Hidden in plain sight during the Punk heyday, a subset of musicians were singing about, and working toward, a better world rather than pushing a dark, nihilistic agenda. Among these were the Tom Robinson Band, whose songs climbed the charts in the UK (not so much in the U.S.) in the late 1970s: “2-4-6-8 Motorway,” “Glad to be Gay,” “Up Against the Wall.” Now 71, Robinson is back with a band and hitting the motorways of UK to perform for old fans and new younger audiences. Robinson spoke with PKM’s David Stewart about his journey and the changes in activism that are still desperately needed.
While gobs of spit and expletives were flying through London’s punk scene in the late Seventies, Tom Robinson was traveling a quieter but no less provocative path. From 1977 to 1979, the Tom Robinson Band blazed a parallel trail between Britain’s punk and New Wave scenes. Signed to EMI in August 1977, after the Sex Pistols’ highly-publicized hire-and-fire from the label, the Tom Robinson Band were radio favorites with their mix of punk, ska, and Dylan-esque lyrics in songs like ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’, ‘Power in the Darkness’, and ‘Winter of ‘79’.
Robinson himself was an activist, not an anarchist (or an antichrist). Unlike the Sex Pistols thriving off their tabloid-fueled cause célèbre, Robinson never needed to use profane language or gobs of phlegm to get his message across. As rock journalist Julie Burchill wrote at the time in her 1978 book The Boy Looked at Johnny, “Compared to the Tom Robinson Band, every other rock musician is wanking into the wind.” Standing stoically with his guitar and buttoned-down shirt decorated with the Pink Triangle pin, Robinson addressed the polarizing issues that rocked Britain in the late Seventies: the welfare state, the rise of the National Front leading to race-related violence in London’s Black and Pakistani communities; and the prosecution of homosexuals by the police exemplified in his protest anthem “(Sing if You’re) Glad to Be Gay.”
Additionally, Robinson was one of the handful of musicians involved in the Rock Against Racism campaign spurred on after Eric Clapton’s infamous drunken rant at a 1976 show in Birmingham in which Slowhand sided with Enoch Powell’s views on Britain having “too many foreigners.” The series of shows at London’s Victoria Park in 1978 have since been revisited in the 2020 documentary, White Riot.
Beyond his onstage presence, Robinson led by example, volunteering at London Gay Switchboard (now under the name Switchboard), a telephone helpline for the LGBTQ+ community during the peak of his career. It was at a Switchboard benefit that he met his wife and manager, Sue, leading to nearly forty years of marriage and two children.
As the pandemic slows (for now), Robinson is back out on the road touring the UK. At 71, he shows no signs of slowing down; if not on stage, then as one of the long-standing broadcasters for BBC’s Radio 6. While on a brief lull from his tour, I talked with Tom from his home in South London about his career and the cultural relevance of activism in contemporary music. Our conversation took place the day after Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted for shooting three Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin last year.
PKM: How’s touring been for you this year?
Tom Robinson: Well, I mean it’s been slow to restart, but it has been pretty good being back with the band. Covid-wise the downside is being cooped up with seven people at close quarters in a van bouncing around (laughs) and that you have to be quite careful not to shake hands with the public afterwards. But it’s great to be playing with musicians on a stage again and even on solo shows I’ve enjoyed actually being back in a room with a group of people again after the isolation imposed by Covid.
PKM: I talked to Jim Anderson, one of the surviving editors of OZ magazine, about the conflicting nature of keeping his homosexuality to himself during the OZ trial 50 years ago. When you talked to the NME about being gay nearly 45 years ago, were you concerned about backlash from the music industry in the same way Elton John’s endured a decline in record sales after revealing his bisexuality to Rolling Stone?
Tom Robinson: It meant a lot to us at the time when Elton did say “Hey, I’m bisexual.” For those who were just out there as ordinary citizens at the time, it meant a huge amount that he had finally been open and public about something that was widely known in the music industry as an open secret. For me, I didn’t actually have a choice because the first thing I did when I moved to London at age 23 was to come out and live openly as a queer man. This was just four years after the Stonewall Riots – I discovered Gay Liberation and embraced it almost like a religion, being positively evangelical about it. The whole premise of that early movement was that Gay Liberation is everybody’s liberation. Freedom is indivisible; you can’t ask for gay rights without supporting equality of opportunity for women, people of color – in fact, equality of opportunity right across the board. Fighting for your own rights means fighting for everybody’s rights: you either live in a free and fair society or you don’t. Anyway, the long and the short of all that is that I was already ‘out’ long before having any success with music. By the time I finally signed a deal with EMI, I couldn’t have pretended to be straight even if I’d wanted to; the closet was not the option at the point and thank God for that!
