As I may have mentioned on these pages before, few TV shows of yore hold as much magic as Top of the Pops re-runs for this nostalgic, and recently I was digging among the online archives for the October 1977 debut appearance of the Tom Robinson Band.
It’s difficult in this era of endless channel hops to explain to later generations the pull of such a seminal BBC Thursday night show. But when there were just three buttons to press, TOTP was king. And you can see just how important it was to today’s interviewee, checking out that lop-sided grin of his as he tries to catch guitarist Danny Kustow’s eye while they belt out debut hit, 2-4-6-8 Motorway.
“I was over-acting outrageously. I cringe a bit looking at it, I’m just so fucking pleased with myself!”
Mind you, it seems that Mark Ambler on keyboards didn’t get the school uniform dress code memo.
“Ha! That was much too close for comfort for him. He’d only just left school, so didn’t want to dress up as a schoolboy again. He was actually thrown out of the pub where he came to play his first gig with us, for being under-age. Thankfully he got back in, saying he was in the band.”
Mark looks somewhat downcast actually, at least in comparison, as if he’d already heard that track too many times.
“That was his habitual manner. He was taught piano by Stan Tracey and was a jazz-wiz on the keyboards, so I think he felt he was seriously slumming it with our three-chord songs. Actually, in many cases they were two-chord songs. I always thought, ‘Three chords good, two chords better’.”
And can punk rock’s foremost gay activist turned successful solo artist and esteemed radio broadcaster Tom recall what that triangular badge was he was wearing?
“That’s my ‘Gays against Fascism’ badge. It was before the Anti-Nazi League, but at that time a reminder of the death camp triangles. I thought even on Top of the Pops there would be a few people out there who knew what it meant and would pick up on it.”
As a snapshot of time, Abba, Queen, Quo and Baccara were above TRB in the charts when that single made the top five in the UK, with fellow punk scene acts the Sex Pistols (Holidays in the Sun), The Jam (Modern World) and The Stranglers (No More Heroes) all below. Wings were just around the corner too, Mull of Kintyre about to crash the charts and hang around for what seemed like an age. What I guess I’m saying there is that in the month I turned 10, the charts at that time truly resonated with me.
2-4-6-8 Motorway was produced by Vic Maile, chiefly known around then for his work on the first two Dr. Feelgood albums. But apparently he wasn’t the first choice.
“Vic got us out of a hole. We had this song that was going down really well and we were closing the set with it each night, and it was an obvious choice for the first single. We’d had two cracks at recording it, with the producer of our choice, John Miller, then with the Who’s live soundman, but neither of them really worked. Then EMI had this idea that Vic would do a quick and dirty job, because of his work with Dr. Feelgood, and would take that song right down to its essence. And so he did.
“We recorded it in one morning. The only thing he changed was the bassline, and suddenly the whole thing just kind of pulled into place. Up until then it was done like a country song, which gave the guitar part a swing to it. All Vic did was get me to play one to the bar, like Free, from which Danny did his part, and we did it in just two takes. The only overdub was to double-track the rhythm guitar and put some hand-claps on there.”
The next Tom Robinson Band single, February ’78’s four-song Rising Free EP – recorded live at London’s Lyceum Theatre in November 1977 – was also a UK top-20 hit, but was always unlikely to get such prime-time coverage on account of the subject matter of track two, (Sing If You’re) Glad to be Gay. Yet Granada TV came up with the goods via the Tony Wilson-fronted So It Goes three months earlier, featuring a live rendition of that and fellow TRB crowd favourite Martin, filmed at Middleton’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, north Manchester. And with total understatement, I tell Tom that was a brave move getting that song out there, perhaps one of the greatest examples of kicking against the machine, punk-style. Away from all the posturing of many of his new wave contemporaries, you could argue that he had something to properly rebel against in those testing times.
“It’s funny, it was the time of punk but I was too old to actually pull off the punk look even then, but it’s odd that the song I had that was my flag of rebellion was actually a jazzy cabaret style late-night smoochy singalong! Some people hated it, but with any worthwhile song some people are going to hate it.”
But you hit the nail on the head there – it’s eminently sing-able. In fact, let’s face it, it’s probably harder to not join in.
