TRB fist logospaceTRB 1977-79
Don't Take No For An Answer
Written July 1998 by Steve Gardner
for NKVD Online
All you kids that just sit and whine
You shoulda been there back in '79
(from "The Winter of '79")

Well and good, but what about 1977 and 1978? That's when the Tom Robinson Band were in their real heyday; a time when TRB were as widely publicized and admired among new music fans as bands like the Jam and the Clash. Forget about the winter of '79 for a minute; in the summer of 1978 there were two albums for me; the Jam's This Is The Modern World and Tom Robinson Band's Power In The Darkness. I played these two records relentlessly until they were totally worn out and I had to get new copies of both. To this day I rate them both among the top ten records ever.

Of all the politically oriented punk bands of the era - the Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, Gang Of Four, and whoever else you want to name - NO-one was more political than TRB. Robinson's lyrics burned with apocalyptic visions of coming revolution and they seethed with real anger and resentment over injustices of all sorts. Robinson understood class distinctions and his suspicion of the ruling class at times neared what today seems like a pitch of paranoia, but in England, 1977, seemed all too believable.

...fitted the Rolls with a shatterproof windscreen
Soon as we heard the news
Harrods do a nice little teargas
Even a woman can use...
(from "I'm Alright Jack")

But it wasn't just words that made TRB songs so great. The tunes were flat out mind blowing. There's nothing the Clash ever did that can claim any superiority to tracks like "Up Against The Wall", "Long Hot Summer", or "Don't Take No For An Answer". TRB songs powered with the new found fury of punk rock, but also had a fine musical touch. Danny Kustow played searing, blues influenced leads but also knew when to lay back and play rhythmic fills. "A mesmerizing performer", says Tom, "with his brooding charisma and adrenaline guitar style." The teenaged Mark Ambler (Robinson calls him "a quiet schoolboy prodigy - the ideal foil to Danny's pyrotechnics") added dramatic flourishes of rich Hammond organ, trading licks with Kustow in all the lead breaks. The complementary sounds of Kustow's guitar and Ambler's keyboards were perhaps what made TRB stand out the most.

Dolphin Taylor was merely one of the most solid drummers around, with a propensity for thundering rolls that heightened the drama of the songs. "The band's engine room", is how Tom describes him. "Usually drenched in sweat by the second number and too exhausted to speak by the time he staggered off stage at the end of the night. Dolphin also provided a healthy dollop of mockery, good humor and common sense." And while Tom himself always downplayed his bass playing, he contributed not a few very catchy lines to their songs. These guys were simply above the bulk of the field in ability.
TRB June 1977

The original TRB lineup, June 1977:
Ambler, Taylor, Robinson, Kustow

Strangely, the band appeared on the scene as if from another planet with the bouncy hit single "2-4-6-8 Motorway", a track that was about as political as "Little Deuce Coupe" but had the kind of rabble-rousing English football song quality that made people want to shout along to it whenever they heard it. When the song debuted in the UK in the middle of 1977, it went to the top 5 of the charts and stayed there for over a month. Newcomers TRB were on the cover of NME, Melody Maker, Sounds and Record Mirror almost before they got to play their own test pressings.

2-4-6-8 ain't never too late
Me and my radio truckin' on thru the night
3-5-7-9 on a double white line
Motorway sun coming up with the morning light
(from "2-4-6-8 Motorway")

But Robinson was not a newcomer; in fact he'd already been through a very tough initiation to the music business and to life in general. Born in 1950, Tom was the son of a classically trained musician who found rock and roll to be repugnant and made his feelings quite clear quite regularly. Between pressures from home and the pressures of fitting in at his school (the cause of which will subsequently become apparent), Tom one day attempted to commit suicide by overdosing on a fistful of aspirins and anti-depressants. "When I woke next morning", he recalls, "It took about two seconds to realize I was still alive before bursting into floods of uncontrollable tears. I was so bloody useless I couldn't even manage to kill myself. It felt as if something had snapped - it took about half an hour just to get my socks on, and facing another day at school was utterly beyond me. They took me off to the psychiatric wing in Cambridge, where they made me change into pyjamas and get into a bed, and started taking my pulse and temperature, and giving me plastic cupfuls of pills - standing over me to make sure I swallowed them. And those pills were just the pits: they made you woozy and hazy so you couldn't think straight - a kind of chemical cosh to keep you quiet."

