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NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS - October 22, 1977

NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS - October 22, 1977
By Steve Clarke

Tom Robinson is livid. He’s barely hauled himself off his motorbike and out of the rain before he’s ranting and raving about NME’s coverage of the Tom Robinson Band’s signing to EMI. “’EMI Say Yes To Gay Power’,” says Robinson, almost managing a sneer as he reads out the headline, virtually the first thing you see when opening the week’s paper. Robinson, clad in full motorcycle-rider’s wet suit, throws the paper my way and his temper disappears almost immediately.

I mumble about a writer can never be responsible for a sub-editors actions, while thinking Robinson had got a bit of a nerve carrying on like this. After all, it’s not going to do him much harm having a page three lead news story devoted to him, big pic and all, now is it? He only formed the band in January and at this stage of the game the TRB (as he likes them to be known) are a pretty unknown quantity to all but regulars of the various public house hostelries around the metropolis and their odd counterparts across the country. And Robinson’s previous group, Café Society, who died a fairly ignominious death the year previous, weren’t exactly Front Page News.

Suppose Robinson, normally charming, polite and reasonable, must be a mite sensitive about having his sexual preferences dragged up in print, as he’s later to tell me, “Gay Rights is an issue but I’m concerned with far broader rights than Gay Rights. It’s almost a side issue. It’s a side product of general oppression above all . . . Oppression of coloured people who aren’t allowed to work at certain things. You have to fight for the main thing. There’s no point in picking out one little area.” Phew. Sounds a bit late Sixties that, a bit rising up middle-class concerned, but there’s no denying that Robinson’s well developed social conscience is – uh – fight on. Apart from Robinson’s rock aesthetics, all that hooplah about how The Beatles led us up a blind alley, not to mention the standard New Wave shtick about how it (the music) has to be relevant, there’s little to take issue with in Robinson’s stance.

And really the things Robinson stands for are essentially the same as those one John Winston Lennon, or come to that numerous other rock leftists, took a stand against at the turn of the decade – in fact when Robinson, gigging at the Marquee last Monday, castigated his audience for purchasing TRB badges (the orange on black clenched fist) that were free, I was instantly reminded of similar gatherings around eight years ago.

In the two months since Robinson and his cohorts – Danny Kustow (guitar), Mark Amber (keyboards) and Brian Taylor (drums) – tied the knot with EMI (the company’s first major signing since the Pistols fiasco) word that the TRB is a hot combo has got round. Sniffing about at the Marquee tonight are, to name but two Biz heavies, Steve O”Rourke, the Floyd’s millionaire manager, and Pistol’s producer Chris Thomas. As usual for Robinson, the audience is a mixed lot, always a healthy sign. There’s more than a few spiky heads on the horizon, but your elder brother wouldn’t feel out of place either.

EMI have been prattling on about how difficult it will be to gain admission to these hallowed portals this evening, seeing as how the last time the TRB played here the guest list was nigh on 200 names long, that and how popular the band are these days, but while I wouldn’t like to stand a round for the club’s occupants, I’ve seen it fuller. Just. So who comes to your gigs, Tom? “I think it’s only the real cool punks, people like the Clash themselves,” he says name-dropping. And then with candour, “I’d like to say our audiences are comprised of people whose rights are being eroded, but I think most of the kids who come to our gigs are middle class rock fans. They think ‘Jolly nice, here’s somebody standing up for somebody else’. You’ve got a lot of middle class white kids going to Marley concerts.”

“People expect ninety percent of our audience to be gay because of this reputation certain bits of press have helped engender. In fact the audience are no more than 30/40 percent gay. It’s not greatly in evidence.” Nor are Robinson’s three colleagues in fact homosexual, though they’ll defend Gay Rights as much as Robinson does. Tom himself isn’t overtly gay, and among rock artists more camp performers are not difficult to find. Robinson’s onstage persona is in fact low-key macho with punk overtones, though he does say he’s had his bellyful of self-conscious macho pigs.