“That was the funny thing. After it was a hit you could always spot the closet gays in the audience. All the heterosexuals would be singing along at the tops of their voice, having nothing to prove. But you’d always see people with very firmly zipped lips! ‘Nothing queer about me!’ A dead giveaway.”
An earlier version of shoe-gazing, maybe. Now, I hate to be rude, but you more or less said it yourself then – surely at 27 you were considered an old fart by the likes of John Lydon.
“Lydon was alright. I don’t think the other Sex Pistols liked me very much, but he took me off down to the Speakeasy.”
A rather accurate version of the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten follows from Tom.
“We met at the Music Machine, and he said, ‘Tom Robinson – don’t give up! Don’t ever give up! Don’t give in to the bastards!’ And then he was sick on my shoes!
“About 10 years later I bumped into him at the Britannia HoteI, Manchester, wearing a Mambo suit that must have cost the best part of a thousand quid, his hair in knots on his head, dyed orange, with a pair of Woolworth’s sunglasses. He said, ‘Tom Robinson! You’re with that Red Wedge, ain’t ya!’ I said ‘Yeah’, and he said, ‘Fackin’ champagne socialists!’
“He always managed to annoy everybody. He never conformed to one viewpoint or doctrine. He went his own sweet way. And I love him for it.”
I guess he appreciated the fact that you had something to rock against.
“Yeah, and age-wise, Joe Strummer wasn’t much younger than me. And Jet Black of The Stranglers was about 10 years older than me. Charlie Harper of the UK Subs too. But I didn’t think I could pull it off and be believable, so had this kind of older brother prefect vibe which I felt I could pull off better.”
Yet with a little irony perhaps, here you are now, out on the road playing Power in the Darkness again, 40 years on.
“Yeah, that’s interesting. For many years I’ve fought the whole nostalgia thing, and I’ve never played those ’80s festivals. Towards the end of the ’90s I was grinding out the same six songs to a dwindling audience of people just vaguely remembering the dim and distant past. There was no dignity to it. So it was good to get into radio and move into helping other people get heard and appreciating the wealth of music that was coming out.
“For 15 years I’ve been immersed in that, then two years ago decided I’d make an album of my own after playing the English Folk Expo in Bury, meeting producer Gerry Diver there. He made me a killer album, and once I’d done that and established I could do songs that people who’d never heard of me would like. I felt comfortable enough to be able to go back and say, ‘Right! Let’s honour the past,’ without feeling it compromised me.”
To mark the 40th anniversary of 2-4-6-8 Motorway and the album that followed, Tom (bass and vocals) has put together a new band for a celebratory 15-date UK tour, namely Faithless drummer Andy Treacey, Richard Ashcroft guitarist Adam Phillips, and Jim Simmons (keyboards).
After a less successful toe-dip into the music business with Café Society in 1975 – under the wing of The Kinks’ Ray Davies at Konk – punk changed everything for Cambridge lad Tom, who was soon charged up and making his name for real, starting to gig in London in 1976 and by the end of the year deciding on a permanent band, with old friend Danny Kustow his first recruit.
“I’d known him since he was 15. He came to Finchden Manor, where I spent my formative teen years, arriving the same night Alexis Korner came to visit.”
I should add a few lines there, Tom having suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide at 16, hence a move to a centre for teens with emotional difficulties in Kent, where he spent the next six years. And that was the setting where Tom got hooked by John Peel on pirate station Radio London, that afore-mentioned visit by blues legend and broadcaster Alexis Korner helping him realise where he might be heading from there. As was the case for Danny Kustow, it seems.
“He was so impressed with Alexis that he wanted to become a guitarist. All that time Danny was going around pestering people, saying ’show me an A-chord’, and stuff like that. So I knew him as a younger person and a bit of a guitar bore. When punk came along and I came to form a band I needed someone who could play guitar, and he was calling, saying, ‘Can I be in your band?’ I relented and it was only when the band started playing that I realised, ‘Bloody hell! He’s really good!’ It suddenly dawned on me how great Danny was and what he brought to the party.”
Running small ads in the music papers looking for a bass player and drummer, he then found drummer Brian ‘Dolphin’ Taylor then Mark Ambler, the latter only revealing after his audition his keyboard prowess, Tom – on hearing him play Hammond – deciding he’d have to play bass himself. Pretty soon the four-piece’s live shows were receiving favourable reviews and A&R interest, the band-leader going in nine months from signing on to Radio One, Top of the Pops, an EMI Records deal, and the front cover of the NME.
