Tom Robinson on why he's glad to be grey and hitting the road again
Four decades after first hit 2-4-6-8 Motorway, the Tom RobinsonÂ Band are hitting the road to revisit their classic album Power In The Darkness.
The tour includes a date at Newcastle Riverside* on Saturday, October 28.
We talked over old times with the punk rock gay activist turned solo artist and esteemed radio broadcaster who gave the group their name.
You see how much Top of the Pops meant to the Tom Robinson Band when you revisit their debut in October 1977, the frontman grinning at guitarist Danny Kustow as they belt out 2-4-6-8 Motorway.
“I was over-acting outrageously. I cringe a bit looking I’m just so ******* pleased with myself!”
I get the idea Mark Ambler on keyboards didn’t get the school uniform dress code memo.
“That was too close for comfort. He’d only just left school, didn’t want to dress up as a schoolboy. He was thrown out of the pub when he came to his first gig with us, being under-age.
“He was taught piano by Stan Tracey and was a jazz-wiz. I think he felt he was seriously slumming it with our three-chord songs. In many cases, less – ‘three chords good, two chords better!’”
Can you recall the badge you’re wearing?
“Gays against Fascism, before the Anti-Nazi League, a reminder of the death camp triangle. I thought there’d be a few people out there who knew what it meant and would pick up on it.”
Next single, the Rising Free EP, was also a hit, but unlikely to get such coverage then due to prime track, Glad to be Gay.
Yet Granada came up with the goods via Tony Wilson’s So It Goes in November, a live version of that eminently catchy track recorded at Middleton’s Queen Elizabeth Hall.
“It’s odd that the song that was my flag of rebellion was actually a jazzy, cabaret-style late-night smoochy singalong!
But after it was a hit you could always spot closet gays in the audience. Heterosexuals would sing along at the tops of their voice, nothing to prove. But you’d see people with very firmly-zipped lips, ‘Nothing queer about me!’ A dead giveaway.”
He was 27 then, surely considered an ‘old fart’ by the likes of John Lydon.
“I don’t think the other Sex Pistols liked me very much, but he took me down to the Speakeasy.
“He said, ‘Don’t give up! Don’t ever give up! Don’t give in to the ********!’ Then he was sick on my shoes!
“About 10 years later I bumped into him at the Britannia Hotel, Manchester, wearing a Mambo suit the best part of a thousand quid, dyed-orange hair in knots, with a pair of Woolworth’s sunglasses.
“He said, ‘You’re with that Red Wedge, ain’t ya?’ ******* champagne socialists!’ He always managed to annoy everybody. He never conformed to one viewpoint or doctrine. I loved him for that.”
Forty years on, Tom’s playing early ’78 TRB debut LP Power In The Darkness again, celebrating a top-five UK gold-certified hit.
“For many years I fought the nostalgia thing. Towards the end of the ’90s I was grinding out the same six songs to a dwindling audience of people vaguely remembering the dim and distant past.
“It was good to get into radio, help other people get heard, appreciating the wealth of music coming out. For 15 years I’ve been immersed in that. Then two years ago I decided I’d make an album.
“Once I’d done that and established I could do songs people who’d never heard of me would like, I felt comfortable enough to go back, say, ‘Right! Let’s honour the past,’ without feeling it compromised me.”
He’s assembled a new TRB for a 15-date UK tour, Tom (bass, vocals) joined by Andy Treacey (Faithless, drums), Adam Phillips (Richard Ashcroft, guitar) and Jim Simmons (keyboards).
Punk changed everything for Tom, ex-Café Society, forming TRB with old friend Danny Kustow, Mark Ambler and ‘Dolphin’ Taylor (drums), going on to Radio One, Top of the Pops, EMI and the NME front cover within nine months.
Two albums were followed by further hits as a solo artist, notably 1983’s War Baby, writing with Peter Gabriel and Elton John before a move into broadcasting, chiefly with BBC 6 Music.
But he returned to live work via 14th studio LP Only The Now and is now discussing Power In the Darkness’s longevity, not least Too Good To Be True, Up Against The Wall and the title track itself.
“The hardest thing about these shows was getting up to the tempo we recorded that album at. Playing that fast takes a bit of practice!”
The LP took three months, recorded at London’s Wessex Studios with Sex Pistols producer Chris Thomas, ‘a torturous grind’ with ‘such a perfectionist, taking everything to the nth degree of detail’.
“On Up Against The Wall I think there’s 10 guitars, to make it sound like one! We made another album with Todd Rundgren in six days, and that really was live, yet everyone said it was over-produced!
“But the songs are just better. We had four years to write the first LP, four months to write the second.”
Of what TRB moments is Tom most proud?
“Rock Against Racism, Victoria Park, an important statement helping mobilise against the National Front.
“I’m also really proud we played Belfast so early, and went to Derry several times.
“There was a lot of attitude and posturing about Northern Ireland, but it was lovely how kids from both sides of the divide would turn up to gigs.
“And there was a proud moment going down the Falls Road, seeing a Power in the Darkness stencil among the graffiti.”
Have you got a tie for old time’s sake on this tour? The schoolboy look never did AC/DC any harm.
“Absolutely not. I’m 67 years old! I’m going to wear a Paul Smith suit and T-shirt. I’m no Angus Young.”
* The Riverside gig will be a special MNDA Benefit Concert, with tickets available from 07714 623277.
For more details on the tour and band, check out Tom’s website HERE or follow him via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.