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Sounds Magazine logo Up Against The Wall

SOUNDS - September 24 1977
By Pete Silverton

"The British police are the best in the world.
I don’t believe one of these stories I’ve heard . . ."

Squashed into a hired car, on the way back to town from a gig, guts already beginning to ache from the two over salted hamburgers and one cup of sweet and nasty tea you’ve only just gobbled down. ‘I Shall Be Released’ purring softly from baby cassette player, round the roundabout twice trying to find the right road . . . closely followed by a large blue Transit, fluorescent flashing ‘Stop’ sign. “Do you always go round roundabouts twice, sir?” Tom eases out of the driving seat, follows the female fed over to the van, his smile a picture of co-operation. The male copper sticks his head through the window of the car and tries to engage us in friendly conversation over the now louder cassette player.

Tom has to show the fed how to use the breathalyser. She seems slightly upset that, when the bag is inflated, the crystals are still in a state of pristine, untrammelled innocence. But she does perk up a little when she discovers that Tom is in a rock ‘n’ roll band. After all, he might be famous and good public relations never harmed anyone, did it?

“Have you been on ‘New Faces’?”
“No, but he has.” Tom replies politely, pointing at Brian.
“Oh well, thank you sir. Good night. That’s the right road.”
Back in the car and on the right road, Tom remarks: “Next time we come here, we will be famous, they will know who we are and they’ll probably lock us up for it.” Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, let me introduce you to the crises and contradictions of Tom Robinson.

First, some points.
1. Tom Robinson is a songwriter.
2. Tom was, until late last year, in an acoustic group, Café Society, who made one album for Ray Davies’ ill-fated Konk label.
3. Tom formed the Tom Robinson Band early this year. Its line-up settled down to himself on bass and vocals, Danny Kustow on guitar and vocals, Mark Amber on keyboards and Brian Taylor on drums and occasional vocals.
4. The Tom Robinson Band play some of the gutsiest rock ‘n’ roll and sing some of the bravest lyrics I’ve ever been lucky enough to hear.
5. The Tom Robinson Band have recently signed a recording contract with EMI, the label’s first signing since the Pistol’s debacle.
6. Tom is gay. He’s neither ashamed nor boastful about it. He just informs you of the fact and if you don’t like it, you know where you can put it, don’t you John.
7. The rest of the band aren’t gay.

All of which are a few basic facts to keep in mind while I outline the events which lead up to my being stopped in a car for going round a roundabout one times too many. In the current polarisation of music between Boring Old Farts and Bright Young Things, quite a few bands have been passed over because they didn’t fit into such a neat dichotomy. At one extreme, if you didn’t sound like Zappa you were derided for being unmusical. And at the other end of the spectrum, if you showed in your approach a knowledge of anything other than the Dolls, the Ramones and Iggy, you were unceremoniously dumped onto the dust-heap of history.

That could well have stiffed the Tom Robinson Ban. Their lyrics were pointed and direct enough, if incalculably more literate and intelligent than garbage like Slaughter And The Dogs, to please all but the most amphetamine-overdosed buzzsaw guitar social commentator. But their music was nearer that of a standard, if tasteful, rock ‘n’ roll outfit. Nearly stymied by the “If you’re not with us you’re against us” pose, they could have ended up as a band in search of an audience, reduced to eking out their starvation and frustration with a few jerk-off-left-wing benefit gigs.

So why didn’t they? Firstly, because of the blindingly obvious qualities of Tom’s songs and the punch of the band. (They’ve had a lot of reviews in the papers this year and I don’t think I’ve seen one unfavourable one. No complaints there, although they do have another bone to pick with the press). Secondly, because, in good Hollywood B movie flick tradition, they gritted their teeth and hung on in there, convinced their day would come. Okay, so lots of bands and great ones at that have thought the same but they’ve all of ‘em been brought down by the grimmest reaper of all time. The TRB aren’t gonna be though – or rather I don’t believe they are – because the wait hasn’t been too long, the band have tightened up and changed over this year and, most importantly, Tom himself has had ample past experience of false starts, notably the prevarications of Mr. Ray Davies over the release of Café Society records which reduced the band to a two piece when Tom left and have now split it up altogether. Won’t get fooled again . . .

Nonetheless, the gap between saying what you think and shouting it out good and loud while playing at London’s Brecknock and getting the self-same point (let’s not call it message, huh) across via the warping mechanism of a music-biz multi-national like EMI is a not inconsiderable one. There’s evidence supporting that in the Pistols affair with EMI and then A&M and, to a lesser degree, the Clash’s occasional contretemps with CBS. Now look, I ain’t accusing nobody of selling out. It’s obvious that if you think you’ve got something to say and reckon a lot of people should hear it, there’s no point in whispering it to your mate round the corner and expecting it to spread miraculously by word of mouth. And the big companies are only too willing to help . . . if they make money. Penguin print Marx for profit, not politics. But those big companies do prefer to do it on their own terms and those terms can, whether over a long or a short period, alter the original intention.

