Pride & Prejudice: Why Tom Robinson Was Rock's Most Radical Musician
Outspoken. Political. Musically eclectic. The Tom Robinson Band’s flame burned brightly but briefly, ending in acrimony and breakdowns.
It’s the autumn of 1978, and the Tom Robinson Band are playing one of a pair of sold-out dates at London’s Hammersmith Odeon at the height of what their leader now describes as “our fifteen minutes of fame”. Four thousand people are singing along to the homosexual pride anthem Glad To Be Gay. But Robinson, convinced that the world “couldn’t possibly have changed that radically in twelve months”, halts the song, goes over to keyboard player Ian Parker and kisses him full on the lips.
“There was an audible intake of breath,” Robinson recalls almost four decades later. “An almost tangible shock wave of revulsion passed through many of the audience. A friend of mine was stood at the back of the hall and later told me that two beer-boys, who moments earlier had been singing along, turned to one another and said: ‘You know what? I fink these geezers are bent.’ Any maker of political pop who thinks they’re going to change the world would do well to remember incidents like that, because they’re a pretty big slap in the face.”
The notion that any gig-goer could have been unaware of what the Tom Robinson Band stood for back then is more than a little ludicrous. They bridged pub rock, punk and new wave, but weren’t really part of any of those scenes. More importantly, Robinson was one of only a handful of openly gay musicians in any genre at the time, and he was certainly the most vocal. A band ahead of their time, they railed against homophobia, racism, sexism, police brutality and social injustice. While Robinson was the only gay member, his bandmates supported his political stance – for the most part.
“We all agreed with Tom’s sentiments, but all I really wanted was to play music in a successful rock band,” guitarist and co-founder Danny Kustow says today. “Believe me, you don’t want to be in Texas playing Glad To Be Gay for five hundred cowboys who make it very plain: ‘Afterwards, we’re going to fucking kill you, man.’”
Tom Robinson always was unlikely rock star material. Born in Cambridge in 1950, his early years were spent in a council house, but by the time he reached school age his parents were wealthy enough to send him to be educated by Quakers in Essex, by way of a French boarding school. He realised he was gay in his early teens. At 16 he suffered a nervous breakdown, and attempted suicide after being spurned by another boy. At the time, in the UK homosexuality was punishable by four years in prison.
“I’d been warned to beware of queers long before realising that I was one, which left me awash with hormones and self‑loathing,” Robinson explains. “Unlike today, with Graham Norton on the TV and so many openly gay politicians, there were no role models to suggest that it was possible to be queer and have a happy life.”
He was sent to Finchden Manor in Kent, a therapeutic community for emotionally troubled boys. While he was there, two significant events would change the course of Robinson’s life. The first came on September 17, 1969, when bluesman Alexis Korner – a Finchden old boy – played an acoustic gig in the manor’s study. “Alexis came in with his guitar and sang completely without inhibitions about women, drink, policemen and civil rights, and with such normality, it was inspirational,” Robinson says.
The second turning point for Robinson came when he met Danny Kustow, who was also at Finchden. Both were budding musicians. “Tom could already write great lyrics but was still finding himself,” Kustow says now. “He showed me a few chords on the guitar; I was still a novice at the time.”
After leaving Finchden, Robinson moved to London, seeking a foothold in the music industry. His first band, the acoustic trio Café Society, were signed by Ray Davies, of The Kinks, to his boutique label Konk. But Robinson’s initial excitement fizzled out when Davies’s other commitments kept them from going into the studio. Worse was to come when Café Society’s new mentor decided to impose electric instruments on them. Robinson had already quit by the time their self-titled debut album finally got a release in 1975 (it sold a grand total of 600 copies).
Robinson’s attempt to form his own, eponymous band were hampered by bitter contractual issues; on stage the singer occasionally dedicated an ironic cover of The Kinks’ Tired Of Waiting to Davies. On one infamous night in December 1976, the subject of Robinson’s ire turned up at a gig at the Nashville Rooms pub in West London, and insults were exchanged during the show. “After we finished one of our songs, Ray shouted: ‘It’ll never be a hit!’” says Kustow, who had then just joined his old school friend in the band. “So we responded by playing The Kinks’ Set Me Free, because that’s exactly what we wanted from Ray – to be set free.”
The unseemly bickering continued for years afterwards. The TRB’s 1978 song Don’t Take No For An Answer was inspired partly by the sorry saga, while Davies fired back with his 1980 B-side Prince Of Punks: ‘Tried to be gay, but it didn’t pay/So he bought a motorbike instead.’ The rift was healed only this year, when Robinson interviewed Davies on his 6Music radio show. “I spent three hours grilling this extraordinary figure in British music about the process of songwriting,” says Robinson. “What’s the point in holding a grudge for forty years?”
The formation of the Tom Robinson Band coincided with the early stirrings of punk. Although the TRB were far from being a punk band, seeing the Sex Pistols playing live was a further epiphany for Robinson. “I hadn’t thought of myself as a lead vocalist, but seeing Johnny Rotten I realised all you needed to do was make noises with your mouth and to mean it,” he says.
Early TRB gigs featured Robinson with a floating pool of musicians who would be taught the evening’s songs at soundcheck. It soon solidified around Robinson and Kustow, plus drummer Brian ‘Dolphin’ Taylor (who had played with a pre-fame Annie Lennox in folk-rock band Dragon’s Playground) and keyboard player Mark Ambler. The latter had auditioned as bassist, but his expertise as a Hammond player was such that they decided to add the instrument to the band, leaving singer Robinson to reluctantly double-up on bass.
From the start, tension bubbled beneath the surface. With hindsight, Robinson believes that Ambler’s musical proficiency intimidated certain other members of the band. “Sometimes the guy hardly needed to break sweat, which caused resentment with Dolphin, who really put in a lot of work,” he says. “Mark used about five per cent of his ability and still sounded incredible. So there was always friction.”
The band played everywhere that would have them, often for no money – benefits, youth clubs, schools, even prisons. In those pre-internet days they kept in close contact with their fans via a newsletter delivered for the price of a stamped-addressed envelope – an idea Robinson admits he stole from Frank Zappa.
A buzz grew up around the Tom Robinson Band thanks to coverage in the weekly music press, and record labels began to show interest. Two frontrunners for the band’s signatures were Jet – the label owned by heavyweight manager Don Arden – and EMI. The band were set to sign to Jet, but then EMI, who had passed on them a few months earlier, reconsidered. “What I’d heard of Don Arden’s reputation made EMI, whose management had just dropped the Sex Pistols, the more sensible option,” Robinson says. “And I suspect EMI’s record division signed us to make a bit of a statement.”
Characteristically, the contract was hilariously blunt. It stated simply: “We, the Tom Robinson Band agree to make you, EMI Records, a lot of fucking money. Read and agreed, the Tom Robinson Band.”
They got off to a flying start, too, with their debut single, 2-4-6-8 Motorway, a Top 5 hit in October ’77. With its roots in the gay liberation chant ‘Two, four, six, eight, gay is twice as good as straight’ it was a slyly subversive opening salvo.
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