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TRB History
Adapted from an article by Steve Gardner for NKVD Online
and featured in 2004 liner notes for Power In The Darkness and TRB TWO

All you kids that just sit and whine
You shoulda been there back in '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 TRB'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 - none 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.

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. The teenaged Mark Ambler 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 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.

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 Autumn 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.

Robinson had begun gigging in London a year earlier with a constantly shuffling lineup of musician friends backing him and by the end of the year, he decided to put together a permanent band. First in was old friend Danny Kustow, who had known Tom 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 in Brian (Dolphin) Taylor.

The maddening search for a bass player continued, until one day 16 year old Mark Ambler showed up at an audition. As soon as Ambler plugged in and started to play, it was clear that this was their man. A couple days later, Mark let on that he also played keyboards. One listen to Ambler playing his Hammond organ and Tom realised he would have to be the bass player himself. 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. There was one small problem - a song in the band's set called "Glad To Be Gay" that is one of the most convincingly angry and sincere performances you will ever hear in all of rock music. Even some of the punk independents who were supposed to be willing to take chances shyed away. Stiff Records president Jake Riviera called them "fucking queer music".

But EMI decided to take the plunge and signed up the band for an alleged £150,000. Maybe they felt they needed to restore credibility after cutting loose the Sex Pistols, or maybe they felt more comfortable with homosexuality than with anarchy. Who can say? But TRB were on board and off and running, and for the next two years, they would make the most of their chance. "Within nine months we'd made the transition from signing on at Medina Road dole office to Top Of The Pops, Radio One, EMI Records and the giddy heights of the front cover of the New Musical Express", is how Robinson characterizes the band's ascent.

Not everyone was impressed. In Zig Zag, John Walters reported on a TRB show played to a packed and ecstatic crowd at the 100 Club and said this about Robinson: "He could be the singer who brings back talking records". In Rolling Stone (describing their song "Right On Sister" in a review of the first TRB LP) Dave Marsh said "This kind of strident proselytizing would be much better off obscured by feedback." And there was clear jealousy from many of the other punk bands on the scene at TRB's fairly meteoric rise to popularity.

But whether by accident or design, TRB had hit on a way to connect with people who would become firm followers. They made leaflets and flyers about their political views and sent them to everyone who attended their gigs. They gave away badges and made up T shirts with the band's clenched fist logo. And they played regularly at benefits for the popular Rock Against Racism organization, where their lyric themes fit like they were meant to. In short order, the band had a huge following. Says Tom: "As a broke, gay guitarist scratching a living on the fringes of the music business, I inhaled deeply. Our band nailed its flag to the mast of minority rights and set sail across the London pub circuit."

Not that it was as cynical as that may sound; Tom clearly had personal reason to believe in a lot of what he was singing about, and the band really did care about the causes they sang about. But, as he continues, "Like all political pop, involvement with Rock Against Racism was always a double edged sword. It was impossible to know if you were exploiting your popstar status to further human rights, or merely exploiting human rights to further your popstar status."

After the "Motorway" single, their next record was a four song EP called Rising Free. Recorded live at London's Lyceum Theatre in November of 1977, it contained the songs "Glad To Be Gay", "Right On Sister", "Don't Take No For An Answer" and "Martin". Now the gloves were off - the first two tracks were blatantly political blasts that touched to the center of white male values, and while "Don't Take No" is actually about Tom's difficulties with Davies, its atmosphere has more than a faint whiff of tear gas fumes from riot police about it - the song just rips and is one of the three or four very best TRB tracks.

"Martin" on the other hand, is a lighthearted pub song that just happens to feature stealing cars, beating up police, and getting sent to jail for it. The crowd can't help joining in. "Right On Sister" got panned by many critics for being too heavy handed, and while I agree that Tom certainly sounds more credible singing "Glad To Be Gay" than leading cheers at a woman's rally, if NOW played music with this kind of energy at their meetings, I'd show up more often myself. Danny Kustow's leads on this song simply torch the place. The EP reached #18 in the UK singles charts.

In early 1978, TRB finally recorded their debut album, Power In The Darkness. With former Sex Pistols producer Chris Thomas at the board, they achieved a dense and meaty sound that has the same explosive rhythm feel to it as Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols. Tom's vocals and lyrics are on a less primal level than the Pistols, but his anger is close to a match for Johnny Rotten's. The big difference is in Kustow's more piercing guitar sound and Ambler's huge organ washes, which have no counterpart in the Pistols. The UK version of the LP contained all new songs, but in the US (on the Harvest label), the "Motorway" single and "Rising Free" record were combined for a six-track bonus EP that made the album almost a double. What the US version lacked, however, was the bonus stencil designed for spray painting the TRB clenched fist logo all over your city. Apparently, Harvest was not convinced that the little notice on the stencil telling people that it was not meant for use on public property would protect them from American lawyers as well as it shielded EMI from their British counterparts.

With the exception of "Grey Cortina" (another car song) all the new tracks were what Robinson called "street fighting songs". In a June 1978 Trouser Press interview, Robinson said that the key songs on the album were the title track and "The Winter of '79". These are both fine songs, but the killers for me are "Long Hot Summer" and "Up Against The Wall". These two both have a lyric fury that's matched by the musical assault. The messages are simpler than on the songs Tom chose, but that's what makes them so effective; nothing at all subtle.