Those first two singles were followed by next 45 Up Against the Wall, the first release from Power In The Darkness, that debut LP released in early 1978 and reaching No.4 in the UK chart, in time going gold at home and in Japan.
As it was, Mark Ambler quit after the first long player, session player Nick Plytas drafted in before Ian Parker became a permanent replacement. A second album, TRB Two, recorded in late ’78 at Rockfield Studios, South Wales, with Todd Rundgren producing, followed in the spring of ’79, further personnel changes following as Dolphin Taylor made way for Preston Heyman before Charlie Morgan took over on drums. And by the time of the second album tour, in-fighting had taken its toll, Danny Kustow’s decision to leave marking a fairly premature end to the initial story.
“Danny got the punk thing and the Rock Against Racism thing straight away, and we’d go on anti-National Front demos at Wood Green and Lewisham – he was a real supportive soulmate. But because we’d both came from a place we’d been sent because of our emotional fragility, shall we say, the band contained the seeds of its own destruction.”
He continued to feature at various points with you in the solo years that followed though, didn’t he?
“Yes, he played on War Baby (Tom’s memorable top-10 single in the summer of ’83), but again the emotional edge to the whole thing was just so destructive. We reformed the band 10 years after the break-up, by which point I’d been through 10 years of psychotherapy, so was in a different space and I’d sorted myself out a bit.
“I’d also found the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with … which astonishingly turned out to be the wrong sex! So I thought, ‘Let’s go back and see if we can do it properly this time, make good and achieve the potential we should have achieved at that time.
“I was approaching it in the mood of reconciliation, but neither Mark Ambler nor Danny Kustow had been through 10 years of psychotherapy and were approaching it in the spirit of vengeance – they wanted to get their own back on me! And they did.
“It was the worst year in my entire working life. A horrible experience, and it so dented me. It took me two years before I could write any more songs. I was completely wiped out by the emotional side of it. It wasn’t about playing music but about some unspoken battle going on. If I said ‘black’, they said ‘white’. If I said ‘yes’, they said ‘no’. So destructive.
“I had a 24-track studio at the time but we didn’t manage to complete a single master recording in the whole year we were back together, because we couldn’t even agree on paying an engineer to come in and do the recording. God, what a waste of energy that was. And it took me ages to realise what was going on. It was all going on behind the scenes. We were going out and playing these gigs and yet it didn’t feel very good.
“I always came home feeling slightly in the wrong. And every move I made to move us forward somehow turned us back. Yep, never have a picnic in the same place twice.”
Have you been back in touch since?
“Oh yeah, socially, but I swore to myself I would never take to a stage with them ever again. But now I’ve got a really good line-up and we’ll do our best to honour what the four of us achieved and pay tribute to them.”
By the end of the old century, Tom was seeking a new direction, and soon re-established himself as a broadcaster, working on shows to this day with BBC 6 Music, where he hosts up to three shows a week. He’s also a member of the Ivor Novello Awards committee, and last year was awarded LIPA fellowship in recognition of support for new music artists through BBC Introducing’s talent initiative.
Two years ago he returned to live performances too, in support of celebrated 14th studio album Only the Now, featuring guests such as Billy Bragg, John Grant and Ian McKellen. And now he’s out there again, but not before looking back on his TRB breakthrough moment with me, four decades on.
“It’s anniversaries all the bloody time these days. The whole world’s looking backwards!”
I tell him that my brother’s Power in the Darkness cassette ended up with me when he left home in Surrey in the early ’80s, and it’s now somewhere tucked away in the eaves of my house 240 miles north, a tape I played many times over the next few years. And listening again in recent weeks I can confirm that while it’s a snapshot of that era, it’s definitely stood the test of time, with plenty of stand-out tracks.
“Oh good! The hardest thing about putting these shows together with a bunch of modern, really good musicians who can play anything, was getting up to the tempo we recorded that album at. At 67, playing that fast really takes a bit of practise!”
That first TRB album was recorded at Wessex Studios, North London, by Chris Thomas, who’d already turned heads with the Sex Pistols’ debut LP. Seeing footage from around then, Tom’s outfit were truly a happening live band. Does he think his producer got the essence of that live feel in the studio?