Living openly has huge benefits and not only for your own life. In the early 70s David Bowie had arrived out of the blue with a soundtrack to the lives of queer kids. He was writing quality songs that sounded like they were actually about us, it was just amazing. For the first time ever, you could be different in any number of ways and still be one of the good guys. I remember saying to myself, ‘If any music of mine ever gets a wider audience, I’ll do my best to pass on that same affirmation that Bowie gave to me and my friends.’ That was a deliberate policy.
PKM: My introduction to your music and activism came from buying a VHS copy the Amnesty International Secret Policeman’s Ball and watching your performance. When you made music your vocation, was it purely based on a political active spirit or did you want to just make music?
Tom Robinson: I just wanted to make music; the joy of making music is as great as the joy of consuming it. To be really honest about it, I simply had a chronic drive to try and become famous! As a young man in my twenties my hunger to validate myself through music was almost existential. You know, over my lifetime I’ve been through ten years of psychotherapy, done a CBT course, and even spent seven years in a therapeutic community during my teens and early twenties. In short, I’m not the most emotionally stable human being you’ll ever meet – so that fragility expressed itself at the time as a need to try and become a well-known musician
I’d always been a bit rubbish at finding lovers or sexual partners, so my hope was that being loved for my music would also make people love me as a person. When your sense of self-worth is at rock bottom, other people tend not to find you attractive either. So, a successful career in music was central to my hopes of achieving personal validation.
As to my ‘political active spirit’, it wasn’t a case of thinking ‘we need to change the world, what’s the best way of doing it? I know! I’ll form a band!’. We’ve all encountered politically engaged musicians over the years who’ve unleashed some very worthy but very dull music on the world. But much of the best political pop music has come from artists like Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello, Tracy Chapman and Stevie Wonder. Politics has been just one of many strands in their wider careers – writing great songs has to come first.
My own career was a great illustration of this because as soon as you stop making interesting music – and that certainly happened at times – nobody any longer gives a flying fuck about your political beliefs. The organizers of rallies and benefit concerts stop asking you to appear because your name no longer pulls an audience. However worthy and well-meaning an artist’s beliefs may be, once they’re no longer famous, the invites will go to someone else who is.
PKM: Watching the footage from the Rock Against Racism concerts and the strife that was prominent in late-Seventies England, it’s hard not to see the similarities in the current sociopolitical divide. In America, there’s still the nationalistic discourse manifested from Trump’s reign of terror, such as the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict. In your opinion, has Britain reverted back to the state it was in or has there been progress on the human rights front?
Tom Robinson: My feeling is that we have to shift the way we look at all this, rather than seeing history in linear terms of ‘progress’ or ‘lack of progress’ in movement. Everything changes constantly. The patterns re-evolve, become something new, and we have to take a fresh look at everything we thought we knew. The kind of divisions now tearing our society apart are unlike anything we could have predicted in the Seventies. The growing rifts within communities and families, have more in common with Civil Wars of past centuries than with the Seventies politics of anti-racism, gender equality or LGBT+ activism. Society is fragmenting in a way that’s unprecedented in our lifetimes, on both sides of the Atlantic.
But despite the rise of populism – the UK at least (I can’t speak for the US) – is still a far kinder and more tolerant society than I remember from the Seventies, Sixties or Fifties. Of course, there’s still a great deal of unkindness and intolerance today – but in the 1970s those qualities were so deeply ingrained into the whole of society that it was hard to imagine things being any other way. White and black musicians might have been sharing stages in solidarity at those RAR concerts with huge crowds of enthusiastic supporters. But our respective journeys home through the streets of London after the shows were still very different. For a white, male, middle class musician there’s always that ‘check your privileges’ thing. As your awareness continues to grow over the years, there’s a constant process of re-evaluating just how much privilege you’ve been enjoying, however much of an activist you might have been.
PKM: Most post-war British musicians have portrayed their school days as Dickensian, leading to their rebellious careers (i.e., The Sex Pistols ‘Schools are Prisons’, Pink Floyd’s The Wall album). You’ve credited Finchden Manor saving your life. How did being in school help shape your destiny?
Tom Robinson: Well, it actually wasn’t a school. It was more of a haven – a kind of last chance saloon – providing young men with an alternative not only to school, but to mental hospitals and/or the criminal justice system. Finchden was a kind of therapeutic community – and getting sent there gave all of us a lucky escape from one or more of those institutions. It was an extraordinary place into which we were pitched – unlike anything we’d experienced in our prior lives. A battered old 17th-century house and grounds in the wilds of the Kent countryside which included a football pitch, a pond, a rose garden, and three grand pianos. For me, it was incredibly liberating to leave the confines of a co-ed Quaker boarding school (where I’d been living on the brink of despair, depression, and suicide) and find a new life in this rowdy mad bedlam of a place.
