|Up Against The Wall|
April 16 1977
UP AGAINST THE WALL
In which Tom Robinson goes to jail, does not pass GO, and does not collect £200 etc.
If you go round the north edge of the City of London, swing left into Whitechapel Road, round past Tubby Isaac’s shellfish stall and keep on through Mile End and Leytonstone and straight up the A11, you’ll arrive about an hour later in Chelmsford. Like any of those Essex suburban wasteland towns, it has little to recommend it but what it does have is a prison and the Tom Robinson band were performing there for the benefit and delectation of the “inmates”.
Outwardly, H.M. Prison Chelmsford displays all the concrete paranoia of a state bent on adhering to an outmoded concept of penology; mausoleum brickwork, wood covered steel plate doors, TV cameras and Star Trek air-lock double doors operated by a prison officer from behind bullet-proof glass. Inside, despite having a reputation as an easy going prison (as they go), there’s still twenty foot metal mesh fences with barbed wire coils on top and when it comes to rocking time, the prisoners are still led to their seats (“and you better stay in ‘em”) by warders, and the dogs and their handlers are never far away. The phrase “captive audience” was self-evidently never more true. And knowing that there’s no real free choice being exercised by the audience makes the band more than a little nervous at ‘curtains up light time’.
Any band that goes to play in prison enters into a finely balanced equation between “Us” and “Them”, “screws” and “cons” and, however they feel, the band has to decide which side they’re on. Tom’s bunch plumped unequivocally for the cons and were consequently feeling trepidations at the responsibility. How that responsibility can be unthinkingly abrogated was cast into relief by the Sex Pistols’ visit there a while back. John Rotten esq.; “Go on, smash up your seats, have a riot.” The cons didn’t – for the Pistols it would’ve been just another ban, for the cons it would have meant losing remission, precious days, months, years out of their lives. And, when they didn’t wreak havoc, Rotten told them: “You’re all dummies . . . that’s why you’re in here . . . you’re stupid.”
Naturally the bitterness that ensued from that little encounter still rankles, as Tom was told about it before going on, he was determined not to make the same arrogant mistake. And he didn’t. You could still hear the tremors of uncertainty in his voice when he introduced the band at the end of the first number, but by halfway through ‘Martin’ which they did third, it was clear they were winning. It’s a delightful ironic wisp of a song done with Tom singing, arm around guitarist Danny Kustow. No drums, just a little bass and Danny’s walking fingers picking on his prized 1959 Les Paul (he allegedly takes it with him everywhere – well wouldn’t you if you had a guitar like that?). To understand why the song marked the breakthrough, all you have to do is listen to the words.
“No one’s ever had a brother like MartinIf you heard that Tom (with Danny) had spent seven years in a home for maladjusted boys you might assume that his empathy for the ‘edge of the law’ life came from that experience. But you’d be wrong. “Finchden Manor (the home) was great. I have almost nothing but good memories of it,” he said. “We had a greasy slicked hair Fifties rock ‘n’ roll revival band called the Flying Vultures and a 12 piece dance band _ I learned how to do all the arrangements for that came from a book by Professor Walter Piston. “Alexis Korner is another old boy. Finchden was so good that local authorities had to queue up to get their kids in. The guy who ran it (it’s closed now) was amazing. He could suss you all out in two minutes of seeing you.”
After ‘Martin’ they kicked into rocking with ‘Long Hot Summer’. Tom tells the crowd it’s about the heat in New York, which is a little white lie because it’s really about the Stonewall Riots when the New York gay bar fraternity (and sorority) kicked merry hell out of New York’s finest. Allen Ginsberg said of the riots: “It was the first time fags lost that hurt wounded look.” And that’s important for Tom. He’s gay and proud and without a trace of a hurt, wounded look, and honestly now, who else could get away with singing the band’s theme tune / mill-stone, “Glad To Be Gay” to a crowd of hardened East End street-wise prisoners? He got away with it partly because it’s an excellent song with gallows humour lyrics and partly because of the first line, “The British police are the best in the world”, which drew another very loud, very sardonic cheer.
And he did even better with ‘Up Against the Wall’, the chords of which are clearly stolen from Lou Reed but word-wise it’s very much their own.
“Look out listen, can you hear it?And, to complete the hat-trick, he won ‘em over yet again with the Kinks oldie ‘Set Me Free’. For the benefit of the incarcerated assembly he changed it from ‘Set me free little girl’, to ‘Set me free, Mr Reese”. Even beyond that there’s a story and a half behind this song. Tom used to be in a band called Café Society who did a pretty dire album for the Kink’s Konk label and got tied up in endless hassles with Kink’s main man Ray Davies. “He’s a great guy but no businessman. He let us do everything but record. They needed the studio for themselves or else a fuse had blown. Whatever excuses, we only got three weeks studio time in two years and that in bits here and there.”
So Tom left Café last autumn, mostly in the hope of getting out of the contract with Konk, and formed his own, originally pick-up band. And to rub some salt into the wound he started singing “Set me free . . . Mr. D” which led to a noted-in-the-gossip-columns verbal confrontation with Ray Davies at the Nashville and which seems to have got him out of his contract.The present line-up of the band came together only about two months ago. Old friend Danny “heard about the band and squirmed his way in”, taking over as sole guitarist when previous wonder-axe-man-by-all-accounts Anton Mauve left (“he’s so talented but he blows everything”). New boys, Mark Amber (keyboards) and Brian Taylor (drums) were the result of an ad in a music paper and several hundred hopeless auditions.
As an ensemble they are only just beginning to hit their stride. Mark’s losing his former overplaying cleverness and Brian’s unusual round-the-top-of-the-kit playing style which is an initial shock, now slots in as a good (if occasionally off the beat) bottom line. And Danny – Danny thinks he’s already a guitar hero the way he struts and preens on-stage, mostly looking like he’s got constipation unfortunately. In fact he’s disarmingly modest about his playing – wrongly because it’s good. He teased a solo on ‘Long Hot Summer’ that would have made any guitar player smile. And he sure can play Lou Reed riffs alright – the last number was ‘Waiting For My Man’.
The music they did well – maybe Mark’s synthesiser is naggingly intrusive – but they do it as a gay/drugs parody and that don’t work. No matter. Back for an encore. Rock a little and then . . . ‘I Shall Be Released’. Given the situation, a brave and daring gambit – it succeeds perfectly, the cons lapping up the fact that somebody seems to care about them. They don’t want to leave yet, though it’s past closing down time, and insist on calling Tom and the band out to shake hands and bat the breeze a little with some outsiders.
Later, back in the dressing room, a screw said: “That was very dangerous, it could have gone very wrong.” He obviously didn’t see the same audience kicking at seeing some real live music and appreciating that a band had turned up at last. (There’s supposed to be a show every month but the Maniacs and someone else had blown out, so there’s been no rocking for three months). Well, he did wonder why bigger bands don’t play prisons, only the bands that can least afford it. But, this time round, that was it and all they could do was pack up and go home – just as they were pulling the truck out of the gates, ten million were settling down for ‘Porridge’ on BBC1, blithely unaware of what it’s really like beyond the walls of sitcom humour.
BIRO PENMAN (PETE SILVERTON)