In 1979, at the age of 15, I went to see The Tom Robinson Band play the Ulster Hall. He was a Rock Against Racism campaigner, an openly gay LGBT rights activist, and he was firing out anthems like “Sing If You’re Glad To Be Gay” and “2-4-6-8 Motorway.”
On stage that night he talked about injustice, gay rights, about young people having a voice. I had never heard this before. It wasn’t about Loyalist-Republican, orange or green. It was about my mates, and my age, and my rights. It was about me.
Soon after, I spent my birthday money on joining the Anti-Nazi League, and the following Saturday afternoons I found myself on my own in Belfast city centre handing out anti-fascist leaflets. Problem was, 1979 Belfast was slightly pre-occupied with other things. The leaflets were rejected. I was told to wise up. I was totally scundered.
Still, when I look at the notes on the back of his Power In The Darkness LP from 1978, I can see what fired me up. Read between the youth-speak and you’ll find a depressingly relevant thread running through his near 40 year old words. “I got no illusions about the political left any more than the right: just a shrewd idea which of the two sides gonna stomp on us first. All of us – you, me, rock and rollers, Punk’s, longhairs, dope smokers, squatters, students, unmarried mothers, prisoners, gays, the jobless, immigrants, gypsies … to stand aside is to take sides. If music can ease even a tiny fraction of the prejudice and intolerance in this world then it’s worth trying. I don’t call that “unnecessary overtones of violence.” I call it standing up for your rights.”
“Paisley was running his Save Ulster From Sodomy campaign” Robinson recollected about the first time he came to Belfast. ”At least that’s how I remember it, maybe that was a bit later … the idea of Ulster being threatened by sodomy is really a kind of mind boggling concept. So yeah I was very conscious that things weren’t easy for the queer community at that time.”
A ban on gay men donating blood was brought in across the UK during the 1980s AIDS crisis, but that was lifted in Britain in 2011. Northern Ireland will be brought in line with Britain on this issue in September 2016, nearly 40 years after Robinson first stepped foot here.
In the intervening years he continued to write and perform, and achieved further UK Top 40 status with singles like “War Baby” and “Atmospherics: Listen To The Radio” (a co-write with Peter Gabriel). In the early 90s his career as a radio broadcaster started to bloom and he has gone on to host programmes on all eight of the BBC‘s national radio stations. At time of writing he hosts three shows a week at BBC Radio 6 Music, not least showcasing new talent on his BBC Introducing show.
He’s Performing a solo show at the Open House Festival on 12th August, playing and talking his way through his career. “You have complete control” he told me of working solo. “You can just stop mid-number, or change the tempo with a key, whatever you want.”
At the gig he will be playing some classics and some less well-known work. But really – what’s it like performing those same songs for so many years? Robinson is pragmatic about it. “If it wasn’t for the old songs nobody would be there” he stated boldly. “Anyway they’re my calling card and I’m in the fortunate position of having had only a small number of well-known songs so it’s possible to play all the songs that people are hoping to hear and still have loads of time left over to introduce songs that they might not have heard before and that they might like.”
Last year Robinson released his latest album Only The Now, his first in nearly 20 years. “After 30 years on the road I really kind of just came to the end of the line” he explained about why the 19 year hiatus from recording. “The audience had tailed off and I was playing to 40 or 50 people a night, just to pay the mortgage … advancing middle age was taking its toll, and it became physically harder doing the touring.” Despite his pragmatism displayed earlier in the interview about playing those old songs over the decades, this too had reached the point of saturation. “People were only coming for songs from 30 years previously … you’d be playing in a pub and some drunk would shout for “Martin,” (from 1978 Rising Free EP), and so you play “Martin,” and then they carry on shouting for “Martin” for the rest of the f****** night. It was really dispiriting and there’s just no dignity to it.”
Robinson’s career then swerved in a different direction. “When the chance came to actually work radio full time and basically listen to new music, it was like stopping being a chef and getting the chance to be a restaurant critic. Instead of competing with the finest new talent, I was actually kind of trying to help it along, and that was a big change really.”
So his focus shifted elsewhere and it took another 19 years before he recorded another album. Only The Now, recorded with producer and violinist Gerry Diver, includes in its list of contributors artists such as John Grant, Lisa Knapp, Swami Baracus, Martin Carthy, and Billy Bragg.
“It wasn’t that the songs were written with certain artists in mind,” he explained, “it was more that some songs needed a certain kind of voice on them.” For example, for the elevated tones of someone in the ultimate position to judge in the track “Holy Smoke,” the voice of God was orated by actor Sir Ian McKellen.
