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Interview: Tom Robinson

Tom Robinson first became known in 1977 as a musician, LGBT activist and anti-racist campaigner with the Tom Robinson Band. Their debut release 2-4-6-8 Motorway became one of the landmark singles of the UK punk era. Other well-known songs at the time included Glad To Be Gay, Up Against The Wall and Too Good To Be True.

As a radio broadcaster, Tom hosts three shows a week on BBC Radio 6 Music, served for then years on the Ivor Novello Awards committee and was awarded a fellowship of LIPA in recognition of his support for new music with BBC Introducing. You can catch him this weekend at The 1865 in Southampton but before then, I’ve caught up with the man himself. 

Could you tell me about how you initially got involved with music and who influenced you most?
Being born in 1950 I’ve actually experienced the entire rock ‘n’ roll era firsthand since its very beginning. My older brother brought home Bill Haley and Elvis Presley 78’s in 1955 to play on the family gramophone, and he later got heavily into Lonnie Donegan and skiffle. I was singing in the local church choir at the time, and cutting my teeth on English choral music. But then when I was 13 the Beatles suddenly burst onto the scene and nothing was ever the same again. That was the first music that spoke directly to my generation. Within my personal life though – all the romantic pop music I grew up with was strictly boy-meets-girl. Like many queer music fans in the sixties I always felt like an outsider until the arrival of David Bowie and Hunky Dory in 1972. Finally here were great songs that actually sounded like they were about us.

Could you tell me about how the band came to be formed?
I had been in various school bands In my teens and tried other musical experiments in my early 20s. I was usually relegated to backing vocals and lacked confidence in my own voice. But after seeing the Sex Pistols in 1976 I realised it didn’t matter whether you actually sang in tune or not. When I formed the Tom Robinson Band I was it only member. Got a load of gigs, got a load of songs, then got standing musicians to help out at first. That allowed me to get some kind of momentum going on the grassroots London pub and club circuit. One by one I was able to replace the temporary musicians with new permanent members recruited through small ads in the Melody Maker. Luckily audiences seemed to like the songs and the band and started coming back week after week and spreading the word.  We basically got signed by EMI because by the time their talent scouts turned up to see a gig they couldn’t get in the door. But from the outside they could hear the crowd singing along with every tune in the set… We owed everything to those early fans, really.

Can you describe how you felt whilst after you’d released your first single?
Well the fact that 2468 Motorway (my debut single with the Tom Robinson Band) was a top five hit proved to be both a blessing and a curse. The blessing was that it provided a shortcut to instant national fame. The curse was that the sudden success led to unrealistic expectations. That single arriving out of the blue by an unknown band created a huge amount of hype – the week it came out we were simultaneously on the front cover of the NME and Melody Maker. But putting out the strongest song as the first single meant that none of our subsequent releases matched its success. The press and the public rapidly lost interest, and within 18 months the band had acrimoniously broken up.

For those who are new to your music which three tracks would you encourage them to check out first and why?
Ha – that’s easy! From 1977, 2468 Motorway – which is the song that kickstarted my career. It’s one that a lot of people know, even if they don’t know it’s by me. Then from 1978, Glad To Be Gay which is the song that almost killed my career off again. A woman called Doreen Davies at Radio One banned it and made sure none of my singles were playlisted there for the next five years. Still, John Peel defied her and played it regardless – and it’s remained a significant song over the years. The third song would have to be War Baby, which rescued my career from oblivion in 1983. Every record company in London turned it down at the time – so I put it out on my own label and it went to No.6 in the singles chart.

Over the years has your approach to performing live changed and if so how?
The main thing I’ve learned from performing live over the years is that less is sometimes more: a longer show is not necessarily a better show, whatever Bruce Springsteen fans may think. Over the years I’ve seen so many artists, particularly singer-songwriters, outstay their welcome onstage and doing endless self-indulgent encores. In my experience, either two 45 minute sets with an interval or else a straight 75 minutes is pretty much optimum. I also think, again particularly with singer-songwriters, that most songs these days are simply too long. Six minutes is fine if you’re making dance music or experimental post-rock. But for my money, most of the greatest songs in pop history – from early Elvis to early Beatles to early Clash – were also some of the shortest.

How do you feel when you share your music for the first time? Do you prefer to share new music live where you can see the crowd’s reaction first hand or online perhaps?
Having the online option is a huge bonus for today’s musicians – compared to when I was starting out in the 70s. Back then the only way you could find out if your latest songs were any good was by going out and trying them live. On option like YouTube or SoundCloud is really valuable for any creative artist who is experimenting with new material. If you’re really pleased with a new song and think you may have finally written your breakthrough hit, it’s always helpful to quietly put it on a page somewhere and share the URL with a few friends. If the play count goes up wildly in the next few weeks, it’s a good sign that you’re onto something. If the plays stay static, then maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board and try again.

What bands and artists are you currently listening to and how are they inspiring you to explore and implement new ideas with your music?
I’m a big fan of the producer Gerry Diver. His work with The Speech Project, Sam Lee, Lisa Knapp and the Santiago Quartet was so daring and inspirational that I ended up making an album with him myself in 2015 called Only The Now.

In many ways that’s the record I’m proudest of. Gerry’s not afraid of being radical or taking risks with the sounds on his records, and there is a certain ragged wildness to his approach, even on acoustic songs, that I really love.

What can those fortunate enough to have tickets expect from your live show?
This year’s tour is a bit unusual, in that we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of my debut album Power In The Darkness, which was released at the height of the punk/new wave era, and a time of great upheaval and uncertainty. Over the last few decades, fans have said to me how sorry they were to have missed that material live at the time it came out. So we are doing our best to recreate the intensity and urgency of those performances on this tour – and playing the album all the way through in correct track order. So this time around expect a hard hitting band playing pure vintage material – and nothing newer than 1978.  That said, at most gigs the audiences are tending to shout for War Baby at the end of the night. So although that one dates from five years later, we usually end up throwing in that one as well!

What can we expect from you over the next twelve months?
Over the next 12 months I’ll be back doing my day job at BBC6 music, where the focus is mostly on helping deserving new artists get heard. It’s so important for the health and future of music in this country that we look out for the next generation of creative bands and writers and producers and do our very best to help them find and engage with a loyal paying audience for their future work.  I put a huge amount of time each week into making a weekly podcast and radio show called the BBC Introducing Mixtape, which is available on iTunes and all the other podcast platforms. If anyone’s interested in hearing a regular selection of great new music by artists they’ve never heard of, I can warmly recommend subscribing to the podcast, to receive it every week…


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