So does he think his honesty about his sexual tastes alienates any of the band’s potential audience? “I don’t care a shit if it does,” he says with admirable pride. How about EMI’s attitude to the group? After all, they ditched the Pistols after they’d made too much of a stink with ‘the establishment’. “On the contrary,” Robinson opines, “EMI want to ensure they don’t make the same mistake again (i.e. losing a valuable rock property). It was made amply clear before we even signed what I stand for – minority rights, if you like. Now, let’s scrub that – I stand against The Backlash.”

Robinson is referring to the right wing backlash that’s been gaining momentum these recent years, something he sings about in graphic detail in “Winter Of ‘79”. The only Robinson song (I think), which refers solely to repression of gays is his anthem “Sing If You’re Glad To Be Gay”, otherwise his material deals with the general resurgence of the grey forces of the right. He has a song called “Up Against The Wall” where, with obvious relish, he plays the part of a right wing authority (singular) sounding off against blacks, gays, scroungers, long-hairs, and other threats to the British way of life, blah, blah.

“It’s not that we stand for this, this, this, this and this. We stand for this,” says Robinson spreading his arms. He’s an active campaigner for the release of George Ince, currently inside doing 15 years for a bullion robbery, and dedicates his version of “I Shall Be Released” to him - the song is on the B-side of “Motorway” and Ince’s picture is on the single’s sleeve. Robinson also adds a verse to the song to illustrate Ince’s plight. Oh yeah, Robinson is a great Dylan admirer. He’s been known to break down into tears just talking about Dylan’s paean to his wife “Sarah”.

So what effect does Robinson expect his overt radical views to have? “We’re a pop group. That’s all we are. You can’t expect a pop group to have a vast sociological influence and change the world or anything.” Later though, when he’s narrating the story of how, when in Café Society and playing support on a Barclay James Harvest tour, he thought it was about time he laid some of his own views on his audience, he says, “You get people coming in there aged 14 upwards and you have a certain responsibility to those people to tell the truth as you perceive it. Barclay James Harvest were telling the truth as they perceived it. And I didn’t like that truth. I thought ‘Okay, if it’s cool for them to tell the truth as they perceive it, then why the hell shouldn’t I tell it as I see it, a different kind of truth?” So what truth were Barclay James Harvest telling? “Their songs were not committed to anything except the middle class work ethic. What it boiled down to was ‘I work damn hard, I pay my taxes and you lot come here on the dole . . .’ It’s right wing.”

Robinson, now 27, comes from a solid middle class background. His father has worked as a solicitor and company director. He makes no attempts to affect a working class accent or manner, but referring to his up-bringing, he quotes Clash manager Bernard Rhodes, “What is important is not where you’ve come from but where you’re going to. People have a constant potential to change, otherwise there’d be no hope for any of us. We might as well sit at home and commit suicide.”

For example, Tom recalls playing with Café Society: “The fact that for three years I was playing sweet pseudo-Crosby, Stills and Nash harmonies with acoustic guitars with a nice, very inoffensive band that was making music for people to listen to and say ‘How sweet . . .’ all my social worker friends used to come along and sit in the front row and they’d say, ‘That’s jolly nice.’ And pat you on the back . . . But where were the punters? Where were the fans?”

Tom spent many of his formative years at Finchden Manor, a home for maladjusted boys. He was there for seven years – from 16 to 23, and prefers to keep schtum about just why he was there. There he became involved with several bands, including a full-blown rock ‘n’ roll outfit The Flying Vultures. “There was no formal therapy at Finchden,” he says. “You were left entirely to your own devices providing you were there at meal times and went to bed at quarter past ten. Finchden had a 65 percent success rate. Borstals have 30 percent success.”

It was there that Tom met the group’s guitarist Danny Kustow. “It’s a fantastic place. It was learning how to live and love people, you could slow down.” Kustow didn’t keep in touch with Robinson after leaving Finchden and earned his living at various mundane jobs – before going to Israel for six months where he fought for the Jews in the 1973 Arab-Israeli hostilities. “I was bored. I wanted to see some excitement. And I got it.” says Kustow. On hearing that Robinson was looking for a new band after leaving Café Society, (who included yet another ex-Finchden Manor boy), Kustow renewed his acquaintance with his old school mate.