PKM: Did Alexis Korner play a role in supporting your musical ambitions?
Tom Robinson: Yes, Alexis was an alumnus – a Finchden “Old Boy” – and encountering him when he came down to visit was a crucial moment in my time there. He played a concert in Mr. Lyward’s study; thirty of us crammed in sitting on the floor pressed against the walls. This middle-aged man with a shock of grizzled hair and a flowery shirt pulled out a guitar, strapped it on, opened his mouth and just began singing. It was like, ‘Oh, my God! This is the real deal!’ He sang songs about corrupt policemen, cruel-hearted women, racial injustice, in short everything that the blues is about. The blinding revelation from seeing Alexis work was that being a musician wasn’t about getting up on a big stage with lots of expensive equipment. It’s actually all about communication: being in a room with other people, opening your mouth and singing in the moment, right there and then.
A great measure of what a wonderful man he was when he was about to leave, me and my friends approached him to say, ‘Alexis, we’ve got a band but we’re having to sing into a plastic tape recorder mic taped to a broomstick. We’ve been saving up for a proper microphone – could you have a look when you’re back in London and see if you can find us a cheap one?’ He asked how much money we had so far and when we told him it was only five pounds, he said, ‘Well boys, why don’t you give me the five pounds and I’ll see what I can do.’ Three weeks later, a brand-new Shure Unidyne III microphone – worth ten times that much – arrived in the post.
PKM: Depression and creativity are unique sides of the same coin; something I deal with on a constant basis. How did therapy help you after the breakup of TRB?
Tom Robinson: Therapy helped me inhabit my own skin – something I’d struggled with from an early age. My own internal strife must have made me an impossible bandmate at the time, so it’s no wonder the band fell apart. It’s quite hard to navigate relationships when you have World War Three raging inside you. I was blessed by finding a really good therapist who helped me dismantle my old behaviors. By gradually becoming aware of your own unconscious compulsions, you unlearn the patterns you’ve been trapped in. It was incredibly valuable – literally a life-saver.
PKM: Do you see a revival of that marriage between punk and political activism in this new age we find ourselves in?
Tom Robinson: Again, I think we need to change our frame of reference to make sense of that question. Music plays a far less central role in people’s lives now than it did in the Seventies. With the rise of streaming, music has become more of a tap that we turn on, rather than a badge of identity that we treasure. To put it in marketing-speak, music has moved from being a ‘Product’ that people buy to ‘Content’ that they consume. For earlier generations music provided a kind of cultural bush telegraph – spreading new ideas and attitudes in a way the mainstream media and our parents’ generation couldn’t understand. Music made fans in Britain aware of the San Francisco psychedelic scene in the mid-Sixties, the NYC punk rock scene in the late 70s, and US rap culture in the early ‘80s. But young people today share fresh cultural ideas and identities directly with each other through TikTok, Instagram and (God help us) Facebook. If we’re looking for a new equivalent of punk rock as a way of fueling change, we’re looking in the wrong place. The kind of activism my generation encountered through fanzines or Rock Against Racism now uses social media to express itself on a global scale.
The British Army famously never learned from history, for instance, and would arm itself for each new war on the basis of the last one. So, at the start of WWI, their elite forces were cavalry regiments – while the Germans were waiting for them with machine guns. The iconoclasts of the Alt-Right are smashing the old-world order far more effectively than the Sex Pistols ever did. So, in the current culture war there’s no point looking to protest songs for our salvation when the Alt-Right have the digital equivalent of machine guns. Not to mention actual machine guns.
It seems to me those of us who cherish liberal values of fairness, equality and social justice need to somehow wake ourselves up and look around, re-evaluate who we are, where we are, and find new ways of moving forward. I have no more idea what those might prove to be than anyone else – but if we don’t want to live in a bitterly divided society, we do need a way to heal the rifts between us. I’m pretty sure many people on both sides actually want many of the same things. A world where our lives aren’t dictated by giant corporations, for instance – nobody in their right mind wants that. But we’ve been so busy fighting each other that giant corporations are more powerful than governments these days. So, it’s vital to find a way to break out of the old ‘them versus us’ mindset where each side treats the other as bogeymen. If we can only acknowledge and accept the humanity in each other, then perhaps we can focus on the genuinely terrifying threats now staring the whole of humanity in the face.