The lyrics of Tom Robinson’s hit songs were always just that bit different to the numerous other punk bands decrying late 70’s Britain. If there was a cause worth fighting for Tom, would be heard fighting it with an irresistible mix of catchy riff and razor-sharp lyrical insight. Forty five years on from the classic TRB album ‘Power in the Darkness’ how far have we come down the road of equality that songs like ‘Glad to be Gay’ and ‘Up Against the Wall’ cried out for? I asked Tom this very question before his show at the Harmonie in Bonn.
Thanks for taking a few minutes for me Tom.
Tonight’s is a rare gig in Germany. In fact, you stopped playing concerts for some time completely. Was it the ‘state of the Nation’ e.g. the mess Britain was in that brought you back to live music?
TR: Nothing as noble as that (laughs) Its not as noble as seeking to change the political climate I’m afraid. I stopped touring because I got a full-time job at the BBC, so for the best part of 20 years I was able to enjoy other people’s music instead of having to play my own. It was also nice to come off the road after 30 years. to sleep in my own bed, and to see my own family grow up. So that was good – and also have a regular income.
Now though my kids are grown up, and I have less work at the BBC, so I can please myself. So I come back to playing music because I enjoy it rather than because I have to do it. Whereas, before it was the only way to put bread on the table.
The areas that you covered with your songs: Rock against racism and Gay Rights for example. The same themes and problems are very much in evidence still now. How do you view the changes over the last 40+ years since your first hit albums?
TR: At the time (late 1970’s) The Tom Robinson Band stood for Racial Equality, Gender Equality, Orientation Equality and more general equality – the gap between the rich and the poor shouldn’t be so ridiculous as it is today you know. People should be able to live. And the principle is ‘You should be able to live in a free society – or you don’t!’ So the principle of freedom should apply and you’ve got to believe in Rock Against Racism as well. You’ve got to believe in Amnesty International, you’ve got to believe in Feminism because they’re all part of the same equality. That’s what TRB stood for.
There seem to be positive things happening now though don’t you think? Awards go out to best Actor full stop. No gender assignations at all. What do you make of that?
TR: I think it’s amazing how far we came with the LGBT movement for equality. I would never have imagined we would come as far as we have. That was a total surprise. But given how far we’ve come – we have openly queer politicians, pop-stars and what have you – but the fact that women still don’t get equal pay for the same work. Forty five years later, we’re still fighting for equal pay for equal work. We’re still trying to stop the police from killing black people in custody. It’s shameful that having come so far with one issue, we’ve come such a short distance in those other issues. So, we still need’ Me Too’. We still need ‘Black Lives Matter’. They are burning issues right now.
Do they inspire you to write new songs? (the last release, ‘Only The Now’ was released in 2016).
TR: But you see. You’ve got it the wrong way round. I was trying to be a pop-star. The goal was to make music that people liked and play to a large audience. If you achieve that, then you have a platform. And with that platform you have responsibility, and a little bit of power to share your World view, but that’s a by-product. If people don’t like your music, they won’t care what your opinion is. I really didn’t start playing music thinking by doing so I could change the World. I started playing music simply because I loved playing music. While I’m doing that I try to use that, helping… but I have a much smaller audience now (than in the late ‘70’s) and also there isn’t the same consciousness in Rock music now that there was at that time.
What has changed then?
Rock Against Racism’ didn’t happen because The Clash got up on the stage and said “You should rock against racismI”. It happened because a large mass of people wanted it. The same with Live Aid. We didn’t support it because Bob Geldof told us to, we supported it because we saw stuff on the tv that horrified us. Bob Geldof then came along and said in effect “Hey, over here everybody!. We can do something about this!” He made it possible to give a focus – but he didn’t tell us what to do because we already believed it. If nobody had cared…
But with the position we’re in now. I don’t have any power to direct a movement where there isn’t one. And me, aged 72, taking part in a rally with 200 people?… I express it still in my songs. If people come to my concerts they know where I stand. If they believe the same things I do then they get a bit of reinforcement.
But do you feel, having set out with these themes, that they haven’t come far enough? Some things have moved, but they haven’t moved enough?
TR: Oh, I think they have moved quite a lot. For all I’ve said. Yes, we still need ‘Black Lives Matter’ and we still need ‘Me Too’. It’s still a much kinder society now. Even with Brexit, and all that right-wing nonsense happening in the UK, society is so much kinder. We have Gary Lineker speaking his mind and fellow footballers and pundits saying “Yeah. Gary’s right!”. Footballers in the ‘70’s weren’t supporting Human Rights!
I hope you will be playing some of those TRB classics in support of human freedom and rights tonight.
TR: We certainly shall, and some more recent ones as well.
As a teenager in the seventies myself, I know that your lyrics gave a lot of people a voice, particularly when gender issues were not well tolerated. Knowing someone was out there and prepared to speak up.
TR: Well, David Bowie did that for me. So I wanted to do that for somebody else if I could. Then Marc Almond came along, and Jimmy Somerville… It’s like blending the genders out there now. It’s fantastic. A much better World. For all that there is still injustice, I think we live in a kinder society with a kinder consciousness. I would much rather live today, than then.
That’s a positive note to end on Tom.
Thanks for your time.