Tom himself had formed Café Society on leaving Finchden. With them he recorded one album for Ray Davies’ Konk label. Robinson is aware that much has been made of his split with Davies, and wants to make clear the terms his two erstwhile colleagues received from Davies when they dissolved the group. “Ray released them on the condition that they pay him three percent of all their future record earnings plus extend their publishing contract for a seven year contract. And reduce their percentage from 60/40 to 50/50.” Someone who knows both Davies and Robinson says the two are very similar. Certainly there is a hint of the Kink’s leader in Robinson’s performances. “Martin” a song about an imaginary brother, could have come from the pen of Davies with its slightly camp interpretation of vaudeville traditions.

While Robinson himself isn’t by any means a hard-nosed rocker the band as a whole know how to rock out on their night. At the Marquee they are in great form. Robinson himself is perhaps the least interesting musician, playing adequate if not scintillating bass (although he was short-listed for the Sharks’ bass slot after Andy Fraser had quit). Kustow though, is an exceptional player, reminiscent of the likes of Mick Ronson and the late Paul Kossoff but transcending plagiarism by the sheer intensity of his playing. In fact as an entity, the TRB’s sense of dynamics more than smacks of Free’s modus operandi, even if drummer Brian Taylor, another gifted musician, plays very much like a young Keith Moon, rather then Simon Kirke.

It’s Robinson, though, who dominates the group onstage. His songs are well constructed and often strewn with commercial hooks and tough melodies. Prior to punk rock, Robinson would not have been described as a punk of any sort and the same holds true now. Yet neither Robinson nor his colleagues (two of whom are in their teens) can be considered as part of what is now touchingly termed old wave. “We’re just trying to make music that is relevant to the lives of the people that listen to it. An audience wants to go and hear a relevant band, a band that has something to do with their lives. They don’t want to hear something that’s to do only with that band and not them, and it’s up there on a stage miles away from them.”

Not surprisingly Robinson is keen to praise the Pistols, whom he first saw last year at Oxford Street’s 100 Club. Then, he completely missed the point. Now, he reckons they’re the most important rock band since The Beatles. “The Pistols have their fingers right on the pulse of a time. And they knew they were right and they believed in it enough to hold out against everything. They’re saying ‘We don’t care’. They’re taking a totally nihilistic stance. It’s an improvement on everything we’ve had for the last ten years in this country. They’ve helped redefine musical values, which must be constantly redefined for the music to stay alive. By the standards of his day Elvis Presley and the people on his records did not play well – by the standards of the swing bands and Frank Sinatra and all that shit that had gone on before.”

“By the standards up until The Beatles, The Beatles were shit. And you can go and take a book out of Hornsey library and it’ll say so. It’s called Anatomy Of A Phenomenon, it’s written by a Trad Jazz fan. And he’s saying what musical rubbish The Beatles were and how unprofessional they were. Each time something really important comes up, people say it’s musical rubbish because they’re judging it by the standards of the previous ten years. Playing isn’t a primary consideration with us. Otherwise I would have sat down with five session musicians wearing glasses. I wouldn’t have formed the TRB.” Surely he wants the band to be tight? “That’ll happen all in its own time. We don’t sit down and practice for days in and days out getting the bass patterns right. We don’t go off to the country and get it together. Within three days of forming the band we were gigging. And we’ve gigged ever since. And if the band’s got tighter then it’s through playing. The Pistols weren’t tight and it didn’t matter a fuck. I think Yes are totally irrelevant – dinosaurs. I think the Rolling Stones should have broken up five years ago. I think Yes should have broken up. They should all have the courage to form new bands and explore new directions. Like Rick Wakeman did – even though it came to nothing.”

All this might be, but unless I’m severely mistaken, Robinson is where he is now, poised for a major breakthrough, spearheaded by the chart single which “Motorway” will undoubtedly become, for essentially the same reasons as any good rock performer worth his salt has ever been. And one wonders, however admirable his social/political attitudes are, whether his audience gives a toss. Clearly, though, being gay won’t hamper his chance, which is perhaps a step in the right direction and not mere social posing.

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