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The Guardian

Call That Fair?

Articles by TR for the Guardian newspaper:

1) Radio Diary 2003
2) Face The Music 2002
3) Letter to Tessa 2001
4) Call that fair ? 1999
5) Werner's Visit 1990

The Guardian, Saturday September 11, 1999
Last week Guardian reviewer Adam Sweeting criticised a Tom Robinson gig,
describing some of it as 'excruciating'. Now the musician replies.

I'd have to say last Saturday's piece about my concert at the Purcell Room on September 1 was by far the most generous review of my work that Adam Sweeting has ever written. In fact, if you kept the best bits, you could end up with maybe 15 positive words about the music - probably the nearest thing to fulsome praise that will ever come my way from that quarter.

But big thanks to Sweeting for finally admitting in print what had long been apparent: the man can't stand me. There's no possible performance I could ever give, or album I could ever make, that Sweeting wouldn't detest on general principle.

Sorry - could I just run that by you once again? Before he even turned up at the show, there was never the smallest doubt that Sweeting would tell the world just how embarrassingly, toe-curlingly awful it was... regardless of what happened on stage. Fair enough, all artists have off-nights. If any of us give dull, sloppy or pretentious performances, we deserve to be roasted.

Take (say) an Ian Dury concert. A fair review might cover whether he sang well, whether the band were hot, and what artistic risks, if any, were taken. It might mention that his vocal range is limited, his humour lavatorial - also (probably) that the audience enjoyed every minute of it. But suppose you've always loathed Dury's Essex Boy persona and find songs such as Clever Trevor deeply unfunny? You might go along and review him once, just to get it off your chest. Twice, if you're feeling particularly vindictive. But three times? Four? Five?

Of course there's no reason why any artist shouldn't get a good kicking in print from time to time: we take the rough with the smooth. But the rough with the rough? Year after year? Every album review, every concert review. This is criticism, Jim, but not as we know it.

Far be it from me to lecture the Guardian's arts editor on The Role of the Critic in Contemporary Popular Culture, but surely this is a waste of column inches. The ignorant jibes about my personal life, the gratuitous digs about geography teachers: this isn't an arts review, this is character assassination. Nor is it simply a question of wounded ego: the fact is, I don't have a big-shot manager or PR company to help undo this kind of damage with promotional efforts elsewhere.

Damage? My records aren't played on Radio 1, or reviewed in Melody Maker: the liberal press are just about the only way of contacting my potential audience these days. So while 300 people had a storming time at my show the other night, 500,000 more read that it was "a few songs short of enjoyable". ("Shall we go out and see Tom Robinson's next concert, dear?" "Erm, probably not.") I'm not asking for special treatment, just making a point: there definitely is such a thing as bad publicity.

And while there's no modest way to say this, plenty of people don't agree with Sweeting. From his review you'd never guess that the venue was packed and ecstatic, or that the two songs he described as "excruciating" won the wildest, warmest applause of the evening.

So if the new Guardian pop critic is young enough to be my grandchild, for God's sake next time (if there is a next time) ask her or him to come and judge one of my performances on its merits. In the here and now, without, like Adam Sweeting, bringing 20 years of history, bile and emotional baggage to bear. Were the songs any good on first hearing? How committed was the performance? How was the rapport between stage and audience? How did the show compare to Skunk Anansie, Faithless, or The Prodigy? OK - the answer might turn out to be "badly" - but I'll take my chances.

Most of the audience at Glastonbury this year had never seen me before but 2,000 of them gave my new material a tumultuous reception in June. Good job Adam Sweeting wasn't there to to tell everyone how crap it was, eh?


'Tom Robinson not all that bad' shock
GUARDIAN Saturday September 4, 1999

What's a critic to do when an artist asks him not to bother reviewing him?
Adam Sweeting sneaks in the back door

All rather embarrassing, really. The Guardian said, "Go and review Tom Robinson at the Purcell Room." Tom Robinson was even less delighted than I was. When I came to collect my ticket, I was handed a letter from the artiste instead. "My partner and I greatly enjoy your TV and music reviews," he had written, since "you have a great line in vitriol that often makes us chuckle in the mornings." Actually Tom, this would be a great time to mention that to the features editor, if you could be bothered to drop him a line.

But then he added, "Since you have consistently disliked everything I've ever done, I'd rather you didn't review the show." There was no performance he could give, he felt, that I "would find enjoyable or worthy of respect".

I could see his point. It must be dispiriting when, through all your various changes of style and stance, including the baffling leap from gay spokesperson to contented family man, you keep getting reviewed by this miserable bastard who can't stand you. As a loyal Guardian reader, what has he done to deserve this?

But look at it from my point of view, Tom. How do you think it feels when you can see your editor's thought processes whirring along before your eyes: "That Tom Robinson is old enough to be our new pop critic's grandfather. We'll have to get Sweeting out of mothballs." Depressing or what?

But what the hell. It's only journalism, and there are pages to fill, so I went round to the box office and bought a ticket. I slid furtively into my seat, hoping Robinson wasn't going to quiz each member of the audience individually to make sure the enemy hadn't crept into their midst. Some of these performers get a bit paranoid in their middle years.

He didn't, luckily, and I would have to say this wasn't the worst Tom Robinson performance I've ever seen. In fact, if you dropped some of the songs and kept the best bits of his onstage banter, you could end up with rather an enjoyable show. He did a comical routine about the ritual of playing encores, where the performer has to pretend to be surprised to be asked back, and the audience convinces itself it's delighted that he has deigned to play a couple more tunes. Rightly, he singled out Lou Reed as an especially heinous operator in this respect. There was a drummer joke, too. What's the difference between a drummer and a drum machine? With a drum machine you only have to punch the information in once. Haw!

I won't dwell on the typically Robinson-esque excruciating bits, like the awful geezerish singalong of Martin or his diabolical imitation of a Pentecostal preacher. Tom's problem (and let's face it, I've had plenty of opportunities to work this out) is his lack of a self-editing capability. His sex'n'drugs'n'rock'n'roll anthem, The Most Natural Thing in the world, is like watching embarrassing secret videos of your geography teacher letting it, as it were, all hang out.

But why not think positive, and point out that Atmospherics was very atmospheric indeed, while War Baby is proof that Robinson can make potent music without beating you over the head with a rolled-up manifesto? And you never know - maybe I'll never have to hear him play it again.