Which is why I was very interested in going down to Shepperton Studios to see the TRB polish off their first single and find out the current state of play with EMI straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak. Of all Tom’s songs, the one chosen for the first single, ‘Motorway’, is probably the least, shall we say controversial. It doesn’t deal with fears of a right-wing backlash like ‘Winter Of 79’ or the realities of life on the street like ‘Up Against The Wall’ nor is it a phial of vitriol lobbed at everything “an Englishman holds dearest to his heart” like ‘Power In The Darkness’ or a sardonic commentary on Tom’s own lifestyle such as the bitter as tears in your beer ‘Sing If You’re Glad To Be Gay’.

‘Motorway’ is a simple song of joy about a trucker hauling his thirty ton Scania down the M6 and watching the sun rise, its only controversial aspect being the fact that the only reason he’s able to drive all night is that he’s got his “double white line”. Anyway if the Steve Gibbons band can get away with an homage to drug dealing with ‘Tulane’, even doing it on TOTP, who’s gonna worry about a little ol’ line like that, EMI? Anyway, it’s a great song. Like all Tom’s songs, it’s packed with the sort of concrete positive metaphors that Chuck Berry used to have a patent on. And when I heard the rough mix of the backing track in the studio, I just leapt around singing along and shouting that it sounded just like a coarse Tamla record. And nearly got thrown out of the studio for my pains. Not by Tom but by the producer, the Who’s sound engineer, Bob Pridden, doing the honours here with a barn of a room and the Island mobile.

Bill’s done a great job (though he couldn’t find a small speaker for me to hear it on – I never trust those massive studio jobs – everything sounds good on them). He’s got the football crowd sing-along ambience spot on and given the TRB the biting guitar sound they’ve needed all along and have never until now quite found. But Bob was EMI’s choice, not the band’s. They’d been working with Jon Miller since earlier this year and had done a version of ‘Motorway’ with him. But EMI didn’t like it. So a new producer was found and it was EMI who made the decision. The first of many compromises, with the office not the band calling the shots? That was what I wanted to know but it wasn’t until the next day I was able to ask Tom. Getting the vocal track down didn’t go quite as had been hoped and EMI suddenly got ultra-conscious of money being wasted by our lazing, talking to the band and taking pictures. Besides, how honest can Tom be with his Artist Development geezer from EMI (sounds more like Motown’s infamous grooming schools than rock ‘n’ roll to me) sitting five feet away?

So now we reassemble and switch on the tape recorder the next day, travelling up to the gig in the hired Cortina. Much to Tom’s chagrin, it’s a mucky yellow series 3, not the Mark 1 1600E grey Cortina he covets in the song of the same title. He does admit, however, that the new ones are more comfortable to drive. Seeing how Elvis got his Cadillac when he put his John Henry on the line for RCA, I ask Tom how come he didn’t get his grey Cortina out of EMI. He laughs. The ice broken, I press on to the more serious points about the relationship with EMI. Was there any pressure to put out such a relatively uncontroversial song?

“We were planning to use ‘Motorway’ whichever company we went to, even if we pressed it ourselves. We were quite determined to go ahead, with or without a record company. It wasn’t that important that we had a record deal. We had a truck, we had our gear, we were reasonably self-supporting. We were going to press it ourselves anyway so we could get it out to the kids on the street.”

So why a record deal then?
“Totally simple. We want more people to hear our music. And the better the record company, the more people will hear the music. And EMI is, I think, one of the best record companies in London, if not the world. Therefore, it will be heard by more people.”

Isn’t the change of producer some kind of compromise?
“We’ve made a compromise. They’ve made a compromise. When we came to the label we had choice of producer according to our contract. But they didn’t like his approach. John (Miller) had a classically crisp studio sound. EMI had seen us with our crappy PA, bum notes and distortion and that’s how they saw us. So we said, okay, we’ll go along with the change for the A side but we want to keep John for the B side – ‘I Shall Be Released’ – which, as you know, is for George Ince who’s doing fifteen years on very flimsy evidence. EMI didn’t want him to do that either but they compromised and we came to an agreement. But as far as the lyrics go, there’s been no compromise.

“It could very easily be the thin edge of the wedge. It could be them trying it on early in the game. The A&R department flexing its muscles to see how far it could push the band. On the other hand it could also be in the best interests of all of us, if it gets the best sound on record.” Actually I agree wholeheartedly with EMI on that issue. I’ve heard John Miller’s version and it has the attack of an asthmatic mouse, leaving Tom high and dry punching out his lyrics in front of a musical vacuum. Bob Pridden’s treatment has turned it into the wonderful rock ‘n’ roll dance record it should be.