“Well, we made two albums with TRB and the Chris Thomas album took three months, a really torturous grind. He’s such a perfectionist and took everything down to the nth degree of detail to get it right. On Up Against the Wall I think there’s 10 guitars on there, to make it sound like one. It was the same with the Sex Pistols, where he put a guitar on straight away, did most of the album with Paul Cook in about an afternoon, but then the overdubs make it sound like it would out of the speakers as you’d experience it at a live gig.
“That was what took the time. And people said, ‘It sounds just like you’re live!’ We then made another album with Todd Rundgren in six days, and that was live. We went in the studio and played it, then he took it away and mixed it, yet everyone said it was really over-produced!”
Maybe it was just more about the feeling of that first album.
“I think the songs are just better on the first album. We had four years to write the songs on that album and four months to write the songs on the second album.”
History tends to repeat, and at the time we seem to have a minority Government on the way out, their propping-up pact with the Liberals behind them. Then again, in that example darker shadows were forming, with Thatcher on her way in. So how close were you to the truth in the winter of 79?
“Nowhere near. The SAS only came and took people’s names in Northern Ireland. But on that front, there are two things I’m still really proud of after all these years of what we did achieve back then. One was that we played the Rock Against Racism card in Victoria Park, Hackney, and helped make an important statement that helped mobilise people against the National Front. And the other is that I’m really proud we went and played Belfast so early on, and went back to Derry several times too.”
“They didn’t play. They turned up and used it as a photo opportunity in front of all the graffiti and barbed wire and soldiers in uniform, then went back to London. We were there in ’77 and went back and played the Ulster Hall, then got Stiff Little Fingers to support us in the UK, the first band to get them over.
“I’m really proud of that, because there was a lot of attitude, posing and posturing about the politics of Northern Ireland, but … it was lovely how the kids from both sides of the divide would turn up to gigs, the punks hated by both sides!
“And there was another really proud moment for me, going down the Falls Road and seeing a Power in the Darkness stencil among the graffiti.”
Was that from the stencil included with the album, which memorably contained the warning, ‘This stencil is not meant for spraying on public property’?
“Yes! We had some replicas made actually, and we’ve still got a few. But going back to all that, The Clash got to write the history, as they did in the carnival against the Nazis, where they were on before us and fuming that they weren’t topping the bill. But the organisers said TRB have played lots of shows for us and their songs are about what we’re about and we want them to close it. They’ll have the right vibe, rather than be about the greater glory.
“As it was, The Clash over-played and wouldn’t come off. After they’d over-played by 10 minutes and we could see our set-time dwindling away because of the curfew, my manager got the roadies to pull the plugs. But in the revisionist history version, we got jealous of them and pulled the plugs, almost provoking a riot.”
Fast forward four decades, and you’re back at the 100 Club on this tour – for a three-night run, and two of those already sold out. I’m guessing you featured there early on too.
“Oh, absolutely we did, just as that first single was breaking. Good memories. We did go back and play there with the reformed band for a 10th anniversary show, so I can’t see why we can’t go back with a different band for the 40th anniversary.”
And have you got the school tie ready, for old time’s sake?
“No. Absolutely not. I’m 67 years old, for fuck’s sake! I’m going to wear a Paul Smith suit and a t-shirt.”
Just wondered. The perennial schoolboy image never seemed to do AC/DC’s record sales any harm, after all.
“Ah, I’m no Angus Young.”
For a look back at a previous Tom Robinson feature/interview on this site, two years ago, celebrating the release of the Only the Now album, head here.
last TRB’s October tour dates: Cardiff, The Globe (10th); Milton Keynes, The Stables (11th); Cambridge, The Portland (12th); Bewdley Festival (13th); Nantwich, Words & Music (14th); Wakefield, Unity Works (17th); York, The Crescent (18th); Nottingham Rescue Rooms (19th); Sheffield, Leadmill (20th); Manchester Home (21st); London 100 Club (24th/25th/26th); Newcastle, Riverside (28th); Glasgow, King Tut’s (29th). The Manchester Home date is followed by a Glad to be Grey ‘in conversation’ show the next day (22nd), all part of Manchester Folk Festival. Try 0161 200 1500 or this link for more information. For tour ticket details and more, check out Tom’s website. You can also follow him via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.