You’d be forgiven for thinking Tom Robinson’s direct participation in the music business was way behind him. But it turns out that’s not the case.
Regular listeners to BBC Radio 6 Music know Tom well, and those of us a little longer in the tooth readily recall his days as an accomplished singer-songwriter.
Just to get a few more of you up to speed, Tom made his name in the late ’70s – after a less-celebrated spell with the band Café Society – as the singer and bass player in the Tom Robinson Band.
TRB were perhaps best known for 2-4-6-8 Motorway and further hits Don’t Take No For An Answer and Up Against The Wall. Then of course there was a certain sing-a-long signature anthem, the inspired Glad To Be Gay suggesting a musician not afraid to stick his neck out, his band also early backers of Rock Against Racism and Amnesty International.
Between 1975 and 2001 this recording artist and ground-breaking gay rights activist released 19 albums with various bands, also co-writing with the likes of Elton John and Peter Gabriel. And as a solo artist he enjoyed more success, not least in 1983 with his second top-10 hit, War Baby.
These days, he’s pretty much a full-time broadcaster, through his national radio show and new music blog Fresh On The Net. But he still plays plenty of live shows, and is set to release his first album of the 21st century this October, Only the Now, including a number of high-profile guest appearances.
The new album has already inspired a healthy PledgeMusic response, around 170% of its original pre-order target quickly reached. Not bad for an artist supposedly long out of the loop.
Down the telephone line, I put it to Tom that it must be nice to have got that public backing to move him on to the next stage.
“Absolutely, and it’s such a thrill to have that kind of relationship with the audience, where they can make it possible.”
A new BMG publishing deal helps, but despite him having made so many good friends in the industry, there must still have been a fear that no one would be bothered.
“Absolutely, yeah. And is a new Tom Robinson album what the world needs now? The jury’s still out on that one!”
As Tom laughs, I gear up to ask him the obvious question. It’s been 20 years since his last album, so why now?
“That’s easy. I’ve turned 65 this year, and my kids have grown up, so I’ve got the decks clear! I’ve got the room and the time to engage with this.
“All those things I’ve put on hold over the last 20 years I’ve finally been able to bring them to the boil.”
That ‘married with kids’ status may still surprise a few people, Tom not so long ago joking about ‘contracting late-onset bisexuality’, having first met his wife-to-be Sue at a Gay Switchboard help-line benefit party in 1982.
Yet he’s also described himself as ‘a gay man who happens to be in love with a woman’, and remains an outspoken champion of LGBT rights.
Back to the family – have his children, the youngest now 18, followed his lead into the music business?
“Not remotely. Thank God. It’s very precarious way of earning a living.”
There are lots of special guests on Only the Now, from John Grant – effortlessly good on Cry Out – and Martin Carthy to Nitin Sawney and Nadine Shah. And it’s not a case of quantity over quality either.
Colin Firth and Sir Ian McKellen also make spoken contributions, the latter on two songs, and pretty much to stunning effect. So was this just Tom flicking through his bulging contacts book?
“No! Well, they’re all kinds of radical contacts. With Colin Firth we did The People Speak concert, very much about democracy, so when we were putting this together, we thought the part of a BBC newsreader would be ideal for him.
“He was off on location filming, but recorded his bits on his phone, emailed them, and we dropped them on to the album.”
When Tom says ‘we’, he’s chiefly including Gerry Diver, his producer, a multi-instrumentalist who co-wrote nine of the tracks and makes a telling contribution to the finished product.
And how did Billy Bragg – the Bard of Barking joining Tom, Martin Carthy and Lisa Knapp on the impressive and truly catchy Mighty Sword Of Justice – get involved?
“The Justice Alliance is really important to both of us, with access to justice getting increasingly hard.
“It costs around £700 to plead not guilty in court, but £150 to plead guilty. It’s scandalous. Through lack of financial resources, we’re being denied justice.
“Billy was very happy to get involved. We were trying to create the flavour of one of those big ‘80s protest demos, so he was key to that.
“Having Lisa and Martin also helps. But the key to that specific track was steel pan player, Frank Rollick.
