Interview: Tom Robinson: “40 Year Anniversary of ‘Power In The Darkness’ Tour”
Iconic and courageous Out punk rocker, anti-racial, LGBT and ultimately music activist, musician, singer, lyricist, and BBC radio presenter Tom Robinson will tour the U.K. in October in proud celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Tom Robinson Band’s triumphant release, “Power in the Darkness”.
Initially presented 40 years ago before a crowd of 80,000, in London’s Victoria Park as part of “Rock Against Racism’s Carnival Against The Nazis”, alongside The Clash, Steel Pulse and X-Ray Spex, the Tom Robinson Band featured the exalted and swaggering live performance of “Power In The Dark”. The album became certified as gold and resulted in a major tour in 1978. Last year after instantly selling out threes shows of “Power In The Darkness”, played live in its entirety at London’s legendary 100 Club, Tom will again showcase “Power In The Darkness” throughout the U.K…The LP saturated with punk sensibility, and compelling relevance, harmonious with the decay of today’s political climate will culminate at Shepard’s Bush Empire on Saturday, October 27, with a special headline show.
Featured in the band is Faithless drummer Andy Treacey, Adam Phillips, on guitar from Richard Ashcroft’s band, and keyboard extraordinaire, Jim Simmons. Tom will be of course doing the vocals and playing the bass. Manchurian singer Lee Forsyth Griffiths will be playing support for all of the shows.
Tom Robinson along with the Tom Robinson Band (TRB) can be recognized for songs including “2-4-6-8 Motorway”, one of the landmark tunes of the punk era, “Glad To Be Gay”, a song that quickly became an anthem for England’s gay community, and “Up Against The Wall”. Tom also enjoyed solo success with ‘War Baby” and “Atmospherics: Listen To The Radio”. He has also written songs with Peter Gabriel and Elton John, as well as the soundtrack for the film, “50 Years Later”, a tribute to the 50 year anniversary of the Stonewall riots. In 2015, Tom released his 15th studio album entitled, “Only The Now” which featured guest artists such as Billy Bragg and Nadine Shah. Historically Tom was also a member of two other factions called “Café Society” and “Sector 27”.
Tom is currently a radio personality and broadcaster, hosting three shows a week on the BBC Radio 6 Music. He has served for 10 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.
On September 28th Tom will be releasing “Power In The Darkness: Live At The 100 Club”.
I spoke with Tom Robinson regarding his tour, his newest album, his life experiences, his music industry accomplishments, and other intimate details. As well as being talented and funny I can assure you Tom is probably the coolest man on the planet! He is a kind, warm, modest, and a gentle soul, with a vast amount of musical knowledge and an extraordinary kinesthesia regarding life and the world surrounding him. He is a man living in two separate and distinct universes, one as a superb musician on to himself, the other on a mesmerizing and audacious quest to discover new music from those whom the world doesn’t yet know….
How are you today?
I’m just doing calls from home and promoting the upcoming tour. Nineteen days at this advanced age.
Seems that a lot of bands from the late 70’s and 80’s have come back to tour, like Adam Ant and a Boy George…
Well we’d be terrible competition because we only had 15 minutes of fame with the Tom Robinson Band….so I don’t suppose we can compete much with Adam Ant or Boy George. But it’s a different audience we like to think.
So after 40 years, you’re promoting this album again, I think that’s really cool.
Well, I’ll send you a link to the live version recorded last year. We did three nights at the 100 Club, and recorded it. The 2017 version, and it sounds pretty good.
What we’re in your thoughts when you wrote that album? What did it mean to you?
In the 70’s we didn’t know what was going to happen. The insecurity and the flux, was much the same as it is today. You don’t know what’s going to happen with President Trump. We certainly don’t know what’s going to happen next year with Brexit. It’s all up there in the air. That’s how it felt at the time this album came out. So it was kind of trying to reflect all that flux and uncertainty.
You had to be very courageous then because no one was really openly coming out back then?
Well, the thing is “Glad To Be Gay” came out before this album in any case. The timeline went, “2-4-6-8 Motorway” as a single to get an audience. Then there was a EP with “Glad To Be Gay” on it to instantly lose an audience, and perhaps gain another one. The BBC had an assistant controller, Doreen Davis who banned the record and made sure none of my records got played on the BBC for the next five years. So, “Glad To Be Gay”, I paid my dues with that. Then the album itself, we tried to put all new material on it so that fans would have value for their money, they wouldn’t buy things twice, on the basis that the fan base already had the first two singles. Then they said, ” oh, why didn’t you include the songs we knew”. The American import had “Glad To Be Gay” on it, on the double LP.
Last year you had three sold out shows, where you did the album in its entirety and they sold out immediately …..
That’s correct, I’m doing the album all the way through for 19 dates ending up in Shepard’s Bush Empire in London. I’m looking forward to it.
The songs on that album had a reason. They had a message…
To some extent. Not all of them did. We took an important life lesson from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Bob Marley which is that people don’t want you to just lectured them. Nobody wants to go to a concert and have somebody just preach at you, nonstop, all the way through. You’ve got to have songs about life, you’ve got to have songs about cars, you’ve got to have songs about love in there as well. So Stevie Wonder for instance, not all of his songs by any means can be called political but when he did “Living For The City”, that was one of the most hard hitting, anti-segregationist you could want. And that went around the world as a disco hit because it was part of Stevie Wonder’s pop career. So with TRB we tried to likewise make sure the music came first and foremost and then the message was kind of a bonus on top of that. Unless people like the music they don’t give a damn about the message.
Yes, you’re right. So if you could have your ultimate stage fantasy, what would you need to happen?
