PRESS - April 1979
TOM ROBINSON BAND: The Song, Not The Singer
By Simon Frith
Tom Robinson... Is an activist who wishes he wasn't.
Thanks to some promotional moves, the Buzzcocks and the Tom Robinson Band
played Coventry on the same night one week in late March. TRB delayed
their appearance to give the Buzzcocks fans time to cross town, but, by
then, it was too late. People had to choose and the two concerts neatly
divided the audience. The Buzzcocks got the kids, TRB got the oldies.
The local left bopped happily away and I decided that Tom Robinson's real
function is not to bring politics to rock, but to bring rock to politics.
My choice had been simple. The Buzzcocks are a straight pop group, entertaining
and predictable, but TRB had hit real trouble. The critics descended on
TRB TWO like vultures, picking over its pieces with cackles of disdain.
People were beginning to say, "I told you so, never did think much of
their music." On Round Table a smug deejay pronounced the importance of
keeping politics out of rock. The aura of failure was drifting round,
and I wanted to see how TRB handled it on stage.
This notion, turned out to be a nonsense. The audience was so relaxed
and open, so keen to be happy, that TRB were relaxed, open and happy too.
They played a solid set, no sign of strain; even "Glad To Be Gay" lacked
its usual bitter tinge. This crowd could hear all the things that TRB
are supposed to lack-musical energy, discipline and imagination.
But then it was a biased audience, determined to have correct fun, and
Ian Birch's critical point remains: Tom Robinson won work acclaim because
his politics were right, but, at some stage (i.e. second album) the preening
had to stop, the music had to be judged for itself.
Trouble is, I'm not sure this musical/ political separation is possible.
Melody Maker's savage review of TRB TWO rested on a political assessment
of Robinson's style and strategy, an assessment, in fact, that made more
sense of the record's sleeve than its songs.
TRB TWO is, to my ears, a much better album than Power In The Darkness.
So much better, indeed, that it exposes cruelly the Tom Robinson Band's
weakness, its lack of a really good rock vocalist.
But TRB TWO certainly isn't an album of preachy left platitudes; the
image of Tom Robinson as gay vicar is off the mark. Lyrically, the record
is subtler than Power In The Darkness. Robinson, like everybody else,
has been listening to Elvis Costello. He is beginning to play hard with
his own indirect images and metaphors and puns. The album's worst track.
"Let My People Go", is the only one to use vague rhetoric to employ an
all-purpose and therefore vacuous outrage.
Otherwise, there are only three straight protest songs. "Blue Murder"
(about Liddle Towers, who died after being beaten up by the police) and
"Sorry Mr. Harris" (on the security forces) have specific targets and
draw effectively on the TRB tradition of making political points with
singalong irony. "Law And Order", the song in which Ian Parker sings the
part of a redneck sheriff, is a simple (minded) joke, the sort of thing
Alex Harvey might do in passing.
The other seven songs explore the theme of apathy and action, and they
are all significantly self-reflective. The words are sometimes opaque,
but Robinson's position is clear enough: he is an activist who wishes
he wasn't. He'd like to be calm, quiet, home with his music and lovers,
no aggravation, but he's a gay socialist. The world won't leave him alone,
so he can't leave it alone.
This is the general statement of his specific problem: he'd like to be
"just" a rock'n'roll star, but there are too many unacceptable conditions
in that "just."
This theme-reluctant action, guilty inaction-runs through TRB TWO and
is the source of what I hear as a genuine rock tension-the argument is
emotional and musical, as well as intellectual and lyrical.
Todd Rundgren gives the band a much richer sound than they've had before.
Danny Kustow gets the role of rock heavy support; Ian Parker's keyboards
dominate, poppy and funny. The group this brings to mind is the Animals
- same combination of earnestness and arrogance, same naivety, same clumsy
And it's Eric Burdon's voice TRB lacks. Robinson can handle folky/music
hall ironies fine, and on stage his charm transcends his flat delivery.
But here, as the band rocks steadily, his lack of a blues wail puts a
limit on his own ambitions.
TRB TWO is more determined than Power In The Darkness to be a rock record.
I'm quite sure that, if forced to choose between rock and revolution,
TRB would choose rock. Robinson would argue that the choice isn't necessary,
but my point is that in choosing rock, he's choosing the music in all
its capitalist splendour (and squalor). It's why I've never worried about
TRB signing to Capitol/EMI - if you're going to be a rock group, you might
as well be a real rock group.
This is the argument that separates Robinson from the stalwarts of Rock
Against Racism. He believes, I think, that there can be political value
in even the most commercial music. Pop music and politics can only be
separated, indeed, if politics is defined in a narrow way, and to prevent
such definitions taking hold is a useful struggle in itself.
I object, for example, to the RAR tendency to define correct music in
terms of spontaneous black and white working-class folk, thus discounting
numerous wonderful sounds as mere entertainment. The undertow of RAR hostility
to disco is ironic, given disco's significance for contemporary black
America. I suppose I share Tom Robinson's pluralism: I'm sure, too, that
all genres of popular music are sources of politically valuable energy,
imagination, passion, defiance.
State apparatuses, certainly, have been able to hear all sorts of music
as "threatening state security". In Czechoslovakia, opposition to Stalinism
has been associated with trad jazz, rock 'n' roll, and currently, hippie
rock. No doubt a group like the Plastic People doesn't make music that
"in itself" meets the standards of punk purism, but I doubt if its audiences
What Tom Robinson should do now is write songs he can sing-love songs,
car songs, dance songs, pop songs. He'll be accused of selling out but
it will be a false charge, resting on the odd assumption that socialists
and gays never dance or drive or fall in love.
In fact, TRB's fans have fun like everyone else. They leap about, hold
hands, kiss and drink and pull on joints.
And this is the real reply to the critics. Despite their icy logic, the
Tom Robinson Band works ! Their performances still reach the feet, touch
the heart" send us into the night as politically smug, for a moment, as
Margaret Thatcher herself.
(reprinted in Trouser Press by kind permission
of Melody Maker)