“Gerry and I were racking our brains, wondering how we were going to create that vibe of those ‘everyone altogether’ marches.
“Then we came out of Nitin Sawney’s studio in Brixton and found Frank busking outside the tube station, and thought, ‘Right!’ Putting him behind Billy just gives it that wonderful vibe.”
Was that a fateful moment, do you think?
“I don’t think fate brings them our way. It’s more about being in the right mind-frame to recognise these moments when they occur. We could easily have walked past him.”
Some of the contacts contributing to the album go a long way back with Tom, not least TV Smith, who appears twice, including a duet with Tom on perhaps my favourite track, Never Get Old. Did his one-time band The Adverts ever share a bill with TRB?
“We did, and I toured with TV in the ’90s, when we were on Cooking Vinyl, us punk survivors. We became really good friends and have sung on each other’s records.
“TV is an absolute natural, with that wonderful quality to his voice. And he’s more than a survivor these days. He’s having to turn down work, he’s so much in demand.”
Is it fair to say it was his involvement with BBC 6 Music that inspired Tom to get out there again?
“Totally! I was a bit daunted at first by the wealth of talent, wondering how I could ever do anything that matches that. But meeting Gerry, he’s totally got that touch.
“The first thing I heard of his was The Speech Project, creating sound pictures around words. He’s very focused on lyrics and on sound, so creates these soundscapes.
“I record just a skeleton track with vocal and guitar and he creates a picture around it, putting drums and electric guitar on last, a completely unconventional way of recording.”
After so long since your last album, was it easy to get back to the songwriting, or was there never any real let-up?
“I was writing songs all along, with all that just on the back-burner.”
Alongside Gerry’s contributions are those of Tom’s regular band, including Mancunian guest Lee Forsyth Griffiths, who has played with the main man for 15 or so years.
He’s at his most effective on the LP’s lead single, Don’t Jump, Don’t Fall, his sweet vocal nicely conplementing Robinson’s spoken word approach. Tom describes this former Trevor Horn protégé, ‘discovered by Paul Morley’, as having ‘such grit and soul and passion in his voice’ and ‘just wonderful to have involved’.
Lee’s in good company too, Gerry’s arrangements and instrumental prowess every bit as important as Tom’s delivery, and the special guests all pitching in.
At times, the songwriting brings to minds some of the artists that inspired Tom into all this in the first place, not least The Beatles – an arrangement of In My Life – the only cover – involving just Robinson, Diver and Carthy – highlighting the more reflective side of this Lennon and McCartney classic.
There are shades of The Kinks in Tom’s lyrics too, and even the delivery of David Bowie and Ian Hunter, respectively, in his vocals on Cry Out and Never Get Old. Similarly, I can see correlations with Tom’s own back-catalogue, including opener Home in the Morning, musically reminding me of Martin in places.
And the sheer invention of including Messrs Firth and McKellen pays dividends, the latter’s vocal duel with Swami Baracus on Holy Smoke another highlight.
In short, whether he’s taking the sword to organised religion and those fighting with God on their side, battling for a fairer world, or musing on the ageing process, Tom’s on mighty fine form.
It still seems odd that he’s back in the limelight again though, having given so many other artists a big push via BBC Introducing and Fresh on the Net in recent times. On that front, is it fair to say he’s taken on the mantle of John Peel, one of his earliest inspirations?
“A lot of people have taken that on. He left such a big gap and people in such a lot of different fields have taken on different aspects, not least his son, Tom Ravenscroft.
“He’s really on the radical edge of it, helping people making the most extreme music get heard. And he’s got impeccable taste. It’s what he doesn’t play that makes his show so interesting!
“Then, of course, Steve Lamacq has been flying the flag for developing music for so long.”
With both of those also on 6 Music, it seems that Tom’s definitely in the right place.
“I so love that job! There’s nowhere else I’d rather work. I was on the development team building the station, even before it had a name. It was Network Y then. Eventually, the BBC gave it the go-ahead.”