“As soon as Gerry Diver found out that Ian McKellen was in my address book he was going “right let’s give him a call, see if we can get him on the record” Robinson laughed. “Basically most of those guests (on the album) were (down to) Gerry Diver raiding my address book because he wanted as many vocal textures as possible on the album.”
“Mighty Sword Of Justice” is a crowd chanting rail against cuts to Legal Aid. “A bunch of lawyers and legal clerks and people working in the industry were organising a protest about the dismantling of legal aid outside the Old Bailey” he recalled. “They asked me if I would turn up and perform for the demo. I didn’t have any suitable songs so I had to write one for it.”
“At the time I wrote it I thought that this is just a cliché, it’s just so obvious. Surely nobody is going to want to listen to me pumping out clichés about one law for the rich one law for the poor from a stage. But actually the reality has become so much more intensely true since 2013 that it’s become necessary. You couldn’t make up the difference between a Conservative government compared to the Conservative Lib Dem government, and the general public. There really is one law for the rich and another for the poor. So each time it becomes more and more achingly true … It’s like “Glad To Be Gay,” I wrote that for Pride ‘76 because it was topical, and then the songs kind of outlived the occasion. I think that’s true for “Mighty Sword Of Justice too.”
“Home In The Morning” holds a deep resonance for Tom Robinson – “because at the time of the HIV AIDS crisis I lost so many lovers and friends in the early to mid-80s and beyond.” At this his voice became softer; there were longer stretches of quiet between his sentences. “When those kind of young gay men were coming to the end of their lives in the hospital ward and realising that they won’t get to go back to their flats, then it became a matter of urgency for a trusted friend to go and kind of tidy up so to speak. What people dreaded was the idea of their mother then inheriting their flat and finding the signs of their lifestyle all over the place. From the treasure chest under the bed to the stash full of recreational drugs.”
“I just remember this thing that when somebody was bedridden things like their car keys were of absolutely no use to them anymore. There was a car parked outside, the same car they’d driven to see you in many times … but they weren’t ever going to drive it again. So at that point possessions just don’t matter anymore and your world kind of closes in on you.”
Lennon and McCartney’s “In My Life,” was recorded with folk artist Martin Carthy. “Martin Carthy was the obvious choice. Both of us have long term partners that we both owe a huge debt to, so it seemed natural to do that … as a duet. And also, by it being a cover it meant that he, while on the road just in hotel rooms and stuff, could figure out his arrangements separately on his own, then just come in and record it.”
Robinson and Carthy have worked and performed together previously. Earlier this year I had asked Carthy whether music was speaking up enough, was it referring to social issues nowadays as it has in the past. And he said “Well you’d find that in hip hop. Tom Robinson pointed that out to me, that the real radical writing is to be found in hip hop.”
“I suppose it fulfills the same function” Robinson mused when I put that to him. “You don’t have to have any equipment or infrastructure as an artist in order to be able to make rhymes, in order to be able to freestyle, or just be verbally, rhythmically, creative with your voice. It started out with people doing it on street corners and there’s still that aspect to it that you can get on the mic and you can just do something on your own wits and your own native talent. And I’m sure that’s what folk music, in its absolute essence used to be. Except I suppose that folk has the aspect of tradition, so that people collect songs in the folk music world and then interpret them in a certain way, whereas on the whole hip hop artists tend to create their own music from scratch.”
Robinson’s BBC Introducing Mixtape show and podcast goes out from 2-3am every Sunday night/Monday morning, giving a platform for emerging new artists. He talked about some of the acts from Northern Ireland who have appeared on the show. “There’s a band from the North Coast called Brand New Friend” he told me as he started to list the bands that came to mind. “There was Hurdles from Belfast” he continued, and then another that would particularly tick all his boxes – “Citizen Nobody, which I particularly like because they’re from both the Shankhill and the Falls areas and really aiming to bust down the sectarian walls and bring divided people together through music. Plus, the music is really good; it’s got plenty of grit to it.”
“Do you know the journalist Brian Coney?” he asked. “He’s got a band called Junk Drawer. And of course the Wood Burning Savages – I actually put them forward for the Glastonbury BBC Introducing stage – and they did not disappoint.” Last word was kept for an obvious favourite. “Chris Ryan is a genius” he continued about the drummer of Belfast’s Robocobra Quartet. ”They’ve a new album out in the autumn so I’ll see if we can get them over to London for a session for that.”
For tickets and info click An Evening With Tom Robinson