STONE - June 1978
ROCK AND RHETORIC
By Dave Marsh
"Power in the Darkness"
Harvest STB 11778
TOM ROBINSON, AS most rock fans must know by now, not only fronts the
most interesting and explicitly political band to come out of Britain's
New Wave in several months, but is also the first openly, gay rock singer.
So Power in the Darkness would be an extremely significant double album
even if it weren't as good as it is.
Robinson is probably going to throw a lot of straight listeners, even
those who are aware that the group that made that jolly British hit, "2-4-6-8
Motorway" also wrote a song called "Glad to Be Gay."
Because he doesn't exploit any of the gay stereotypes rock audiences
expect from Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and David Bowie, Robinson seems to
un-nerve some listeners. "He doesn't look [act] gay," I've heard
people say, as if there were circumscribed roles homosexuals must play.
Maybe the most important function of the Tom Robinson Band, for all its
musical excellence, will be to break down that image.
The problem lies, as it too often does for leftist performers, with TRB's
methodology . Perhaps the most instructive comparison is with the Clash.
Because the Clash plays rock at its most raucous, the political themes
can almost be ignored - but these themes are reinforced by music that's
as bitter and angry as the lyrics. For the Clash, the sound itself is
a fundamental part of the politics.
But Robinson's group plays much more conservatively: even New Wave haters
might think them good musicians. Essentially, this band's music is the
same combination of mainstream rock & roll and English music-hall
tradition that the Kinks have developed - Ray Davies was Robinson's original
mentor - but it's been years since the Kinks have shown the commitment
of TRB's "The Winter of '79," the social insight of "Grey Cortina" or
the charm of "2-4-6-8 Motorway." And neither they nor any of the New Wave
groups are capable of anything as funky as Robinson's "Power in the Darkness."
The problem isn't that Tom Robinson can't live up to an artificial standard
of punk purity. His music derives a great deal of its force from clarity,
and that means the lyrics are up front where they can't be missed. Which
might not matter, if all the lyrics were as artfully personal as those
of "Glad to Be Gay" or as intricate as "The Winter of '79". But Robinson
is also a preacher, and that stance is overwhelmingly in all the wrong
ways on such sloganeering items as "Right On Sister" and "Better Decide
Which Side You're On." This kind of strident proselytizing would be much
better off obscured by feedback.
TRB is literally too good to be wasted on such leftist broadsides, and
Robinson's far too sophisticated both politically and musically to make
a career of writing them. (Especially since they aren't the sort of thing
that will help do much to fulfil his ambitions for mass success anyway.)
If the radical rhetoric is more aggravating than usual here, it's because
the group's best songs deserve something more emotional. When they get
it - when the Tom Robinson Band sings about the cost of being gay in London.
Or the exhilaration of motor-vating on the highway - Power in the Darkness
is the most convincing fusion of rock & roll and politics in years.