From Glad to be Gay and Too Good to be True to War Baby and onwards, Tom’s come up with a fair few songs he can be proud of before now, and there are plenty more worthy of that company on the new album too. But what does he think has been his greatest moment as a songwriter, up to now?
“That’s so difficult. It’s like asking me which of my children is my favourite!”
True, but you don’t have to tell me that.
“Well … mmm … maybe Grey Cortina is my favourite.”
Funnily enough, I was going to ask you about that song.
“It says exactly what it set out to say, this very specific thing about these wideboys I used to see driving up and down Seven Sisters Road, North London, in the early ‘70s.
“And ‘Cortina owner, no one meaner, wished that I could be like him’- I’m very proud of that.”
In its own way, that’s up there with songs like The Jam’s Saturday’s Kids, painting a picture of a different cultural age, something we’ve maybe lost now – arguably for the better. So did Tom ever get to own a grey Cortina?
“I did, but it was jinxed. Back in ’79. The first day I took it out I got into a race with some 17-year-old that had just started driving his father’s Vauxhall or something.
“He was racing away from the lights. The Cortina beat him, but I made the mistake – rather than going home and having a nice cup of tea – of pulling over to the side of the road to gloat as he went past.
“Unfortunately, he wasn’t a good driver and thought he’d drive really close and give me a scare.
“He rear-ended the Cortina just outside Shepherd’s Bush police station, writing it off. It had taken me about a year to get enough money to buy it too.”
There are more likely tributes to the automobile of course, not least from the likes of The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Wilson Pickett or Bruce Springsteen. But Tom’s own seems more a nod to Dr Feelgood, one perhaps closer to Billy Bragg’s later take on Route 66 with A13 – Trunk Road to the Sea.
“Yes, there’s that whole British R’n’B thing there, isn’t there … and also a rather ironic sensibility, with tongue firmly in cheek!”
Moving on to another favourite, and certainly one that takes me back to the first few times I heard it, how about War Baby? I mean, surely he realises there are far too many words in there. It shouldn’t really work.
“Yes, a comedy programme at the time did a brilliant spoof, starting (Tom sings it for me) ‘Only Tom Robinson would try and get this many words in the first line of a song …”
Fantastic. And then there’s that line, ‘Only the very young and the very beautiful can be so aloof’. Does he still stand by that sentiment?
“Yes … in my experience. Never more true!”
Tom’s been busy this summer, including shows at the Glastonbury and Latitude festivals, and this month’s Wickham and Green Man festivals.
So how was his Glastonbury?
“We had such a ball! But funnily enough, for the first time in 40 years, I broke a bass string on stage, and you only have a 40-minute set, so it was a complete disaster. We couldn’t afford any back-line crew or anything like that.”
He has a date not far from my patch coming too. A day after playing London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, he heads to Ramsbottom Festival on September 19.
“I’m really looking forward to that. It’s run by the Bury Met people, one of my favourite gigs in the country. It was a show I really couldn’t pass up on.”
That reminds me. Does he remember supporting The Christians on Sunday night at Preston’s Avenham Park in 1994, one of the Heineken Big Top free festival shows?
I seem to recall a great reception (and let’s face it, a more memorable set than the headliners’ own), not least when Tom led the masses on an updated Glad to be Gay, the locals trying their best not to sing along too heartily.
“Oh, they were good fun those shows!”
While I’m on that subject, if you were to add a new verse to Glad to be Gay now, what would it rail against?
“Well, I think the tabloids have blotted their copybook fairly comprehensively. I update it every year, anyway, so the last verse does include phone hacking.
“In fact, there are so many different verses that there’s a whole website that a fan’s put together, documenting each version and each verse, at gladtobegay.net.”
Beyond this year’s festival season, Tom’s main album tour starts in October, with support from Kitten Pyramid.
“Yes, the support are great … a mad band! And we’ve got Gerry Diver himself coming on to play chainsaw violin. He’s such an astonishing musician.”
Does Tom think he’ll feel 65 by the end of all those dates?
“Well, my father lived to 92 and would say, ‘Getting old has its drawbacks, but it’s a lot better than the alternative!”
