, and I still wear their T-shirts. If someone has genuine, gob-smacking musical talent, they’ve got a far better chance today then they did back in my day. They will find an audience. You only have to put something on YouTube that is brilliant, and the word will spread. You don’t have to go through the bloody gatekeepers anymore. It’s a great time for new talent, but there is now a huge amount of music out there competing for attention, so you do have to be properly good. But, if you are, you’ll get heard.