The lyric story of "The Winter Of '79" may sound a little contrived today; when it was written it was a hypothetical look backwards in time at events that seemed quite well within the realm of possibility in England's then crumbling society. But the fact that clamping down on the poor during the Thatcher years seems to have gotten the country through doesn't lessen the despair that many people had in those times and which Robinson captured in words so well. In addition to looking at the political turmoil, there is still a place for the human side of things, as the song announces "Spurs beat Arsenal, what a game! The blood was running in the drain." Because soccer, after all, is as important to British youth as rioting.

By now Robinson had developed the knack of writing songs that contained a sort of a miniature of class struggle; kind of like condensing Doctor Zhivago to a 3 minute pop song. On "Power In The Darkness" (written after Robinson got a pamphlet in the mail urging him to vote Nazi in the next election) he takes a cue from Peter Sellers and acts out both sides of the struggle; first singing the call to arms and then filling the role of the apparently reasonable evening news announcer.

Although the band would record another LP and continue on for two more years, it was at this point where things peaked. Power In The Darkness reached number 4 in the UK charts and ultimately won the band a gold record. TRB were voted Best New Band and Best London Band for the year 1977 by listeners at the Capital Radio Music Awards, but going forward the band began the gradual disintegration that seems to hit all good groups. The first marker on the road to ruin was that right after the album was recorded, Mark Ambler left the band.
"Actually", Tom says now, "You could date the band's decline from exactly that point. Bowing to pressure for Mark to leave was definitely my first fatal mistake. The circle was broken."

With tours lined up to support the record, a new keyboardist was needed quickly. Session pianist Nick Plytas agreed to step in as a temporary replacement. He played with TRB at a major Anti Nazi League rally in London's Victoria Park that spring and can be heard with the band on a live radio concert that was taped at The Old Waldorf in San Francisco in the summer of 1978. (The unreleased bonus track "Sidecar" on this album comes from that show).

But by now, TRB were primed for a critical backlash. As Tom said later: "Especially in England, you can't be that self-righteous without pissing someone off. For as long as the hits keep happening the media put up with it, but (like sharks) once they scent blood in the water they move in for the kill. We'd had just two hit singles and a maelstrom of media hype*. And after "set em up" comes "knock 'em down" and TRB's fall from critical grace was unusually rapid and savage, even by Melody Maker standards. More hits might have made this easier to bear, but where our first album had been written over four years, the followup now had to be delivered in four months. Managers, publishers, publicists, record companies, even our road crew now depended on us coming up with the next hit."

But writing another hit was easier said than done. Much later, Robinson recalled that a left wing activist named Blair Peach had died in police custody at the time. "Cynics in the music business were saying "I'll bet Tom Robinson will write a song to cash in on that", while at the same time I got letters which began: "Dear comrade, why have you not yet written a song to protest at the murder of Blair Peach."

An additional difficulty in maintaining the credibility of the whole picture was that Tom was just too damn nice. Sure, he sang about rights and justice and making the place better, but we've gotten used to our leftist revolutionaries being pretty stiff and self righteous, and then here's Tom Robinson admitting (in a song, no less) that he really wants a hot car to go cruising in. Some revolutionary, huh!

So with this as a backdrop and 23 half-written songs, the band now headed for Rockfield Studios in Wales with Ian Parker who had joined as a permanent replacement for Mark Ambler. Once again they were working with Chris Thomas, and laid down some basic tracks with him. Recalls Tom: "Actually we could easily have made the whole album in the time we had available; it was power games, untogetherness, laziness and in-fighting that stopped us making the album there and then with Chris that summer. He kept saying "I'm going fishing" and walking out of the studio 'cos he was so pissed off with it. We were at Rockfield Studios out in the country. And that's exactly what he used to do - pick up his rod and line and go fishing anytime we were untogether in the studio."

The only useable recording to come out of the Chris Thomas sessions was a backing track with unfinished lyrics called "Suits Me, Suits You". 15 years later Robinson subsequently completed the song in his home studio - the track is included in this collection for the first time. An Autumn tour made further recording impossible before Christmas - and Dolphin Taylor now suggested Todd Rundgren should replace Thomas as producer. But there were more problems.

Tom says: ""However levelheaded you start out, if enough people flatter you for long enough, some part of you ends up believing it. Overnight we all turned into experts. I began telling Dolphin how to play drums, and he started telling me how to write songs. Everyone's ego ran out of control - especially mine." After bickering about the material, the members eventually agreed to let Rundgren choose which songs would be on the LP. But when he picked two of the songs Dolphin particularly disliked, Taylor decided that he would leave rather than play on the tracks.

In fact, a day later he offered to return but Robinson refused - "My second fatal mistake" he now calls it. "A band like TRB should have been all for one and one for all, as a point of general principle, whatever our disagreements." Again, a hired hand was recruited as an emergency stand-in. "Preston Heyman was an expensive London session drummer", says Tom. "He was only booked to play on the album and paid by the day. His pic was included on the sleeve to make it look more bandlike, but he never intended to stay."