After several weeks of this treatment, one of his teachers from school arranged to have him be seen at a therapeutic community for disturbed adolescents called Finchden Manor, a huge Elizabethan manor house that was home to 50 other boys. Says Tom: "There were no locks on the doors, no lessons, and no punishments. The therapy was simply the friction of everyday communal life." At the end of an afternoon of looking at the place and talking to people there, Tom and his father went back to see the man who ran the place. "He told me they were fully booked, with a big waiting list - and in any case they didn't normally take boys as disturbed as me. Then quite suddenly he turned to me and said "do you want to come?" and it was my one chance, my one deciding moment to choose life, with all its dangers & excitement of the unknown - rather than going back to the familiar suffocation of home, school and despair. so I said yes, went back to school to pack, and stayed at Finchden six years. I can't tell you how thankful I am now, many happy years later, that my suicide attempt failed."

continues at top of next column...

A couple years out of Finchden Manor in 1973, he and two other friends formed a folky sort of band called Café Society, which seems to have been primarily driven by Tom's bandmate Hereward Kaye. The band signed with Konk Records, a side project of the Kinks' Ray Davies. Robinson was a huge fan of Davies, and was crushed to find that Davies paid virtually no attention to his label or the bands on it. After three years of slopping around, the band finally got an album recorded with Davies as the producer. The result was released in 1975 and is frankly horrible. Being such a big fan of TRB, I spent years searching for a copy and finally found one. I've played it twice - the day I got it and today while writing this. I suspect I won't ever play it again. Tom sings only on one track, "Such A Night", and he sounds like he's trying to imitate Leon Russell (and doing badly at it). None of the elements of TRB are present in any form; this record has its roots in 60s hippy culture and has nothing to do with the coming punk rock. Robinson has claimed that the record is in no way representative of what the group was like, but he also describes Café Society as Three Dog Night without the backing band, and that's not wholly inconsistent with what's on the record.

In 1976, Café Society started work on a second LP for Konk. In October the project appeared destined for the same never-ending delays and screw ups as the first record, and deciding the situation was hopeless, Robinson quit. The whole business left a bitter taste in his mouth. But it also gave him fuel for one of TRB's greatest songs, "Don't Take No For An Answer".


I'd just come from the country
Wide-eyed and naive
I signed on the line
I signed a long time
Now you won't let me leave... but you

Don't take no for an answer
When you've nothing to lose
Don't take no for an answer
Put yourself in my shoes

I don't want any trouble
I ain't after a fight
But well-respected man
You better understand, man
You're standing in my light...

(from "Don't Take No For An Answer")

"We had no element of choice in Café Society", said Robinson in a 1980 interview with Trouser Press. "We never wanted to be an acoustic semi-folk outfit; we simply didn't have any money, and all we owned was two acoustic guitars. No one ever gave us any money, so we never got past two acoustic guitars. Also, we were quite green; a combination of not having any money and not being hip enough to know what was needed. With TRB I was broke, but at least I knew how futile it would be unless we borrowed and hired and did a lot of ducking about to make sure we were able to play each night - borrowed PA systems off other bands when they weren't working. I didn't even own a bass until TRB had a recording contract."

As soon as he left Café Society, Robinson began gigging in London with a constantly shuffling lineup of musician friends backing him. The songs he was playing were in a new, confrontational manner, and played with anger instead of being laid back. The press began to write about what he was doing, and by the end of the year, he decided to put together a permanent band. First in was old friend Danny Kustow, who had gone to Finchden Manor with Tom and had known him for years.

Then they ran small ads in the music papers looking for a bass player and drummer. At one audition, the hopeful prospect had hitched a ride with a friend of his who happened to be a drummer. As there was no one else to play drums, the friend sat in for the audition. At the end of the night, the prospect headed back to answer more ads, but Robinson had found his drummer Brian (Dolphin) Taylor.

The maddening search for a bass player continued, until one day 16 year old Mark Ambler showed up at an audition. There were a lot of young teenagers in punk bands in those days, but Robinson was already in his late 20s and the idea of playing with a 16 year old wasn't very appealing to him. But Ambler plugged in and start to play, and it was soon clear that this was their man, so they signed him on. Except for one hitch. A couple days later, Tom went over to Mark's house (he still lived with his parents) to teach him the set. Mark learned it all in no time flat, but then let on that he had an organ in the basement. One listen to Ambler playing his Hammond organ and Tom decided that they needed to find another bass player. Ambler would be bringing his Hammond to rehearsals from now on.

So the bass player turned out to be Tom; not what he wanted to do, but he certainly was serviceable at it. The band hit the club scene right in the middle of London's punk explosion. Their live shows drew rave reviews, and in the frenzy of major labels looking to sign new bands, TRB weren't going to go unsigned for long. Soon A&R men were popping in at all their gigs.

End of Part One
Go to Part Two

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