It’s been 40 years in the public spotlight now. Is he getting used to it?
“I’m very lucky I had my 15 minutes of serious fame so long ago, before the whole tabloid thing took off, being very lucky not to have been in the glare of celebrity.
“Someone like Taylor Swift must really suffer, with people writing nonsense about you all the time. That’s the huge advantage of being on the radio.
“If I was on the telly, I’d probably have kept a high profile, and among the cast of characters people like to gossip about.
“The lovely thing about radio is this intimate one-to-one relationship with your audience. You’re able to work in communication. It’s not about celebrity.
“The people that are really in that celeb bracket are those that have also done lots of TV, like Graham Norton, Jonathan Ross, Terry Wogan …”
For all that, Tom has the enviable record of having appeared on all the national BBC radio channels, and it’s now 30 years since his World Service debut.
I seem to recall he was also involved with GLR in London.
“That was in the late ‘90s. I actually won a Sony award for a documentary I did there.”
In 1997 to be precise, for You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, his radio documentary about gay music.
“The World Service work preceded that. A producer came to a show, and perhaps she preferred the chat between songs to the actual songs!
“She obviously thought. ‘That’s a good radio voice’, got in touch, and got me my own show. And I haven’t looked back really.”
How does he think Tom Robinson in 2015 compares to the fella produced by The Kinks’ Ray Davies – who he soon fell out with – 42 years before, in his formative days with Café Society?
“It’s been really interesting coming full circle. We finally met again after all these years. Ray came on my show and did a two-and-a-half-hour interview, which was wonderful.
“That’s the whole point of this album. There is only the here and the now. The past is long gone and forgotten.
“The only thing that really matters is that he’s still here and I’m still here. In 20 years we’ll probably both be dead, so we might as well have a conversation about music.”
Were the Kinks an important influence?
“Anyone who grew up in the ’60s and says The Beatles, The Kinks, The Stones, The Manfreds or The Yardbirds didn’t have any effect on them is lying. It was part of the water we swam in and the oxygen we breathed.”
Who did he learn most from – Ray Davies, Elton John or Peter Gabriel?
“Ray probably taught me the most important stuff, about connecting, having as clear a line of communication as you can between the creators and consumers of the music.
“On stage, nobody can touch him. He creates this bond with his audience. And with these new bands we play on 6 Music and Fresh on the Net, we’re trying our hardest to connect the audience with the bands direct.
“And these days with social media it’s possible for someone who really loves your music to become part of your team.
“For instance, we’ve got a fantastic graphic designer working on the album who came to it just by being a fan of the music.”
If you haven’t yet checked it out, I highly recommend Tom’s topically-themed Now Playing show on 6 Music. Even when it’s not a subject I’m particularly interested in – such as one with a Kanye West theme after Glastonbury – I still find myself drawn in.
“Yes, even if people don’t like the topic, they’ll always suggest an alternative.”
So, finally, has this old punk rocker got more mellow with age, or does Tom find he’s even more outspoken now, in his relative dotage?
“Well, the current album includes songs like Mighty Sword of Justice, then there’s my tribute to the Lehman brothers, and Merciful God, inspired by an American bomber pilot who said, “I’m just doing the job God put me here for’.
“It’s all part of thinking about now rather than then, with songs that actually engage with what’s happening at the moment.”
While it’s clearly been a long time coming, and while there are several poignant and reflective moments on there, I’d add that Only the Now is every bit as relevant to today’s audience as Power in the Darkness was back in 1978.
In short – as you might expect from such a champion of new music and outside-the-box thinking – Tom still retains that youthful spirit that saw him make the grade all those years ago, while the added maturity suits him well too. And long may that continue.
For details of Tom Robinson’s forthcoming dates and how to pre-order Only The Now, out on October 16 on Castaway Northwest Recordings, head to his official website here. There’s also a PledgeMusic link here.
Meanwhile, for Ramsbottom Festival ticket details, head here.
Finally, you can hear and see Tom and his band performing The Mighty Sword Of Justice live at Latitude here.