When it finally was ready the new album was good, but it wasn't the classic that the first one had been. Without Taylor's dynamic drumming, the attack was lost. Some of the songs still roar along with that old intensity ("All Right All Night" and "Days Of Rage" being the prime examples), and others provide some pretty gripping lyric content, but no one song really merged the two aspects together as on the first album.

Robinson collaborated with Peter Gabriel in writing "Bully For You", which was released as a single - and several songs included a gospel-like backing vocal section that worked pretty neatly. "Sorry Mr. Harris" has a fairly laid back and funky feel, but tells a harrowing story of a police interrogation with Tom singing the role of the investigator - perfectly reasonable but also perfectly willing to kill someone if required.

"Let My People Be" puts Tom in the role of a Latin American subversive (well before the Clash put out Sandinista), and has a nice soulful feel to it. And although the lyrics to "All Right All Night" are a little shallow, the overall song is pretty anthemic and easy to sing along with, while the same can be said for the strong effort on "Days Of Rage".

However Rundgren's production pushed Kustow's guitar back in the mix, and the sound was more keyboard oriented. According to Tom, "Danny shrank more and more from playing, the more alienated he felt - he'd say stuff like "Oh, why doesn't Ian play a solo on this one". Danny's at his best when 100% emotionally committed to the song he's playing." As a result the songs had to stand on the lyrics rather more than was good for them and reviews were correspondingly mixed.

Taylor was a great drummer - and his eventual replacement was another session musician - Charlie Morgan who had played for Kate Bush, and went on to drum for Elton John for a further fifteen years. To support the album's release, the band hit the road and reached North America where I was lucky enough to see them play in San Diego in early May. After the opening act, a group of guys comes down the center aisle of the theatre, each carrying a case of beer. They peeled off cans and tossed them to the folks in the crowd, me going - hey, what's this? Then they jumped up on the stage, grabbed their instruments, and ripped into their set and despite no Dolphin and no Mark Ambler, this was one hell of a great band on a very hot night.

By now my memories of this gig may have inflated out of all proportion, but I do know that at the time my impression was that I had never seen anything to compare with it. The buzz I got from that show has only been approached rarely since then - one of those gigs where you go home and dream about seeing the band and you keep recreating the gig in your imagination for weeks afterwards. Robinson was the consummate showman; not in some Mick Jagger preening sort of way, but because he somehow made everyone feel like they had been his best friend for years.

They played the bulk of the material from both TRB TWO and Power In The Darkness. And then when the show finally ended and the band couldn't play another encore, Robinson came back out on stage and said "Look, I've talked to the promoter and he says we only sold about 10 tickets to the second show, so if you all want to stay, you're welcome to." So we did. I dragged myself home at 2:30 AM, blissfully happy and not caring if I was going to be late to work the next morning.

At this point, though, TRB were pretty nearly finished. They were hardly a band anymore - no longer a bunch of guys who got together and built something up, but instead it was Tom and Danny and two hired guns. This kind of situation is rarely stable, and when Kustow decided it wasn't working, the whole thing fell apart. Robinson had always been a bit of an omnivore when it came to music. Just as the band was ending he teamed with Elton John to write the disco song "Never Gonna Fall In Love Again" which was released as a solo single - although like the flip "Getting Tighter" it was actually recorded with TRB. Both songs are included on this album.

In Trouser Press Tom described the end of TRB. "I have two principle reasons to be grateful to Danny Kustow. One is for joing TRB when he did and the other is for leaving TRB when he did. When he finally said "Look - this is a joke, we're just going through the motions" I was very upset and tried to get him to stay. But when finally I gave in and called it a day, it woke me up like a bucket of cold water. I'd just been carrying on with TRB because it was there."

In 1989, Robinson, Kustow and Ambler put together a reunion tour and played sold out shows at the Marquee in London and went on for the best part of a year before splitting acrimoniously one final time. A posthumous live album called "The Winter of '89" was released and then widely bootlegged under the title of "Motorway" - a release from which the band have never received royalties. The songs that work best are the opening "Number One Protection" and "We Didn't Know What Was Going On" - neither of which were in the original recorded works of TRB. These songs are likewise included on this edition of TRB TWO.

So that concludes the story. A brilliant career, way too short, but perhaps no longer than it could possibly have been expected to be. Why it is that today TRB are almost never mentioned as one of the classic punk bands of 76-78 is beyond me. There was nothing the Clash or Jam had that this band couldn't match in its day. "Yeah, posterity hasn't been too kind to TRB", says Robinson. "It's a kind of Stalinist revisionism on the part of the UK press, which I think then sets the tone worldwide."

"By the end of 1978 our picture had been on the front cover of Melody Maker seven times... A year later they ran a month-long review of The Seventies In Perspective in which TRB was not mentioned once, anywhere, not even in passing. But hey, it's just showbiz. Things coulda been better but they coulda been a damn sight worse." Maybe everybody just forgot.

Shoulda been there back in '79.

Adapted from an article by Steve Gardner
for NKVD Records and Noise For Heroes
Used by kind permission.

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