I’m pretty close to that I have to say because playing bass with a drummer from Faithless is quite a treat to somebody that came through the punk generation, to play with somebody of that caliber. Luckily I’ve had 40 years to practice so I am better at the bass than I was back in the day. It’s pretty close to the ideal fantasy now. It’s so nice to play now with people who don’t have an ax to grind and who just want to play music, who are sympathetic to the material, and who can play with passion and sincerity, and real power. I wouldn’t want it any other way then what it is at the moment.
If you could say anything to the people who follow you now, to the fans that sold out your shows at the 100 Club within moments, what would you want them to know?
The people that come to my shows?
The people that come to your shows, as well as those who love you.
You’re too kind.
No, I’ve done my research.
I would say, have a listen to my PodCast. That’s what I’d say to them because people know me in either one world or the other world. Those that know me in 6 Music as a DJ probably have no idea that I am a musician. And people that know my music probably have no idea about the new music’s I get to discover and get out there to the world. It’s so important for the next generation of musicians to get a platform and to be heard, and to find an audience. To connect the creators with the consumers, bypassing the whole bullshit that is the music industry. That’s our job at BBC Introducing, is to find new music by people who haven’t got a big budget, who haven’t got inside of contacts, or pluggers, or a rich sugar daddy somewhere in the background. People who are just making interesting music, and connect them with people who have a thirst for people who want to hear interesting music, and then put them in touch with one another. So our job is just to make the connection, not to be the disseminators of what’s going to be the next big thing or try to predict who is going to get into the charts. Although there was one guitarist who was playing in the poetry tent in the Latitude Festival. Just a young scruffy kid with a tiny guitar. I thought he would probably go far. His name was…Ed….Ed Sheeran, that’s it yeah…. he was really good I thought. So anyway the short of it is, if anyone listens to iTunes or where ever they get the Podcast for BBC Introducing, they will find my Podcast. Every week there will be one hour of great tunes from people you have never heard of. They are just so worthwhile, I love those songs to death, and I would love to have a bigger audience for that Podcast.
Well, what can I do to help make your audience bigger?
You drive them to that Podcast!
I know that your life has been interesting thus far and I don’t know how far you would like to go with that, but I do know you’ve written the soundtrack to the film, “50 Years Later”, a tribute to the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall riots…
Stonewall was such a great gift to the world. It was the drag queens that actually took the brunt of the police brutality, and it was them that fought back, and it was them that established the platform for gay liberation. A platform from which subsequently their kind of respectable brothers and sisters denounced them in the years to come. So one must never forget who’s done what for who.
I happen to write for a huge Gay magazine in New York.
I loved “Christopher Street”, it was such a great magazine. Richard Fiala did some wonderful gay cartoons in books that I still treasure. One of them is called ” Relax This is Only A Phase You’re Going Through”. My favorite cartoon in there is, of an egg that’s just about to hatch. You see the crack on the egg and there are these two chickens looking at the egg. One of them is saying to the other, clearly in a New York accent, “Oh terrific now I’m going to have to hear another coming out story”.
That’s very cute.
I have to also have the added burst of color to the whole thing. In my 30s I shifted along the LGBT spectrum from G to B, and ended up falling in love with somebody of the wrong sex, to whom I’m still married. We have two grown-up children. So I didn’t believe in bisexuality until it happened to me. It’s a strange old world. I like it. I’m not a big fan of boxes and forcing people into categories. Laurie Anderson, bless her, came and did an interview with us for 6 Music. I asked her about genres and she said, “Genres are for bins, record bins”. Just invented so record shops would know just what bin to put them in. But it’s such nonsense. People say LGBTQ….”Queer”, let’s just be queer.
It’s a strange but cool world… so you’re going on this huge tour and I’m wondering what is it that you’re most looking forward to?
The 70 minutes on stage. I think it’s what I’m most looking forward to. The thing I’m least looking forward to is all the other bits, the travel, the hotel, the laundry, the sound checks, the gig food….. The 70 minutes on stage is what makes it all worthwhile.
What made you decide to take upon yourself such a massive undertaking?
It’s 40 years since the album came out so it’s marking the 40th anniversary. I won’t be marking that anniversary in another 40 years for obvious reasons. I won’t even be marking 20 years because by then if I’m still even on the planet I’ll be 88. So that’s not going to happen. So if I ever was going to do it this is the year to do it in. Given the political situation we are in it couldn’t be more opportune.
I agree with you there. If you could make me ask you any question at all what would it be?
I’d want you to ask me who is that amazing special guest support you’ve got opening for you on this tour? That handsome, gay, Lee Forsyth Griffiths with his acoustic guitar and his big mouth. He was discovered by Trevor Horn in the late 90’s. He released an album called “Northern Songs” and then another one called, “Armchair Anarchy” and then had a devastating personal tragedy. He has spent the last ten years coming back from that. He’s written an amazing batch of new songs that’s he’s recorded and he will be previewing them on the tour. He’s also a very outspoken opponent of the racist right in the U.K. and makes these ranting videos on Facebook, which have gone viral. He’s a brilliantly, blunt, Mancunium, and a working class northern with a voice like an angel. So come early to these shows because he is so worth getting to hear. He’s a wonderful singer.
Is there anything else that you might like to add that I have not covered?
I think we’re pretty much there. Just the tour dates and the new album is due out on the 28th of September. It’s called, “Power In The Darkness Live at the 100 Club”. I’m very, very pleased with that, and I’m hoping to release another live album next year. Then I’ll work on a memoir, see if I still remember the particular life I’ve had over the years.
All words by Eileen Shapiro. More of Eileen’s writing can be found in her author’s archive.