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THE OBSERVER - June 1986
Simon Frith talks to Tom Robinson

THEY met again, after all these years, in a hotel corridor in Manchester, John Lydon and Tom Robinson, the yin and yang of punk politics. Robinson, Mr Positive, who did his bit for every worthy cause; Lydon, Mr Negative, who sneered at anyone who tried to pet him. 'Heh, heh,' leered Lydon, in his expensive suit and orange, glue-sniffer hair. 'Heh, heh, it's Tom Robinson. You wiv Red Wedge, heh ? F***king Champagne socialists!'

'I really like old Lydon,' Robinson said, remembering this Manchester meeting later. 'He still offends everyone.'

Lydon and Robinson remain the most honest of all the pop stars made by punk. They've both still got the principles with which they began, and they both now do what they want, making music for a living but according to their own rhythms of production and sales. Robinson's got a studio, a drummer, a sound engineer. He only plays live when he can cover his costs; he delivers his product to RCA for distribution on his own terms. He's not in debt to anyone.

From his point of view, this has been Robinson's hardest political achievement. Pop musicians, whether they're liberal or socialist, gay or straight, confront the logic of capital directly, and Robinson's recollections of 1977-78 are instructive, Whatever else punk changed, it didn't change the meaning of success and, as a 'star', Robinson became the source of income for an ever-expanding chain of dependents - band members, road crews, sales teams, etc - For them a hit carried only the promise of another hit, and Robinson found himself in a gambling nightmare, unable ever to cash in his chips because of the clamorous calls for one more bet.

Robinson, still the case study of a 'political pop star,' features in two new books on the subject- David Widgery's polemical history of Rock Against Racism, 'Beating Time,' and John Street's stolid academic survey, 'Rebel Rock' (Blackwell). Neither makes much sense of his experience. In rhetorical terms pop musicians have two political uses - to raise money (Geldof used all the trappings of hype and hard sell for Band Aid) or to raise consciousness (the RAR and Red Wedge emphasis). In practice, cash and ideology can't be separated - Band Aid has unleashed charitable urges which are a threat to the Tebbit brand of Tory self-interest, while, in the end, pop stars' basic importance for campaigns like Red Wedge is as crowd-pullers and money-makers.

Tom Robinson certainly has no illusions on the latter score. He knows that his value to benefit organisers is related precisely to his current commercial status, and he quickly discovered that his 'political' fans were far more fickle than his pop followers.

On the other hand, stars give their fans a sense of solidarity, can boost the morale of people embattled in their daily lives. Political pop is always played to the converted; Robinson suggests that both RAR and Band Aid were successful because they focused moods already there.

In 'Rebel Rock' Robinson is quoted as saying that 'the danger which I walked straight into with TRB was becoming a kind of Socialist Worker set to music', and he no longer tries to write songs to political order. The point, rather, is that if you're a political person and use music to deal with strong feelings then some of your songs will be 'political' - there's no way, in 1986, Robinson could not write about AIDS. But the meaning of such songs is emotional not intellectual: nobody, whatever the efforts of continuing sectarian bands like the Redskins and Easterhouse, goes to pop singles for political analysis.

As part of his new 'steady state' career, Robinson has been playing a month of Sundays at the Duke of York Theatre. I went to the last show and was stirred by its atmosphere. This was Robinson's pop audience ('War Baby,' not TRB fans) but I could feel immediately what he meant about morale, morale which worked both ways, the crowd pushed Robinson to the best performance I've ever seen him give (thanks, too, to a happy, skilful band).

Starting out in a decade-since-punk mood, I was most struck by Robinson's musical control. His original weakness - a monotonic voice has become a strength; his new songs build on a one-note-at-a-time drive, the strain is the tension. Indeed, Robinson is so at ease now with rock and rock-ways ('the young Billy joel,' my American friend whispered) that his most intense political struggle - the battle with success - may be about to start all over again.

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