But then the relationship with Jon Miller was more than just band/producer. John had given them support help and studio time when they were at their lowest ebb, crying in the wilderness, Tom moonlighting with Irish show bands just so he could eat a decent meal now and again. And John did it all for a hope and a promise. But then rock ‘n’ roll was never known for its extremes of sentiment (and John’ll be compensated anyway). John Miller was also a link with the past in so far as he produced the second Café Society album – which has yet to be released. Now, if you’ve heard the first Café album (which is very unlikely) you’ll know they were the epitome of soggy singer-songwriter acoustic-guitar Valium ‘rock’.
“But I gradually became aware of what there was an audience for and what there wasn’t an audience for. In two years of Café Society we’d had two reviews. I did four nights by myself (for Gay Pride week0 and got reviewed in Sounds twice and in Streetlife. So I thought I must be doing something right and it showed me that there must be something wrong with Café. But I didn’t then know what I was going to do.”

The Gay Pride Week shows were a turning point for Tom. For the first time he found himself able to sing songs that spoke about his deeper, more honest feelings (and I’m not just talking about his being gay). It was where he premiered what has come to be seen as the band’s anthem, ‘Sing If You’re Glad To Be Gay’, which I know the band felt had become a mill-stone round their neck at one point. “Now we see it as a v-sign to Mary Whitehouse” chorused the previously silent Danny and Brian.

But still, why the change to rock ‘n’ roll?
“It seemed to me that 77 and 78 were going to be years of big trouble on the streets. And that’s where the average music fan is. They’re either still at school or just left school and are in a boring job.Whatever music you make you’ve got to be in touch with their lives. I could see they were going to want much more basic, more simple hard-hitting rock music. But I’m not in it for the money. There’s easier ways to make money. Like property speculation, for instance. So long as I’ve got a roof over my head, something to eat and grey Cortina, that’s me happy.

@ I live for my hour on stage. That’s what I’m hooked on. That’s what I live through the other 23 for. To me it doesn’t matter whether I’m playing or singing or jumping up and down, waving my knickers in the air. It’s performing that counts. The, if within that, I can contribute to making the world a slightly better place to live in, I feel as if I’ve done something. It’s not even a question of a better world for people in general. I’m most concerned with me. But I know that a better world for me means a better world for you. Motives don’t matter. It’s the end result that matters. If you see a guy starving on the street and you give him a quid just to impress your girlfriend or boyfriend, it doesn’t matter, ‘cos at the end of the day that guy’s still got the quid.”

Your songs have any real effect?
“Nah. Fuck all. Nobody ever changes the world by singing pop songs. But if you can change it one iota it’s worth doing.”

I know somebody told Tom that listening to his songs was like reading the Agit Prop column in Time Out. I wondered how he’d react to the charge that his political poses were shallow, empty, trendy.
“This is when you write down “long pause, dot, dot, dot” . . . Look maybe it is trendy to get almost bottled for singing ‘Glad To Be Gay’. Maybe it is trendy to get your roadie’s head kicked in in Wales just ‘cos one of us said “fuck” in front of a lady who was too lady-like to hear a word like that but wasn’t too lady-like to kick someone in the balls. Maybe it is trendy . . . I hadn’t noticed.”

By this time we’ve arrived at the gig and discover that it’s just another case of a local club owner knowing his Wednesday nights are slack and hoping to cop a little more money by turning it over to real live rock ‘n’ roll for the night. The band, especially Tom are visibly brought down by the prospect of playing to a tiny audience most of whom don’t really understand what they’re doing there anyway. You might get Mick Jones coming along to most of your gigs in London and he and Glen Matlock might have to squeeze hard through the crowds to get up on the stage to play a little with yoou. But, out here, you’re on your own, boy, with a crowd that’s waiting to be astounded and ain’t gonna do anything to make it easier for you to do it.

Sod the Fillmore West in 1967 this is the real acid test of a band. What do you mean, did they manage it? Of course they did. Okay, so a few people went back to the bar but those who stayed were more than warm in their appreciation of the band. They do their standard set, albeit a slightly shortened one. Tom does his best old trooper routine, playing the crowd like he was holding five aces, totally winning them over by the third number, the whimsical but not at all twee ‘Martin’. If you believe in yourself and believe other people will too given half a chance you’re half way to convincing any crowd. They even applauded ‘Glad To Be Gay’.

When I asked Danny Kustow how he felt about singing such an overtly gay song and by extension, being in a band with a gay singer, he admitted that it pissed him (and the others) off that the papers always concentrated on the gay angle, especially as how he was personally more interested in women. But, living up to his Jewish middle-class street urchin vibe, he added, “When I sing ‘GTBG’ I get a vague feeling that I could be singing “Sing if you’re glad to be Jewish”. I don’t know what it’s like to be gay but thinking about it that way helps it make sense for me.”

Coming from someone else that may sound stupid but Danny’s both naïve and clever enough to mean it. It’s the same sort of sinuous line he peddles with his guitar. This night neither he nor the rest of the band were great but they turned in a solid professional set and, what’s more important, they proved they had the bottle to go out and confront on unknown territory. They’re not like some ‘political’ bands (and I’m not talking about the Clash) who feel afraid to move out of the secure womb of benefit circuit. The TRB get out and do it, hang the consequences.

Going into the club, Tom wondered aloud if this might be the time one of them got bottled during ‘GTBG’. It wasn’t. Don’t reckon it ever will be. With the front he’s got, only a nutter would have the nerve.


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